by Alan Gilbert
November 6, 2009
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In Liberalism Ancient and Modern Strauss predominantly endorses an American fight against the Soviet Union, the ultimate dictatorship, and the last men. He seems to unite with the political scientists or the liberals in this regard (“the best friend of liberal democracy,” once again). But his book, and especially chapter 7, is no defense of liberalism. See here. Instead it speaks of the crisis of democracy and advocates only strength and ferocity rather than vapidity and “acquiescence” against the Soviet enemy. Thus, it suggests that a strong authoritarian executive might remedy that decadence and make the US fierce against the Soviet Union. Recall his 1963 advice to Republican leader and would be President Charles Percy: to take out Cuba just as brutally as the Soviets re-conquered Hungary. See Strauss's Vision of a Great Anti-Modern Tyrant here.
That is the theme that Strauss and the post-World War II Carl Schmitt both emphasize. Authoritarian rule – not democratic or constitutional rights, for example freedom of conscience – leads to strength against the USSR. In On Tyranny (1948), Strauss’s opposition to the Soviet Union leads many sympathetic readers, for instance Tim Fuller (see APSA 2007 here), to believe that he studied ancient tyranny in Xenophon’s Hiero only to defeat the modern universal tyranny. But this dialogue contributes nothing to such a defeat and actually indicates how the tyrant might preserve himself. In Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958) at p. 291 and 293, Strauss emphasizes that the Hiero “was the classic defense of tyranny by a wise man." The later book gives out on the surface the somewhat disguised, though still rather plain meaning of the earlier book.
But discussing Dore Schary’s defense of tolerance as an antidote to conformity in chapter 10, Strauss recurs to Schmitt. For such toleration to work, Strauss suggests, individuality (which he doesn’t like) must not grow. If it does, it will lead as in Hobbes, to the bloody war of all against all. That is the starting point of Schmitt, and for Strauss’s reflections in 1932 on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. It is part of Strauss’s admiration for Nietzsche, for “natural” growth and the strong – “exploitation is nature” as Nietzsche says in a bad moment in Natural Right and History. It is part of Strauss’s celebration of “liberal” education as reading the great men, the great philosophers and hating “mass society” and the crisis of the ignorant, the gutter, the last men. As this citation will show, it does not seem that Strauss ever “became Strauss” in the sense of abandoning this thought in Schmitt. Rather, it is Strauss’s reactionary starting point:
“One may well find it paradoxical that a society dedicated to the free development of each individual in his individuality should be threatened by a particularly petty kind of conformism but the paradox disappears on reflection. It is merely a shallow hope to expect that the uninhibited ‘growth’ of each individual to its greatest height will not lead to serious and bloody conflict. The growth must be kept within certain limits; everyone may grow to any height and in any direction provided his growth does not prevent the growth of anybody else to any height and in any direction.” (p. 263)
There would be no Nietzsches, no Platos, no Schmitts, no Heideggers, no Strausses, according to Strauss, if Schary’s liberal or decent idea was achieved. Once again, for Nietzsche as Strauss took him, “exploitation is nature”; ancient and especially modern egalitarianism leads to the last men. In such a circumstance, Strauss practices exoteric writing. He can be, as long as he does not quite appear to be, what he is. But as a matter of self-destructive probite, Strauss also liked to burst out, to say what he really meant, to astonish his fellow German Jews in Paris and even his would-be amour Hannah Arendt with the ferocity and paradoxicality of his convictions (even a Nietschean or Heideggerian Jew can’t – just can’t – be a supporter of the German National Revolution…; surely a great scholar can’t, just can’t be for nuclear war and a return to the stone age…). Whatever the outbursts, Strauss’s being – an exiled German Jew – makes it stunningly easy, at first and even second glance, to deny the reality of his political opinions.
Following Schary, Strauss also here seemingly indicts the “white Protestant” who is to incarnate the last men and is a bigot:
“There may be a permanent or stable majority in the United States, the majority is ‘white Protestant’. As a consequence, there is a social hierarchy at the bottom of which are the Negroes (or colored people in general) and barely above them are the Jews. There is then a prejudice which is both constitutional and unconstitutional against Negroes and Jews. If I understand Mr. Schary correctly, the conformism against which he has directed his attack [note the careful words: it is his attack, not Strauss’s] has the unavowed intention either to transform all Americans into white Protestants [for Strauss, these are the last men] or else to deny those Americans who are not white Protestants full equality of opportunity. (p, 264)
This sounds as if Strauss might side with blacks and Jews (he is clearly against persecution of jews). Yet recall the 1932 endorsement of the kings against the prophets and his 1933 and 1934 support for the “National Revolution” in Germany (as his friend Jacob Klein points out in apologizing for his previous, mistaken hope in Nazism – that it would abolish secularization - there was a lot of anti-semitism in Nazism from the start; unlike Strauss in 1934, Klein now rightly thinks that the core of National Socialism is anti-semitism). Strauss’s mention of the status order is but exoteric. As I have emphasized in Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, the social science of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and Leo Strauss here, Strauss chose politically to side with the segregationist James Kilpatrick. He opposed the civil rights movement in America. As he says in the preface to Liberalism Ancient and Modern proximately and historically: a conservative is one who defends the Vietnam War and opposes civil liberties (including the civil rights movement”). He did recognize the prejudices, but did not recommend integration even of Jews into the last men. Instead, he sought, as he goes on to say at p. 368 discussing the contribution of a Mr. Cohen to the colloquium, the secession of Jews and possibly Christians from this state:
“Yet I cannot but agree with his concluding sentence: ‘What more has Israel to offer the world than eternal patience?’ This sentence calls for a long commentary. One sentence must here suffice: what is called here ‘eternal patience’ is that fortitude in suffering now despised as `ghetto mentality’ by shallow people who have surrendered wholeheartedly to the modern world or who lack the intelligence to consider that a secession from this world might again become necessary for Jews and even for Christians.”
He here repeats the preoccupation of the end of On Tyranny: that a nihilist – now broadened to include Jews and Christians - might revolt against the last men and that a nuclear war returning man to a primitive state would nonetheless be superior to becoming part of secularism. In this chapter of Liberalism Ancient and Modern, the sentiment is fierce and heavy with meaning even if perhaps not quite as developed as in On Tyranny. Note: he warns the reader that there is much more to be said here. Perhaps he refers to the ideas in the “Restatement” which I just invoked.
There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds. They may be forced into a mere negation of the universal and homogeneous state, into a negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation. While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man's humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become inevitable. But no one can know whether it will fail or succeed. We still know too little about the workings of the universal and homogeneous state to say anything about where and when its corruption will start. What we do know is only that it will perish sooner or later (see Friedrich Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach, ed. by Hans Hajek, p. 6). Someone may object that the successful revolt against the universal and homogeneous state could have no other effect than that the identical historical process which has led from the primitive horde to the final state will be repeated. But would such a repetition of the process -- a new lease of life for man's humanity -- not be preferable to the indefinite continuation of the inhuman end? Do we not enjoy every spring although we know the cycle of the seasons, although we know that winter will come again? Kojeve does seem to leave an outlet for action in the universal and homogeneous state. In that state the risk of violent death is still involved in the struggle for political leadership (p. 146). But this opportunity for action can exist only for a tiny minority. And besides, is this not a hideous prospect: a state in which the last refuge of man's humanity is political assassination in the particularly sordid form of the palace revolution? Warriors and workers of all countries, unite, while there is still time, to prevent the coming of "the realm of freedom." Defend with might and main, if it needs to be defended, "the realm of necessity."
-- On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss
In any case, he then, in the one charged sentence - the one he has warned the careful reader to take in – affirms the suffering of the ghetto and a revolt against modern world. He echoes the May 19, 1933 letter to Loewith: “As long as a spark of Roman spirit glimmers in the world, there is no reason to crawl to any cross even the cross of liberalism. And better than any cross the ghetto.” The fortitude in suffering of the ghetto is a merit for Strauss. It is superior in dignity, he thinks, to the last men. But toward the culture of the modern world, the nihilist seeks to destroy. See Leo Strauss: the courage to destroy here.
What characterizes the political action of Alexander in contrast to the political action of all of his Greek predecessors and contemporaries, is that it was guided by the idea of empire, that is to say of a universal State, at least in the sense that this State had no a priori given limits (geographic, ethnic, or otherwise), no pre-established "capital," nor even a geographically and ethnically fixed center destined to exercise political dominion over its periphery. To be sure, there have at all times been conquerors ready to extend the realm of their conquests indefinitely. But as a rule they sought to establish the same type of relation between conquerors and conquered as that between Master and Slave. Alexander, by contrast, was clearly ready to dissolve the whole of Macedonia and of Greece in the new political unit created by his conquest, and to govern this unit from a geographical point he would have freely (rationally) chosen in terms of the new whole. Moreover, by requiring Macedonians and Greeks to enter into mixed marriages with "Barbarians," he was surely intending to create a new ruling stratum that would be independent of all rigid and given ethnic support.
Now, what might account for the fact that it should have been the head of a national State (and not of a "city" or a polis) with a sufficiently broad ethnic and geographic base to allow him to exercise over Greece and the Orient a one-sided political dominion of the traditional type, who conceived of the idea of a truly universal State or of an Empire in the strict sense of the term, in which conqueror and conquered are merged? It was an utterly new political idea that only began to be actualized with the Edict of Caracalla, that is still not anywhere actualized in all its purity, having in the meantime (and only lately) suffered some spectacular eclipses, and that is still a subject of "discussion." What might account for the fact that it was a hereditary monarch who consented to expatriate himself and who wanted to merge the victorious nobility of his native land with the newly vanquished? Instead of establishing the domination of his race and imposing the rule of his fatherland over the rest of the world, he chose to dissolve the race and to eliminate the fatherland itself for all political intents and purposes.
One is tempted to ascribe all this to Aristotle's education and to the general influence of "Socratic-Platonic" philosophy (which is also the foundation of the Sophists' properly political teaching to which Alexander was exposed). A student of Aristotle's might have thought it necessary to create a biological foundation for the unity of the Empire (by means of mixed marriages). But only the disciple of Socrates-Plato could have conceived of this unity by taking as his point of departure the "idea" or the "general notion" of Man that had been elaborated by Greek philosophy. All men can become citizens of one and the same State (=Empire) because they have (or acquire as a result of biological unions) one and the same "essence." And in the last analysis this single "essence" common to all men is "Logos" (language-science), that is to say what nowadays we call (Greek) "civilization" or "culture." The Empire which Alexander had projected is not the political expression of a people or a caste. It is the political expression of a civilization, the material actualization of a "logical" entity, universal and one, just as the Logos itself is universal and one.
Long before Alexander, the Pharaoh Ikhnaton also probably conceived the idea of Empire in the sense of a trans-ethnic (trans-national) political unit. Indeed, an Amarnian bas-relief depicts the traditional Asiatic, Nubian, and Libyan not as shackled by the Egyptian, but as worshiping with him, as equals, one and the same god: Aton. Only here the unity of the Empire had a religious (theistic), not a philosophical (anthropological), origin: its basis was a common god and not the "essential" unity of men in their capacity as humans (= rational). It was not the unity of their reason and of their culture (Logos), but the unity of their god and the community of their worship that united the citizens.
Since Ikhnaton, who failed woefully, the idea of an Empire with a transcendent (religious) unifying basis has frequently been taken up again. Through the intermediary of the Hebrew prophets it was adopted by St. Paul and the Christians, on the one hand, and by Islam on the other (to speak only of the most spectacular political attempts). But what has stood the test of history by lasting up to the present is not Muslim theocracy, nor the Germanic Holy Empire, nor even the Pope's secular power, but the universal Church, which is something altogether different from a State properly so called. One may therefore conclude that, in the final analysis, it is exclusively the philosophical idea going all the way back to Socrates that acts politically on earth, and that continues in our time to guide the political actions and entities striving to actualize the universal State or Empire.
But the political goal humanity is pursuing (or fighting) at present is not only that of the politically universal State; it is just as much that of the socially homogeneous State or of the "classless Society."
Here again the remote origins of the political idea are found in the religious universalist conception that is already present in Ikhnaton and that culminates in St. Paul. It is the idea of the fundamental equality of all who believe in the same God. This transcendent conception of social equality differs radically from the Socratic-Platonic conception of the identity of all the beings that have the same immanent "essence." For Alexander, the disciple of the Greek philosophers, Greek and Barbarian have the same claim to political citizenship in the Empire in so far as they HAVE the same human (i.e. rational, logical, discursive) "nature" (= essence, idea, form, etc.), or that they identify "essentially" with one another as a result of a direct (= "immediate") "mixture" of their innate qualities (achieved by biological union). For St. Paul there is no "essential" (irreducible) difference between Greek and Jew because both can BECOME Christians, and they would do so not by "mixing" Greek and Jewish "qualities" but by negating and "synthesizing" them in and by this very negation into a homogeneous unity that is not innate or given but (freely) created by "conversion." Because of the negating character of this Christian "synthesis," no incompatible or even "contradictory" (=mutually exclusive) "qualities" remain. For Alexander, the Greek philosopher, no "mixture" of Masters and Slaves was possible, because they were "contraries." Thus his universal State, which did away with races, would not be homogeneous in the sense of also doing away with "classes." For St. Paul, on the other hand, the negation (which is active inasmuch as "faith" is an act and is "dead" without "acts") of the opposition between pagan Mastery and Slavery could engender an "essentially" new Christian unity (which, moreover, is also active or acting, and even "affective," rather than purely rational or discursive, that is to say "logical") capable of providing the basis not only of the State's political universality but also of its social homogeneity.
But in fact, universality and homogeneity on a transcendent, theistic, religious basis did not and could not engender a State properly so called. They only served as the basis of the universal and homogeneous Church's "mystical body" and are supposed to be fully actualized only in the beyond (the "Kingdom of Heaven," provided one abstracts from the permanent existence of hell). In fact, the universal State is the one goal which politics, entirely under the twin influence of ancient pagan philosophy and Christian religion, has pursued, although it has so far never attained it.
But in our day the universal and homogeneous State has become a political goal as well. Now here again, politics is derivative from philosophy. To be sure, this philosophy (being the negation of religious Christianity) is in turn derivative from St. Paul (whom it presupposes since it "negates" him). But the religious Christian idea of human homogeneity could achieve real political import only once modern philosophy succeeded in secularizing it (= rationalizing it, transforming it into coherent discourse)....
One may therefore conclude that while the emergence of a reforming tyrant is not conceivable without the prior existence of the philosopher, the coming of the wise man must necessarily be preceded by the revolutionary political action of the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous State).
-- Alexandre Kojeve: Tyranny and Wisdom from On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss
In the first essay, pp. 5-6, Strauss also set up this theme of nuclear catastrophe. There he is more elliptical, though he still hints at this goal:
“Someone might say that this notion of liberal education [about human greatness] is merely political, that it dogmatically assumes the goodness of modern democracy. Can we not turn our backs on modern society? Can we not return to nature, to the life of preliterate tribes? Are we not crushed, nauseated, degraded by the mass of printed material, the graveyards of so many beautiful and majestic forests? It is not sufficient to say that this is mere romanticism, that we today cannot return to nature: may not coming generations, after a man-wrought cataclysm, be compelled to live in illiterate tribes? Will our thoughts concerning thermonuclear wars not be affected by such prospects? Certain it is that the horrors of mass culture (which include guided tours of integer nature [sic]) render intelligible the longing for a return to nature." (pp. 5-6)
The emphasis here is on nuclear war. It is a little unclear that the majestic forests for which he admirably longs will survive a nuclear exchange – but leave too much meditation aside. The last sentence is a non sequitur. It indicates, however, that the evils of mass culture inspire a longing to “return to nature,” i.e. to suffer nuclear catastrophe imagining that history will cycle through anew. It is also unclear why Strauss’s Nietzschean determinism about history – that it will again cycle through to the last men is intellectually attractive to him. As usual, he offers no argument. But that determinism echoes a crude economic determinist Marxism (perhaps he believed in that sort of thing in some way…).
His next sentences on illiterate societies do not follow and are intended to distract careless readers from taking in the point (p. 6). The contrast with preliterate societies seems to favor the preservation of liberal education, the study of the greatest books and the greatest men. It is in the last essay and in On Tyranny that he says more directly what he means.
In the first chapter of Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, however, Strauss stresses the importance of liberal education: reading the “greatest authors,” a phrase he repeats over and over. It has once again, nothing to do with individuality (which in chapter 10 he criticizes in Schary). This thought, however, might be linked to rule of the outstanding man in Aristotle’s Politics book 3 and 5 or to the rule of the philosopher which he invokes at Liberalism Ancient and Modern, p. 7.
But surely the members of a primitive regime cannot study such works. So someone might say, Strauss can’t really have preferred the primitive state of man to mass society, the society of the last men. In the “Restatement” to On Tyranny, however, he asks once again: don’t we enjoy the spring (primitive man) even if we know that history will cycle through once again to the winter (the last men)? See here. In Liberalism Ancient and Modern, commenting on another author (so perhaps also on the surface), he does mention the madness of a nuclear war. But what he says once he varies; esoteric writers mean only the rare or unusual or occasional (otherwise, they wouldn’t confirm most readers in their sleepiness). Yet it is not certain even from Liberalism Ancient and Modern, and, if one follows this advice on reading repetitions for variance in Persecution, the "Restatement" to On Tyranny, that Strauss opposes such war compared to the “crisis of democracy.” Arguably, he endorses it.
Ch. 5 focuses on “Notes on Lucretius” who is said to be a precursor or at least near to modern liberalism in the preface. Yet at p. 135, Strauss speaks of earthquakes and other natural catastrophes which “offer the most massive proof of the possibility of the death of the world.” Such “fear for the world,” Lucretius says, gives rise to belief in the gods. But Lucretius can step away from this, according to Strauss:
“His courage is not in need of support by belief in social progress between now and the death of the world or by other beliefs.” (p. 135)
For what is to follow, my Memmius, lay aside your cares and lend undistracted ears and an attentive mind to true reason. Do not scornfully reject, before you have understood them, the gifts I have marshaled for you with zealous devotion. I will set out to discourse to you on the ultimate realities of heaven and the gods. I will reveal those atoms from which nature creates all things and increases and feeds them and into which, when they perish, nature again resolves them. To these in my discourse I commonly give such names as the 'raw material', or 'generative bodies' or 'seeds' of things. Or I may call them 'primary particles', because they come first and everything else is composed of them.
When human life lay groveling in all men's sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather, they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the constraining locks of nature's doors. The vital vigor of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what can be and what cannot: how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post. Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.
One thing that worries me is the fear that you may fancy yourself embarking on an impious course, setting your feet on the path of sin. Far from it. More often it is this very superstition that is the mother of sinful and impious deeds. Remember how at Aulis the altar of the Virgin Goddess was foully stained with the blood of Iphigineia by the leaders of the Greeks, the patterns of chivalry. The headband was bound about her virgin tresses and hung down evenly over both her cheeks. Suddenly, she caught sight of her father, standing sadly in front of the altar, the attendants beside him hiding the knife and her people bursting into tears when they saw her. Struck dumb with terror, she sank on her knees to the ground. Poor girl, at such a moment it did not help her that she had been first to give the name of father to a king. Raised by the hands of men, she was led trembling to the altar. Not for her the sacrament of marriage and the loud chant of Hymen. It was her fate in the very hour of marriage to fall a sinless victim to a sinful rite, slaughtered to her greater grief by a father's hand, so that a fleet might sail under happy auspices. Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by superstition.
You yourself, if you surrender your judgment at any time to the blood-curdling declamations of the prophets, will want to desert our ranks. Only think what phantoms they can conjure up to overturn the tenor of your life and wreck your happiness with fear. And not without cause. For, if men saw that a term was set to their troubles, they would find strength in some way to withstand the hocus-pocus and intimidations of the prophets. As it is, they have no power of resistance, because they are haunted by the fear of eternal punishment after death. They know nothing of the nature of the spirit. Is it born, or is it implanted in us at birth? Does it perish with us, dissolved by death, or does it visit the murky depths and dreary sloughs of Hades? Or is it transplanted by divine power into other creatures, as described in the poems of our own Ennius, who first gathered on the delectable slopes of Helicon an evergreen garland destined to win renown among the nations of Italy? Ennius indeed in his immortal verses proclaims that there is also a Hell, which is peopled not by our actual spirits or bodies but only by shadowy images, ghastly pale. It is from this realm that he pictures the ghost of Homer, of unfading memory, as appearing to him, shedding salt tears and revealing the nature of the universe.
I must therefore give an account of celestial phenomena, explaining the movements of sun and moon and also the forces that determine events on earth. Next, and no less important, we must look with keen insight into the makeup of spirit and mind; we must consider those alarming phantasms that strike upon our minds when they are awake but disordered by sickness, or when they are buried in slumber, so that we seem to see and hear before us men whose dead bones lie in the embraces of earth....
This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme, our starting-point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and occasioned without the aid of the gods.
-- On the Nature of the Universe, by Lucretius
But social progress to achieve equal liberty and equal basic rights is a central idea of all forms of modern liberalism: the end of colonialism, the freeing of slaves, the liberation of women, the organization of workers, the equality of gays and lesbians with others, and so forth. Strauss is warning at the end of the middle chapter of Liberalism Ancient and Modern that Lucretius is not a liberal. But he is not just an atheist. He stares catastrophe – “the death of the world” – in the face, calmly. The parallel is to Leo Strauss facing nuclear war and return to preliterate life, the “spring of mankind” in the “Restatement” in On Tyranny, calmly. That cataclysmic, anti-liberal, anti-modern, in fact anti-world and frightening message is the hidden meaning of Liberalism Ancient and Modern.
Again, there can be only three kinds of everlasting objects. The first, owing to the absolute solidity of their substance, can repel blows and let nothing penetrate them so as to unknit their close texture from within. Such are the atoms of matter whose nature I have already demonstrated. The second kind can last for ever because it is immune from blows. Such is empty space, which remains untouched and unaffected by any impact. Last is that which has no available place surrounding it into which its matter can disperse and disintegrate. It is for this reason that the sum totality of the universe is everlasting, having no space outside it into which the matter can escape and no matter that can enter and disintegrate it by the force of impact. But, as I have shown, the world is not a solid mass of matter, since there is an admixture of vacuity in things. It is not of the same nature as vacuity. There is no lack of external bodies to rally out of infinite space and blast it with a turbulent tornado or inflict some other mortal disaster. And finally in the depths of space there is no lack of room into which the walls of the world may crumble away or collapse under the impact of some other shock. It follows, then, that the doorway of death is not barred to sky and sun and earth and the sea's unfathomed floods. It lies tremendously open and confronts them with a yawning chasm. So, for this reason, too, you must acknowledge them to have been born. For nothing with a frame of mortal build could have endured from everlasting until now, proof against the stark strength of immeasurable age....
I return now to the childhood of the world, to consider what fruits the tender fields of earth in youthful parturition first ventured to fling up into the light of day and entrust to the fickle breezes....
The human beings that peopled these fields were far tougher than the men of today, as became the offspring of tough earth. They were built on a framework of bigger and more solid bones, fastened through their flesh to stout sinews. They were relatively insensitive to heat and cold, to unaccustomed diet and bodily ailments in general. Through many decades of the sun's cyclic course they lived out their lives in the fashion of wild beasts roaming at large. No one spent his strength in guiding the curved plough. No one knew how to work the earth with iron, or to plant young saplings in the soil or lop the old branches from tall trees with pruning hooks. Their hearts were well content to accept as a free gift what the sun and showers had given and the earth had produced unsolicited. Often they stayed their hunger among the acorn-laden oaks. Arbutus berries, whose scarlet tint now betrays their winter ripening, were then produced by the earth in plenty and of a larger size. In addition the lusty childhood of the earth yielded a great variety of tough foods, ample for poor mortals. Rivers and springs called to them to slake their thirst, as nowadays a clamorous cataract of water, tumbling out of the high hills, summons from far away the thirsty creatures of the wild. They lived in those woodland sanctuaries of the nymphs, familiar to them in their wandering, from which they knew that trickling streams of water issued to bathe the dripping rocks in a bountiful shower, sprinkled over green moss, and gushed out here and there over the open plain.
They did not know as yet how to enlist the aid of fire, or to make use of skins, or to clothe their bodies with trophies of the chase. They lived in thickets and hillside caves and forests and stowed their rough limbs among bushes when driven to seek shelter from the lash of wind and rain.
They could have no thought of the common good, no notion of the mutual restraint of morals and laws. The individual, taught only to live and fend for himself, carried off on his own account such prey as fortune brought him. Venus coupled the bodies of lovers in the woods. Mutual desire brought them together, or the male's mastering might and profligate lust, or a bribe of acorns or arbutus berries or choice pears. Thanks to their surpassing strength of hand and foot, they hunted the woodland beasts by hurling stones and wielding ponderous clubs. They were more than a match for many of them: from a few they took refuge in hiding-places.
When night overtook them, they flung their jungle-bred limbs naked on the earth like bristly boars, and wrapped themselves round with a coverlet of leaves and branches. It is not true that they wandered panic-stricken over the countryside through the darkness of night, searching with loud lamentations for the daylight and the sun. In fact they waited, sunk in quiet sleep, till the sun with his rose-red torch should bring back radiance to the sky. Accustomed as they were from infancy to seeing the alternate birth of darkness and light, they could never have been struck with amazement or misgiving that the withdrawal of the sunlight might plunge the earth in everlasting night. They were more worried by the peril to which unlucky sleepers were often exposed from predatory beasts. Turned out of house and home by the intrusion of a slavering boar or a burly lion, they would abandon their rocky roofs at dead of night and yield up their leaf-strewn beds in terror to the savage visitors.
The proportion of mortal men that relinquished the dear light of life lamenting before it was all spent was not appreciably higher then than now. Then it more often happened that an individual victim would furnish living food to a beast of prey: engulfed in its jaws, he would fill thicket and mountainside and forest with his shrieks, at the sight of his living flesh entombed in a living sepulchre. Those who saved their mangled bodies by flight would press trembling palms over ghastly sores, calling upon Orcus in heart-rending voices, till life was wrenched from them by savage torments. They had no source of help in their ignorance of the treatment that wounds demand. But it never happened then that many thousands of men following the standards were led to death on a single day. Never did the ocean levels, lashed into tumult, hurl ships and men together, upon the reefs. Here, time after time, the sea would rise and vainly vent its fruitless ineffectual fury, then lightly lay aside its idle threats. The crafty blandishment of the unruffled deep could not tempt any man to his undoing with its rippling laughter. Then, when the mariner's presumptuous art lay still unguessed, it was lack of food that brought tailing limbs at last to death. Now it is superfluity that proves too much for them. The men of old often served poison to themselves out of ignorance. Now, with greater skill, they give it out to other people....
As time went by, men learnt to change their old way of life by means of fire and other new inventions, instructed by those of outstanding ability and mental energy. Kings began to found cities and establish citadels for their own safeguard and refuge. They parceled out cattle and lands, giving to each according to his looks, his strength and his ability; for good looks were highly prized and strength counted for much. Later came the invention of property and the discovery of gold, which speedily robbed the strong and the handsome of their status. The man of greater riches finds no lack of strong frames and comely faces to follow in his train. And yet, if a man would guide his life by true philosophy, he will find ample riches in a modest livelihood enjoyed with a tranquil mind. Of that little he need never be beggared. Men craved for fame and power so that their fortune might rest on a firm foundation and they might live out a peaceful life in the enjoyment of plenty. An idle dream. In struggling to gain the pinnacle of power they beset their own road with perils. And then from the very peak, as though by a thunderbolt, they are cast down by envy into a foul Tartarean abyss of ignominy. For envy, like the thunderbolt, most often strikes the highest and all that stands out above the common level. Far better to lead a quiet life in subjection than to long for sovereign authority and lordship over kingdoms. So leave them to sweat blood in their wearisome unprofitable struggle along the narrow pathway of ambition. Since their wisdom is taken from the mouths of other people and their objectives chosen by hearsay rather than by the evidence of their own senses, it avails them now, and will avail them, no more than it has ever done....
Let us now consider why reverence for the gods is widespread among the nations. What has crowded their cities with altars and inaugurated those solemn rites that are in vogue today in great and powerful states? What has implanted in mortal hearts that chill of dread which even now rears new temples of the gods the wide world over and packs them on holy days with pious multitudes? The explanation is not far to seek. Already in those early days men had visions when their minds were awake, and more clearly in sleep, of divine figures, outstanding in beauty and impressive in stature. To these figures they attributed feeling, because they were seen to move their limbs and give voice to lordly utterances appropriate to their stately features and their tremendous strength. They further credited them with eternal life, because the substance of their shapes was perpetually renewed and their appearance unchanging and in general because they thought that beings of such strength could not lightly be subdued by any force. They pictured their lot as far superior to that of mortals, because none of them were tormented by the fear of death, and also because in dreams they saw them perform all sorts of miracles without the slightest effort.
Again, men noticed the orderly succession of celestial phenomena and the round of the seasons and were at a loss to account for them. So they took refuge in handing over everything to the gods and making everything dependent on their whim. They chose the sky to be the home and headquarters of the gods because it is through the sky that the night and the moon are seen to tread their cyclic course, moon, day and night and night's ominous constellations and the night-flying torches and soaring flames of the firmament, clouds and sun and rain, snow and wind, lightning and hail, the sudden thunder-crash and the long-drawn-out intimidating rumble.
Poor humanity, to saddle the gods with such responsibilities and throw in a vindictive temper! What griefs they hatched then for themselves, what festering sores for us, what tears for our posterity! This is not piety, this oft-repeated show of bowing a veiled head before a stone; this bustling to every altar; this kowtowing and prostration on the ground with palms outspread before the shrines of the gods; this deluging of altars with the blood of beasts; this heaping of vow on vow. True piety lies rather in the power to contemplate the universe with a quiet mind.
When we gaze up at the supernal regions of this mighty world, at the ether poised above, studded with flashing stars, and there comes into our minds the thought of the sun and moon and their migrations, then in hearts already racked by other woes a new anxiety begins to waken and rear up its head. We fall to wondering whether we may not be subject to some unfathomable divine power, which speeds the shining stars along their various tracks. It comes as a shock to our faltering minds to realize how little they know about the world. Had it a birth and a beginning? Is there some limit in time, beyond which its bastions will be unable to endure the strain of jarring motion? Or are they divinely gifted with everlasting surety, so that in their journey through the termless tract of time they can mock the stubborn strength of measureless time?
Again, who does not feel his mind quailing and his limbs creep with shuddering dread of the gods when the parched earth reels at the dire stroke of the thunderbolt and tumult rolls across the breadth of heaven? Do not multitudes quake and nations tremble? Do not proud monarchs flinch, stricken in every limb by terror of the gods and the thought that the time has come when some foul deed or arrogant word must pay its heavy price?
Or picture a storm at sea, the wind scouring the water with hurricane force and some high admiral of the fleet swept before the blast with all his mighty legions and battle elephants. How he importunes the peace of the gods with vows! How fervently he prays in his terror that the winds, too, may be at peace and favoring breezes blow! But, for all his prayers, the tornado does not relax its grip, and all too often he is dashed upon the reefs of death. So irresistibly is human power ground to dust by some unseen force, which seems to mock at the majestic rods and ruthless axes of authority and trample on them as a joke.
-- "On the Nature of the Universe," by Lucretius
Some 20 years ago, I was having dinner at the American Political Science Association with Ben Barber and several other theorists. Ben said: you know there are 4 Straussians who have gone into the Pentagon and have their finger on the nuclear trigger. Pretty funny stuff about would-be or one-time political theorists. It was perhaps the final year of H.W. Bush. The Straussians were, one might say, always burrowing. We all laughed. But “better dead than red” is one of the messages which Strauss helped disseminate. (Perhaps Strauss meant better dead than modern.) Dr. Strangelove is never far in America. It was perhaps laughter with a frightened edge.
There is a chain of command, however. But anyone with their finger on the nuclear trigger is dangerous. W. for example. That fact made Cheney, with over time a coterie of Straussian advisors and assistants and publicists (from Wolfowitz to Schulsky to Kristol to Cambone to Libby), whispering in Bush’s ear threatening. What separates us from disaster is not so much; the politics of being the world’s most warlike, armed and belligerent nation – just as a matter of imperial privilege, assumed in various silly statements about “powerful pacifists (David Lake here) or “benevolent hegemons” (William Kristol) – makes our existence (I mean, humanity’s) fragile. Remember the nuclear weapons, so-called bunker-busters, with a radioactive yield according to scientists greater than Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which Bush had as “an option” to drop on Natanz, 50 km. or so from Teheran. The threatened resignation of the head of the joint chiefs of staff was needed to get Bush to eliminate nuclear bunker-busters from the immediate “military options” with regard to Iran. Now sometimes people whom one wouldn’t expect like Ronald Reagan manage, out of some understanding and decency, to strike out on novel paths to reduce the threat of nuclear war (it is the only admirable thing in Reagan’s Presidency I can recall): to negotiate with Gorbachev and prepare the way for perestroika and the vanishing of a kind of dictatorship (now the Putin regime, with US enmity, has also been fierce; Obama has wisely removed the Bush-planted missiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia).
Yet perhaps it is worth mentioning the students of Strauss or of his students who have moved into the Pentagon and played a role with the regard to formulating policy. Abe Shulsky is a student of the master and wrote a piece with Gary Schmitt on intelligence (“by which we do not mean nous”). Mirroring the epilogue to the Storing book (Gary was Storing’s student), it talked about the qualitative different nature of Soviet tyranny and the need to infer enmity – some might think, however, giving wide scope to paranoia; recall Wolfowitz and plan B, arming against a vast overestimate of what the Soviets were producing - compared to a CIA director who just wanted to collect quantitative intelligence, and viewed US/Soviet rivalry along a continuum. But even though Strauss's writing is charged with fear and belligerence toward the Soviets, Shulsky’s and Schmitt’s point is still fortunately, as an interpretation of Strauss, exoteric. If Shulsky had taken in the hidden message of the “Restatement” to On Tyranny – nuclear war is not extinction but a return to the human “spring,” there is no hint of it.
A third is Steven Cambone, a student of Harry Jaffa’s at Claremont who wrote a dissertation on "manly eloquence" and the Declaration of Independence ("Noble Sentiments and Manly Eloquence: The First Continental Congress and the Decision for American Independence" - h/t Peter Minowitz) and was an assistant secretary of defense under Bush. Cambone coined the term “lawfare”: the use of law in the political wars, the “advantage of the stronger” in Thrasymachus/Melian ambassador/Strauss-neocon lingo. Given the perversion of law in the War and Injustice Departments – Rove’s firing of the Federal Attorneys and framing up of Democrats like former Governor Siegelman of Alabama and the Democratic activist/lawyer Paul Minor in Mississippi – as well as the doctrine of “state secrets” which the Obama administration is sadly confirming and making into a bipartisan regime (this is Jack Balkin’s useful way of looking at it: a National Surveillance State), and the like, Cambone was a major player in tyranny (“executive power”), an ugly Schmittian [Carl, not Gary].
But whether this aspect of Strauss – really, a nuclear cataclysm isn’t so bad, Jews and Christians and nihilists might all secede from the last man and the modern age, the worst we have to face is death – these are just Strauss’s quasi-hidden thoughts straight up – crossed Cambone’s mind I have no evidence. The fourth, Wolfowitz, was a student of Allen Bloom (depicted as Paul Gorman in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, his revealing and rather charming novel about Bloom’s being and reactionary politics, but whether Bloom fully got that Strauss had been sympathetic to fascism and Nazism, let alone entertained ideas of nuclear war being a good thing there is no evidence (Bloom had very reactionary opinions, but also seems to me to make arguments less than any other Struassian; even Strauss is a philosopher compared to Bloom).
Yet Strauss was very ill and frail and less interested in students when Wolfowitz [and Gary Schmitt] came to Chicago. Wolfowitz worked primarily with Albert Wohlstetter, the former Trotskyist and mathematician who was avid to defeat the Soviets, but also designed the failsafe character of missiles (that the command to explode the missile has be reiterated or the missile will abort) which has probably saved us so far from inadvertent nuclear war (See Alex Abell, Soldiers of Reason). Thrasymachus – Wolfie was the originator in a 1992 memo rejected by the first Bush of the Condi Rice 2003 National Security Strategy of the United States. The US has the biggest weapons and will prevent any one else from becoming a danger to us the way the Russians were. Unipolarity – we will beat you into line. “Justice,” for Wolfowitz, is the advantage of the stronger. Wolfie did manufacture lies about Iraq (as did Schulsky who worked on Iraq and Iran for Cheney) and launch American aggression. But there is no evidence, I think, that he is an intentional nihilist, or that the thought that moved Strauss – explode the last men, bring it all down – has ever troubled Wolfowitz. Still he has done enough harm as an actual reactionary – aggressing and torturing – that bringing it all down unintentionally – nuking Natanz and watching what unfolds in the Middle East and the world – was not beyond Wolfowitz or the others.
I mentioned Gary Schmitt as the coauthor of Schulsky’s piece on intelligence. I interviewed Schmitt when he came to give a lecture on China at the Korbel School of International Studies. Gary put me on to the Iran-Contra Minority Report written for Dick Cheney, then House Minority leader, by Mike Malbin, a student of Strauss and primarily of Walter Berns (got a Ph.D. at Buffalo), who as a young man, worked for Cheney. Malbin relies on Schmitt’s 5 articles on executive power, all mirroring but amplifying an article by Storing on executive power which discusses Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and FDR’s concentration camps for Japanese-Americans (the talk radio mantra of every neocon about Guantanamo, torture, and tyranny). Storing thought the separation of powers would eventually right itself. But it need not. Enough of a Carl Schmittian emphasis on the “state of the exception” a la Harvey Mansfield and there need be no return. The Obama administration has so far made state secrets and a number of other pieces of Bush criminality once again a matter of a new regime. He has done so in order to prevent the investigations and legal hearings of perhaps all the Cabinet aside from Colin Powell, and many lower officials from occurring – the only thing that would restore the rule of law. What is left of American justice hangs by a thread.
Gary Schmitt had gone as an assistant professor, along with Jeffrey Tulis to the University of Virginia with Storing to create a Center for the Study of the Presidency. Storing had died of a heart attack playing handball at 49, and the department replaced him with James Caesar and denied promotion to his two junior colleagues. It is too bad; Schmitt had published 5 articles and was a serious and interesting scholar. As an academic, he would have done some good and vastly less harm in the world. But Schmitt lived down the road from Carnes Lord, another student of Strauss who was in the State Department in the Reagan administration. He put Schmitt in contact with Shulsky, who at the time worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Schmitt went to work for Scoop Jackson (both were hawkish Democrats, wanting to strike out at the Soviets). Though a reactionary, Strauss’s politics were non-partisan (see here on Goldwin and the Center for Public Affairs through which Strauss sought to gain political influence). They gradually peregrinated into the intelligence apparatus. Schmitt has been in such circles for many years, was one of the three principals of the Project for a New American Century (along with William Kristol and Robert Kagan) and is now – as is Wolfowitz – at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote an article with Kristol defending spying on Americans, but, unusually among political Struassians, said to me with some vehemence that he was against torture. I don’t know if he has written about it. He too is a primary belligerent and urger of executive tyranny, but I doubt that he has spent time fantasizing – as Strauss plainly did – about the possibilities of nuclear war, and whether really it would be a bad thing…
Francis Fukuyama also worked with Wohlstetter and Strauss (a bit) and went into Rand and “defense” intelligence. At Rand, Fukuyama made a big hit with his “end of history” thesis copied from Kojeve (in his initial article, he admitted that he had never read a word of Hegel, though following Kojeve, he claimed to be taking up Hegel’s view). Fukuyama has the most relentlessly enthusiastic and superficial interpretation of the surface of Strauss of any of the political Straussians (or of his academic defenders like the Zuckerts). But he is often thoughtful about policy. For instance, he got off the boat about that “noble effort,” the war in Iraq (he had signed the September 20, 2001 Straussian/Project for a New American Century call to invade Iraq and overturn Saddam) when, sitting at a dinner attended by a wildly cheering group of neocons about the war in Iraq 3 years in, he realized that they lived in a shadow world and that the boat was already underwater. That he then criticized the war – and was greeted with some fury by his former allies – is commendable. One must be grateful for every person who finally does look a little at reality (he has not to my knowledge ever criticized torture however, and was still on a biopolitics advisory board under Bush – so the degree that he has moved away from his previous sympathies is fairly limited). But Fukuyama. too, does not consider nuclear war as a good way of bringing down “the last men.”
It is interesting that Ben’s witticism should lead to such shivery reflections on whether among all the bad and tyrannical and destructive things the neocons have been responsible for, this little nest of Straussians actually considered getting us into nuclear war to head off the last men. These are 5 significant figures in the murderousness and wreck of American foreign policy and the economy. Yet my friend Robert Howse, an eccentric Straussian (many students of Strauss have the charming eccentricities of all of us scholars) points out that all this war and martial invocation – the political Straussians are pretty much in love with dropping bombs at a great distance on others; fighting is for other people – will nonetheless lead, a la Fukuyama and Kojeve – to the rule of markets and democracy, in the title of Fukuyama’s book, “the last man” (even the title alluding to political philosophy he doesn’t get right; the last men in Nietzsche huddle together and blink like beetles; a last man would have no one to rub up against, would have to take account of his loneliness and mortality, and thus couldn’t be one of…the last men). But of course Strauss himself was inhumanly consistent – blow up the last men and start over again: a new “spring”…
That one can and perhaps must speculate about how near, in their harms, the political Straussians in the Pentagon have brought us, in the post-Cold War era, to nuclear war, and with what intention, is frightening. Strauss intended reactionary and even nihilist influence on politics; in the neocons, beyond the grave (he died in 1973), he has had it. The collapse of the United States, militarily and economically – the situation Obama inherited – was very unlikely as a way for the empire to sink. It has been a swift denouement. Osama Bin Laden could not have done this, but the neocons, significantly impelled by Leo Strauss, have. They have provided an ideological atmosphere through policy advisors, pundits and talking heads which enable and further the madness of Dick Cheney (Malbin was a young man when he worked for Cheney; if you think he said, that I led him, you are mistaken). But the words in Cheney/s mouth “prerogative” (Robert Goldwin) or executive power (Gary Schmitt, Malbin) – and the intent a la Wolfowitz on expansion in the Middle East all come from Straussians. There has been quite an interaction over 35 years. The political fantasies of Leo Strauss, a Nietzschean, Heideggerian and Platonist of his own stamp, have had quite a fearsome and criminal – though not yet quite cataclysmic - effect in actual American circumstances.
Let us consider again AZ's nomination of Strauss's sentence on toleration in chapter 10. Read in the context of the rest of the essay, the whole of Liberalism Ancient and Modern and Strauss’s intended reactionary influence, his seeming endorsement of the praise in Dore Schary’s writing of a good consequence of separation of church and state, the diminution of conformity, vanishes. Strauss is sublime. There is no other American writer (let alone among comparatively sober and at least decent political theorists) who has views remotely like these (In Germany there is perhaps Schmitt, his student Moeller, and Moeller’s successor, also a Straussian bibliophile, Heinrich Meier) There is also certainly not such a view in another teacher who cared as much both about the material and his students. Strauss was a relentless and innovative scholar. Still, politically, Strauss was a determined anti-modern who saw in fascism and the National Revolution, and, in the United States, even potentially in nuclear catastrophe, a hope against the lapsed society of the prophets: the America of the last men.