by Claude Steiner
Sampled and abstracted, with apologies, from numerous essays gathered on the Internet.
Leo Strauss the philosopher that legitimizes the Nietzsheian/Malthusian principles of the neo-conservatives that are now in power in our nation believed that the common people were unable to deal with the truth; that there is no God, no Nation, no Justice, no Equality, no God-given human rights. Noble lies are necessary to govern properly. If not deceived the people will lead the nation to destruction.
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) calls for a return to and a renewal of ancient political philosophy, in particular that of Plato. Strauss provides a very distinctive point of view about modernity; he is pre-modern and anti-modern, not in defense of religion or of tradition but in the name of reason.
Socrates, Strauss argued, was guilty as charged for philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens' loyalty and thus the basis of normal social life, putting himself in danger of persecution. Yet philosophy is also the highest and worthiest of all human endeavors. Consequently philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the “esoteric” art of writing "between the lines." Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the great tradition of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke, namely; that there are no Gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice and that society is not grounded in nature.
According to Strauss, Machiavelli's writings are the turning point that lead to modern political philosophy, and Machiavelli’s sin was to speak esoteric truths openly. He told all within hearing that there is no certain God who punishes wrongdoing; that one can get away with anything. He whispered these truths in the ears of princes but the common man heard.
Strauss was an atheist, for whom the Judeo-Christian religion was false, not just uncertain. For him, religion is at bottom simply dogmatic. Yet he combines this view with a vigorous defense of that self-same religion, because he believed that religion was a great necessity for ordinary men. Nietzsche, who he admired, was right: man needs lies.
From Nietzsche to Leo Strauss,
From Nietzsche to Strauss only the names have been changed. What Nietzsche called the "superman,” Strauss calls the "philosopher." The philosopher/superman is that rare man who can face the truth: that there is no God, there is no morality, no good and evil, and of course, no afterlife.
But the great majority of men and women are so far from ever being able to handle the truth, that they virtually belong to another species. Nietzsche called it the "herd," and also the "slaves." They require the bogeymen of a threatening God, the menace of punishment in the afterlife, and the fiction of moral right and wrong. Without these illusions, ordinary people would go mad and run riot and the social order, any social order, would collapse. This is a matter of human nature and, according to Strauss, will always be so.
It is the supermen/philosophers who provide the herd with the religious, moral, and other beliefs they require, but which the supermen themselves know to be lies. Nietzsche said that his supermen were "atheistic priests," and Strauss pretends that their lies are "noble lies." But they do not do this out of benevolence; charity and benevolence are mocked by Nietzsche and Strauss as unworthy of gods and godlike men.
However the philosophers require various sorts of people for support, the "gentlemen," among them. Rather than receiving the "esoteric," or secret teachings when young, the future "gentlemen" are indoctrinated in the "exoteric," or public teachings. They are taught to believe in religion, morality, patriotism, and the importance of public service. Of course, along with these traditional virtues, they also believe in the "philosophers" who have taught them their wisdom.
Those "gentlemen" who become statesmen, will continue to listen to the wisdom of the philosophers. The rule of the philosophers through their front-men in government, is what Strauss calls the "secret kingdom" of the philosophers, a "secret kingdom" which is the life's objective of many of Strauss's esoteric students.
Enter the Modern World,
The "modern world" of the modern, enlightenment philosophers who gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress ha sfailed. The enlightenment philosophers argued that instead of hiding philosophical activities, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy. One such reform is the acceptance of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications -- safety, health and wealth -- to common men. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of rationality, liberty and equality enabling people to pursue their self-interest.
This modern project failed, Straussians claim, because it exposed the true nature of philosophical beliefs and ultimately prostituted philosophy into the service of common men. The esoteric tradition was forgotten, and modern philosophy with its belief in truth, equality and democracy inadvertently exposed people to certain hard truths, truths too hard for them to bear: that there are no Gods to reward good or punish evil; that no one's nation—patria--is really any better than anyone else's; that one's ancestral ways are merely conventional. This information in the hands of the common man leads to nihilism; the listless, meaningless life of the bourgeoisie.
The Straussians go on to imply that the major evil of modern egalitarianism is that it makes philosophy impossible, by reducing anything that is not accessible to the common man to the lowest common denominator. But philosophy is not the only thing that suffers: so do creativity, heroism, authority, and all other "elite" qualities which the members of the herd cannot comprehend.
Strauss, an ethnic Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany saw the liberalism of mid-century America as a mirror image of the Weimar Republic: morally weak, incapable of self-preservation as proven by the ignominious collapse of the liberal establishment, both political and academic, in the face of the New Left. Curiously, the Straussians and Left-wing nihilists agree on most points—there is no God, no Nation, no Justice, no Equality--differing only in that the Straussians think these "truths" should be known only to the few.
The key Straussian concept is the "Straussian text," which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning.
There is an evident contradiction between the idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth, and the Straussian imperative to write obscurely. Allan Bloom, a Straussian, wrote The Closing of the American Mind a stunning 1980’s best seller which much more clearly written than anything by Leo Strauss. But even Bloom makes his argument complex and subtle to the point of evasiveness, as if he wants to confuse and mislead the reader. The Straussian method is so careful to hide the point of its argument that he nearly fails to make it; certainly he fails to support it. Strauss puts his students to such a mental effort to try to understand him that they are too exhausted to make the mental effort to criticize him.
Straussians believe that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of "natural rights," on which the republic was founded. Bloom regards "natural rights" as illusory, and bourgeois society as distasteful; but they are at least preferable to the nihilism of the New Left which was the inevitable culmination of the ideology of liberty and equality. Given the disaster of the modern egalitarian project Bloom's only hope seems to be the cultivation of a tiny cabal to pass on the old lore through the new Dark Age of egalitarianism.
This small cabal of Straussians has among his adherents Justice Clarence Thomas; Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes; former Secretary of Education William Bennett; Weekly Standard editor and former Quayle Chief of Staff, William Kristol; Allan Bloom; former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz; former National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman John T. Agresto; the National Review publisher William F. Buckley; former Reagan Administration official Alan Keyes; current White House bio-ethics advisor Francis Fukuyama; Attorney General John Ashcroft; and William Galston, former Clinton Administration domestic policy advisor, and co-author, with Elaine Kamark, of the Joe Lieberman-led Democratic Leadership Council's policy blueprint.
Earlier Strauss allies and protégés in launching the post-World War II neo-conservative movement were Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and James Q. Wilson. All these individuals have been influenced by Strauss’s thinking and share with him the belief that it is not possible to govern without hiding the truth from the people. The openly support liberty, God given human rights, freedom, equality, democracy, religion, the Constitution, but privately-esoterically-they are highly skeptical of these concepts and would not hesitate to covertly undermine them if they believed that to be to the advantage of effective government.
Are People Entitled to the Truth?
The neo-cons' answer to this question is plainly "No!." The necessity to be truthful, for these people and others who have become the leaders of our country is merely a practical encumbrance; there is no harm in lying unless the lie is discovered. In fact it is a necessity; it is impossible to govern by being truthful, people cannot tolerate the truth and need to be lied to. For instance, the facts about the threats from external as well as internal sources to our country has been systematically falsified from the time that Donald Rumsfeld testified to the existence of secrets Soviet weapons in the 70’s, the time that Elliot Abrams and Nicholas Negroponte lied to congress about the Nicaraguan contras, the lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the progress of democracy in the Middle East. The same sort of falsification is going on internally with regard to the threat to our Social Security System, the willful and systematic destruction of our welfare system and the true threat of terrorism. The list of “noble lies” is long and will continue as long as the Straussian cabal maintains control of our nation’s affairs.