Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book Selection of the Month: "Natural Right and History" by Leo Strauss

Let me now unveil the first-ever Book Selection of the Month (for November 2006), namely:

Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss

That’s right, it’s the neocons’ bible (well, not counting the Bible), and what better time for me to read it than now, when, some would argue, this book has led by a circuitous, fifty-three-year route to the defeat of conservatism at the polls?

Leo Strauss was a mid-century intellectual historian and philosopher who stressed the idea that intellectuals have a duty to shore up public morals by respecting timeless ethical principles — even when those same intellectuals, at least since Machiavelli, have been wracked by doubts about whether any rational proof can ultimately be offered for the validity of those principles. Nietzsche may have been onto something with his claims that morals are a sort of fiction that can be cast aside like other taboos, but it would be bad sociology — with decidedly non-utilitarian consequences — to go around telling people that. There might be riots in the streets, or at the very least students in our colleges who can’t see any moral reason to prefer the U.S. to totalitarian Russia or Nazi Germany.

Strauss’s admirers, sometimes called Straussians, have been described as secretive — even deceptive — in the past, since they admit the possibility of the existence of a philosophical elite who can safely discuss ideas that might be dangerous in the hands of the masses. By now, though, I think it’s safe to say that everyone who cares knows roughly what the Straussians think, so there’s no ongoing need for hushed tones or secret handshakes.

I openly admit that my own political thinking was shaped at an early stage by Straussianism, via the book The Closing of the American Mind by Strauss’s student, Allan Bloom. Condemning moral relativism on college campuses, the book seemed to me (in 1987, when it came out) like a perfect description of my experiences as a moderately conservative but fairly apolitical freshman at the Marxist/feminist/relativist morass that was Brown University, at a time when a conservative president was being raked over the coals by a Democratic Congress conducting investigations into his efforts to topple a foreign government (Nicaragua’s, to be specific, and I see that nineteen years later, Nicaraguan democracy has made Daniel Ortega president again, which does not, of course, necessarily mean it was wrong for Reagan to try toppling him when he was a communist dictator there; and if today looks just a tiny bit like 1987, it’s not a bad time for me to dip back into Straussianism, this time by reading the real deal instead of Bloom). I was a bit hesitant, though, to embrace Bloom’s condemnation of rock music as “hymns to onanism and mother-killing,” so I guess I have always been a moderate at heart (or at least a New Wave fan).

The left, in recent years, would have you believe that Strauss’s emphasis on simple moral rules, the universality and absolutism of those rules, and the appropriateness of glossing over residual doubts about those rules, led inevitably to Bush “lying us into war” in order to remake the world according to simplistic Western moral standards — neoconservatism as crusading extremism.

The truth is, as usual, much more complicated, with Strauss’s main real legacy perhaps being the introduction of sociological concerns (such as the connection between prevailing ethics and crime rates) and sociological methodology into conservative thinking, though the original batch of “neoconservatives” who promulgated these ideas in the 60s and 70s (neo because they had come to see their own former liberalism as inadequate for dealing with many moral and social issues) were also hawkish and no doubt pushed the conservative movement as a whole toward becoming a bit more comfortable with big government thinking (and social engineering schemes, albeit with a conservative flavor), something that I can only hope will now wane again. (In some ways, the early, sociological neocon writings bear less resemblance to fundamentalist or nationalist/militarist tracts than they do to pragmatic good-governance books like, say, Ted Balaker and Sam Staley’s The Road More Traveled.)

I do not mean to dismiss Strauss’s legacy as a defender of moral absolutes against the darkness and chaos of relativism, though. I love Nietzsche as much as the next guy, but — well, actually, I think one of my greatest public failures resulted in part from not loving Nietzsche as much as the next guy, one night when that next guy was author and “urban explorer” L.B. Deyo (he now runs a debate series in Austin, TX under the name the Dionysium, a name Nietzsche would appreciate). L.B. co-founded (with Lefty Leibowitz) the monthly debates I now host at Lolita Bar in Manhattan, and since L.B. loves to defend extreme positions, he never won one of the debates (according to the audience votes) until defeating me on the question of whether morality is objective or subjective. He convinced the audience it is downright unscientific to think that some mysterious, unquantifiable yet objective standard for morals can be found — even though L.B. is in many ways more conservative than I am. I argued in vain that utilitarianism, with its rootedness in real-world suffering and pleasure, is grounds for generating non-whimsical moral generalizations.

I still think L.B.’s position on this issue, if widely held, would lead to carnage in the streets (if morality is subjective whim, why not run amok when it’s convenient to do so, if you can train yourself to overcome inherited moral taboos and guilty feelings?). I will keep that fear in mind while brooding over my copy of Natural Right and History. Strauss shares my concerns, even if he isn’t America’s favorite intellectual at this point in time.

If roundabout, intellectualized moralism isn’t pure enough stuff for you, though, you could always stop listening to agnostic folk like Strauss and atheists like me and instead read the first of the two Book Selection(s) of the Month for December.


Todd Seavey said...

[...] Alasdair MacIntyre’s a great philosopher and writer yet coy and elliptical enough to be a frickin’ Straussian (I notice he praises Straussian Harry Jaffa at one point, so perhaps he is — he’s a bit of everything else, so why not a Straussian, too?).  Reading the book becomes a bit like reading a mystery novel.  Normally, one doesn’t read an engaging philosophy book while wondering, with some tension, “Where the hell is this leading?!?”  Which is not to say it’s scattered, it was just hard to predict what the practical legal/ethical/culture-critical upshot was going to be at the end.  It turns out to be a defense of ancient, Greek-style virtues, concrete things like leadership and athleticism and friendship, as a more solid anchor for morals than modern theorizing and rationalism — though there are some surprising twists and turns along the way. [...]

Todd Seavey said...

[...] As I headed back to Brown in early 1988 to finish my freshman year, I took inspiration from a winter vacation that included reading Allan Bloom’s Leo Strauss-influenced book The Closing of the American Mind (recommended to me by my high school friend Paul Taylor’s conservative dad, one of the numerous suggestions he gave me, Paul, and our friends Chuck Blake and John Hersh from high school whenever we’d all gather in Norwich during college vacation).  Bloom seemed to give a pretty decent diagnosis of what I’d experienced at Brown the previous semester, arguing as he did that higher education had become a hotbed of relativism, the idea that there are no truths and that everything is simply a matter of arbitrary perspective — which by some non-sequitur always implicitly means the Marxists or feminists win any argument (or in certain formulations, Marxists, feminists, and Freudians, though Freud’s prestige was declining). [...]