Straussians: Gentlemen or Nietzscheans?

A reader writes an eloquent email on the question of Leo Strauss and his impact on today's Republicans. It's long but so good I'm running it. Scroll down if it bores you:

Like you, I studied with Straussians, both as an undergraduate and in graduate school (at the University of Chicago, in the Committee on Social Thought, when Allan Bloom was there). Like you, I admired the thinker and at least some of his followers without becoming part of the (very real!) cult following.

I think you are largely right about the disconnect between Strauss's moderate defense of liberal democracy and contemporary Neocon hubris.

But you are more surprised by this disconnect than you should be.

I observed during my time at Chicago two distinct strands of Straussians. I'll call one strand "the gentlemen" and the other strand "the Nietzscheans."

Granting your point about Strauss's skepticism, there are two paths you can go down from there; but first, there is an intermediate step: once you grant that the most appropriate response to the most difficult questions about life is skepticism, what does one do with "the many," as the Straussians call them? Can ALL human beings (ALL prisoners in Plato's cave) really accept that there are no certain answers to life's most pressing questions? Can everyone be a philosopher?

Strauss's answer seems to have been: No, they cannot. Most human beings need answers, and they become very dangerous when denied them. Bear in mind what they did to Socrates, after all. So, the next question is, what answers to give them? To give a definite answer when you don't really have one (remember: skepticism is a given here) is to lie. To lie in order to prevent harm is to lie nobly. For Strauss, the many need noble lies.

So now the difference between the gentlemen and the Nietzscheans:

The gentlemen (for example, Cropsey), as best I could tell, believe that skeptical moderation is good for its own sake, and that moderate noble lies are also best for a stable polity. That means one's political myths must encourage the decent virtues as much as possible. It means that the noble lies ("All men are created equal," for example) are not entirely false or implausible. The gentlemen are thus very close to the Strauss described by Smith in his book.

The Nietzscheans (for example, Bloom) take another path from the skeptical starting point. For them, there is one truth that IS certain: the distinction between those human beings who CAN endure the fact that there are no certain answers and those who CANNOT endure it. The Nietzschean Straussians that I knew as graduate students were utterly dismissive of the many ordinary human beings; they believed the scales had fallen from their own eyes and that they had been liberated from ordinary morality. Moderation is good only as a means or a mask, not good in itself. Yet at the same time, they understood Strauss's cautions about the limits of general Enlightenment and public reason. And so for them, the best regime was the American one, a regime that permits freedom of thought for the philosophers and, for the many, freedom for politics, for hard work, and (alas) for self-indulgence -- despite the risk of a plunge into consumerism and philistinism. Hence "The End of History and the Last Man" -- by a student of Bloom's. (Everyone forgets the last man part: it's not necessarily a happy ending.)

These Nietzscheanized Straussians that I observed truly believed in their superiority and in their right to influence politics and public affairs. Yes, as a student in his 20's mellows into his 40's and 50's, he will lose some of the Nietzschean hubris -- but perhaps not the conviction that the many need noble lies that he knows to be false. Not the conviction that he knows best, and can apply this knowledge universally. Hence Wolfowitz, the WMD feint in order to bring on war in Iraq, the plan to seed democracy throughout the Middle East and end all tyranny, the Rumsfeldian arrogance, etc. Disaster.

Gentlemen Straussians, I believe, have been appalled by the hubristic, millenarian idealism of the Neocons and the Iraq adventure. The recognize in it a version of the excessive faith in reason and progress.

But everything depends on how you find your way from the starting point of skepticism. It can lead to moderation, but one needs a very mature body politic for it to do so, since skepticism is usually acid to so-called traditional values, which generally depend on absolutes ("revelation"). There is also always the risk that some skeptics will recognize in their own valiant skepticism a distinction from almost all other mere mortals, a distinction which grants them the right to govern with a contempt for ordinary people and for the truth.

I share your faith in skepticism (quite an oxymoron!), but there is always this caution: How deeply can a body politic truly embrace such skepticism as a founding value? A conservative must always say: it depends. It depends on which body politic you are talking about, and at what time.

Is the American body politic ready for a healthy, not a nihilistic, skepticism? Not if today's faith-based Republicans have anything to do with it. Apparently, they no longer believe we are strong enough and free enough for it. For them, healthy skepticism is equivalent to relativism or nihilism.

But I still have faith, and I am glad you do, too.

Yes: that great paradox - faith in doubt. My 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. Compare some students of Strauss with most students of Oakeshott (I was fortunate enough to be a bit of both). What you see is the temptation of those ultimately drawn to power, and those who are repelled by power and seek merely freedom. Count me among the latter - but we are a dwindling, motley crew on the right.