Robert Alter, who at least some people think of as a neocon (he publishes in Commentary and was once president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, the non-trendy alternative to the Modern Language Association), reviews Steven Smith’s book on Leo Strauss for the NYT. (Cliff Orwin reviewed it for Commentary.)
The virtue of Alter’s review is his insistence on Strauss’ rejection of "the very idea of political certitude that has been embraced by certain neoconservatives" and his "strenuous" resistance of "the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence." He’s right, I think: the human condition, for Strauss, is fraught with tensions that we can’t resolve.
But I’m not sure I would go as far as this:
Liberal democracy lies at the core of Strauss’s political views, and its basis is the concept of skepticism. Since there are no certainties in the realm of politics, perhaps not in any realm, politics must be the arena for negotiation between different perspectives, with cautious moderation likely to be the best policy.
In Alter’s hands, skepticism seems to become a kind of absolute, which I don’t think it is for Strauss, who is made here to sound a little like a certain kind of contemporary legal theorist (or a high school student who thinks that because the truth is unknowable, we have to be tolerant, which, as any serious reader of Nietzsche knows, doesn’t follow at all). Strauss certainly takes seriously claims made on behalf of natural right, and I don’t think that liberal democracy could survive if those claims were altogether discounted in the name of skepticism.
I’d insist on the primacy of certain commonsensical moral truths for Strauss, who, as Orwin noted, had no trouble calling evil by its name. If simple skepticism is the necessary ground of liberalism or liberal democracy, Strauss is no liberal. He is surely a friend of liberal democracy, recognizing that, as practiced in the United States, it makes claims about the truth and hence welcomes those who take those claims seriously, generously tolerating them even if they are not in complete agreement with "the American way." But Americans also have the resources, cultural and intellectual, to recognize evil when they see it. While Strauss would never have insisted--as GWB seems to have, on at least a couple of occasions--that evil could be eradicated, he would certainly have insisted that it has to be resisted. He would, of course, have left the particular means of resistance to the prudential judgment of statesmen, who wouldn’t have had to read Plato or Strauss to know what to do.
Hat tip: Powerline’s Scott Johnson, who has other bones to pick with Alter.
Update: Andrew Sullivan has his own view: Sullivan’s Strauss is a skeptic, though we’ll have to wait for his book to learn precisely what he means by this. I was about to write something snide, but I’ll simply shut up. If you want to read an elaboration of my own views, they can be found in this book. I’m also looking forward to this book, as well as this one.
Update #2: Here’s still more from Sullivan, though it consists largely in an email from someone who studied with Straussians, admired Strauss, but did not "[become] part of the (very real!) cult following." The emailer distinguishes between Straussian "gentlemen" (Joseph Cropsey) and "Nietzscheans" (Allan Bloom). Both groups, it is claimed, are essentially skeptical, a claim of which I’m skeptical. One can be skeptical of anyone’s current claims to possess or embody the truth without being skeptical of the claim that there is a truth. Stated another way, you can claim that we all live in a cave without denying that there’s sunlight somewhere. Sullivan comes close, it seems to me, to affirming the more thorough-going denial. Here’s his self-consciously paradoxical claim:
My [forthcoming] book is really an attempt to accept Strauss’s skepticism, while retaining much more faith in ordinary people’s sense and judgment, and far more faith in the constitutional order set up by the deeply skeptical American founders. And this is the struggle for the soul of conservatism now under way: between cynicism and trust, between lies and moderation, between executive hubris and constitutionalism.
In other words, he seems to want to use Strauss alleged skepticism to drain ordinary people’s "sense and judgment" of any profound moral and religious content in the name of a limited government that rests on nothing more than faith in profound skepticism. Sounds like a closeted Nietzschean Straussian to me. For my response to an earlier version of Sullivan’s position, go here.