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Wednesday, December 17, 2003


My friend, H., sent me an article about Leo Strauss and urged me to write a post about it for LI. Unfortunately, I know very little about Leo Strauss, and H. knows so much more that I feel a little ridiculous taking the pontifical chair.

For what it is worth: whenever his adherents quote Mr. Strauss, the words always seem disturbingly shallow – either platitudinous encomiums of Plato and Aristotle, one of the habits of German philosophers that the analytics had the good taste to do away with, or else exhortations that are the starting points for arguments that aren’t, in the event, ever made. I am simply giving you my impression of Strauss – but I admit, I’ve never really seriously read him.

However, I – and everybody else – has read a lot about Straussians. And I do think that there is one strain among the Straussians that exerts an improbable influence on American foreign policy today. Strauss had a great reverence for the American Constitution. He was a man, too, who felt that reading certain canonical texts was identical with thinking – with the discovery of truth itself. It all depended on the density of the reading, the concentration one brought to it. There is an obvious analogy, here, with the way a Judge, ideally, makes a judgment about the application of a law. For the Judge, too, the Constitution is a sort of set of truths – or a set of norms to which the formation of laws and regulations, and their applications, must conform. Perhaps it is this analogy that drew Strauss’s attention to the Constitution. In any case, he was hog wild for the thing, and his followers are, accordingly, also hog wild for the thing. His followers have extended this reverence, in fact, to the very idea of a constitution, in which they have invested a mystical and mystifying enthusiasm that distinguishes them, as a group, from the usual Burkean conservative. Burke was no enthusiast for theorists of Republics. He thought the craze for writing constitutions in his time was symptomatic of the way late Enlightenment thinkers had misunderstood the ‘science of government:” a science that he believed must mirror the natural adaptations of the relations of power and property in a given society. For Burke, the idea of a founding document – some text that exerts an ultimate shaping force upon those relations in a society, creating them, so to speak – is pernicious, mistaking the subservient document for the spirit of the laws. The American constitution did not, in this view, create America. It has, rather, exerted the local influence that such a document could exert upon a society that was organizing itself according to laws that are not meant to be boiled up and listed in a text, like so many items on a menu. America, for the Burkean, made the Constitution.

However, as we can see from the recent mania, among Americans, for writing a constitution in Iraq – a mania that must be puzzling to Iraqis, who have experienced many constitutions, and seen that all of them mysteriously permitted dictators or factions or tribes to do exactly what they wanted in the way of murdering their opponents – Leo Strauss’ enthusiasm is now a semi-official cause of at least one department of the Executive Branch.

To please H., then, we will write about, not Strauss, but Straussians. And, in particular, about a conflict that has sprung up between two noted Straussians, Harvey Mansfeld and Harry Jaffa, over the issue of the Declaration of Independence vs. the Constitution. There’s an essay about the controversy on the Claremont College website, written by Thomas G. West, apparently a student of Jaffa’s.

West’s essay makes the orthodox Straussian moves. First and foremost, the tics are assembled. The tics concern the embattled state of the real thinkers in a world in which the liberal establishment lays down the orthodoxy. This is always good – instead of being a humble thinker, one is an embattled remnant. Myself, I appreciate the dramatic value of this rhetorical penchant. It is just that I have a hard time conceiving of a bunch of tenured profs as the heirs of the Trojan warriors.

If you have an embattled remnant, surely you have a conquering army of evil. For the Straussians, this is the current orthodoxy of liberalism. Which is another way of saying, relativism. Relativism is the enemy.

Let’s turn to the text.

West begins by asking a good question:

“What were the original principles of the American Constitution? Are those principles true?”

Then we have the inevitable gathering of the tics:

“Many historians and political scientists write about the first question. Scholars are never shy about telling us what happened in the dead-and-gone eighteenth century. But few of them think it is even worth discussing whether the Founders' principles are true. For example, in a review of my book Vindicating the Founders, historian Joseph Ellis accuses me of having committed "sins of presentism." My error, as he cleverly puts it, is believing "that ideas are like migratory birds that can take off in the eighteenth century and land intact in our time." Ellis does not even try to refute the Founders' principles or their arguments, summarized in my book, regarding property rights, women's rights, and welfare policy. For him, it is enough simply to dismiss my endorsement of their arguments and ideas as "bizarre."1 “

Then, the stating of the anti-relativist position:

“But what if some ideas — I mean true ones — really are like migratory birds that can land intact in any century? What if the principles of the founding are as true today as they were two centuries ago?”

So far, there is nothing unusual about the procedure here. The ‘founding” is a little scary, I admit – it makes the Constitutional convention and the rest of it sound like a very select meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece. However, West makes a good point. If he was really a political philosopher, he might even consider that the point has an obverse side: what if some ideas – I mean true ones – that are current are like migratory birds that can land intact in the eighteenth century? For instance, the idea of the equality of women? But he isn’t a political philosopher – he is a Straussian. They don’t ask such questions.

“Students and admirers of Leo Strauss are among the few political scientists who write seriously about whether the Founders' principles are true. Strauss made this possible by convincing them that political philosophy in the classical sense is possible, that human reason may be capable of discovering the truth about the good society. Anyone who approaches the Founders from this perspective is likely to be open to their way of thinking, which took for granted that reason can figure out the principles of justice by observing and reflecting on the human condition.”

The truth is, everybody appeals to the human condition. Ellis, for example, is certainly appealing to it. His idea is that the human condition can accommodate such leaps that some political principles in the 18th century don’t hold in the 20th century. In fact, however, West isn’t going to argue about historical conditions, or the concrete situations that the human condition, embodied in humans, finds itself in. He is going to turn Straussian on us in his next sentence: “Strauss argued that the principles of classical political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle remain the standard for us today.”

This is the defining characteristic of the Straussian, as far as I can see. The appeal to truth is answered not by observing and reflecting on experience, but by appealing to the masters. The masters encode the human condition for all time.

Now, if we look closely at this habit, we can discern in it a familiar, and fundamental, objection to modernity. The idea that to discover a truth, reason must submit to experience – to the historically concrete event – instead of deriving truth from its own nature is pretty much the basis of the Enlightenment, and certainly the program of the natural “philosophers” of the seventeenth century, from which the positive sciences derive. In a sense, the Age of Reason was all about the dethronement of reason. That dethronement – that elevation of experience, or the Other of Reason – is what made the ‘experimental method’ so revolutionary. Truth, in other words, became dependent on the tests that distinguished what was true from what was false. This was the guiding idea for the eighteenth century’s political anthropology. But this, for the Straussian, is a bad and fatal thing, mixing together the contingent and the absolute. Rather, the truth must be segregated from the historically concrete. Which is why West can begin his essay with an appeal to the truth, and then foreclose on that appeal like this: “When his [Strauss’s] students approach the founding, therefore, they tend to judge it against the standard of the classics.” So much for observing the human condition.

After this prologue, we proceed to the topic, which is a dispute between Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfeld about the meaning of equality. This is not a dispute that refers to any recent sociological literature about equality, or takes an analytic approach to it and describes, for instance, the difference between juridical and economic equality. No, in this dispute, the contestants bring out their favorite texts. Jaffa refers to the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. Mansfeld prefers the Constitution and de Tocqueville.

Roughly, Jaffa maintains that the enforcement of civil equality is a “true’ principle of the human condition, considered from the point of view of politics, and that this truth was expressed by the Declaration of Independence and acted upon, rightly, by Lincoln. Mansfeld maintains that the Declaration of Independence was rightly curbed by the Constitution, and that De Tocqueville righly warns us of the cultural mediocrity attendent upon too much enforcement of civil equality.

Neither of these are bogus positions. What is interesting, however, is that both sides eventually, shyly, have to appeal to something beyond the standard of the classics. Even an anti-modernist philosophy is so infiltrated by the positivist spirit that its arguments are conducted with, well, some acknowledgement of the real consequences of the arguments.

Here, for instance, is Mansfeld by way of West.

“Mansfield argues that Locke, following Machiavelli, believed he had invented a kind of government in which no one really rules. The government never does what it wants; it is always carrying out the will of somebody else, namely, of the people….
But Mansfield says — and he believes he is following Aristotle here — that this hope of nonpartisanship is a vain dream. People will always disagree about the good. Even a regime that is designed to be nonpartisan will turn out to be as partisan as any other. This, Mansfield believes, is the lesson of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, a book that he and his wife, Delba Winthrop, translated. In their introduction, Mansfield and Winthrop call Tocqueville's book "the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." According to Tocqueville, as summarized by Mansfield and Winthrop, America is "middle class, thus timid and mediocre, and lacking in both virtue and greatness." It is true that Tocqueville does not scorn this bourgeois way of life in the manner of Rousseau and Stendhal. But he does argue that a democratic nation, in which public opinion dominates, becomes a partisan political regime "without meaning to be." The majority comes to believe in "the infallibility of majority reason." Yet the majority is a "collection of self-consciously weak individuals." The democratic citizen is at once proud of his independence and aware of his weakness. "In this extremity," writes Tocqueville, "he naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement." Mansfield and Winthrop explain: "The immense being — replacing God — is the state."

This is well done. West explains that Mansfeld sees, in the danger of Leviathan, a solution that emerges accidentally from the Constitution: “The Constitution was written to secure the natural rights named in the Declaration. But once written, it took on a life of its own, independent of the doctrine that gave rise to it. The Constitution, and no longer the principle that "all men are created equal," now became our regime, our arche or principle, our authoritative beginning that shapes and forms us and makes us what we are. We now understand ourselves (or once did), Mansfield argues, as a constitutional people, no longer as a revolutionary people.”

However, under the strain of segregating the truth and the historically concrete, Mansfeld actually buttresses his argument with … history.

“According to Mansfield, the result of this transformation from a natural-rights republic to a constitutional republic is that our politics are much less vulnerable to the kind of destructive moralism that we see in the French Revolution. The French, in Mansfield's view, made the mistake of taking the idea of equality too seriously. They tried to "finish" the modern revolution initiated by Locke and the other adherents of social compact theory. They failed to put an end to their revolution by constitutionalizing it, as the American Founders did. As a result, the French lived out the full destructive implications of the modern doctrine, while the Americans were spared that destruction. In Mansfield's analysis, sober forms take the place of dangerous moral absolutes. That is, the form and formalities of constitutionalism take the place, in America, of insatiable appeals to a standard of "natural rights [held] over the government."14 “

The appeal to the historically concrete rather ruins the Straussian preference for the standards of the classics, because it opens a space for questions deriving from history. In particular, one wants to ask, what about the destructive consequences of the slavery that was legitimated in the Constitution at the “founding”? Americans were not spared that destruction. And if we want to blame the Terror on taking Locke’s contractual notion of the state too seriously, couldn’t we blame the bias towards property, no matter what the cost to the human condition, inscribed in the Constitution for the total violence visited on Afro-Americans? It is here that equality becomes more than merely something deriving from the standards laid down by the classics, since, of course, there are classics and there are classics. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a classic by one Conneau, published in 1854, entitled “Captain Canot; or, Twenty years an African slaver

" A few days before the embarkation takes place the head of every male and female are shaven. They are then marked . . . with a hot pipe sufficiently heated to blister the skin. Some [purchasers] use their initials made of silver wire. . . . . this disagreeable operation is done only when several persons ship slaves in one vessel . . . . [The branding] is done as lightly as possible, and just enough for the mark to remain only six months; when and if well done, it leaves the skin as smooth as ever. This scorching sign is generally made on the fleshy part of the arm to adults, to children on the posterior" (Theophilus Conneau, A Slaver's Logbook or 20 Years' Residence in Africa [Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976), pp. 81-82

Do I discern, in those slave marks, truths that, like birds, have migrated from the 19th century to this one?

I could stop here, and leave the impression that the Straussians are the usual racist pigs. But that wouldn’t be true. It is part of the confusion that surrounds the Straussians that West’s record of the dispute between Mansfeld and Jaffa accommodates the historic experience of slavery. Jaffa, it turns out, has his eyes on the prize. He is against slavery. But, being a Straussian, he can’t make an argument against slavery that doesn’t squeeze the juice from Plato, Aristotle and all the rest of them:

Even if we admit that there is some tiny number of men who are sufficiently godlike that they could be trusted with absolute power without consent, it would still not establish a politically relevant claim. For, Jaffa writes,
Plato's Republic is imaginary precisely because, according to Plato himself, philosophers do not wish to rule, and anyone wishing to rule is not a philosopher. Anyone who asserts a right to rule on the basis of his claim to wisdom is accordingly condemned in advance as a charlatan by philosophy itself. . . . Philosopher-kings are not possible, and genuine philosophers will always prefer a regime of equality under the law.19

Jaffa is saying that the classical argument for government without consent is refuted by the classics themselves, leaving us with the conclusion that the esoteric teaching, as it were, of the classics is that all men are created equal! This paradoxical claim should not perhaps come as a surprise. For Jaffa had said many years ago that according to Aristotle no normal human being is a natural slave.20

And so it goes. There is something comically satisfying about the members of the order of the founding finally coming round to the idea that slavery is bad in 2002, and defending that proposition as the conclusion of the esoteric teaching. As long as it can be interpreted out of Plato and Aristotle, there you have it: the truth.

The Straussians are very American in their anti-modernism. This is the same current of fundamentalism that Mencken had such fun with back in the twenties. The accusation of fascism and the like is wildly off the mark. This stuff is in the American grain. It is the kind of clubjoining, text-quoting thing that delights the Mason, brings tears to the eyes of the A.A. guy reverentially citing the 12 steps, and has always made your average suburban bürger feel a little bit special. Why not?
However, as a guide to the ‘truth,’ this falls well short of the modern philosophical standard.

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