STRAUSS AND WHAT HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN ABOUT
September 19, 2013
These passages are from a book, Conspiracy Theory in America, by Lance deHaven-Smith, which is about the concept of “conspiracy theory” as it is known in the United States today. Of course, as most know, the be accused of believing in “conspiracy theories” is almost a sure road to marginalization at least and ostracism at worst. DeHaven-Smith thinks this is not only wrong but dangerous, as well as inconsistent with older traditions of American political thought, including that of the founding generation. But in the course of describing the origins of this mode of thinking, deHaven-Smith makes some illuminating remarks about Leo Strauss.
“On the basis of an innovative analysis of classical political philosophy, Strauss challenged modern belief in the civilizing effect of science. He concluded that ancient philosophers had realized that a society based on philosophy alone eventually transformed into tyranny. The truth discovered by philosophy is that there are no gods, the universe is eternal rather than created, and life according to nature is for the strong to rule the weak. If this truth is shared with people who are not philosophers, social order will be destroyed because non-philosophers will no longer revere their society as unique and exemplary and will become lawless and politically opportunistic. Elites will abandon restraint in their competition with each other, and the masses will turn to elite demagogues who promise them equality of power, wealth, and status. The result will be rule by the will of the tyrant rather than by the laws of the land.
“Strauss argued that totalitarianism had arisen in Western civilization in the 1930s because modern philosophers had failed to conceal their dangerous truths from ordinary men….In Strauss’ view….science had destroyed belief in God and in the laws of religion, and this led to totalitarianism and to what Strauss called ‘the crisis of the West.’
“For Strauss, the only strategy likely to succeed in preserving liberal democracy and the philosophical way of life it allowed was to prop up confidence in Western values and the democratic system of government. He believed this necessitated noble lies and salutary myths, which would include an account of history showing that the democracy in question was fair in war and generous in peace, and that its founders were unmatched in courage, honesty, and overall greatness. Strauss believed there is a natural tendency to revere ancient authority, but this human inclination must be reinforced with tales of heroism. Presumably, civic culture would also need to be buttressed by calculated acts of hypocrisy by the nation’s leaders – for example, President Roosevelt maneuvering Japan to attack the United States; the victorious Allies trying and executing Japanese and German leaders for war crimes the Allies had also committed; and harping about the threat of global communism during the Cold War when much of the ‘expansionism’ the U.S. decried was coming from the U.S. itself. Strauss did not speak openly of all that would be condoned by his point of view, but SCADs [State Crimes Against Democracy] to shore up hatred against the enemy would seem to be acceptable. The key consideration would be the ability to avoid detection. Just about anything would be allowed if it could be kept secret.” [pp. 98-100]
Hence, the need for “conspiracy theory” denials and deniers, and, more generally, the need for a “culture,” a mindset that treats talk of conspiracies or evidence of conspiracies as paranoia, even mental illness, to be dismissed out of hand – unless of course the conspiracies in question were the work of our enemies, whether these enemies be communists or Islamists. Conspiracies meant to modify [“martialize” or militarize] and control [“high tone” or “oligarchize”] “democracy” or “representative government,” undertaken by our leaders, should be treated as the delusions of madmen or the flaky, not because they are false, as Karl Popper had argued, but rather because they are true – as Strauss implied and Machiavelli argued.
One result of this “culture,” not at all unintended, is that serious scholars and intellectuals sneer at anyone taking conspiracies seriously and focus their attention and efforts on, say, the founding fathers who are to be treated as statesmen of the highest order. Scholars like Charles and Mary Beard, authors of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: Appearances and Reality are not to be taken seriously but rather dismissed as mere partisans and simpleminded partisans at that.