I’ve just finished reading C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook’s excellent book on neoconservatism. It was of particular interest to me because, like Thompson, I’ve long had personal connections with certain elements of neoconservatism, through my partial involvement with the Claremont Institute and my attendance of Hillsdale College. Now, I’m not well enough versed in Leo Strauss to comment too deeply on Thompson and Brook’s explanation of Strauss’ ideas—I’ve read little Strauss—and there’s a lot of debate even among Strauss’ students. But I’ve read a lot of works by, and had many conversations with, these students, and I think Thompson and Brook are right in their diagnosis, particularly when it comes to the “East Coast Straussians” who are the book’s primary focus.
What’s good about the Straussians is their close and careful attention to the great works of philosophy—reading these works with the idea that they contain great and important truths, not merely historical influences. This is an inspiring thing, and it makes and encounter with Strauss’ students very powerful. I’ve learned a lot about philosophy from reading these works, and it would be a shame if hasty readers took Thompson and Brook’s book as an excuse to avoid careful and serious reading of these great works.
Nevertheless, the Straussian interpretations are at times unconvincing and even idiosyncratic. Take their bizarre notion that Plato’s Republic is a satire, rather than a defense, of totalitarian government.* There’s really no evidence to support such an interpretation, and Thompson and Brook rightly point out that taking such a view requires one not only to disregard much about the text itself, but very important parts of the historical context. Somehow Aristotle didn’t get the joke. Somehow, neither did Dionysus of Syracuse. And the fact that Plato sticks to his basic message in other works—and that it has fascinating parallels in his epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics—are disregarded. I actually took a class on Plato at Hillsdale, where we read Strauss, among others—but I supplemented this with Popper’s Open Society And Its Enemies, which was not on the curriculum. When I asked in class about this book, the professor suggested that I should just not bother reading Popper. (You bet your ass I finished reading it after that!)
It’s also fascinating the way Straussian neoconservatives reject the Enlightenment legacy. This is not a consistent feature of all of Strauss’ followers. Jaffa, for example, is an emphatic (and, I believe, sincere) defender of the Enlightenment legacy, and has engaged in sometimes very heated debates with other Straussians to defend Enlightenment principles. He very much believes in equality, the Declaration of Independence, and (to a sadly inconsistent degree) religious liberty. But others are quite outspoken in their hostility to the legacy of Bacon, Newton, Locke, and Jefferson. I’ll never forget at Hillsdale, taking a political theory class with a Straussian (who was himself a student of Harvey Mansfield) whose class was an unrelenting denunciation of science and reason. It was when we read Bacon’s New Atlantis, and were taught that this was basically the fountainhead of evil in the modern world, that I’d had enough. I spent the next couple of days writing a 60 page paper defending reason and science. The professor had said that science was making us forget the “signposts by which we know what it means to be human.” I pointed out that among such “signposts” are child bed fever and widespread illiteracy.
The Straussian fondness for classical philosophy and culture is very attractive—until one encounters them absurdly emulating ancient political institutions precisely because the ancients lacked a concept of individual rights. I remember, during my Lincoln Fellowship, another Straussian scholar speaking glowingly of Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire. It wasn’t just that he thought the novel first-rate—which it certainly is—but that it so effectively depicted the psyche of a man without a city: without a city, one is nothing. We can only live and move and have our character in the political collective.
I’d like to hear Thompson—who’s writing for Cato Unbound this week—elaborate a bit on Jaffa’s relationship to the neoconservatism that he describes in his book. Jaffa does not reject the pro-freedom conservatism of Barry Goldwater; Jaffa wrote Goldwater’s famous “extremism in the defense of liberty” speech. Nor does he reject the Declaration of Independence, or advocate the intense collectivism advocated by the Progressives whom he and his followers denounce. In some ways, Jaffa’s defense of American institutions has made him an intense critic of neoconservatism. (And to their credit, the Claremont Review of Books positively reviewed the book.) Yet at the same time, he and his followers have advocated many of the anti-individualistic elements of neoconservatism that Thompson and Brook describe. It’s curious to me whether Thompson and Brook regard Jaffa’s interpretations of Strauss as accurate, or whether they regard him primarily as a critic and rebel against his teacher.
In any case, Neoconservatism is an excellent book—readable, powerful, precise, accurate, and convincing. I hope that it performs a dual rule: serving as a vaccination against certain dangerous intellectual influences, while preserving what is good about the tradition of philosophy and the serious study of ideas.
*-Incidentally, I’m not entirely persuaded by Thompson and Brook’s explanation of Strauss’ idiosyncratic approach to Plato. They argue that Strauss concocted his version of Plato as an exoteric teaching, to mask his actual purpose of realizing, as much as possible, Plato’s totalitarianism: deny that’s what they’re doing in order to minimize opposition. I have a hard time believing that Strauss adopted such an approach intentionally, simply because the “satire” theory of Plato is so outlandish that it cannot hope to succeed as a mere rhetorical device. Again, as a person who has read little of Strauss, I’d be interested in knowing more about why they believe this was simply a device and not, say, a failed but sincere attempt at a novel reading of Plato.