Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Noble lies and the vulgar masses

Speaking of the Straussian attitude toward the masses, I found this interview with Strauss scholar Shadia Drury very helpful:

[According to Strauss there exist] three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the "higher" pleasures, which amount to consorting with their "puppies" or young initiates.

The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society – that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment's notice.

The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.

Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato's real solution – Strauss pointed to the "nocturnal council" in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.

The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss's The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon makes that clear to us.

For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire – wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.

Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.

This is made clear in Strauss's exchange with Kojève (reprinted in Strauss's On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt's The Concept of the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and "creature comforts." Life can be politicised once more, and man's humanity can be restored.

This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.

I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.

You can see why this kind of a vision would appear to nerdy intellectual sorts: you can almost here them laughing, "Mwahhah-HA-Ha!" from their library carrel. What's frightening is that people who believe this sort of scary shit would be allowed to dictate policy.


Sam said...

If this were really Strauss's doctrine, why would the neo-cons make democratization so central to their rhetoric? After all, repoliticizing conflict can be done just as well, and much more manageably, by setting up friendly dictators, as the US did throughout the COld War. Indeed, in turning from the dictatorship to the democracy model, the so-called neo-cons would seem to be turning away from the gullible gentleman model, not towards it.

Anonymous said...

Because rhetoric is just rhetoric. The neo-cons understand the difference between rhetoric and truth.

That said, the Straussian doctrine has a fatal flaw; by seeking power, the "wise" are shown to be foolish indeed.

No-one is as foolish as a self-proclaimed wise man.

Anonymous said...

Seems as if the fact that the Straussians are thought to be running the world speaks against the idea that their self-proclaimed wisdom is actually stupidity.