Strauss and National Greatness

Brad Thompson has written a very serious book, which he has nicely distilled for us in his contribution to this conversation. Whereas most critical treatments of neoconservatism and Leo Strauss display outright ignorance of their subjects or, at best, a superficial understanding of them, Thompson has read and thought about both quite deeply. Strauss is an important and difficult thinker, and Thompson is right that he exercised a significant influence on Irving Kristol, and through him the rest of the neoconservative movement. While Thompson’s account of this influence is seriously flawed in my view, it still contributes vitally to the ongoing debate about the topic. And on two issues, in particular, the contribution is especially welcome.

To begin with, Thompson deserves praise for his trenchant critique of national greatness conservatism, the neocon penchant for proposing big public projects—primarily, but not exclusively, that biggest public project of all: war. Unlike most critics of neoconservatism, Thompson recognizes that neocons like William Kristol defend a bellicose foreign policy not primarily for strategic reasons but because they think war is good for America domestically, as a goad to heroic acts of sacrifice on the part of citizens. Neocons want to win the culture war at home by fighting real wars abroad. The target doesn’t really matter. (Has Kristol ever opposed any war or potential war?) What matters is that we have a target—an enemy to call forth moral virtue. This is a profoundly foolish and morally suspect way to fashion a foreign policy, and Thompson is quite right to highlight and denounce it.

Then there is Thompson’s critique of the neocon attempt to place itself at the core of the American political tradition and relegate libertarianism and other forms of laissez-faire capitalism (along with a more realist/isolationist outlook on foreign policy) to the periphery. I’m not an ideologically committed libertarian myself, nor am I attracted to the quasi-libertarian ideas of such authors as Ayn Rand. But it’s foolish and insulting to deny the legitimacy of these traditions within American political history. Far from running against the American grain, there is a strong case to be made that they are the grain—and certainly as distinctively American as the muscular statism of Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two neocon heroes. (I would also add that the conservative movement, including its libertarian Tea Party faction, is not above doing precisely the same thing to liberals that neocons do to libertarians—that is, excommunicating them from the tradition of “American exceptionalism.” Just listen to the campaign speeches of Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.)

So much for what’s best in Thompson’s critique. Its problems, in my opinion, are more worthy of sustained attention. Some of these problems have to do with Thompson’s portrayal of Strauss, and others with his account of neoconseravtivsm, its history, and its defining assumptions.

First, Strauss. The simplest way to describe his political outlook is to say that he was an Aristotelian. He believed that human beings are political animals in that their outlook and orientation toward the world are fundamentally shaped by the opinions that prevail in the political community in which they are born and live—and that acquiring both practical and theoretical wisdom requires a critical examination of and an ascent from these reigning opinions. Many of these opinions will be left behind in the process, but there is no non-political shortcut to wisdom, no pathway out of foolishness that does not begin from and repeatedly return to political opinions as a sort of touchstone.

Another way of making the point is to say that, as an Aristotelian, Strauss believed that political communities are wholes composed of parts (individuals), and that the whole precedes the parts in the sense that it determines their character. This holds for all of the community’s parts except for one: the part that rules the whole and sets the moral tone for the whole. If the ruling part rules virtuously and holds out virtuous actions for public praise, for example, the whole will tend toward virtue.

One can certainly dispute this series of assumptions about political life. But there is no denying that they have been affirmed by many thinkers and statesmen in the two and a half millennia since Aristotle suggested them. It was the early modern liberals (including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) who first rejected them and proposed a different, more pluralistic model of political life. I have tried to defend one version of that liberal model in my own work. I take it that Thompson favors a slightly different version in his. But regardless, the Aristotelian outlook that shapes neocon thinking (by way of Strauss’s influence) is nowhere near are sinister or radical as Thompson would have us believe. It may well be wrong—unsuitable for understanding political life in modern, highly differentiated societies. But that doesn’t make it threatening. On the contrary, I’d say that its prevalence in our history and persistence in our own time points to its plausibility as a theory. It makes considerable sense of a wide range of political, and human, experiences. I think a liberal pluralistic account does an even better job of it, but that’s a matter for debate, not polemical exaggeration.

Beyond theoretical disagreements, I think that Thompson’s account of neoconservatism is indisputably ahistorical in several respects. For one thing, while national greatness conservatism is every bit as pernicious as Thompson would have us believe, it was developed by William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and David Brooks in the mid-1990s and simply had no place in the thought of Irving Kristol (or that of neoconservatism’s other founding father, Norman Podhoretz, who became fixated on internal and external enemies of the United States for reasons very much his own). Irving Kristol and the other first-generation neocons were run-of-the-mill Cold War liberals who rejected the post-Vietnam liberal critique of anti-communism. That’s why one of Kristol’s first moves after the fall of the Iron Curtain was to found The National Interest, a realist foreign policy journal, one in which the uniformly belligerent essays regularly published in his son’s magazine The Weekly Standard—essays in defense of war against China, Iraq, Iran, and numerous other countries—would have been thoroughly out of place.

But even more ahistorical is the following sentence from Thompson’s essay: Neocons “are repulsed by the moral ethos associated with liberal-capitalism, and they praise the nobility of the ‘barbarian’ virtues such as discipline, courage, daring, endurance, loyalty, renunciation, obedience, and sacrifice.” Does Thompson really mean to say that Irving Kristol—whose column in the Wall Street Journal in the late 1970s helped to jump-start the Reagan Revolution—despised capitalism? It’s true that Kristol also authored a book titled Two Cheers for Capitalism, which displayed some ambivalence about the moral consequences of free markets (is such ambivalence impermissible?). But surely that’s balanced out by fellow neocon Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which could well have been subtitled Why Three Cheers for Capitalism Will Never Be Enough.

As for discipline, courage, endurance, loyalty, renunciation, obedience, and sacrifice—does Thompson really mean to describe them as “barbarian” virtues? Maybe that’s how they appear to a Nietzschean capitalist like Ayn Rand, but to the rest of us—meaning: close to the entirety to the Western tradition of moral reflection—they are the better part of virtue simply.

Finally, a word about “fascism.” I’m glad that Thompson concedes that neocons aren’t advocates of fascism. But then why invoke it? The Bismarckian social-insurance state isn’t fascist, and neither is the American (or, for that matter, the Canadian or French or Swedish) welfare state. Such states may be ill-advised, even destructive of many worthwhile human goods. I don’t agree, but the claim has been made by serious people. If Thompson wants to join their company, he’ll have to move beyond name-calling and ominous insinuations.

I could say more, especially about neoconservatism’s troubling views of executive power, which do derive from Strauss’s thought—but which also, in my view, follow naturally from the problematic character of political life itself. But I’ll save that for the next stage of the conversation.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.