Response to Brad Thompson

In writing a tough criticism of C. Bradley Thompson’s essay “Neoconservatism Unmasked,” I fully expected and welcomed a hard-hitting response. I certainly received such a response—and then some. Whether its tenor and content reflects more broadly on Thompson’s tendency to caricature opposing viewpoints—including not only my own, but his treatment of neoconservatives—is a matter I’ll leave for readers to judge.

I will not address his first part, on my “method,” except to note the utter curiousness of his accusation—that one sees in my approach evidence of the “neocon’s method of thinking,” and that mine is a “classic example” of neoconservative subterfuge. As I stated at the outset of my previous response, I am in rather profound disagreement with many of the positions of neoconservatism. I am not, and do not think anyone (other than C. Bradley Thompson) would mistake me for, a neoconservative. Yet I maintain that such disagreements should arise from an accurate assessment of their position, something I found wanting in Thompson’s treatment. The fact that I disagree with Thompson, or even (at points) offer some sympathetic words about some neoconservative arguments (without subscribing the philosophy as a whole), evidently makes me indistinguishable from neocons, even an exemplary case of their “method.” This is a worrisome and even wild conclusion that throws into doubt the ability to make important intellectual discriminations.

Let me rather respond to the substance of some of Thompson’s criticisms, in the hope of fostering productive and civil discussion.

First, I offered an overly brief synopsis of my own view not to make my view the subject of debate, but in order to establish for readers that my own views differed from those of both Thompson and the neoconservatives. In so doing, I wanted to establish the fact that I was writing not as a sympathizer with neoconservatism, but as someone with some rather severe disagreements. I sought to demonstrate that one can disagree with neoconservatism without engaging in the effort to caricature its position by defining it out of the American political context. While Thompson regards my effort to raise the question of the neoconservative claim to “Americanism” as beside the point, his multi-part response belies his claim that the question is irrelevant. His argument hinges substantially on his claim that neoconservatism is essentially a direct embrace of a certain interpretation of Strauss, in which leaders seek to deceive the masses and foster national spirit by means of encouraging war and attendant acts of self-sacrifice. He thus attributes to Strauss the goal of “national greatness,” and seeks to deny such a view can be seen to derive from the American tradition itself.

In concluding that neoconservatives were “the false prophets of Americanism,” Thompson aligns neoconservatism with European fascism. I believe this to be a false and irresponsible accusation, and in my response I offered some brief evidence from the American political tradition that suggests that neoconservatism’s support for “national greatness” is well within the orbit of American political thought, particularly the Hamiltonian ambitions expressed both in and beyond the Federalist. Thompson may believe me to be “cherry-picking” evidence to that effect, but I am prepared to offer a more extensive defense and explication of this position, though space constraints preclude such an undertaking. In briefly delineating the way that the neoconservative philosophy is consonant with the Hamiltonian tradition, I do not endorse that tradition. I merely think accuracy demands its recognition.

I also sought to suggest that my own position is an alternative to that of Thompson and the neoconservatives alike, one that can trace its lineage not to what Thompson calls “the American Enlightenment,” but rather the pre-Founding tradition that derives from the Puritan settlement and more deeply from the Christian (and especially Augustinian) tradition. My reason for doing so was not to make this position itself the subject of debate, but to offer additional (passing) evidence that there are multiple streams in the American tradition from which one can criticize other streams. Yet Thompson regards my passing summary as a “gotcha” moment, revealing my alleged propensity for witch-burning and fondness for the KKK. While there is a longstanding historiographic, philosophical and theological tradition that traces the close affiliation of Puritanism and democracy (e.g., Ralph Barton Perry and Perry Miller), my brief precis was meant to indicate a shorthand acknowledgment of Tocqueville’s analysis and commendation of American liberty. Tocqueville attributed the American spirit of “local liberty” in Vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter 2 of Democracy in America to the Puritan understanding of liberty which found its best and fullest manifestation in the New England townships, where he witnessed “the spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” to be admirably combined. Tocqueville admired not the oppressions of “Hooterville,” but local self-governance based on high degrees of civic participation and self-imposed law. My point was not necessarily to debate the merits of my own views (which I am happy to do, but I’d think in a different forum), but to point out that there are legitimate contesting traditions that can lay equal claim to full membership in the American narrative. I reject Thompson’s efforts to purify or “distill” the story of America to fit with his preferred narrative, defining his own view as “the proper view of Americanism” and anything outside that view as unworthy, and even unpatriotic.

He discloses that he regards his view as a kind of “distillation,” a process that extracts all impurities. Such a process can result in some fine alcohol (though, as a bourbon drinker, it needs to be noted that bourbon’s flavor comes from the barrel, after distillation)—but it makes for bad history. Take, for instance, Thompson’s claim to the Jeffersonian tradition. It seems to me that all three of the “traditions” I’ve mentioned—neoconservative liberalism, libertarianism, and my own preferred localism—can and do rightfully lay claim to parts of Jefferson as witness. After all, it is Strauss himself who begins Natural Right and History with an admiring account of the American belief in the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration, and a subsequent generation of American neoconservatives fully embrace this “natural rights” tradition. Libertarians admire Jefferson’s deep mistrust of central government and his suspicion toward “monkish superstition.” And I particularly admire those parts of Jefferson which express suspicion for what we might know as the servile and virtue-depleting tendencies of commercial capitalism, in favor of the widespread ownership of productive property and the self-sufficiency of “yeoman farmers.” While Thompson is dismissive of concerns about commercial capitalism—whether those of someone like Irving Kristol, or me—to invoke the spirit of Jefferson is implicitly to acknowledge that these concerns have a long and legitimate history in the American tradition. I would argue that to “distill” away any parts of Jefferson that are regarded as impurities does violence to the complexity of this tradition.

Thompson states that I have not fulfilled my duties to this forum by failing to address his criticisms of neoconservatism, but he fails to note that I spent some portion of my response pointing out that the main currents of contemporary Strauss-inspired neoconservatism have a complex and refracted relationship with Strauss’s own (complicated) attractions to ancient natural right. I would be more than happy to articulate at length my own best understanding of Strauss’s analysis of ancient and modern natural right, based upon many years reading and teaching Strauss’s texts. However, space and expectations of the readers’ limited patience preclude such an exercise. Let me make one point that is altogether missing in Thompson’s analysis: Strauss is neither simply a proponent of the ancient city nor the enemy of modern liberalism. Thompson engages in a simplistic and reductionist reading of Strauss, attributing to him a preference for the ancient city and seeking to transfer its features to the modern nation-state. This is a caricature about as accurate as attributing to me a pining for the KKK. Strauss understands “ancient natural right” to be a teaching about the limits of politics, especially the limits of ideology. Strauss’s admiration of the ancients is especially directed at the ancient philosophy, not especially the ancient city. A far suppler reading of the complex thought of Strauss is needed—beginning with his understanding of “the art of writing.” One point might be raised on that score: since Strauss writes about this kind of writing (predominantly present in non-liberal philosophy), and publishes his work openly for anyone to read, can it really be concluded that he sought to teach a select group of elite philosophers how to deceive the masses? This is patent nonsense.

As important as it is to “get Strauss right”—a worthy project—nevertheless it’s more important in light of Thompson’s argument to recognize that there is hardly a seamless continuity between the work of Strauss and those of his students, including various neocons. As I sought to point out in my initial response (a point Thompson ignores in his three-part response, during which he claims I ignored his critique of neoconservatism), the reception of Strauss by his American students tended to downplay his preference for ancient natural right in favor of a fervent embrace and defense of modern natural right—particularly the Enlightenment tradition that informed the Founders of the United States. I pointed to the strong endorsement of the Enlightenment tradition (and, in particular, the philosophy of Lockean modern natural right articulated in the Declaration) that can be found among numerous scholars and political actors who have been influenced by the Claremont school, and not only among them. If there is any Straussian neoconservative tradition that has had influence at the higher levels of government, it is this iteration of Straussianism especially. The reasons for this particular reception of Strauss are doubtless twofold: first, these students were Americans, and hence inclined to stress Strauss’s positive regard for liberal democracy as the best and only viable modern regime; and second, because in the midst of the Cold War, there was no doubt of the need to defend liberal democracy against its great ideological opponent. Thompson would benefit from reading a growing number of studies of Strauss or scholars influenced by Strauss who are encountering him outside of these contexts, in order to see the varying ways that Strauss can be received and interpreted. Mark Lilla has written an excellent two-part essay (here and here) on this subject that might encourage Thompson to approach this subject with more subtlety and nuance.

But let me turn in conclusion to the most important point of contention between us. I argued that there is a “universalizing and even imperialistic logic internal to Enlightenment philosophy itself.” Thompson responded that I hold that “truth and logic are imperialistic” and affiliates me with “radical feminists, multiculturalists, environmentalists, postmodernists, and Islamic totalitarians.” Apparently, when I’m not loafing in “Hooterville” or putting on sheets, I’m associating with every evil group and philosophy known to man. Again, Thompson evinces the tendency to paint with a very wide and inaccurate brush, and in the process, not only wildly misstates my own views and arguments, but proves incapable of considering what may be some legitimate arguments that have been made by some voices in these very groups that we are apparently immediately to dismiss—such as the defensibleness of the variety of culture, or the dangers that contemporary economic and scientific activity pose to nature and humanity. In some cases these groups—often deeply problematic on the whole—have pieces of what are deeply conservative arguments, arguments which adherence to a certain view of Enlightenment logic precludes acknowledging. And, what’s striking, this inability is shared fundamentally by both the libertarian Thompson and the neoconservatives.

When I spoke of a “logic” within Enlightenment philosophy that tends toward a kind of imperialism, I meant exactly the way that Enlightenment philosophy tends to be dismissive of cultural variety, tradition, religion, and the deeper preconditions for Enlightenment philosophy itself (even the extent to which it derives from a particular cultural and religious context). I was not criticizing “logic” per se, but nor was I associating “logic” with “truth,” as Thompson does. Thompson’s confusion on this score in fact perfectly demonstrates my point: in thinking that human life, culture, civilization, and politics can be reduced to “truth” based upon “logic,” one can see precisely the imperialistic tendency of Enlightenment philosophy. This was exactly the impulse against which Edmund Burke wrote in response to the French Revolution, where it was the effort to purify society on the basis of logical principles that led to the Terror. Burke was no less critical of the “logical” approach of the social contract tradition, which tended to dismiss a cautious concern about the future, as well as the legitimacy of tradition and culture. Instead, he called for a contract that included “the living, the dead, and those yet to be born.” And, in praising “the virtue of ignorance,” I was praising not ignorance, but that a deeper form of knowledge that arises from an awareness of our limitations and allows us to proceed in the world with a deeper understanding born of humility and a cognizance of our tendency to overestimate our powers to control circumstance, humanity, and nature.

Various neoconservatives have recognized that they had succumbed to the liberal Enlightenment impulse in the invasion of Iraq, and in particular the embrace of a single vision of legitimate political order (the liberal Enlightenment constitutional order) that was uncognizant of the many cultural preconditions that made such a constitutional order possible. It is important to stress that the mainstream of neoconservatives justified the invasion of Iraq for reasons having everything to do with their belief in advancing the universal legitimacy of the Enlightenment (and their understanding of the American) tradition, and nothing to do with Thompson’s supposition that neoconservatism was channeling Strauss’s preference for the ancient city. For instance, the neoconservative John Agresto, in a post-war book entitled Mugged by Reality, admits frankly a gap between the neoconservative (a.k.a., “neoliberal”) effort to advance and even impose an ideal of liberal democracy aimed at the protection of rights, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness (17-18), and the conservative awareness of the deeper cultural preconditions—even, at points, pre- and non-liberal preconditions—for such a society. At the book’s conclusion, Agresto writes that “our first limitation as liberators and occupiers was our failure to understand the nature and preconditions of democratic society and the difference between democracy and freedom, our second limitation was a bizarre inability to understand what human nature truly is like…. If there are neoconservatives who believe that in overthrowing tyrants we will call forth the better angels of our human nature, then those theorists need to listen to more old-fashioned conservatives who know something about the fallenness of our natures, conservatives who know the ease with which we war against each other when not held in check by moderating institutions, civic virtue, and mild rather than furious religious teachings” (181-2, 186-7). This is precisely the “virtue of ignorance” that is to be commended, a virtue that recognizes the limits of our logic in politics and points to a deeper truth and more profound knowledge about our human condition. It is a kind of “ignorance” that is helpful in drawing necessary and important distinctions—the kinds that Thompson is altogether too willing to ignore or elide in his self-certainty about his distilled version of the American tradition. It is the very opposite of the kind of ignorance that results from a distilled version of politics that is unmistakable as anything other than ideology.

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.