Leo Strauss and Neo-Conservatism

Leo Strauss and Neo-conservatism

A strain of contemporary political thought known as neo-conservatism has turned to the philosophy of Leo Strauss for its main rationale. Strauss, a refugee from Germany, mistrusted liberal democracies. He blamed the democratic Weimar Republic in Germany for the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the Jews and other minorities that followed. He also attributed the devastation of Jews and other minorities to Stalin’s application of Marx’s allegedly liberal socialism in the Soviet Union. Many in neo-conservative circles in government and academia have claimed inspiration from Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago.

According to Strauss, the great minds—perhaps as few as one great thinker in each generation—become the teachers for the rest of the population. The great thinkers take society from a pre-political to a political stage. (For a general outline of these ideas, see Strauss’ book, Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, University of Chicago Press, 1968.)

Strauss understood liberal education in the ancient world as the domain of a few. In a well-ordered political society the few great or wise minds teach the next generation of political leaders. Leadership in this arrangement becomes the domain of an elite group of liberally educated individuals. The leaders are selected by the previous generation of leaders, an arrangement that aims to protect the quality of the leadership line.

A liberal education, according to Strauss, leads to the conclusion that God does not exist. A few educated leaders share this “esoteric” teaching among themselves. While religious belief is false, according to the esoteric teaching, such belief is necessary for the mass of people. The few instruct the masses that God exists through “exoteric” writings aimed at the populace at large. The majority of the population must believe in God’s existence if the society is to remain stable.

The atheism of the great thinkers is carefully concealed in the exoteric teachings: the safety of the great thinkers—along with the stability of society itself—rests on this type of carefully guarded secret. Plato’s “noble lie” that society is best ruled by the wise few is a necessary fiction that the masses must accept if society is to remain stable.

While Strauss favored the ancients who advocated rule by the few, he attacked what he called “modernism.” The moderns who adopted a materialist worldview, he suggested, collapsed into relativism. While Strauss does not accept the full-fledged dualism of Descartes, he does retain part of the dualism of Plato. Plato held that only some people–indeed, comparatively few–are capable of knowing a higher reality. This higher knowledge entitles the few to govern the many.

The followers of Leo Strauss were influenced by three developments in modern thought that reinforced Strauss’ elitism—the positivism of Auguste Comte, the “overman” of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer.

August Comte, the father of sociology, held that humans evolve socially from a primitive religious stage (the child stage of human development) to a metaphysical stage (the adolescent stage) to a scientific stage (the adult stage). In the religious stage, humans hold that the world is personal, the product of a person who creates the world. The metaphysical stage moves beyond the claim that a personal God created the world and favors the view that the world is governed by universal laws. The scientific stage is the stage of positive knowledge. In this stage, a search for universal laws gives way to a search for local laws. The world is not viewed as personal but as impersonal. Human welfare and relief of suffering is not nature’s goal in Comte’s philosophy, which is known as positivism. Humans make moral progress by pursuing material progress.

Friedrich Nietzsche declared that, as a cultural fact in European society, “God is dead.” Fear or love of God, he maintained, no longer motivates people’s morality. Nietzsche proposed a new morality to replace the old morality of religion. Individuals could face the prospect of their own nothingness, the absurdity of their existence if God does not exist. They could face the abyss of meaningless, according to Nietzsche, and create their own meaning—their own morality.

In his early writings, Nietzsche maintained that everyone was capable of the courage to create their own morality. In some later writings published after his death, however, Nietzsche held that a courageous few had to show the rest of the population the way. This shift provided a rationale for a small group or party to lead the way to a new morality. The leaders of the political party known as Nazism (the National Socialist Party) viewed themselves as these courageous few who would show the rest the way to a new morality for a new world.

The third strand of thought behind neo-conservativism was social Darwinism, a philosophy formulated and promoted by Herbert Spencer. Spencer applied to human society the principle that Darwin had applied to plants and animals. Just as plants and animals evolved, so too humans evolved according to the law of survival of the fittest. (Darwin used the expression “survival of the fit” through several editions of the origin of species, but in a later edition changed it to “survival of the fittest.”)

Humans evolve socially, according to Spencer, by a law of survival of the economically fittest. Those capable of economic survival are entitled to survive; this incapable of economic survival are not entitled to survive.

Andrew Carnegie funded a speaking tour for Herbert Spencer in the U.S. In introducing Spencer, Carnegie described the “gospel of Spencer” as a doctrine that could replace a waning Christianity.

The elitism of Comte, the later Nietzsche, and Spencer is echoed in the elitism of the political and economic movement that claims to take its inspiration from Strauss. Elements of each of these thinkers are apparent in neo-conservatism: moral progress through material progress as Comte proposed, a courageous few to instruct the many in Nietzsche, and a wise few to counsel and demonstrate to the many how to survive as Spencer contended.

A thoughtful discussion of Strauss’ philosophy may be found at: http://www.jeetheer.com/politics/strauss.htm

You may also find the double set of answers that Strauss provides to the Six Questions on my website helpful. (Search “Bill Soderberg’s Home Page,” then select “Six Questions.”)

STRENGTHS: Neo-conservatism strives to restore social stability in a world of atrocities associated with Marxist socialism and the failure of the democracy in Germany to prevent the rise of Hitler.

WEAKNESSES: Among Strauss’ critics, Hannah Arendt warned Leo Strauss that his ideas would pave the way to the very kinds of political and social systems he had set out to reject. The neo-conservative philosophy is viewed by many as a prelude to fascism— private control of the means of government.