Patrick Buchanan reviewed Paul Gottfied’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America a few weeks ago in Human Events: “Behind the Crack-up of the Right.” He thereby offers a simple and concise exploration of the main divide among American conservatives:
In introducing his new book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, Paul Gottfried identifies a fundamental divide between neoconservatives and the traditional right. The divide is over the question: What is this nation, America?
Straussians, writes Gottfried, “wish to present the construction of government as an open-ended rationalist process. All children of the Enlightenment, once properly instructed, should be able to carry out this … task.”
For traditional conservatives, before the nation is born, “ethnic and cultural preconditions” must exist. All “successful constitutional orders,” he writes, “are the expressions of already formed nations and cultures.”
To the old right, America as a nation and a people already existed by 1789. The Constitution was the birth certificate the nation wrote for itself, the charter by which it chose to govern itself. The real America had been born in men’s hearts by the time of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
In a recent issue of Modern Age, Jack Kerwick deals with this divide.
Irving Kristol, he writes, and quotes that founding father of modern neoconservatism, saw America as “a ‘creedal’ nation, a nation to which anyone can belong irrespective of ‘ethnicity or blood ties of any kind, or lineage, or length of residence even.’”
“For Kristol and his ilk,” Kerwick goes on, “one’s identity as an American is established by nothing more than an intellectual exercise whereby one rationally assents to the propositions encapsulated in the Declaration.”
“Given this unqualified quasi-religious commitment to ‘the Rights of Man,’ (for a neoconservative) America must be future-oriented, for as long as human rights are threatened, and regardless of where they are imperiled, her work in the world will never be complete.”
Though the neocons may have read and found inspiration in Strauss, I do not think that we can blame Strauss for their folly. Strauss, who read and knew Plato’s Republic better than most everyone, understood that the philosopher does not owe his being a philosopher to the city. In that sense, the man of truth lives apart and beyond the confines of the city. However, philosophers are necessarily few, and the foolhardy project of enlightening the masses—of making the city beyond itself—is not one that Strauss would have entertained. The laws of human society are fixed, and the city—and common men—have their own way of being. They are material conditions for the higher life of the few who live in the city. Were we to destroy the city, there could be no philosophical life. Strauss understood this, and that is why politics so interested him and his disciples. Perhaps, the neoconservatives made for poor students.