January 26, 2005

Leo Strauss in Australia

Leo Strauss does not have a big profile in Australia. He makes an appearance in this Shadia B. Drury text and this text by Norman Madarasz over at the Evatt Foundation. Madarasz links to this text in Le Monde and this Canadian Text published at CounterPunch.

It is a critical reception of Strauss by those social democrats opposed to the Washington neo-cons and their Project for a New American Century. What this political reception of a conservative Strauss misses is the political philosophy; Strauss' philosophical critique of modernity, the concern with nihilism, his conception of a sense of crisis and the relevance of this critique to liberal Australia.

Gone missing from this reception are Strauss's critiques of historicism, relativism, scientism, and nihilism even though many of the modernist social democrats are critical of this kind of thinking.(They call it po mo). This failure to engage is not suprising since Australian culture is notable for the lack of a philosophical engagement with important public issues of social and political in any prominent or sustained way. The political reception of Strauss involves his rejection.

What the rejection does not come to grips with is this scenario. Hegel was the great mediator of the classical world and modernity. The failure of the Hegelian attempt at mediation demonstrates the inability of both Enlightenment reason and revealed religion to submit to any higher authority and establishes the autonomy of their respective epistemological and moral claims. Reason and revelation, in other words, could not be assimilated to each other, so the Enlightenment's claim to have philosophically refuted the 'truth' of revealed religion was, consequently, false. The implication is that Enlightenment is dogmatically grounded on a faith in instrumental reason.

The significance of Strauss is that saw, understood and tenaciously held on to this insight. By elaborating it into a cogent critique of modernity's historicism and relativism Strauss, became a formidable philosophical critics of modernity. Behind Strauss's arguments about the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary philosophy, his radical doubt about modern rationalism, and his recognition of modernity's spiritual and moral crisis,is a formidable edifice of conservative thought which is still very much alive. It has yet to be appropriated by Australian consevatives.

However, things are changing for the better in the Australian reception of Strauss. Martin Sharpe, a lecturer at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy's Summer School gave a paper on Strauss and Washington politics to the Melbourne School's forum. In the talk Martin says:

"...in a Straussian view...'economic rationalism' is exactly the type of 'nihilistic' or 'vulgar way of organising our shared political life that is a symptom of our sorry state. There is nothing 'classical', in a Straussian view, about 'classical economics'. It is all modern. Plato didn't think we were 'rational choosers', motivated by 'utility', which ultimately boils down to what we think we can get pleasure out of. And there's something to this. None of us would want to hear from our partner that we are 'an efficient utility maximising agent. Equally, as a Straussian might rejoin, you just won't find Aristotle saying that what politics should really be about is maximising G.D.P. Tony Blair's idea of 'responsible financial management' would probably turn his stomach. And again, lots of us might agree with him. A 'decreasing trade gap' and an 'improved international credit rating' are hardly the most inspiring public ideals, whatever Mr Costello might say about 'good sets of figures'".

Martin recognizes that Strauss is a critical of the way of life of liberal modernity, and he finds this Straussian line of thinking (returning to the Greeks to critique modernity) eminently sane and even deeply humane. What then?

Martin's interest in the talk is the connection between the noble lie (Tony Blair's 'weapons of mass deception') around the justification for invading Iraq and Strauss’ defence of the political ideas of classical Athens. The real concern lies with the link between Strauss'understanding of classical political philosophy and the neo-con style of policy-making that sees U.S. marines occupying Iraq.

The bridge is constructed from three of Strauss's ideas:

*an irresolvable conflict between the public life of a city or nation, and the pursuits of philosophers and scientists;

*philosophy and science are the highest ways of life. Strauss interprets Plato as advising us that the best achievable political system will be one not led directly by philosophers, but by 'gentlemen' of noble background and education (noble statesmen) who have philosophers helping them to form policy;

*The world is divided into different types of people. A the top are philosophersas they can 'stand the most reality'. One step lower are the 'gentlemen as they are the least swayable by private interests, because they are guided by the pursuit of public honour and religion. The third type is all the rest of us---'the many'- who need a religion to keep our distasteful passions in check.

These ideas provide a bridge to the Washington neo-con world and its effect of undermining modern liberal democracy.

The philosophical critique of Australian modernity has been forgotten.

Martin has also helped to organize The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy Summer School course on Leo Strauss. This explores Strauss'ideas in more detailand gives us a more sophiticated reading of Strauss. The Summer Course covers Stauss' views that Nazism was an outgrowth of modern ideas and an unpolitical faith in technology; his return to the classical Greeks, his reading of political philosophers,and his response to the crisis of modernity.

Alas none of the lectures are online.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 26, 2005 09:54 AM | TrackBack


Your views on Strauss are interesting. I actually had a graduate political theory course taught by a Straussian long ago. The critique of modernity, and multi-culturalism is insightful, but the "positive" theory seems wholly inadequate. And the so called "failure" of Hegelianism to reconcile faith and reason is not so clear to me. Hegel embraced quite a bit of the enlightenment project, while also appreciating its short comings. But Straus (or Plato's) view that the philosopher must somehow conceal "the truth" because the masses cannot be trusted, seems quite over the top. The fact that so many of the neocons take this view literally explains their public deception and secrecy. Can't we find a better source for the critique of the enlightenment, or neo-liberal capitalism, than Leo Struass?

Posted by: alain on January 27, 2005 02:01 AM

the Hegel bit refers to dialectics ending up with the identity of thought and reality in absolute knowledge of the totality. No one bought that narrative at all.Hence the collapse of the system and the subsequent reaction against systems.

Your remarks that Strauss' (or Plato's) view that the philosopher must somehow conceal "the truth" because the masses cannot be trusted, seems quite over the top does follow from Strauss' thesis about the conflict between philosophy (Socrates) and the city. But it is deeply anti-democratic. Then again Strauss reckons only the few should rule the many.

It is a very accurate account of how Bush and Howard govern.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 27, 2005 05:22 PM


Thanks for the clarification. I guess I still wonder why you find Strauss so interesting in terms of his critique of modernity. Is it because his philosophy has been so influential on current conservative political policy? Or do you see him pointing out things that other critics of the enlightenment (MacIntyre, Foucault, Heidegger to name a few)seem to miss?

Posted by: Alain on January 28, 2005 04:49 AM


try this or this. I guess Strauss and his cabal have latched onto important insights about modernity that are invisible his more intemperate critics.

One way of answering your question is to ask: why do American conservatives find him so appealing? Try this and this for why they continue to drink at Strauss' well.

The second reference says:

"The great significance of Strauss for mainstream conservatives is that his is the deepest philosophical analysis of what is wrong with liberalism. Technocratic, legalistic, and empirical criticism of liberalism is all very well, but it is not enough. He believes that contemporary liberalism is the logical outcome of the philosophical principles of modernity, taken to their extremes. In some sense, modernity itself is the problem. Strauss believed that liberalism, as practiced in the advanced nations of the West in the 20th century, contains within it an intrinsic tendency towards relativism, which leads to nihilism."

I guess that says it.

As you know I read Strauss as a profound critic of the adornments and core of modernity. It is Strauss' argument that there is a fatal flaw concealed in the rationalistic optimism of the Enlightenment project, and its ramifications have been made manifest by the twin scourges of National Socialism and Leninism that appeals.

Diagnosis of the malady was the thrust of work - diagnosis and intimations concerning appropriate therapy.I find that approach to modernity appealing as well.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 28, 2005 11:23 AM


As always, very insightful (But the links you direct me to do not work). I guess I may be naive to think you can separate the critique of liberalism as a political system from the extremely dark vision of modernity that underpins the neocon (and perhaps Strauss') world view. I remember having the same feeling reading Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind." He has lots of great insight and yet his disdain for "the masses" and the radicalism of the 60's just turned me off. I even enjoyed Bloom's critical essay published at the end of his translation of Plato's republic. I think he picks out lots of the subtlety missed by more "conventional" interpretations. But in the end, I just do not see the necessity for an inherently anti-democratic vision that relies on a secret elite and coded hand shakes. It is this sort of attitude that has Richard Perle, the so called "prince of darkness" as he was known in his Reagan days, accuse the investigative journalist Sy Hersh of being the closest thing journalism has to a terrorist.

Posted by: Alain on January 29, 2005 12:42 AM


Sorry about the links not working. The html was stripped out as one way to counter the wave upon wave of the comment spammers. I'd forgotten that I turned it the html function offf. It made no difference anyway.

I cannot recall all of them now. I will try to recover them for you. But here is a link to a chapter in Shadia B. Drury's book on Strauss
that you'd probably agree with. The chapter is about the American Applications of Straussian Philosophy, which should be of interest to you.

The links have been restored.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 3, 2005 08:19 PM

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