February 08, 2005

Shadia Drury, Leo Strauss, populism

After dealing with Allan Bloom in the 'American Applications of Straussian Philosophy,' chapter of her book, Leo Strauss and the American Right Shadia Drury turns to Willmore Kendall. He provides the pragmatic, practical and poltical application of Straussian ideas. Drury says:

"The third reaction acknowledges the truth of Bloom's vision, but refuses to despair. Instead, it takes a pragmatic approach and sets out to make the most of a bad situation. Willmoore Kendall is the best example of this approach, although it can be argued that Joseph Cropsey, Martin Diamond, and Thomas Pangle provide variations on this theme. This pragmatic approach lays the foundations of neoconservatism discussed in the next chapter."

This response combines the position of Jaffa and Bloom. Drury explains this in the following way:
"It accepts Jaffa's claim that America's foundations have an ancient lineage and are therefore not altogether modern, as well as Bloom's assertion that America's troubles have their source in her liberal modernity. But in this view, what is critical is the recognition that America's troubles are not totally incurable. They can best be addressed by curbing the excesses of her modernity. The key to nursing America back to health is to undermine her liberal modernity and bring to the fore vestiges of ancient wisdom that are deeply hidden and long forgotten."

This looks to be more promising as populism is deemed to be the cure for America's liberal malaise. This is certainly the main response in Australia to the problems of neo-liberalism.

The argument is that:

"..the populist project is not a betrayal of America's roots or her heritage, and that antiliberal, anti-individualist, and antisecularist ideas have always been a part of America's heritage, even if they have never been part of her official documents. The conservative spirit may not have inspired many American leaders, and as a result, it has been politically overshadowed by the more flamboyant spirit of liberalism."

So what is the Kendall's Straussian strategy?

Drury argues that Kendall launches an assault on liberalism by employing the:

"...classic friend-enemy dichotomy. The enemies are "barbarians" or Communists who threaten America from without, and "heretics" or Communist sympathizers and liberals who undermine America from within. The internal enemy is by far the most dangerous. Kendall is convinced that the liberal enemy may have won many battles, but it has not won the war."

The key is to turn the people against liberalism and foster a new populism in the service of conservative principles. The elite must turn the people against liberal institutions. The idea is to drive a wedge between liberalism and democracy, and to use the popular will to defeat liberalism.

Is this not what has happened in Australia under John Howard? Or in America under George Bush? Do we not have the populist attack on the (left)liberal elite in the name of the sentiments of the people? Do we not have the religious right attacking liberal permissiveness for moral decay of civil society in the name of family of values? Do we not have the cultivation of conservative populism as a working class movement---Thomas Frank's blacklash populism?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 8, 2005 09:46 PM | TrackBack

Why exactly do you take Shadia Drury's word for what Strauss says? Why do you indulge in her guilt by association tactics? Strauss was not a neo-conservative and deserves to be treated on his own terms.

Last time I read Drury's second book on Strauss she would make wild allegations and provide the odd footnote reference, which, sadly for her, in no way supported her case.

Posted by: David McBryde on February 12, 2005 08:40 PM

the post refers to Kendall not Strauss. The post does outline Drury's account of Kendall--I do not have access to the book and it is unknown in Australia.

However, I have treated Kandall on his own terms by saying that his account of populism makes sense of the conservative strategy in Australia.

If you read the earlier posts on Drury and Strauss you will see that I am critical of Drury's responses to the work of the Straussian school.

I have never argues that Strauss is a neo-con:--that begins with Irving Kristol.

And I have basically accepted Strauss' account of the faultlines of modernity. My argument against Drury is that she does not indicate how liberalism will deal with these.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 13, 2005 07:07 AM

i wouldn't rely on secondary literature to get a grip on Strauss. he's a notoriously tough thinker to pin down to any final position, largely because he presented himself, like Derrida, in the guise of a scholar-commentator . . . . if anything, his thought pivots around "eternal" questions, reason vs revelation, ancients vs moderns, the relation of philosophy to the city . . . . whether he is for (1) plato (philosophy as man's highest end and the best way of life); (2) machiavelli/nietzsche (philosophy as will to power); (3) heidegger/revelation; (4) some eccentric brand of judaism; or (5) position 2 read into position 1 -- i imagine that very few people can say with certainty strauss' final position . . . . clearly strauss accepts much of the nietzschean/heideggerian critique of modernity, but then so does every other interesting thinker of the past 100 years . . . . granted, many of strauss' students got involved with conservative politics, but many others either did not or were on the left. and to the extent that Strauss was perhaps trying to execute a holding action while awaiting, like Heidegger, a new political dispensation, post-1789 notions of right and left don't really go to the heart of this thought . . . . I think the real story of American neo-conservativism is the APPROPRIATION of Strauss by people like Kristol, people who perhaps did not read him with sufficient attention . . . . Or rather, because Strauss' thought is so rich, political conservatives have been able to mine his thought --- but this shouldn't bar the possibility of people on the vaguely defined "left" from also mining his thought . . . . And none of this is to deny that his interpretations of past thinkers are disturbing -- in some cases (like Locke, like Xenophon), it does seem that Strauss does serious violence to the text; in others (like Machiavelli, like Plato) his approach may well be correct -- And last, Strauss had a strange charisma (the intoxicating-effect of his intellectual cunning), and charismatic men attract all kinds of followers, some first class, others power-hungry charlatans

Posted by: dominic on February 15, 2005 11:48 PM

I agree with most of what you have written above about Strauss, his position and critique of modernity. You say it far better than I could.

You also say:

I think the real story of American neo-conservativism is the APPROPRIATION of Strauss by people like Kristol, people who perhaps did not read him with sufficient attention . . . . Or rather, because Strauss' thought is so rich, political conservatives have been able to mine his thought."

I concur.That is the interesting bit especially when compared to the poverty of political conservatism in Australia.I would hazard a guess that few of these would have read Strauss.

You then add:

"...but this shouldn't bar the possibility of people on the vaguely defined "left" from also mining his thought."

I agree with that too.

I'm not relying on Drury to get a grip on Strauss. I' started reading 'Leo Strauss and the Political Right' to understand how modernist social democrats in Australia read these texts given the favourable reception to Drury at the Evatt Foundation

From what I can see the social democrat hostility to conservatism blinds them to Strauss' critque of modernity. So they don't take it seriously. They continually evade it.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 16, 2005 10:09 PM

Gary and Dominic

As a fellow traveler, I am curious on how you think the "vaguely defined left" could appropriate Strauss' criticism of modernity? His views do not seem all that different from Arendt, for example, and she is certainly more sympathetic to democracy. Does Straussian criticism uncover possibilites that someone like Arendt seems to miss?

Posted by: alain on February 18, 2005 02:28 AM

Arendt is far more sanguine about revolutionary politics than Strauss. She has a "heroic" view of history, whereby the highest possibilities of men and women are revealed when they engage in foundational political activity, either (1) founding a new republic or (2) realizing the "truth" of the earlier founding. She tries to steer a middle path b/w Heidegger & Rousseau, b/w Heidegger's tendency to portray heroic action as the work of the one great man and Rousseau's subordination of the individual to the collective. For Arendt, political action allows men and women to reveal themselves as individuals (as more than mere members of this family or creatures of this social group) even as they act to realize their common destiny . . . . Strauss is more prudent. He thinks that the risks of high-wire political action outweigh the potential gains. His "heroes" are the philosophers, who speak to one another from the mountain tops, across the ages, not political actors engaged with time and place . . . . Such differences aside, Strauss and Arendt share an interest in liberating practice from theory, politics from thought, in simply letting the political blossom anew; or, if it must, in letting the political wither and die under the transformed conditions of modernity. That is, both see thought as parastic on the political. The political is food for thought. Therefore, thought should quit the modern project of instructing the city, shaping the city, etc . . . . Nothing could be more contrary to this "left" reading of Strauss than the neo-conservative enterprise to "ennoble" America by fighting "evil" in Iraq. The enterprise is false because not true to the times in which we find ourselves. Only when fought b/w relative equals is war ennobling. And even if so fought, in the age of technology everything about war is so altered that perhaps even wwii was not, in the end, noble or ennobling. Rather, the "left" Strauss would sit back and allow new opinions about what is noble, what is good, what is beautiful to emerge from our world as it stands now, opinions which might then be interrogated by philosophy, not in the open, but behind closed doors, not to protect philosophy from the city, but to protect the city from philosophy

Posted by: Dominic on February 18, 2005 10:13 AM

to elaborate a bit further: and with new opinions about what is noble, what is good, what is beautiful, and so on, new types of men and women emerge, new ways of living emerge . . . . philosophers as philosophers will continue to believe, in their hearts, that philosophy is the best way of life, o/w they would not be philosophers, but they will take the new opinions seriously, try to uncover their truth, and so on

Posted by: Dominic on February 18, 2005 10:22 AM


I am very intrigued about your thoughts on a Left reading of Strauss. But I still am doubtful that he would be all that interested in our emerging new opinions about what is noble and good. Could our nihilistic, decadent age offer anything worth his time?

I also am very interested in your suggestion that Arendt still holds out the possibility of polical action and Strauss really does not. You say this makes Strauss more prudent, which may be the case (I like the suggestion that the city needs protection from philosophy). But this description strikes me as one of a more traditional conservative, working to maintain the status quo, and not of any "vaguely defined left" that I would recognize. Certainly, this view of Strauss does undermine the neoconservative interpretation, but it would seem to offer little in the way of informing praxis.

Posted by: Alain on February 18, 2005 02:27 PM

Alain -- I think you're probably right. A "left" reading of Strauss is a bit wishful when it comes to "informing praxis"

Posted by: Dominic on February 27, 2005 12:07 PM
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