Those wishing to understand political and intellectual developments in today's America do well to familiarize themselves with the German-American political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who was a professor at the University of Chicago. Strauss's influence extends far beyond academia, where it has been a major force for a generation. The primary reason why an attempt should be made to understand what Strauss is about is not the intrinsic philosophical importance of his work but that his ideas are influential and provide important insight into the intellectual posture of an increasingly powerful interest in American society. Philosophical figures of the second or third rank sometimes enjoy a time in the sun for transitory historical reasons. They may, for example, serve well the needs of an emerging leadership class. Though not without philosophical interest, Strauss's work merits special attention in today's historical circumstances because of the impact it has had and because of the way in which it expresses and advances extra-philosophical motives.
Strauss's thinking seems in important respects tailor-made for a rising elite that wants, on the one hand, to justify its own claim to power and, on the other, to discredit an older elite that it is trying to replace. This article will examine how Strauss's work helps justify a "regime" change, in the intellectual life especially but also in politics and the general culture. This partisan aspect of his thinking is hidden in part behind a concern for the integrity and survival of "philosophy." The latter turns out to be by definition opposed to "convention," that is, to the traditions that prop up an existing elite. Philosophy is threatened by what Strauss calls "historicism," which is, among other things, an inclination to treat history respectfully. It is worthy of special note that Strauss's concern for philosophy and his apparent defense of natural right has made it possible for him to attract a following even among intellectuals who consider themselves traditionalists and who have much to lose by his gaining influence. Unsuspectingly, they have adopted Straussian intellectual habits that undermine their own professed beliefs and advance the rather different ethos of a new elite.
By calling attention to the aspect of Strauss's thought that appeals to the new pretenders to power, this article is not denying that sometimes more philosophical motives help Strauss transcend the partisanship in question. His work is also broader than may appear from the following examination of a particular dimension of his thought.
The Undermining of Traditional Elites
Strauss's own elitism accounts for some of the more conservative-looking elements of his thought; he appears to be arguing for an intellectual and moral aristocracy, an elite far above the hoi polloi. His interest in Plato and other Greek figures seems to accord with the classicist emphasis of a traditional Western education, but his classicism and elitism have a special twist that militates in important ways against ideas central to Western civilization. At the same time that Strauss's elitism boosts the self-confidence of an aspiring new elite, it delegitimizes religious, moral, intellectual and cultural traditions distinctive to the old Western world that support the slowly abdicating older elite. Karl Marx is an example of an earlier thinker who sought to justify the overturning of one leadership class and the installing of another, but his ideas appealed primarily to people who felt themselves to be on the outside of their society's ruling circles and were resentfully looking in. To them, it seemed that their interest could be advanced only through the complete destruction of the existing society. Leon Trotsky's notion of the global revolution envisioned the worldwide dethronement of traditional elites. Strauss appeals most to individuals who think of themselves as being to some extent already on the inside and as poised to take over from the resigning elite. Because the members of the aspiring leadership class already have great influence in many of society's key institutions, they can even plausibly portray themselves as "conservatives." Though not as hostile to the existing social order as the Marxists, they do not yet feel quite secure in their power and see the need to proceed cautiously, indeed, secretively, in undermining the remnants of the traditions that buttress their main rivals.
Here we find one of the reasons for the attraction of Strauss's celebrated rejection of "historicism." What seems to the superficial reader to be part of a defense of traditional "higher values" actually amounts to a discrediting of those parts of the old Western civilization that stand in the way of the new elite. By making respect for history and "convention" seem philosophically disreputable and even nefarious, Strauss disputes the right of lingering traditional elites to rule. To the extent that he nevertheless manages to appeal to representatives of the old order, he is, in effect, teaching them to despise themselves. To Straussians who are fully alert to the anti-traditional aim of anti-historicism, it is undoubtedly a source of both amusement and contempt that many putative defenders of tradition seem not to suspect what is happening but are happily contributing to the destruction of their own culture.
There are significant differences between Strauss and typical modern liberal progressive intellectuals, but his work overlaps with theirs in that he will grant no philosophical standing to the traditions supporting the old elites. In spite of disagreements pertaining, for example, to the fact-value distinction and the assessment of classical Greek writers, Strauss and the modern progressives are not as opposed to each other as might first appear. The progressives usually hide a rationalistic elitism of their own behind a professed belief in "democracy," an attitude that is not dissimilar to that of many followers of Strauss. "Democracy" is seen as an effective way of dislodging older elites. In political practice, Straussians often make common cause with mainstream progressives. These affinities are obvious within the so-called "neoconservative" movement, which has numerous Straussians at its core. Some who are known as neoconservatives do have genuinely conservative traits, but, contrary to its journalistic reputation, the neoconservative movement is in its main political-intellectual thrust a special, ideologically intense form of modern American progressive liberalism, as this author has shown in America the Virtuous. (1) Neoconservatism differs from some other types of modern liberalism in that it presents itself as promoting universally valid moral principles. It asserts its own alleged nobility in highly moralistic ways and sees itself as fighting evil in the world. The neoconservative case for a powerful federal government differs from that of mainstream liberalism in that such government is believed to be necessary for fulfilling America's "virtuous" global mission. Strauss and his disciples provide the new pretenders to elite status with a source of righteousness. Needless to say, mainstream liberal progressivism has its own brand of moralism, though one derived more from Rousseauistic humanitarianism than from Plato. It is no coincidence that Straussians typically see Plato and Rousseau as sharing much common ground, notably that the two side with "nature" against "convention."
A Philosophy of Concealment
Much of Strauss's writing is about the practice of and need for surreptitious philosophical argumentation. He contends that the philosopher needs to conceal his true motives from the powers-that-be. Strauss's voice is that of a conspirator. It has great appeal to intellectuals who define themselves in opposition to traditional Western elites and are trying to manipulate them for their own purposes. In an allusion to John Le Carre's behind-the-scenes spymaster, one of Strauss's most devoted admirers, Abraham Shulsky, has called Strauss "the George Smiley of political philosophy." As a high civilian official in the Pentagon, Shulsky formed part of the neoconservative network that built and promoted the case for war against Iraq.
Many of those who have enlisted, if only in a subsidiary capacity, in the effort to destroy "historicism" and promote "philosophy" are strangely unaware that it threatens their own supposedly most fundamental beliefs. The current debilitated and confused state of Western intellectual life and a limited, spotty education have made them vulnerable to the kind of dissimulation that Strauss not only recommends but practices. Straussians who think of themselves as defending "Western civilization," specifically Christianity, have been enticed by Strauss's interest in classical philosophy, by his rejection of the modern fact-value distinction and by his apparently making a case for universal right. His critique of "historicism" has seemed to them a reassuring attack on moral relativism and nihilism. Non-philosophical considerations have inclined them in the same direction: they have sensed that in aligning themselves with Straussianism they are associating themselves with a powerful new interest and can hope to reap financial and career advantages.
Strauss's influence on neoconservatism finally began to attract public attention when journalists and others started tracing the influences behind the campaign for war against Iraq. Much of the interest focused on the fact that Strauss and the Straussians had long advocated political deceit. These features of Straussianism could plausibly be said to have been put to use in the effort to get the United States into war. The Straussians are known for having cultivated a cliquish attitude of moral and intellectual superiority. Only they possess genuine insight, which means, among other things, that they see right through widely but...