The political philosopher Leo Strauss is famous for contending that any synthesis of reason and revelation is impossible, since they are irreconcilable antagonists. Yet he is also famous for praising the secular regime of liberal democracy as the best regime for all human beings, even though he is well aware that modern philosophers such as Spinoza thought this regime must make use of biblical morality to promote good citizenship. Is democracy, then, both religious and secular? Strauss thought that Spinoza was (...) contradictory in teaching that reason and revelation should be separated from each other while also insisting that a secular democratic politics still requires the biblical morality of charity. The paradox that liberal democracy is both religious and secular, which is central to Spinoza, was dismissed by Strauss as a Machiavellian subterfuge or the cynical attempt to use religion for political purposes. In order to adhere to his dualistic separation of reason and revelation, Strauss turned to ancient Greek political philosophy, particularly the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, as the true ground of liberal democracy since this classical tradition was never exposed to biblical revelation. Yet, the illiberal and hierarchical implications of Greek political thought, which clash with Strauss’s modern views on human individuality and dignity, ultimately take him back to the biblically based philosophies of Spinoza and Kierkegaard, who teach the paradox that the Bible is the true foundation of human freedom. (shrink)
In this original new study, Grant Havers critically interprets Leo Strauss’s political philosophy from a conservative perspective. Most mainstream readers of Strauss have either condemned him from the Left as an extreme right-wing opponent of liberal democracy or celebrated him from the Right as a traditional defender of Western civilization. Rejecting both of these portrayals, Havers shifts the debate beyond the conventional parameters of our age. He persuasively shows that Strauss was neither a man of the Far Right nor a (...) conservative. He was in fact a secular Cold War liberal who taught his followers to uphold Anglo-American democracy as the one true universal regime that does not need a specifically Christian foundation. Strauss firmly rejects the traditional conservative view held by Edmund Burke that Anglo-American democracy needs the leavening influence of Christian morality. Havers maintains that Strauss’s refusal to recognize the role of Christianity in shaping Western civilization, though historically unjustified, is crucial to Strauss and the Straussian portrayal of Anglo-American democracy. In the Straussian view, the Anglo-American ideals of liberty, equality, and constitutional government owe more to the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle than to the Christian tradition. In the process, Havers argues, Straussians end up rewriting history by falsely idealizing the ancient Greeks as the forerunners of modern liberal democracy, despite the Greek toleration of practices such as slavery and infanticide. Straussians also misrepresent statesmen of the Anglo-American political tradition such as Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill as heirs to the ancient Greek tradition of statecraft, despite their indebtedness to Christianity. Havers contends that the most troubling implication of Straussianism is that it provides an ideological rationale for the aggressive spread of democratic values on a global basis while ignoring the preconditions that make these values possible. Concepts such as the rule of law, constitutional government, Christian morality, and the separation of church and state are not easily transplanted beyond the historic confines of Anglo-American civilization, as recent wars to spread democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia have demonstrated. This excellent study will be of interest not only to longtime readers of Strauss but also philosophers, political scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians. (shrink)
The relation between the individual and history is as central to the thought of Kierkegaard as it is to political philosophy as a whole. In the present age, does the individual create history or does history create the individual? These questions are also central to Theodor Adorno, who took aim at Kierkegaard for ignoring the historical and social constraints that inhibit the freedom of the individual. Adorno’s Kierkegaard offers only dogmatic faith and abstract individualism without providing any rational, liberating challenge (...) to oppression. Yet Adorno’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is undermined by his uncritical embrace of the dualism of reason and faith as well as his celebration of Socrates as the true individual critic of power. Adorno ironically ignores Kierkegaard’s own exposure of Socratic rationalism as the fatal pathway towards accepting oppression, just as he fails to comprehend Kierkegaard’s idea of the “religious” individual as the true opponent of both religious and secular tyranny. (shrink)
The “new” conservatism which dominates American politics is fundamentally different from both liberalism and traditional conservatism. For the neoconservatives, who are influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, fault liberalism for undermining the authority of absolute morality and natural inequality in favor of relativism and openness. Yet they also repudiate the old European conservatism for failing to defy the currents of modernity with anything more than an appeal to tradition. In fine, neoconservatism rejects, despite its own modern origins, modernity itself.
What Shakespeare reveals in Macbeth is the all too human temptation to embrace tyranny. In exposing this temptation, however, Shakespeare also shows that the alleged inevitability of tyranny is a contradictory illusion that cannot survive the cycle of violence that it spawns. In comparable terms Abraham Lincoln exposed the tyranny of slavery as the hypocritical mockery of democracy which threatened the very survival of the American republic. Instead of teaching an illusory and despairing resignation to the tyrannies that plague human (...) history, however, both Shakespeare and Lincoln defend a biblical standard of hope and justice (for all human beings) that is the very opposite of tyrannical illusions. (shrink)
This book examines key twentieth-century philosophers, theologians, and social scientists who began their careers with commitments to the political left only later to reappraise or reject those commitments due to changes in the culture, economics, and politics.
ExcerptThere is a long tradition of suspicion toward the power of “elites” in the history of American politics. Since the days of the Revolution, Americans have often worried about the rise of small and unaccountable powers that threaten the democratic will and adulterate the traditions of the republic. What Richard Hofstadter pejoratively termed the “paranoid style” of postwar conservative politics has deep roots across the political spectrum in American history. On both the Left and the Right, Americans have opposed the (...) centralization of authority in the hands of a privileged few who enjoy disproportionate access to wealth and control of…. (shrink)
In understanding the meaning of the West, twentieth?century political philosophers Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss called for a return to ?Athens? (classical political philosophy) in order to address the ?crisis of the West,? a loss of a sense of legitimate and stable political authority which, in their view, constitutes a nihilistic threat to Western democracy. The only way for the West to escape this nihilistic crisis is to return to Plato and Aristotle. Implicit in this critique is the belief that (...) the other tradition of the West, ?Jerusalem? (the Bible) has contributed to this nihilism, by undermining the authority of the Greeks. Is Jerusalem, then, the fatal ?Other? for the West? Which tradition?Athens or Jerusalem?is best prepared to alleviate the crisis of the West, especially the survival of democracy? As I address these questions, I shall contend that it is Jerusalem, not Athens, which is the true source of Western democracy. (shrink)