Dan McCarthy is to be commended for his fair-minded review of my study of Leo Strauss and Strauss’s influence on the American conservative movement. I hope that Dan’s efforts will have the intended effect (although I doubt it) of igniting interest in my work on the establishment Right and especially among Straussians (yes, they do exist, even if they deny it).
Having expressed gratitude to Dan for his detailed discussion of my book and for his generally kind comments, I still feel driven to respond to a few of his points. In some cases our differences may rest on genuine disagreement. But in other cases I may be responding to positions that I took in my book which were not stated with sufficient clarity.
- I did not prepare my book as a paleoconservative, even if I coined that term and have been associated with the Old Right. I undertook my project as a scholar who is interested in presenting all sound criticism of Straussian hermeneutics, whatever its source. Although I most certainly bring up the critical observations of the non-neoconservative Right regarding Strauss’s approach to political texts, I also deal at length with such other critics as Ann Norton, Quentin Skinner, and John Gunnell. None of these writers on political theory has any connection to the political Right and would undoubtedly gag at some of my rightist positions.
- I do not identify Murray Rothbard as a quintessential right-wing thinker, at least not in theory. Murray’s individualistic, anarcho-capitalist views were not characteristic of the true Right, which stresses social cohesion and defends traditional status relations. Although Murray, who was a close personal friend, held Old Right views on most current events, he did not embrace those positions because he held right-wing tenets. One would do better to look for such tenets in Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, Robert Nisbet, and above all, in the introduction to the first edition of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. I am not at all convinced that the “Burkean conservative” Peter Viereck voted for Adlai Stevenson and thereby showed that being “Mad about Adlai” was a valid conservative sentiment. Viereck was a liberal Democrat, who was fond of depicting figures like FDR and Stevenson as “Tory democrats.” He also produced in apodictic form strange, unsubstantiated opinions about a direct link between German romantic poets and Nazi atrocities. What defines Viereck for some as a man of the Right remains a total mystery to me.
- Dan may be right (after all, he does quote something I once wrote) that I have attacked the bogus Right for denying the importance of what is ethnically and culturally rooted. But those attacks were launched in the context of criticizing “conservative” journalists for enshrining leftist notions about “human rights,” a practice that Dan’s hero Edmund Burke explicitly rejected long before I was born. Nor have the references in my work to the ethnically specific been meant to disparage universal moral standards, the existence and knowability of which I have never denied. But it is strange to encounter self-described conservatives whose ideas are universalist and leftist, except when they’re discussing Israel, a country the inhabitants of which they urge (certainly in the polemics of Strauss and his disciples) to preserve a firm ethnic identity.
- I never suggest that Strauss attributed atheistic views as opposed to religiously skeptical ones to those he considered great philosophical minds. A large part of Chapter Four is devoted to showing how insubstantial the evidence for these attributions is. Like Kenneth McIntyre, Barry Shain, and Grant Havers, I treat skeptically Strauss’s recourse to the notion of “secret writing” to ascribe what seem his thoughts and those of his disciples to thinkers whom they profess to admire.
- Since, as my book documents, Strauss took pains to define himself as an intellectual historian, critics are fully justified in judging him by the standards of the discipline he gave as his own. I am not guilty of the misdeed of “confusing political philosophy for history”—for two reasons. One, Strauss describes himself not as a political dramatist, like the author of Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III, but as an intellectual historian and therefore someone who is subject to our mundane discipline. Two, I reject the notion of “political philosophy,” unless one is characterizing the role of the political in Plato’s thought as a heuristic gateway to philosophical topoi. Like Aristotle, I do not equate being politically aware or holding political opinions as a philosophical activity. One who understands “politics” may exhibit prudence, but is usually not “ascending” into what Aristotle understood as the higher forms of thought represented by ontology, metaphysics, and attempts to grasp the sources of human knowledge. Unlike Strauss and possibly Dan (judging by his comments), I don’t consider philosophy and theology to be necessarily antagonistic. Most philosophers in the Western tradition, unless I accept Strauss’s unlikely assumption, were theists, and more than a few were at least minimally Christians. The greater danger to philosophy at the present time comes not from simple-minded religionists but from political ideologues; and lest I mince words, let me state outright that the Straussians who are working in the corner of the neoconservative global democrats are among the worst of these non-philosophical, ideological dangers.
- The last part of my book underscores this point, by showing how the new generation of Straussians has become increasingly political activists posing as deep thinkers who are affirming eternal values. Apparently those who abandon neoconservative editorial stands or who fail to support the latest military crusade to spread “our values” have descended back into Plato’s cave and are now looking at reflected images on the wall. There is very little care now given by these Straussian celebrities to distinguish partisan pronouncements from their supposed philosophizing and arcane reading of texts. “Political philosophy” may soon be defined downward, as a partisan speech delivered by a neocon-prepped presidential candidate. Having seen the politicization of philosophy that Straussians are fully capable of, I would be delighted to see their pet term suddenly disappear. When I taught political theory, I was always careful to remove any reference to “political philosophy” from the catalogue. My former colleague Wes McDonald will testify to how irritated I became every time I encountered this loathsome term.
Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.
Posted: January 19, 2014 in Essays.
America’s Fin de Siècle: End of a Century or a Civilization?
Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)