The Straussian Labyrinth | Mises Institute

Leo Strauss is one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century, and like him or not, we need to understand his ideas. Murray Rothbard, by the way, had a mixed verdict on Strauss. He says, for example,

[H]is work exhibits one great virtue and one great defect: the virtue is that he is in the forefront of the fight to restore and resurrect political philosophy from the interment given it by modern positivists and adherents of scientism—in short, that he wants to restore values and political ethics to the study of politics. This is surely a virtue indeed. The great defect is that Strauss, while favoring what he considers to be the classical and Christian concepts of natural law, is bitterly opposed to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions of Locke and the rationalists, particularly to their “abstract,” “deductive” championing of the natural rights of the individual: liberty, property, etc.

Some of his followers try to give a Straussian account of American history, in particular what they call our “founding,” and I’d like to discuss some of the problems that arise for them when they try to do so. Strauss makes a fundamental distinction between “ancient” and “modern” political philosophy. The ancients, in particular the Greeks, are concerned with the city-state. They believe that politics should “aim high” and inculcate virtue in citizens to the extent this is possible. Modern political philosophy begins with Machiavelli and Hobbes; it abandons the teaching of virtue in favor of the “low but solid” pursuit of self-interest. (You might ask, What about medieval political philosophy? Strauss has a lot to say about it, but I won’t go into that here)

Like Rothbard, Strauss argues that John Locke’s thought is essential to the American Revolution and the new government that arose after that revolution. This presents an apparent difficulty for him. The American Revolution is modern and not ancient; but isn’t Locke a defender of natural law? Strauss says that appearances are deceiving. In fact, for Strauss, careful reading is necessary to understand what Locke and other major figures are really saying, and sometimes his readings are of labyrinthine complexity. Locke professes belief in Christianity, but he is in fact a secret atheist, and his “natural law” is really utilitarianism. His “state of nature” is similar to that of Hobbes. This interpretation is anticapitalist in inspiration. The free market replaces the pursuit of virtue with the desire for unlimited acquisition, and it comes as no surprise that Strauss reviews favorably the Canadian Marxist C.B. Macpherson’s book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke.

For some of Strauss’s followers, the so-called East Coast Straussians, such as Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and Walter Berns, this is the correct account of America’s founding. America is Hobbesian or Lockean in essence. For those Straussians in this camp, a division now arises. Some, such as the Georgetown political theorist Patrick Deneen, think that America’s low founding incurably taints us. The Lockean American system, and with it the capitalist market economy, needs to be replaced.

Most of the East Coast Straussians adopt a different outlook. True, the American system ranks beneath the ancient city-state. But, guided by wise statesmen, the American people can be brought to virtue, or at least a close approximation to it. Walter Berns is a good representative of this position. Berns thinks he can solve a fundamental problem of modern America, and wait till you hear what that problem is. People in America aren’t willing to sacrifice their lives to the state. They are too much devoted to their own selfish interests. To overcome this dire state of affairs, we need to establish a “civil religion” in the guise of patriotism.

Berns acknowledges that America was founded on individual rights, but he thinks there is a difficulty with overemphasis on Lockean rights to life, liberty, and property. No doubt, these have their proper place, and it is not a small one. But “patriotism means love of country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one’s life for it. But, aside from the legendary Spartans, why should anyone be willing to do this? … why should self-interested men believe it in their interest to give their lives for the idea or promise of their country?” (Quotations are from Berns’s book, Making Patriots [2006].)

Things were different in the ancient world. In classical Athens, no conflicting loyalties stood between the citizen and his city: “Athenians were enjoined to be lovers of Athens because they were Athens—in a way, by loving their city, they loved themselves—and because, by gaining an empire, Athens provided them with the means by which they gained fame and glory.”

By no means does Berns seek to restore the ancient city. Since the rise of Christianity, allegiance no longer can be undivided. The soul of the religious believer does not belong exclusively to the political community, and the great mistake of the French Revolution was its futile attempt to uproot the church and restore the ancient ways. The founders of the American Republic avoided this trap.

But Berns now asks an odd question. If Christianity cannot be eliminated, how can as much as possible of the unity of the ancient city be restored? His answer—and it is not a bad one given his premise—is that religion must be rigidly confined to the private sphere. In that way, the state may proceed toward its great tasks unhindered by the scruples of believers. Though believers may practice their faith unmolested, they must realize that private conscience must always bow before the law. Berns is on this issue a thoroughgoing Hobbesian. He proposes to replace devotion to religion with a cult of Lincoln, whom he terms our “national poet.” By thinking about him and his works, we too will be willing to die for our country.

The “West Coast Straussians,” foremost among them Harry Jaffa, agree with the devotion to Lincoln, and in fact Jaffa is the high priest of the cult. But Jaffa thinks that Locke isn’t really a modern; he was in fact a good Aristotelian. The American founding is a return to the best features of ancient thought, updated to fit modern conditions. But doesn’t this put him at odds with what Strauss says about Locke? The solution is simple. Jaffa and his followers apply Straussian methods of close reading to Strauss himself, so that he too ends up as in Jaffa’s camp. If you find all this confusing, so do I.

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