Straussian aside

The smaller a man’s mind, the easier it is to drive him out of it, as I have observed passim over the years. In certain academic, sherry-drinking milieux, it could be done only a generation ago with just five syllables (“As Leo Strauss says, …”) & sometimes with just three. Unfortunately today they no longer drink sherry, & probably wouldn’t recognize the name. Strauss was a delicious affront to the Bouvards & Pécuchets of post-classical liberalism. He was the worst kind of “fascist” in the sense that he embodied pre-post-classical liberalism. He taught his (many illustrious) students to read the classical texts of political philosophy with attention & great care; to escape from the narrow present into an historical breadth of thinking. By doing so they would find any number of things that were deeply affronting.

Nineteen sixty-three is a year I recall vividly, though I had only ten years’ experience of this planet at the time & was still, as it were, getting up to speed. It was the annus mirabilis in which, as the late Philip Larkin noted, sexual intercourse was discovered (too late for him; too early for me), “between the end of the Chatterley ban, & the Beatles’ first LP.”

I was not, incidentally, then or later a student of Leo Strauss. The best I’ve ever been able to do is read his beuks. But I have some further idea of his “presence” from having met some of his academic progeny.

He was Jewish in the best sense, from a Christian point of view: the leaven in our bread, the particle in our oyster, the perfect outsider, within. It was the Jews that made Christian Germany, indeed Christian Europe, “rise” intellectually, tiny though they always were in number. They did so simply by remaining Jewish, often even when they ceased to be practising Jews. But, thinking as Jews. Though I will admit the remark is rather mysterious, the Jews have remained God’s gift to us, & the means by which we could obtain a certain self-understanding; without which we could not. Even in pogroms, mediaeval & later, they gave us a gift of self-understanding, as no other people could — in that case, of the evil in us. That Christ himself was a Jew, is at the heart of this mystery, which even in this temporal world, seems strangely to transcend time. But that is another, very long story (one with which, incidentally, Catholics were wrestling, painfully, in 1963).

Re-reading a couple of the essays collected in Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient & Modern, in wee hours of a sleepless night,  I was reminded of his nearly angelic ability to drive a certain class of people out of their little minds. Let me cite, for example, this brief passage, from an essay in which Prof Strauss was reviewing a social science colloquium, in 1963:

“Not a few people who have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society, without having been induced by their despair to question secularism as such, escape into the self & into art. The ‘self’ is obviously a descendant of the soul; that is, it is not the soul. The soul may be responsible for its being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain if it is not a self by virtue of its own effort. The soul is part of an order which does not originate in the soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is part of an order that does not originate in the self. Surely the self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of its sovereignty, but rather oppressed by it, not to say in a state of despair. One may say that the self putting its trust in itself & therefore in man, is cursed. …”

Strauss was alluding to Jeremiah (17:5 et seq). He goes on to say: not only cursed but haunted. The self (contemporary with 1963), though an “unwilling witness to the biblical faith,” & in that sense unbelieving, was nevertheless in no sense pagan. It might have wished to be, but could not be. “It is the unbelief of men who, or whose parents, were Christians & Jews. …

“They are haunted men. Deferring to nothing higher than their selves, they lack guidance. They lack thought & discipline. Instead they have what they call sincerity. Whether sincerity as they understand it is necessary must be left open until one knows whether sincerity is inseparable from shamelessness.”

One sees immediately how he might be hated. And that is before he has mentioned that this “sincerity,” which has become so prized, “fulfils itself in shrill & ugly screams.”

We begin to see where this is going; that the essay is developing into a very nice analysis of the mental outlook of the generation that found its primary intellectual expression in protests against the Vietnam War, against “racism,” against “inequality,” against “conformity,” against everything that could be defined as “American” — while dreaming of an American “great society” of no discernible content.

“We have met the enemy & he is us.”

That immortal line from the comic strip, Pogo, sounded depths deeper than its draughtsman designed. For the scream of that sovereign Self could only be screamed against itself. People who acknowledged no moral law, & no ground upon which any law could fasten, uttered protests that assumed the existence of immortal & unalterable moral law. What were they thinking?

Of a time only slightly displaced from them, when such a moral law was acknowledged.

And to compound the joke, the cry for “diversity” was already in the air, together with demands that every alternative to the stifling conformity of the atomized self — in its secular state, demanding secular statism — be overcome. And for the sake of world peace.

Truly, for world peace, & world government, & perfect universal conformity, for as Strauss also noted it is the very existence of diversity in thought & life that is the cause of conflict. In effect, looking back over fifty years, we have the moment in which “tolerance” was being redefined, from “live & let live” to an absolutely uncompromising intolerance of anything with moral, intellectual, or spiritual substance.

Has there been any progress in the last fifty years? I would say that our liberal intellectuals today are less haunted; or rather, if haunted, not by memory but by some ghost more directly; perhaps, as I speculate, the Holy Ghost, whose grace still operates even on lost souls. A liberal intellectual of 1963 could still see specific things that he did not like, against which he was furiously rebelling. His descendant, his intellectual grandchild of 2013, shadow boxes in a complete fog, entirely of his own exhalation. In that sense, the secular humanist Revolution has been achieved.

So that today it is no longer necessary to utter five syllables, in order to drive a liberal intellectual out of his mind. We find him out of his mind already.