West Coast Straussianism Explained

It sounds like Michael Anton just emailed Steve Sailer:

… I apologize in advance for the rambling. Like Pascal, I don’t have time to write something short.

… You write:

I’m more than a little vague on how the different flavors of Straussianism tie into Trump vs. NeverTrump.

I do not claim to be able to answer this definitively. But let me take a stab.

I do not think you have Bloom right, but let us leave that aside (for now, at least). Let’s start with Strauss. Strauss is impossible to summarize, and deliberately so. He deliberately wrote in such a way as to ensure that even his most devoted followers would forever argue about what he really meant. This, he thought, would be good for philosophy, for intellectual ferment, for the brains and skills of his own students and later students, and so on. In this, he was copying the writers he most revered, above all (I believe) Plato, Xenophon, and Machiavelli. Not that there weren’t others—one might include Farabi and Maimonides—but I think that as writers, those were the big three for Strauss. One would have to include Aristotle as a thinker, but I don’t think Strauss modeled his writing after Aristotle’s.

Central to the project Strauss set for himself was to revive philosophy in the face of 20th century dogma which dismisses philosophy as impossible, superstition, outmoded, etc. Which condemns the thought of the past to be essentially and inevitably time-bound. Which holds that there is an arc of progress to thought no less than to technology and politics. Obama’s “right/wrong side of history” is just a dumbed-down version of this idea, which is most fully explicated in Hegel and which has dominated social science, the liberal arts, and nearly all intellectual life since the early 20th century.

Strauss had to walk a fine line: reassert the possibility that there are permanent truths and that they can be learned from old books and old debates, while at the same time not giving rise to dogma himself. He knew from reading about the past and from his own experience teaching that it is more than possible to liberate bright young men from 20th century dogma. (This is yet another permanent truth: in every age, there is a dogma, and a great teacher can always find bright young men to liberate from dogma.) But the danger is that, once liberated, these bright young men will insist on a counter-narrative that explains everything. They will reject one dogma, only to embrace another dogma—even if the new teaching was not intended as a dogma. Strauss was determined not to be the source of such a dogma.

Plato wrote 35 dialogues and no treatises in part to make it very difficult for his words to be used to form any kind of dogma. Strauss, I believe, wanted to do the same, which is why he wrote the way he did.

Yet—the tensions pile up—he didn’t want to simply liberate young men from error. He wanted to point toward the truth.

It wasn’t just “OK, historicism and positivism are wrong; now you’re on your own.” He wanted his students and readers to be open to the possibility that ancient metaphysics, ontology and epistemology were correct, or at the very least more probable than the possible alternatives. When it came to conclusions about the nature and ends of human life and action, Strauss believed that philosophy—that the human mind itself—could furnish only probabilistic answers. That’s not to say every question was a toss-up. Some are 99-1, while some are 51-49 (and some 50/50). But 100% certainty is impossible and even the greatest thinker must retain some humility about the limits of even the greatest mind.

This is explains in part why even (we) Straussians disagree with one another. We can all appeal to Strauss’s writings to find evidence for our own interpretation, but Strauss was too careful to close any doors.

Jaffa himself could and did marshal very compelling evidence that Strauss was at least open to Jaffa’s views on America, Lincoln, modernity, political legitimacy, etc. But he couldn’t PROVE it because Strauss was too careful to be definitive ether way.

I think Strauss would be glad that his students are still arguing about this stuff. If we weren’t, that would be evidence that his thought had ossified into dogma, and that he had failed.

So what do East and West Coast have in common? What do we BOTH get from Strauss?

First, an awareness of what Strauss called “the permanent problems”: Athens v. Jerusalem, politics v. philosophy, ancients v. moderns. These “permanent problems” or arguments or debates are simply coeval with man and never go away. These arguments can be found in a handful of “great books” which, when studied with care, reveal their authors all to be talking to one another about (more or less) the same big ideas. There is no “progress” that automatically makes the thought of the present superior to the thought of the past. Old books and old arguments are not interesting merely for historical reasons. They must be approached as if they might contain a permanent truth or possibility if one is to learn from them.

Second, as noted, a rejection of 20th century elite intellectual dogma, above all historicism (arc of progress, all thought is time-bound), positivism (law is wholly man-made and has no basis in nature), relativism (right and wrong are culturally determined) and the “fact-value distinction” (good and evil have no objective basis beyond human opinion).

Third, an openness to the possibility that, in fact and in truth, right and wrong have an independent metaphysical existence in nature itself, that is not affected by men’s opinion. Might may sometimes make right in the sense that the strong-yet-unjust may physically rule—this happens a lot, needless to say—but that mere fact never obviates the independent existence of good and evil.

Fourth, an openness to the possibility that there is a human nature that fundamentally does not change over the centuries or millennia. Man is partly malleable but not infinitively so. Circumstances change and those circumstances will influence that part of man which is malleable. But core to human nature is logos or reason or speech, which places man above the animals and below God (or the gods, or the unmoved mover, or nature). This is true even for atheists, who must acknowledge that speech gives man incredible power (for instance to rule over the entire animal kingdom, despite being physically a much inferior specimen to so many species) but nothing close to omniscience or omnipotence.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but those are the points that I think touch on what you are asking about.

So where do East and West differ?

That’s another huge topic. I will be as concise as I can, hoping that you’ll allow for some inevitable caricature.

This simplest way to put it would be: We West Coast Straussians believe the East Coasters to be too dogmatically certain that atheism is true, that there is, in the final analysis, no rational basis for good or evil. Or as one of them put it to me once, describing his understanding of Bloom’s fundamental view, there is “nothing cosmic” undergirding man’s belief or eagerness to believe in right and wrong. We want justice to be independently true, but nature unfortunately does not play along. Or, to quote Don Draper, “the universe is indifferent.”

The East Coasters for their part say of us: you West Coasters dogmatically assume that there is a natural, rational basis for right and wrong, good and evil, justice, etc. But not only can you not prove it, you can’t even marshal a preponderance of evidence to show that it’s more probable than the indifference thesis. You just want to believe, so you do, and lie to yourselves that your belief is rational, when it isn’t. If you were better philosophers, you would realize that, but fundamentally you are not philosophers but political ideologues.

To which we reply: You East-Coasters dogmatically equate philosophy with atheism. You assume that a preference for a transcendent order must be religious and antithetical to philosophy. You don’t take seriously our argument—which we get from Strauss and the texts he analyzed—that the existence of logos is itself a sufficient basis for such an order. More than that, you reject out of hand our argument that—given the existence of logos—natural morality is more reasonable and probable than relativism or nihilism.

And on it goes.

Specifically with regard to America, it goes like this (Heilbrunn does not have it right):

East Coast: since its peak in ancient times, Western civilization took two very large wrong turns. The first was Christianity, which attempts to synthesize the irreconcilable (Jerusalem and Athens, or faith and reason). The second was modernity, which attempts to break the Christian impasse by re-founding philosophy on the narrow basis of man’s material self-interest. This inevitably led to the civilizational race-to-the-bottom, in which we find ourselves. America in particular is based on Locke, which is just “enlightened self-interest”: i.e., control yourself so that you might enjoy material goods more securely. But the enjoyment of material goods is the only true end recognized by the American regime or its core principle. The only way out is a return to the ancients.

West Coast: Aristotle’s Ethics remain a true standard for human behavior and virtue for all time. Aristotle’s Politics—and all ancient conceptions of the best regime—however, are time-bound, in the sense that circumstances have changed and circumstances prevailing in Aristotle’s time no longer prevail. Those circumstances may return some day—again, there is no “progress”—but for the past many centuries, for now, and for the foreseeable future, the circumstances in which Aristotle’s “best regime” actually was practicably best are not prevalent. Important changes—the end of the ancient city, the Roman conquest of the ancient world, Christianity, modernity, the rise of the nation-state (among others)—mean that the best practicable regime has also changed. The best practicable regime in the current circumstance is a regime based on the recognition of natural equality (no man is marked by nature as the ruler of others), the reciprocal nature of rights and duties, and the consent of the governed. To say that all this is nothing more than “enlightened self-interest” is to ignore all that the Founders—and Locke!—had to say about good and evil, morality, virtue, duties, and religion.

East Coast: Strauss proved that all that high-minded talk in Locke was just “exoteric,” i.e., window dressing for the gullible and less-bright (i.e., you guys). The Founders may not have truly understood the radicalism in Locke but they still built a regime with no firm basis beyond self-interest. They were not smart or philosophic enough to understand what they were doing, so they built a fundamentally flawed regime.

West Coast: There is considerable textual evidence that Strauss deliberately played up the radicalism of the early moderns, including Locke, for rhetorical purposes. That purpose initially accomplished, he later published more favorable accounts of Locke and others as correctives. We also have to admit the possibility that Strauss was wrong about Locke. Strauss after all was human and not infallible he would be the first to insist that philosophy can never bow to authority, and he would disclaim for himself any status as an authority. But whatever Locke’s ultimate teaching, the American Founding must be judged on its own terms as an act of practical, actual statesmanship, and not solely against an abstract philosophic standard. Neither the “city in speech” of Plato’s Republic nor the “best regime” of Aristotle’s Politics has ever existed anywhere. The American regime is real. Let’s judge it by what politics is supposed to do: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”; in other words, to effect the “safety and happiness” of its citizens. By that standard, until recently, the American regime has worked remarkably well. And it has done so in no small part because it is NOT simply a compact of self-interest, but because its design takes into account “the indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”

So what does this have to do with Trump? A few things, if indirectly.

If my interpretation of East-West differences is correct, then, first of all, the East thinks less highly of America than we on the West do, so they are less concerned about saving America from degradation. They think it was born degraded.

This points to the second difference. We on the West think something went fundamentally wrong with America. This we trace most directly to capital-P Progressive ideas, which are based on flawed European philosophic imports. This is a good place to point out that East and West agree on modernity to a large degree. Strauss famously divided modernity into “three waves.” The first was the early moderns, Machiavelli to Montesquieu. The second begins with Rousseau. The third begins with Nietzsche. East and West agree, I think, on the fundamental flaws of the second and third waves; even if some of us find much merit in Nietzsche’s critique of 19th century bourgeois-democratic man. Where we at least partially disagree is over the merits of the early moderns, especially as interpreted by sober statesmen such as the American Founders. We also disagree in that the West Coast sees the import of second and third wave modernity into America as particularly harmful to the American regime and the American character. The Eastern school perhaps does not disagree on that point, but see the slide downward from the first to the second and third waves as inevitable, not just in the history of thought but in practical politics. We in the West do not agree that it was inevitable. Had America been able to resist second and third wave modernity, the nation and regime might still be sound. At any rate, we hold that there is no intrinsic flaw in the American regime itself or in the American people which made later modernity inevitable here.

Now, if something is inevitable, what do you do about it? Surely you don’t fight it, right? What’s the point? That tends to be the East Coast default. Can’t win, don’t try. They disdain the political.

This points to a still-deeper divide. Strauss taught that there are certain fundamental tensions in human life: Athens and Jerusalem, politics and philosophy, ancients and moderns (as noted above). He carefully avoids pronouncing fully and finally for any alternative. The most you can say is that he shows his preferences: Athens, philosophy, ancients. But he does not declare or decide. And he always makes the case fairly and fully for both sides, and says that reason cannot by itself dispositively foreclose any alternative.

The East again says that is all window dressing. Strauss is firm, if not explicit, in his rejection of politics for philosophy. He lived as a thinker and writer, not a doer. The example of Socrates, and so on.

Ah, but it’s not that simple. Socrates fought for Athens. The questions he raised were fundamentally political. Plato and Aristotle were both the teachers of political men. Plato went to Syracuse to advise a tyrant. Machiavelli was a practicing statesman for 14 years. Strauss himself made politics his main theme as a teacher. And so on.

We on the West further say: the East makes a definitive choice out of what Strauss left open. They decide where he, at the very least, hedged. In this choice at least, they are being dogmatic, contrary to Strauss’s teaching and example (and, most important, contrary to reason).

We say further, in explicitly Straussian terms, that philosophy depends on politics. This comes out clearly from the ancients and the deepest of the moderns (above all Machiavelli) and is a theme that Strauss emphasized often. Philosophy depends on the political community. There is no philosophy, or possibility of philosophy, in a pre-political or tribal society, and there is no philosophy in a despotism. Freedom of thought and inquiry depends on a sound, decent, moderate politics (which might be democratic, republican, aristocratic, constitutionally monarchic, etc.). Philosophy cannot afford to ignore politics, lest it put itself in danger. This is illustrated in ancient times by the story of Thales looking up at the sky and walking into a well, and in modern times by Shakespeare’s Prospero, who loses Milan and is exiled to a deserted island because of his neglect of politics.

Some say that the East-West divide fully burst open when Tom Pangle, visiting Claremont in 1982, said to an audience (at the Athenaeum, no less) “Socrates didn’t give a damn about Athens.” Pangle later denied having said this, though eye-witnesses insist that he did. But he wouldn’t go so far as to disclaim the sentiment, either. This is but one instance—if a dramatic one—of why we West-Coasters always at least partially distrust the Easters. When caught red-handing saying what they really believe, they tend to revert to fishy denials, as if they intuit that their beliefs are disreputable. They claim their beliefs are all about having the courage to face the dismaying truth—as opposed to us simpletons who need myths to live by—but they don’t have the courage to be honest about their beliefs. Of course, they would say that they are simply being ironic to the un-philosophic masses.

The East would also laugh at the mere thought that the West, in standing for Trump, is standing for philosophy. But mere laughter is not an argument. They have either not grappled with the thesis or they have made peace with what it opposes.

Strauss’s most famous public (as opposed to narrowly academic) debate was the 1949-1952 exchange with Kojeve. The core issue in that debate is identical to the core issue of the 2016 U.S. presidential election: globalism versus nationalism, universalism versus particularism, leveling similarity versus genuine diversity, the “universal and homogenous state” versus a heterogeneous community of separate and distinct nations. Strauss clearly sides with the latter. Which is to say, in the context of 2016, with Trump.

This is too much for any East Coast Straussian ears. They fall back on what they feel is their strongest argument: Trump is vulgar. They compare him to Churchill, Clemenceau, De Gaulle, Eisenhower and the like and find him wanting. I don’t want to dismiss this argument out of hand. But what, exactly, makes it decisive?

East Coast Straussians pride themselves on being Graecophiles above all. Well, Plutarch could not be clearer in his indifference to sexual immorality and other personal failings. East Coast Straussians are, to put it mildly, not exactly stalwart in defense of traditional morality. By this I do not mean that they are personally dissolute. From what I can tell by their outward behavior, they are by and large sober in thought and deed, and very responsible. But in RHETORIC, they are worse than Charles Murray’s white overclass, which cannot bring itself to preach what it practices. The East Coast Straussians preach the OPPOSITE of what they practice. They preach (however slyly) relativism and even nihilism, while they personally live orderly, sober, moral lives. And then, to make matters worse, they accuse us West-Coasters of being stupid dolts for having the temerity to defend morality with philosophic arguments. This is grating, to say the least. And then they compound that with pearl-clutching, moralistic objections to Trump.

Sorry, not buying.

So, fundamentally, we West Coast Straussians took 2016 more seriously than the East Coasters because we take every election more seriously than they do. We just CARE more. If they want to object to that, fine. I’d like to have them on the record taking a stand for politics.

We also saw 2016 as a fundamental test of the regime. This goes back to what I said about Claremont (West Coast Straussianism) having identified Progressivism as a fundamentally alien rootstock grafted onto the American regime. I know that you (Steve) have found things to like in Progressivism: immigration restriction, anti-trust, civil service exams, national parks, and so on. We Claremonsters like all those things, too. But they are not fundamentally Progressive. All of those things are fully compatible with the American regime as designed by the Founders. Those policies are not the heart of Progressivism. The heart of Progressivism is the attack on the American Founding principles as fundamentally untrue and the denial that any political principles can ever be lastingly true, because all political principles are time-bound (historicism) and there is no permanent human nature. Man is infinitely malleable. This is the Progressive attack mounted by Hiram Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the like.

Progressivism holds that the times are continually changing. This is different than a fundamental change of circumstance, which might be changed back. This is an idea of unidirectional progress, an inexorable historical process, a “force” completely independent of human control and that cannot be affected by any human action.

How then to keep up with the times, with this inevitable process of constant change? Progressivism qua Progressivism posits the necessity of expert rule. This is but one illustration of the genius of Strauss in seeing that everything old is new and vice versa. The ancients say that the best regime is the rule of the wise. On one level, who could object to that? Wise rule is better than unwise rule.

But in practice, it becomes fraught. Who is truly wise? Many claim to be wise, but are they really? Who is wise enough to judge who is wise? And how to convince the unwise many to consent or submit to the wise few? The ancients think all this through and appear to conclude that while the rule of the wise is in principle the best regime, in practice it is all but impossible to implement. The classics are very circumspect and measured about the power of human wisdom and the limits of what man can do.

The moderns by contrast—especially second wave moderns—tend to hubris. They revive expert rule as a serious program. It is a necessity because only a wise few can properly intuit what the ever-changing times demand, and implement that on the unwise many, who without guidance would just keep doing things the old way. This is the root of transnational bureaucracies such as the EU and what in America has been termed the “administrative state.” That latter term has been explored and developed most fully by John Marini, a Claremont-trained scholar. He is really the most important node connecting West Coast Straussianism to Trump.

Marini’s analysis of how the American regime has been transformed from one of Constitutional government by consent into administrative rule by experts is the single most complete and accurate account of how America is really governed today. Marini was first to see that Trump was mounting a fundamentally political challenge to administrative rule.

Take your favorite issue: immigration. For years, you’ve been saying that the ruling class mantra is “Nothing to vote on here, move along.” That’s Marini’s point. A bipartisan “expert” consensus determines the “correct” position and then ensures that it prevails, no matter what the people want or vote for. That’s true not just of immigration but of a range of issues.

When the people vote for change—for candidates who at least SAY they will do something different—the change never materializes. What Marini recognized in Trump posed a fundamental challenge to this paradigm. It wasn’t just that Trump was right on core issues of immigration, trade and war, though of course he was. It was that Trump was mounting the first serious, if implicit, challenge to administrative rule in decades. To the whole governing paradigm of the West since the advent of Progressivism.

The last thing I would point out is that Tom West’s new book The Political Theory of the American Founding will eventually be seen as THE bible of West Coast Straussianism. To my mind, it already is. But it just came out and so is still being digested. This is simply THE best and most comprehensive account of what the American Founders actually believed and tried to implement. It purports to be a descriptive and not prescriptive or programmatic book. West simply says “I’m going to tell you what the Founders believed, without passing judgment.” But inevitably one comes away thinking “This is the way it should be. This makes far more sense than the current insanity.” If there is to be a rebirth of political sanity, this book will be the guide.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in America. Bookmark the permalink.