Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Berkowitz on the Conservative Mind Today

Peter explains that all Amrican conservatives love liberty and want to defend what’s best about liberal democracy as a form of government. But they’re divided on not only how best to preserve liberty, but on what human liberty is and what it is for. Peter presents the thought of three conservative giants--Hayek, Kirk, and Strauss--as sources of our three most important conservative intellectual factions. But here are a few problems among many: Hayek denied that he was a conservative; Kirk presented his conservatism as going against the American grain, and for Strauss the relationship between his devotion to classical natural right (living according to nature) and anti-Aristotelian or modern natural rights (based on the conquest or mastery of nature) is far from clear. And the Kirkians object to the Straussian jump from the classics to the moderns without any sustained account of the contributions of Roman law and Christian insight to our complex understanding of human liberty as unfaithful to our historical experience. The Straussians, meanwhile, respond that the Kirkians take refuge in tradition and piety to escape a real confrontation with the quite untraditional crisis of our time. More generally: Is it really true that Hayek, Kirk, and Strauss are our "big three" when it comes to our conservative thought?

Discussions - 29 Comments

Kirk's conservatism was certainly against the intellectual grain in the 1950's, but I don't think he would have conceded that it was against the grain in 1776 or 1787. Also, Kirk was going against the intellectual grain, but I am also not sure he would have conceded that he was going against the grain of how everyday Americans actually lived their lives in the 1950’s. Now whether Strauss and natural rights or Kirk and tradition/order better represent what took place in 1776 and 1787 is a large part of the argument, is it not? There was too much Enlightenment in the rhetoric (esp. of the DoI) for my tastes, but a look at how people lived their lives and the actual effects of the DoI and Constitution at the time was far from liberal. This was especially true in the South.

This is why the Straussians have to put so much emphasis on ideas and paper over the actual behavior of people and the structure of the society at the time.

Also, is it true that all conservative want to defend “what’s best about liberal democracy.” There is certainly a lot of liberal democracy rhetoric on the right whether the people spouting it know it or not, but liberal democracy as currently conceived is ultimately incompatible with defending/preserving anything. I think thoughtful paleos want to take what is good about liberal democracy (limited government, rights of the accused, limited democracy, etc.) and graft it on to a more traditional conception of society, rather than defend “liberal democracy” per se. Perhaps this is semantics or a matter of degree. Would the things I listed in parentheses constitute liberal democracy by themselves absent the rigorous egalitarianism and rigorous pluralism that is associated with modern liberal democracy? I think perhaps that paleos want to preserve an illiberal democracy.

Ironically, I think some anti-war paleos are doing a better job of defending liberal democracy (habeus corpus for example) than are some of the power to the executive war-hawks.

I buy Strauss, but to me Kirk is only relevant insofar as he's a cheerleader for Edmund Burke. I think Alexander Hamilton needs to be on the list as well, whether you take a "national greatness conservatism" (a la Teddy Roosevelt and David Brooks approach) or so on. Hayek, to me, is far less important to American conservatism than Milton Friedman and the supply-siders. And is Russell Kirk really more important to American conservatism than William F. Buckley? Is Strauss more important than Allan Bloom?

That article could be a book, of course - and a good one. I am not a political philosopher, but I have three thoughts

A consideration of the thought of Conservative communitarian Robert Nisbet - a sociologist by training - would help render this discussion less abstract. A consideration of the great Christian and Jewish thinkers would ground this in a discipline greater than politics. Augustine, Aquinas, Calivn, and others who are masters of asceticism - of themselves - as well as founts of philosophy, would be a help in these times.

re: will, Kirk is not just a cheerleader for Edmund Burke, he was frantially trying to present the entire Christian Western Tradition as something which could continue to live and breathe in the modern world - if you examine Enemies of Permanent Things you will see how Kirk accepts TS Eliot's breathtakingly original style while championing the arch-modernist's ideas about culture as part of an affirmative tradition.

I think "national greatness conservatism" can not actually be conservative because it is "nationalistic." Nationalism is a modernist concept. Conservatism, properly understood, is inherently regionalist, localist, and particularist not some artificial nationalism.

There were conservative elements in the Hamiltonian/Adams strain, primarily royalism/elitism and distrust of democracy, but the leap to nationalism was more Napoleon than Burke.

Things have definitely gotten a little more complicated since George Nash's youth! I'm frankly somewhat tired of these sorts of articles. There remains some truth to them even though the "conservative mind" would bifurcate or trifurcate if liberalism disappeared overnight. Would that the opposition parties were between the conservative factions. That would be a vastly prettier state of things for the country and I could get openly good and angry at people I generally like. Back to Peter's last question though, it's difficult to say who are the leading conservative thinkers today. It's fair to say that our libertarianism has many effective spokesmen, so who needs Hayek anymore (you've even got the Supreme Court and most economics departments). Kirk represents a real alternative to liberalism, but his personal influence seems weak. Strauss will live on in his books and through the generations of his students and their students, etc...... And it's here that I am more and more impressed by the different forms that Strauss's influence has taken. Here I find the promise of a rebirth of real "conservative" thought. Doesn't it have to address the question of how we live now, or of the question Peter Lawler keeps asking, of post-modernism rightly understood. But this is still being born.

Kirk presented his conservatism as going against the American grain

Do you have a cite for that?

Hayek denied that he was a conservative

Not exactly. He described himself as an Old Whig, a Burkean Whig, and an Edwardian Whig at various times, especially as he grew older. Unless you want to say that Burke was not a conservative I don't think this argument can stand up. Hayek was certainly a conservative as we understand the term today in America.

Here he is discussing rationalists and intelligence versus tradition in The Fatal Conceit.

Ones initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realises that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilisation offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection, and still more appropriate design and "rational coordination" of our undertakings.

These reactions are all understandable, but they have consequences. The consequences are particularly dangerous - to reason as well as to morality - when preference not so much for the real products of reason as for this conventional tradition of reason leads intellectuals to ignore the theoretical limits of reason, to disregard a world of historical and scientific information, to remain ignorant of the biological sciences and the scienes of man such as economics, and to misrepresent the origins and functions of our traditional rules.

The "fatal conceit" of the title is the notion that man can shape the world around him according to his wishes. Hayek seems to the most talked about but least read of all political thinkers. All most people seem to have picked up is the Cliff Notes edition of The Road To Serfdom.

It seems to me that a good bit of the intellectual energy among conservatives today comes from religious conservatives, especially Roman Catholics, who don't fit neatly into the Hayekian, Kirkian, and Straussian boxes. How to account for Lawler, for example?

Joe, you said it.

Good article/post (Mr. Hayward, perhaps unwittingly, posted on it as well). There was a great essay someone posted about a year or so ago that was much longer and more in depth about conservative thought. Rather than divide conservative intellectualism by the men who influenced it, the author categorized it into four movements: the natural rights crowd/neoconservatives, the traditionalists/paleoconservatives, libertarians, and the religious right. I think this is more helpful as we can say we are influenced by different schools of thought rather than individual thinkers (there is much more overlap between the different intellectual movements as they each encompass many thinkers and individual thinkers may be propenents of multiple schools of thought.)

And I would like to go on record as saying Hamilton was no monarchist (though he may have used that rumor to achieve his political ends).

It seems to me that a good bit of the intellectual energy among conservatives today comes from religious conservatives

Generally speaking, they are not conservatives. It's a mistake to tack a "con" suffix on every group which joins the Republican party.

Strauss is in a class by himself (among these three, or, for that matter, on just about any list you might propose) in terms of intellectual penetration. But that doesn't mean he can teach conservatives everything they need to know concerning what to conserve and how to conserve it. He does, though, make it impossible for us to ignore certain questions that will ultimately have to be answered if our fate is going to be anything remotely corresponding to our wishes as "conservatives" -- at least insofar as this fate is significantly subject to our deliberation and choice. Notably: Is "the good," the ground of human choice accessible to human reason? What is the relationship between the faculty of reason and our most primary moral experiences? Can we responsibly defer the ground of our choosing to some non-rational ground? Again, I don't say Strauss has the answers. But I do think finding a way to articulate an essential connection between our reasoning faculty and our most fundamental moral intuitions is the one thing needful -- without this articulation, what we call "conservatism" must continue to lose ground to what is considered "rational" and therefore publicly authoritative.

Mix Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams

Add some Locke, Paine, Franklin

Sprinkle with Alex de Tocqueville

Finally, add a dash of the body of Christ

Call it whatever strikes you fancy, I don't care.

Thanks to you all. Strauss does tower over Kirk and Hayek in terms of intellectual penetration. But we can't help but suspect that he comes up short, as Ralph says, on how, what, and even the "who" to conserve, and he even lacks confidence in the future of irreducible dignity of human liberty. Strauss's influence, though, has many forms, as Rob says. There's something, even a lot, to be learn from the uninfluential Kirkians, and many of the Straussians are just wrong to reduce their concerns to a rather one-dimensional traditionalism/historicism (as Jim Ceaser has done on occasion--and I have to say again that Jim needs to come to terms with the "nature" being defended by the party of natural right--actually his most recent work is starting to acknowledge the problem and getting more open to Kirkian concerns). Hayek, I agree, is too sensibly concerned with the traditional foundation of liberty to be confused with the libertarians. But he made one very wrong prediction that revealed his excessively optimistic dependence on sociobiology: Once socialism fell and the free market came to dominate the West, there would be a population explosion in Europe.

Re. # 9. Andrew. I have seen the article you mention. It addresses the idea of foundations or foundationalism. It is quite good but I think a little biased toward the natural right perspective. I will look for a link.

Another really good article in the same vein is by Mark C. Henrie and was published at The New Pantegruel. Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism or something like that. I'll look for that link too when I have time.

I agree with Dr. K. that some of the best conservative thought these days comes from the Christian right, but that is only because that is one of the few elements that retains some elements of actual conservatism, meaning they want to conserve something. But even there the thought is often shallow, accepts certain modern ideas as a given, and is too beholden to the GOP.

To address the OJ article specifically, many of the debates "within" conservatism are actually debates between those are conservative and those who aren't. There is a conservative debate on Gay marriage? With all due respect to Andrew Sullivan, who I will be nice to since he is taking up for Ron Paul, there is no conservative position on gay marriage other than scorn. Just 30 or 40 years ago the ideas would have been completely unthinkable, and not the subject of a serious conversation. In fact, it might have gotten you punched in the mouth. Now we are seriously discussing this? That can be nothing except a perfect illustration of the abject failure of modern conservatism to conserve anything.

Ralph, I just read your eloquent translation of Beneton's wondrous "Equality by Default." Think I'll use it in class next year. Everyone get a copy. Published by ISI.

Great comments, y'all...the Beneton book is wonderful(thanks again, Dr. Hancock), as is that Mark Henrie essay, which is simply authoritative. And though Ralph's comment contains the most food for thought, my favorite comment so far is Dan Phillips saying that "This is why the Straussians have to put so much emphasis on ideas and paper over the actual behavior of people..." A very Tocquevillean comment, that. The social logic of the democratic dogmas is probably more important than the "crisis in natural right," for example, and it certainly is for conservatives here and now.

Here's the Henrie essay My review of Equality by Default is in the gotta-pay-for-it Spring 2006 issue of Perspectives on Political Science.

Mark's essay is magisterial, Ralph's translation superb, Beneton's book is incisive and illuminating: a must get-and-read, Carl's review is penetrating and comprehensive.

I'm link-happy today. Scroll down this Amazon page for Stanley Rosen's comment that, acc. to the new Strauss book by D. Tanguay, Strauss was NOT a conservative, b/c he decisively elevated nature above convention. that the heart of conservatism? Love of convention? I much prefer the case Harvey Mansfield made a few years back that conservatism really doesn't exist until liberalism has arrived...that genuine conservatism is the defense of nature against the hubris of the new science of nature that is at the heart of liberalism. If there are Tanguay defenders 'round here (I mean Paul) to set me straight, go right ahead.

Maybe the real traditionalists, Mark Henrie style, agree with Mansfield on what Peter alluded to above: the substance of the "nature" being defended by the party of natural right against the new science of nature. Carl, where exactly is that Mansfield formulation? And can someone tell me who Tanguay is? Paul?

Daniel Tanguay is a professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa. What he says is that Strauss is not a conservative as normally understood. That Stauss privleges nature above convention means that, according to Strauss, no political community can be founded stictly on nature. Every political community must ultimately be founded on a noble lie. No political society, according to Tangauay's interpretation of Strauss, can survive without reliance upon "noble rhetoric made up of noble lies." Religious accounts are central in this noble rhetoric.

I like Tanguay's book a lot. It's the only the one of the recent Strauss books that really a page turner, because T. provides an admirably clear and smart overview of all of Strauss's concerns. Some of the others--I want mention names--make Strauss boring by domesticating him in terms of our American and scholarly prejudices. And a couple of the others focus one-dimensionally on why "philosophy" remains obsessed today with the challenge of revelation and why it has made big progress in defeating it. It's unclear what guidance the latter books provide us in meeting the enormous practical challenges of our time. Strauss, of course, is and is not a conservative. Contrary to some conservatives, he says that tradition and piety aren't enough. But he joins with others, as Carl says, in opposing the excesses, at least, of the (closely related) historical and technological efforts to conquer nature. People need an orientation from a natural order that exists independently of their making, and the order articulated by the sociobiologists doesn't sufficiently incorporate our distinctively human concerns. So our thinking necessarily leads us beyond "natural rights" in the direction of natural law and natural right. (Stanley Rosen's amazon comment is part of his broader project to show himself smarter or at least cooler than Strauss through his poetic/philosophical refusal to succumb to the idiocies of the conservative politics Strauss humored.)

Thanks, Peter. And the natural or given order is accessible both through tradition and thoughtful piety, and through thinking about natural right, with Strauss neglecting by and large the former, for reasons I won't go into here.

Strauss can't be simply conservative since much of his concern was with rescusitating philosophy, which is not itself conservative in character. The conservative appearance of philosophic thought is a concession to the permanent tension betweent he city and man--this is what he describes as philosophic politics in On Tyranny. If Strauss himself wrote this way, one could reasonably criticize him given his own view of public writing for not just lacking clarity but spawning various nihilistic interpretations of morality. On a related note, I agree with Peter's comment on Rosen for the most part; however, to his credit he has offered a far bolder and more original interpretation of Strauss than most of Strauss' students. For example, I would recommend reading Rosen's latest commentary on the Republic, which while dedicated to "the genuine Leo Strauss" is an interesting critique of Strauss' approach to reading Plato.

Does anyone here disagree with Strauss's view that, as Mr.
Coleman put it, "no political community can be founded stictly on nature"? From this it indeed seems to follow that philosophy (for whom "nature" is the authority) cannot be simply conservative. But it is still possible that it is today good and even "natural" for philosophy to befriend conservatism. Indeed it is urgently necessary, since, as I tried to suggest above, it would be fatal for conservatism to abandon reason.
My view is that Strauss prepares this friendship: his notion of "political philosophy," if considered in its full implications, shows the interdependence of reason and pre-philosophic (and socially instantiated) intimations of the good. There is no access to nature/the good that does not begin with and preserve an essentially moral orientation towards "the noble." (To be sure, Strauss's anti-Heideggerian efforts on behalf of the unique nobility of philosophy too often lead him to obscure this insight.) The prodigious Stanley Rosen sometimes approaches this insight, but finally has more confidence than may be warranted in the "technical," that is, non-moral-political power of philosophy.

Strauss is a conservative in his use of reason, as Ralph intimates. The question of better and worse that political philosophy asks of a tradition means that reason is always tethered TO the substance of the past. To say that "no political community can be founded on nature" is another way of stating the inherent connectedness of moral reason to social life. We would be Cartesian if we abstracted the thinking human from lived world. We see this in Plato's Laws. These last few comments raise for me in a very clear way the question of what being a conservative could possibly mean.

Another note on Rosen: there are two sides to his relation to Strauss--on the hand, he is quite proprietary about LS' legacy but at the same time goes to great length to distance himself from what he perceives as Straussianism. In a recent article on Strauss (which I believe is the preface to his newest book) he makes what he understands to be a fairly sharp distinction between those students of LS that find themselves in polsci departments and those who teach philosophy--the point of the distinction was clearly to indicate the superiority of the latterover the former.

"Over at the neocon Corner they are discussing “Berkowitz’s Big Three”- Kirk, Hayek, and Strauss - as the most influential conservatives of our age. Of course, I think this list is wrongheaded.

Hayek was not a conservative, but rather a classical liberal. He was correct to oppose Marxism, but so did many others. Hayek supporters tend to be apologists for unbridled capitalism that in itself has become an “ism” not unlike Marxism.

Putting Strauss on this list is absurd. He was a mediocre thinker at best, and hardly a conservative. He was successful at peddling left-wing Jacobin thought as conservative, and at superimposing over the Greeks a modernist notion of natural right. Strauss should be in the top 3 for the Greatest Conman List or the Greatest Neocon / Neoliberal List, but not on any conservative list.

Kirk does make sense, and should be on this list. He was a learned gentleman whose Conservative Mind shaped American conservatism probably more than any other book. It is unsurprising, though, that the neocons over at the Corner find him the least acceptable. Their comments:

“I’ve never had any idea what Kirk had to with America or conservatism as it might exist in the modern world.”

“Count me among those who has [sic] always thought Russell Kirk was overrated.”

“Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Kirk’s….”

” the only reason Kirk gets much play is because ISI has a few devoted traditionalists there who like to fancy themselves devotees of an arcane conservatism that rejects modernity wholesale”

“Kirk sought to reach back to European conservatism and transplant it onto American soil. This is one reason I suspect that, in the long run, Kirk’s influence may well decline as I don’t believe his work speaks as directly to the American political experience as does some others.”

“While Kirk sought to document a conservative strain in American political thought, he was also hostile to some of the foundational “liberal” ideals upon which the nation was founded, including the assertion of inalienable God-given rights”

OK. Heaven forbid that Kirk realized that America is a continuation of European people and culture. OMG, and traditionalists admire Kirk! And Kirk was skeptical that America is built upon a left-wing notion of natural rights? He must be evil. Their real reason for disliking Kirk, though, is that he did not like them. Remember, Kirk said that these snakeoil salesman “mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”

If The Corner likes Strauss and rejects Kirk, then it’s a safe assumption that Kirk is probably conservative, and Strauss is not. And this works for many things. If the Corner Chorus initially thinks X is a good idea, then it probably is not."

Very helpful, Ralph. No, I do not disagree. To rephrase what I earlier said, political philosophy recognizes that it is in man's nature to never find his strict nature amid the intertwined aspects of convention. Book V of the Republic shows you this--the extant convention is grossly sexist, the proposed natural cure is chillingly reductionist, the truth about natural justice for humans male and female is in there somewhere, but good luck finding it, even better luck convincing enough others if you do, and please don't make the mistake of thinking you can identify convention and then proceed to strip it off to get nature. Which is why nudism ain't natural, even though a purely natural style of clothing is impossible. Chantal Delsol is also very good on this issue of the prephilosophic answers each culture gives to the human situation, and the impossibility/undesirability of getting to a place of no-culture, or of remaining in a place of unchallenged and unphilosophic culture. New Herodotuses and Socrateses will have news for you if you try to do the latter.

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