December 22, 2007

Leo Strauss and the Neocons

I have kept abreast somewhat of discussions over the last several years concerning the influence of Leo Strauss on the neoconservative political movement. Herein are a few of my initial reflections on this issue. Listed first are questions I kept in mind while reading many interesting web articles about Strauss and the neocons:

1. Which
neocons are Straussians?
2. Do Straussian neocons reliably interpret the works of Leo Strauss?
3. What is the influence of Leo Strauss on foreign policy?
4. Is the neocon foreign policy of the
Project for the New American Century consistent with the political ideas of Leo Strauss?

Leo Strauss, as many people know, can be difficult to interpret. Strauss believed we should read a great work as the author would have read it. This approach appears to influence Strauss’ writing style in such a way that the reader may easily confuse the views of Strauss with the views of the author he is expounding. Hence, some commentators have made exegetical errors and represented pejorative opinions as if they were Strauss’ own. It is not that Strauss is above legitimate criticism, as he surely is not, but one needs to be cautious, especially when a writer quotes Strauss but fails to provide attending references. Lack of references makes checking on the writer’s interpretation problematic.

Also, I do not heed neocons claims that what Strauss taught privately differs from what he put in writing. First, where is the evidence that Strauss only taught his true beliefs and ideas privately? Second, only what has been published by Strauss is significant because it is the published views that are influential on the public and subject to scholarly critique.

Much of what has been written about Leo Strauss and the Straussian neocons is misleading. For example, many people view
Shadia Drury as an authority on Strauss and the Straussian neocons. However, I do not consider Drury to be a dispassionate scholar in search of truth. A comparison of Drury’s earlier writings on Strauss with her later writings reveals her declining objectivity.

Also, articles that lump many of the neocons into the Straussian camp are simply wrong, yet one writer remains content just to quote another. Some commentators on Strauss sound as if they have not read much, if anything at all, by Strauss. Samuel Francis pointed out these problems in 2003. (See his Sept. 2003 article in Chronicles Magazine:
Principalities & Powers: The Real Cabal)

What is the influence of Leo Strauss on foreign policy? This is a difficult question to answer because Strauss had little to say about foreign policy issues.

Does the neocon foreign policy of the
Project for the New American Century reflect the ideas of Leo Strauss? I think not. For example, the neocon agenda of conquest (“benevolent hegemony” is their corresponding euphemism) and empire building reveals a neglect and underlying contempt for the ideas and ideals of the U.S. Constitution. In contrast, let us see what Leo Strauss has to say about constitutionalism:

“Karl Marx, the father of communism, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the step-grandfather of fascism, were liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire. But perhaps one can say that their grandiose failures make it easier for us who have experienced those failures to understand again the old saying that wisdom cannot be separated from moderation and hence to understand that wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism. Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics. Thus it may again become true that all liberally educated men will be politically moderate men. It is in this way that the liberally educated may again receive a hearing even in the marketplace.” (Liberal Education and Mass Democracy)

Strauss speaks of wisdom, moderation in politics, and constitutionalism. These are not characteristics of the neoconservative movement. I do not know of a single neocon that is loyal to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution. Nor do I know of a single neocon that truly respects international law. Neoconservative political ideology must be recognized as a form of lawlessness.

In summary, neoconservative political ideology is rooted in an unethical and lawless desire for conquest and control. It is misguided and mischievous to make Leo Strauss the patron philosopher of such barbarism.

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