Leo Strauss, Postmodern Conservatism and the New Academic Right | By Dustin McNichol

UDaimonia continues to live up to its founding vision of providing an arena for intellectual exchange on a wide variety of topics dealing with university education and contemporary academia. In particular, the various articles on the current state of the liberal arts, arts education, politics, and “the good life” have greatly sustained my interest. Even though I have been short of time and have not been able to engage with them as much as I would like to, I would still like to thank all of the authors who have contributed to these discussions, which have been crucial to my own thinking on what it means to be a student and an intellectual.

In April this year, when I published my own thoughts on the contemporary liberal arts “crisis”, my premise was simple: that we ought to be skeptical of those who lament the so-called decline in arts education because it does not fit their definition of what the liberal arts and education ought to be. Later on in this article I will elaborate upon as to why this is so. For now suffice it to say that my article was followed by a series of virulent and wide-ranging critiques, penned mostly by Chris Berger, who has accused me of harbouring (among other things, I am sure) nihilism, reckless ideology, historicism, elitism and ignorance.

I take great exception to these accusations, and I will show in the following paragraphs that Berger, and others who accuse leftist and postmodern academics of destroying academia (and even rational thought itself!), are themselves guilty of the very things they accuse others of doing.

Readers and followers of this blog have up to now heard only one side of a multifaceted debate on the liberal arts, the good life, political philosophy, and how academics ought to conduct themselves in thought and action. I would specifically like to focus on how Berger and others have written several articles venerating educational and philosophical “greats” such as Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Indeed, there is little doubt that these two men in particular were great thinkers who contributed much to our knowledge of the classics and contemporary society.

But there is more to them, which Berger curiously makes no specific mention of. Strauss and Bloom are also the darlings of right-wing academics and politicians everywhere in North America. As Shadia Drury shows in her devastating critique of Strauss’ political philosophy (see in particular The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss) Strauss was, and is, especially adored by neoconservative philosophers and politicians such as Irving Kristol (who was one of his PhD students) and Paul Wolfowitz, in addition to many prominent members of the George W. Bush administration. Whether or not these types of people are “friends” of liberal democracy is of course a matter of opinion, but it would not be an exaggeration to underline the fact that Strauss-inspired neoconservatives are no fans of liberal democracy and its institutions of deliberation and popular representation.

But I digress. This debate began with a discussion of what the liberal arts are, and how they ought to be taught. I argue that by gaining a better understanding of Strauss’ philosophy, we can understand the source of Berger’s opposition to postmodern scholarship and its “destruction” of “true” liberal arts education. One of Strauss’ key ideas is the division between the political and the philosophical, which forms the crux of Berger’s critique of contemporary academia’s political engagement. As the argument goes, the philosophical (what is true) is irreconcilable with the political (what is popular). Thus, any academic whose work is informed by political concerns, or seeks to effect political change in the world, is fooling himself or herself into thinking that they are seeking the truth. Moreover, any academic who dedicates his or her work to structuring political values, arguments, and cultural precepts is bound to fail since such an act is inextricably opposed to the philosophical, which is solely concerned with the search for the unadultered truth. No wonder why Strauss is so well-liked by those who believe that they alone are the sole defenders of what is right and true; after all, by claiming to be apolitical or disinterested, they can give themselves the veneer of objectivity. Those pursuing the truth have no motivation; how can they be wrong in their path?

But with this quintessentially Straussian premise, Berger has shown his hand, and the fundamental weaknesses of Straussian thought. As Berger correctly points out, the division of philosophy and politics is actually only a partial understanding of Strauss’ most important idea:

Tentatively, Strauss concluded that for one to philosophize in a political way is for one to pursue the truth about the good in a manner that placates the city’s fear that its opinions and conventions will be undermined; it is a manner of speaking and writing that is necessary for the survival of philosophy.  

Drury also concluded as much in her book, albeit more critically; here Berger is using sophisticated language in order to skirt the issue. Put more simply, Strauss believed that the people, the masses, were unwilling and/or unable to handle the truth. So much so, that in chapter four of “The Mature Socrates”, the citizens are seen as virtually undistinguishable from animals. Thus, for Strauss, in order for the truth (read: philosophy) to survive, it has to be covert; it has to resort to deception in order to prevent politics and popular concerns from destroying it. A true wise man or philosopher is the only one capable of accepting the unadultered truth; the truth must be protected from the masses, and can only be passed on to a select few.

I must say here, with all of the accusations I have heard regarding my own (and others’) leftist “elitism”, that if using deception and comparing the masses to animals isn’t elitism, than I am not sure what is. I should also add that Straussians who critiqued Drury’s work were so enlightened and “academic” in their replies to her that instead of taking on her argument(s), they nicknamed her “The Bitch From Calgary” (she was a professor at U of C); they also claimed that her work amounted to little more than “Strauss for Idiots”. Not exactly the shining examples of “academic dialogue” or defenders of academic freedom that Berger holds them out to be. What I am trying to point out here is that academic “censorship” or irrationalism doesn’t only extend from the political left to the right.

In any case, Strauss may have favoured a division of philosophy and politics as Berger argues, but he did in fact have his own political program. Protecting philosophy from the city does not in any way preclude its covert engagement with it. Indeed, Strauss may have eschewed political engagement but his followers certainly did not, and his ideas on democracy and politics have been extensively operationalized in American politics (as Drury and others have shown). Strauss’ views on philosophy and the city never precluded the implication of thinkers in politics. Rather, for him philosophers ought to concern themselves with matters of state, so long as they do so in a way that does not endanger the good, the true. But how could one do so? In Strauss’ own words, “it is impossible for a man to benefit his city except by deceiving it”. Herein lies the true hypocrisy of Strauss and his adherents: they claim to be holders of the true, and the good, yet for them the only way to see it done in the city is through manipulation of the masses, since they cannot be convinced; they must be duped. They thus make a curious twofold claim: they are holders and defenders of the truth, and only they can assure its proper protection and carrying out in the political realm.

There is certainly nothing liberal, nor democratic, in such a line of thought. Strauss and his followers are not friends of liberal democracy. Nor is such a line of thought “objective”, or ” noble” as Berger would have us believe. Rather, the Straussian idea of deception opens the door to a postmodernism conservatism which hides behind a veneer of objectivity. This line of thought uses “vigorous value-positing” (to take a term from Berger) in order to cast itself as the one, and only, objective, disinterested and “true” line of thought and casts other discourses as false, dangerous, and destructive. Moreover, it masks its political ambitions.

So far, we have seen that critics of the academic left are not politically detached, but fit into a more general discourse of right politics; that critics of the left are as elitist in their ideas and motivations as they accuse their opponents of being; that Straussians are as vicious in their efforts to silence critics as they accuse leftists of being; and that the so-called Straussian division of politics and philosophy does not preclude political involvement by intellectuals and the academy. I will now turn to two more claims that Berger makes: firstly, that “postmodernism” is a leftist idea, used only by left-leaning intellectuals; and secondly, that historicism is the source of said analyical/philosophical leanings.

Berger asserts that

At the time Strauss wrote and taught, there predominated a certain view of the social sciences that rejected the notion of factual truth in moral-political matters and, with it, the possibility of any earnest search for such truths.

Again we are only seeing part of the truth of Strauss’ thought. He indeed posited the existence of factual truth in moral-political matters, and hated moral relativism. But this view has to be reconciled with Strauss’ ideas on deception and philosophy in the city. There is an objective and moral truth, Strauss claims, but that does not mean that the vulgar are able to accept it. Enter the fundamental premise of the postmodern right’s project. They feel a profound sense of crisis brought about by modernity — which only they may remedy! How? Through the post-modern manipulation of information in politics, by manipulating the images of the cave: yes the truth exists, but we must couch it in lies and deceit in order to have it accepted. If we present a moral and political truth unfiltered, the city will not react to it kindly. After all, look what happened to Socrates! So the argument goes.

But one can immediately see the dangerous potential of such a view: if deception and covert rule of the wise is necessary for society, then to what lengths ought one be willing to go to in order to assure the protection of philosophy?

Now, I will grant that this sort of conservative, right-wing postmodernism does not view reality in the same manner as the postmodern left. Indeed one may object that Strauss was not a post-modern philosopher. This is simply not true. Strauss greatly admired the philosopher that Berger derides, Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter claimed, in a gross contradiction, that all truth is contingent on human context; yet he also forwarded a doctrine of good and evil, of morality, that transcended human agency and temporality. Strauss and his followers adhere strongly to the latter claim. Indeed, Strauss thought Nietzsche too intelligent to have missed such a contradiction; rather, he must have been couching a deeper view of humanity within his texts. Thus, the postmodern roots of Straussian intellectuals, and Strauss views on philosophy, morality, and politics — which are much darker than the usual image conjured up by Berger and others of an old man who simply loved classical texts.

The left simply takes as its premise that reality is constructed, and that truth exists in a plural and contingent form. Straussian-inspired critics of this perspective argue that this inspiration for studying reality leaves the door open for an “anything goes” or nihilistic attitude. That is a view that many of us on the left are willing to accept. But we will not accept such accusations from those who have arrived at the same conclusion albeit in a different manner. The right has its own form of postmodernism — currently, the narrative finds its form in the never-ending “crisis of the liberal arts”. Well, this writer is one academic who would rather see students taught that virtue and morality can exist in politics without deception and manipulation!

As far as “historicism” goes, I find it rather uncharitable that Berger continues to smear an entire academic discipline, its practitioners, and their method because they do not conform to his Straussian idea of truth-seeking. I will remind him that the Greeks had their historians, just as they had their philosophers; Thucydides in particular was interested in recording a transcendent history, and writing accounts of the past which would be true and transcendent of time itself. There is nothing inherent in history, or historicism, which denies the existence of transcendent truth. On the contrary, it is one of the premises of history as a discipline: that the past can be uncovered, and recorded, based on various accounts of it.

To conclude I will return to my main argument. We ought to be skeptical of those who speak of a “liberal arts crisis”, and we ought to be suspicious of those who claim that the academy is crumbling to the ground before our eyes because of a certain group of people (now it is the postmodern left!). We ought also to be suspicious of those who claim to be the sole holders of truth and civilization — especially when they believe that deception and covert rule of the wise are the only ways to organize society. The postmodern left has no deficiency of logic or thought as the right likes to claim. Rather, the latter has managed to solidify a discourse of “crisis of liberal arts education”; I assert that it is a manufactured one, created by those who refuse to admit their political leanings and their own value-imbibed biases.