TCS Daily

Strauss Was Right

By Brian M. Carney - June 18, 2003 12:00 AM

One of the most striking aspects of recent discussions of US foreign policy since the liberation of Iraq is how much of it has centered on the supposed posthumous influence of Leo Strauss. Strauss, a formerly obscure German Jewish émigré and professor of political philosophy, has become in recent months the object of ardent, if often overheated, journalistic interest. This is thanks to the increasingly widespread notion that "Straussians" are running - not to say corrupting - American foreign policy, and that their agenda is a secret and unspeakable one of American hegemony in the name of the rule of an enlightened few (the Straussians themselves, of course) over a benighted many (everyone else, the poor souls).

Not every attempt at exposing Strauss or Straussians has put it quite so histrionically, but almost all of the recent reviews of his work, and its supposed posthumous influence on the Bush administration, have at least hinted at the dangers of a dark, anti-democratic secret at the heart of Leo Strauss and his disciples' worldview.

Strauss's supposedly dark secret got an unfortunate, sinister name early on, and for that Strauss deserves at least some of the blame. He called his secret "esotericism." What he meant by it was this: Sometimes, philosophers didn't mean what they appeared to be saying, and moreover, sometimes they said things they didn't mean.

Put abstractly in this way, that may seem hopelessly obscurantist. How can we hope to discover what a long-dead philosopher meant, if all we have to go on are his writings, and we can't believe that he meant what he wrote? But it gets worse, for how can we believe Strauss himself - after all, did he just tell us that philosophers can't be trusted to say what they mean, and isn't he himself a philosopher? You can see how fast something like this gets ugly - conspiratorial, even.

Unfortunately for the conspiratorially minded, it's not all as juicy as it sounds. For Strauss's "esotericism" was not, as many seem to believe, a kind of axiom of dishonesty: "Philosophers are Liars." It was something more mundane: a recognition that not everyone was as privileged as he was - and we are. We - in America, in the Western world in the 20th and now the 21st century - tend to take for granted freedom of speech and of thought. In the West, we are so inured to the right of others to express the shocking, the scandalous or the irresponsible, that it sometimes seem we are beyond being scandalized or shocked by the mere expression of another's thoughts.

But for two good reasons, Strauss knew well it had not always been so. Strauss fled Germany in the 1930s, after the rise of National Socialism, and after he had seen Martin Heidegger speak and act as an apologist for the Nazis. Even in later years, Strauss would call Heidegger the greatest philosopher of his time, and he saw it as a philosophical problem of some importance that Heidegger's great genius had at one point fallen under the sway of Nazism. But Strauss also learned another thing from Germany in the 1930s, and that was that freedom of thought and freedom of expression were, even in his own time, precious and fragile things, treasures that could all too easily be lost. Certainly, they could not be taken as given everywhere and always. Looking across history, they were rather the exception than the rule.

The other decisive event took place 2,300 years before Leo Strauss was born, and was committed to paper by Plato, a philosopher Strauss studied all of his life. A number of Plato's dialogues center on the trial and death of Socrates, as everyone knows. Socrates was accused, formally, of corrupting the youth and of blasphemy. In practice, this meant that he asked questions that called into doubt the prevalent mythology of the Athens in which he lived, and that he thereby caused the youth of Athens, or some of it, to doubt their inherited culture. But most importantly, some of those youths had gone on to rather dubious political exploits, and it was partly out of anger at them that the Assembly went after Socrates.

Most of us read this story with a kind of detached hauteur: "Look at those benighted, superstitious Athenians; to think that they would kill a man for asking questions!" Strauss saw something rather more alarming. The lesson of Socrates' trial and death sentence was that philosophy could be very threatening to those in power, and this might provoke a deadly reaction.

Here a clarification is in order: Contrary to what has been written and repeated of late on this point, the reason for this is not that society is held together by a web of lies (noble or otherwise), and that only the philosopher knows that they are lies, and that the masses are not capable of handling the truth that only the philosopher knows. Strauss's point is more important, less sinister, and more interesting than that crude Nietzschean conspiracy.

No, Strauss's point was, at bottom, Socrates' point as well: The philosopher, if he is to be worthy of the name, must love truth and wisdom more than he loves his country, his culture, his religion, or the myths he grew up with. Like Socrates, he must be willing to investigate all of those things, and question them if he finds them wanting. The philosopher's inquiries cannot be bounded by the prejudices of his own fellow citizens; he has to be willing to question everything that seems uncertain or contradictory. This very trait has been the hallmark of philosophy ever since, from Plato to Descartes to David Hume and so on.

But Strauss saw a political dimension to this truth. For if the philosopher questions everything, that will include the legitimacy of the powerful, whether they be priests or tyrants or even politicians. So the philosopher will look dangerous, and may be dangerous, to the powerful, if their legitimacy does not hold up to philosophical scrutiny. Socrates then was not an aberration, but the expression of a rule - since a philosopher is not loyal to those who can harm him, he will risk making very dangerous enemies.

This led Strauss to an arresting discovery. Unless a philosopher is bent on self-destruction, like Socrates appears to be when he chooses hemlock over escape and exile, he will not say everything he thinks openly, and may say some things in a way that keeps him out of trouble with the authorities. This is most true in the most oppressive societies and regimes, and the least true in the least repressive. For "esotericism" is a hypothesis about self-preservation, not about the secret communication of a conspiracy.

The final point about Strauss arises out of this. Having studied philosophers afraid to speak their minds - and others, like Socrates, who died for not being afraid - Strauss lived the latter half of his life grateful to be left in comparative peace to speak in his own in one of the freest countries in the world. He appreciated this better than most because of his own experience and because of the fate of that precursor of all political philosophers, Socrates.

So what, then, is the irony in all this? It's too late to offer Strauss the hemlock (he died 30 years ago at the age of 74), but that has not stopped his critics from coming after him. "Straussianism is undemocratic," they say. "He taught a legion of impressionable young men a dangerous philosophy, and those men are now running our country," they declaim. Strauss, in other words, has blasphemed our national god, democracy, and corrupted our youth. Strauss was right; it is dangerous to be a philosopher.

Mr. Carney is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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