Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 10, No. 2; Summer 2004

Many Words for Hegemony

"Ignoble Liars." By Earl Shorris. Harper’s, June 2004. pp. 65–71

It was not to be expected that Earl Shorris would view Leo Strauss with favor. Shorris is decidedly a man of the left; and most, though not all, followers of Strauss are neoconservatives who support a militant foreign policy. (William Galston, a philosopher who advised Clinton, and the columnist Andrew Sullivan, are examples of those influenced by Strauss who are not neoconservatives.) Although his own biases must be kept in mind, Shorris raises valuable points that warrant further study.

Shorris begins from two undoubted facts. First, much of current American foreign policy is promoted by lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the government must have been aware of this while it assiduously urged the contrary. Neither is it true that the United States has any prospect of bringing democracy to that unhappy country: nevertheless, spokesmen of the government claim to be doing exactly that.

Second, a number of those responsible for American foreign policy are students or followers of Leo Strauss, who was for many years an influential teacher at the University of Chicago. Among these are Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Stephen Cambone, and Abraham Shulsky.

What has the second fact to do with the first? Shorris notes that Strauss, whose teaching stressed careful study of the classics of political philosophy, was a proponent of the "noble lie." In this view, the masses are incapable of governing themselves. An intellectual elite must be in control; but, to secure the acquiescence of the people, it must often deceive them for their own good. "One of the great services that Strauss and his disciples have performed for the Bush regime has been the provision of a philosophy of the noble lie, the conviction that lies, far from being simply a regrettable necessity of political life, are instead virtuous and noble instruments of wise policy" (p. 68).

Shorris seems to me probably right about Strauss’s view of the noble lie, but for the wrong reasons. Shorris places great emphasis on Strauss’s doctrine of secret writing. Great philosophers like Maimonides, Strauss maintained, concealed their radically subversive views in their books. Their true doctrine emerges only through hints: the alert reader must note the deliberately inserted contradictions by which the philosopher reveals his true views to those fit to receive them.

Contrary to Shorris, though, the view that philosophers teach a secret doctrine is by no means identical to the claim that rulers must lie to the masses; thus, Shorris’s efforts to explain Strauss’s method of reading do not directly support what he says about the noble lie. Nevertheless, Shorris seems to me correct to associate Straussians with the disputed doctrine. The eminent Straussian teacher Werner J. Dannhauser, in his talk, "Where There Is Smoke There Is Fire: The Case of Leo Strauss," delivered at Boston College on October 23, 2003, warned younger Straussians against carrying to extremes the doctrine of the noble lie.

What is the truth that the noble lie attempts to conceal? Shorris draws attention to Strauss’s attraction for Nietzsche’s will-to-power. "But the legacy of Strauss fits better with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche [than with Plato]. This may seem curious, because Strauss blamed ‘the second [sic] crisis of modernity’ (the crisis of our time) on the author of Beyond Good and Evil. . . . Nietzsche had found the style and the daring to say what lay in the depths of Strauss’s soul. Nietzsche’s aphoristic love letters to power were the image of Strauss revealed in the aesthetic mirror. Nietzsche ensnared the timid professor who passed on the ideas to his disciples, who whispered them into the all too willing ears of our politicians" (p. 71). Shorris could have strengthened his argument by reference to the unorthodox Straussian Laurence Lampert, in particular his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 1998); Lampert emphasizes Strauss’s admiration for Nietzsche.

Shorris’s hypothesis, then, is this. The shapers of American foreign policy are not genuinely motivated by the rhetoric they impart to the masses, which stresses democracy and resistance to aggression. Instead, they avidly pursue power for its own sake. Power politics, not democracy, rules Bush’s foreign policy; and this the makers of the policy have learned from Strauss.

I will allow myself one digression, which I hope is not entirely irrelevant to Strauss and power politics. One of Strauss’s close friends was the classicist and philosopher  Kurt Riezler, a colleague at the University of Chicago. (Strauss and Riezler intrigued to prevent the University from offering an appointment to Karl Popper.) Riezler in his youth was the secretary of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, German Chancellor at the start of World War I. Riezler before the war published under the pseudonym J.J. Ruedorffer a book favoring a German "world policy;" and some have conjectured that Riezler’s work influenced Bethmann’s aggressive policy in the years leading to war. In his obituary of Riezler, Strauss offers a sympathetic interpretation of this book. Though nationalism ranks below philosophy, it may be the best alternative available to us. (I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that Strauss had anything to do with the origins of World War I!)

Shorris’s theory seems to me suggestive but not conclusive. Power politics has an ancestry that goes back much further than Nietzsche, and it is not clear why one must invoke a political philosopher to explain why politicians pursue their characteristic activity. It is not necessary to assume that businessmen have studied economics to explain why they aim to make a profit. Also, what is the connection between Nietzsche’s will-to-power and power politics? Are they as directly linked as Shorris imagines?

Further, a contrasting interpretation of Strauss needs to be tested against the view here presented. Perhaps Strauss’s thesis of secret writing has aroused the wrong sort of fascination. It has led people to seek a secret meaning in Strauss himself. But what if Strauss himself was no more, and no less, than a scholar seeking to understand past thinkers, rather than a philosopher with a doctrine of his own?

But Shorris is not easily dismissed. Many in Bush’s coterie have studied with Strauss: is it not reasonable to ask what they might have learned from him? In his interesting contrast of Strauss with Isaiah Berlin, Shorris ought to have mentioned that Strauss devoted a critical essay to Berlin.

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