Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Alter on Smith on Strauss

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.

Discussions - 17 Comments

I agree that it makes no sense to call Strauss a liberal and that Smith’s book makes Strauss so user-friendly for academic liberals that it could have led Alter to his skeptical conclusions.
The upside--it makes Strauss very attractive and unthreatening to guys like Alter. The down--it prevents them from learning anything that they didn’t already know or think they knew.

Dr. K, even if GWB has "seems to have suggested...that evil could be eradicated," I take it you don’t think he really thinks so. Brother W just got a little carried away with his speechwriters’ freedom rhetoric, right? He’s not really an unfolding-of-God’s-kingdom-here-on-earth sort of Christian, right?

While liberal democracy is supported by Strauss, to say it is at the CORE of his political thought is wrong. How many pages of Strauss’ vast corpus even mention liberal democracy? Twenty? Thirty? Or how many times is it mentioned as opposed to "philosophy" or the "city," and so on?


I think Alter meant Strauss’ practical political judgments, not his political philosophy, but, still, I think you’re right that Alter overstates matters. Why the Times asked him to write the review, I’m not certain. Perhaps he in this circumstance is an ideologically neutral figure to help rescue Strauss from the evil pseudo-Straussian neocons.

About GWB: one time, it’s a slip. More than once, I’m less certain, though it’s clearly inconsistent with a number of themes he repeats even more frequently.

On the other points, I’m inclined to agree with Peter.

1. The phrase "liberal democracy," which echoes Spinoza, can, of course, be traced to Strauss. But that abstraction as an object of devotion is more Straussian than Strauss. The inevitable victory of liberal democracy is connected with Fukuyama. We still needs a theorist to show us that "liberal democracy" corresponds quite imperfectly to any social or political reality, but Tocqueville is a good beginning.

2. The Bush tendency--and it’s only a tendency--toward rooting the American mission in a theology of history is more part of the messianic side of the American tradition. History may or may not show it was the source of his exaggerated confidence and so an "audacious prudence" that wasn’t in some ways so prudent at all. Or it may show, instead, that Gerson’s rhetorical flourishes had little real effect on policy or the president’s Christian opinion about the intractibility of evil and the problem with, say, the Iraq war was that the administration lack the confidence to think through what we needed to do.

Let’s see: Alter’s work on the Bible or Hebrew Scripture is first-rate: read The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative; his book on Stendhal is good, too. His translation of Genesis, though, was a disappointment. He has no credentials that I know of for reviewing a book on Leo Strauss. I suspect he was picked either because Mark Lilla wasn’t available for another hatchet job or the assigning editor thought that it would be repetitious to have the same house intellectuals do the "Strauss, good, Straussians, bad, neo-con Straussian, horrendous" riff again.
Smith is a mushy ’straussian,’ a mushy ’liberal.’ No surprise that his Strauss would be, too.
Frankly between Smith’s domesticated Strauss and Heinrich Meier’s radically atheistic Strauss I prefer the second. I certainly think it’s a lot closer to the true views of Strauss. (Meier, though, does leave out the political prudence and wisdom of Strauss, as well as his concerns for freedom, Western civ, and America.)
Strauss critiqued 50s & 60s liberalism and liberals frequently. See the Preface to the City and Man, the intro to Natural Right and History, and, especially, his critique of Eric Havelock, which is a tour de force. In a way reminiscent of Aurel Kolnai, he said that such liberalism had the same end as Communism, just different means. (That was not a value-neutral observation.) And that easy-going liberal skepticism didn’t adequately found human liberty (as Joe alluded to).
Joe’s also right that Strauss realistically recognized the fundamental experiences that indicate natural right. As Dan Mahoney wrote in his Solzhenitsyn book: Strauss as a phenomenologist of the human world was really good: he saw the real distinctions that constitute and shape human life: noble/base; just/unjust; etc. But - Mahoney and I go on to say - his notion of philosophy compelled him to relativize these recognitions. Such recognitions get their ultimate justification only from a rationally-arrived-at final or definitive view of the whole and the soul (and the city). And since that Wisdom was never available, the recognitions remained susceptible to alternative readings and underminings. As he said in NRH, the intellectually justified claims of natural right (including natural law) presuppose the philosophical discovery of Nature and its articulation.
’Nuff for one comment.

So H. Meier clarifies Strauss by lopping off the whole West Coast of Straussianism. But philosophy=atheism or even radical skepticism really is incompatible with philosophy=phenomenology or a genuinely realistic account of the human soul. So even the discovery of "natural right" (if natural right only means philosophy is the only genuinely defensible way of life) can be understood as compatible with moral relativism or even its cause. And then there’s the questions of whether NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY really means to give a definitive case for natural right against history and whether it’s really true that natural right and history are the two--and only two--plausible human alternatives.

Peter, I actually think that Strauss is finally incoherent, i.e., unable to account for his own wonderful and strange being, his complex motives and allegiances.

In an infinitely smaller register, Bloom had the same sort of problem. Bloom was a very good phenomenologist of sex, love, eros, and of human character types; and he obviously relished the human variety and the various attempts at connection. But his official view of philosophy as "Socrates knows there are no cosmic grounds for human individuality or natural human longings" undermined the first impulses and activities.

So, I agree with your exposition of the Strauss-conundra. As far as NRH, we must never forget the "hastening from these awful depths" of the Weber chapter, when Strauss brings up revelation.

Paul, To conclude this fake dialogue, we agree on Strauss, of course. And on Bloom (see POSTMODERNISM RIGHTLY UNDERSTOOD, chapter 2). That’s why WWST (What Would Strauss Think?) and WWSD (What Would Strauss Do?) aren’t that interesting for us.

Peter, isn’t "fake dialogues" what real Straussians do? I.e., they already know the answers? "Philosophy," "Socrates,
"erotic rationalism," "philosophy," ... .
Please excuse me for forgetting about your fine treatment of Bloom; I did review the book when it came out, though. It’s just hard to keep up with/keep in mind every thing you’ve written.
BTW: just finished reading, and about done with a short review, of Alan Gibson’s fine new book, Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic. It’s published by the University of Kansas Press. Oddly enough, the book still lists the late Carey McWilliams and the late Lance Banning as "editors."

This is just a quick note to remind the good people of No Left Turns to always check the spelling of names carefully. I’m sure my friend and former colleague Steven Smith would agree with me in this matter.

Corrected, with my apologies.

Now if I could only get everyone to pronounce my name correctly....

Inexplicably, I got Smith’s name right the last time.

The choice of the life of the mind is intimately
related to skepticism, as the skepticism is to liberalism. They all
involve a kind of ascetic withdrawal from the world or from creeds
(which is not to say we can’t have creeds, just that we maintain a
kind of falliblist openness about them). But there are those who would
rather fight for their creed than engage in dialogues, or tolerate
different conceptions of the good life within one political system.

The question of when to fight and when to stick to words is genuinely
difficult (and related to the problem of pacificism, and to the
problems we face to day concerning preemptive strikes and so on).

Nietzsche, of course, had tremendously mixed feelings about the
Ancient Greeks, and hated and loved them dearly for their Apollonion
ascetism and skepticism. With these mixed feelings, Nietzsche was
doing a kind of Apollion homage to the Dionysian qualities he lacked;
and while there is music in his writing, he is deeply rational; a man
who isolated himself and did all the priestly duties he despised; who
saw redemption in a "gay" science -- i.e., in the tempering of his own
ascetic impulses by artistic transcendence and music. The perfect
combination of science and art gives us the ubermensch; not a
rejection of science.

We have to interpret Nietzsche either as skeptic or relativist; and I
think he was too smart to be the latter, although he often seems that
way. (Incidentally, there is renewed scholarly interest in the
connection between Nietzsche and skepticism).

Hence the Ashbrook Center Blog is quite flawed when it comes both to
Strauss and Nietzsche; it is simply not true that a serious reader of
Nietzsche must reject the notion that tolerance follows from
skepticism. It follows as surely as reservations about the death
penalty follow from its finality compared to a lack of certainty about

Skepticism certainly is the foundation of liberalism; and contra
Ashbrook, liberalism it is in fact its own kind of imposition (witness
the flailing of the Christianists!), although one can reasonably argue
that it is a minimal imposition, and that it can be grounded
transcendentally (with an a priori argument), just as Aristotle makes
a transcendental argument for the law of non-contradiction in
Metaphysics Gamma. (In this altered sense, both physical and logical
necessity are tyrannies of a sort, although essential foundations in
their own way to freedom). One can also argue that liberalism is
(ironically) the only viable grounds for the thriving of creeds,
including anti-liberal creeds; a Church controlled state would
arguably mean a demise of the Church (historically, no one gets to be
happy with religious wars and alternating official state religions).

I find such rejection of skepticism (and "tolerance", as with the
Ashbrook blog), whether from conservative or liberal quarters, to be
extremely misguided (and potentially self-defeating).

Names, dates, and quotations please, for the Ashbrook center blog personnel, or even comments posters, who have advocated a "Church-controlled state," or who have argued against the "tolerance" of various religious beliefs that the first amendment requires. If you can produce none, Wes, I suggest you apologize for making these serious charges.

Wes sez: "liberalism ... can be grounded transcendentally (with an a priori argument), just as Aristotle makes a transcendental argument for the law of non-contradiction in Metaphysics Gamma."

Baloney. Aristotle knows that the law of non-contradiction is founded on solely what we observe about being with our senses.

Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu.

A day goes by Wes, and no response. Conclusion: there is not an iota of evidence to back your charges.

to the best of my recollection my professor at yeshiva university in the late 60’s dr.joseph dunner of blessed memory stated that strauss,in private life was an observant,as well as a believing jew.
dr. dunner was very firm about this.

I haven’t read the book. The review has some odd lines in it.

Strauss "appears never to have been involved in any political party or movement." Am I misremembering, or did Strauss involve himself in the Jabotinsky wing of the Zionist movement in the 1920s? Maybe Alter means "the mature Strauss." (Aside: I’ve sometimes wondered if the hostility of Arendt stemmed originally from the old conflict between the Jabotinsky Zionists and the Labor Zionists).

"Liberal democracy lies at the core of Strauss’s political views, and its basis is the concept of skepticism." Nonsense on both counts, as Peter Lawler notes.

"The Jewish-theological side of Strauss certainly had no perceptible effect on his American disciples...." None at all? On any of them?

"Why some"--ah, now it’s "some"--"of his most prominent students missed this essential feature of his thought, and why they turned to the right, remains one of the mysteries of his intellectual legacy." That sounds like two mysteries to me, but taking each in turn:
Mystery #1: Could it be that neoconservatives, being policy-centered sorts, have not "missed" the "Jewish-theological side of Strauss" but simply do not regard it as immediately relevant to the things they want to discuss? Bill Kristol, for example, may not aspire to the role of spiritual counselor.
Mystery #2: Given the political landscape of the 1970s, the so-called right was the most likely place for a `Straussian’ to land, if he wanted to affect practical politics in the United States. With `liberalism’ by then the established term for progressivism, and with the silliness of the academic Frankfurters who were attacking progressivism, a coalition-building policy wonk would turn `right’ almost as a matter of course. Strauss’s profound critique of historicism inoculated more than one student against the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet regime, too, and the question of detente loomed large in those days. Detente had been the policy of the center-right Nixon Administration, and had been applauded by progressivists/liberals. In practical terms, where else to go but right, on that issue, if one rejected both Marxism and pacifism?

Those mysteries don’t seem especially mysterious to me.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2006/06/alter-on-smith-on-strauss.php on line 913

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2006/06/alter-on-smith-on-strauss.php on line 913