In Irving Kristol’s posthumous new book, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, the godfather of neoconservatism writes that philosopher Leo Strauss “turned one’s intellectual universe upside down.” In this interview, Harvard University’s Harvey Mansfield, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, talks about Strauss’ philosophy, as well as its impact on both Kristol and subsequently neoconservatism.
What did Kristol find so radical, yet conservative, about Strauss?
The article in Kristol’s book is a review of Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing, which came out in 1952. That was before Strauss wrote the books that were addressed more to a general audience. It was quite remarkable that Irving Kristol saw merit and interest in this book, because the book was about Jewish and Arabic authors – not on the minds of most people – and then that he should have been so impressed.
Strauss overturned things because he showed that philosophers speak in two voices: one is their address to other philosophers over the ages and the other is to their own time. The first one concerns questions that philosophers raise against established institutions, especially religion. The second is what they might say in support of or to reform the politics of their own time. This means that much of what it is in a philosophical book is satire. It’s as if all those scholars of English literature were studying Gulliver’s Travels, and looking for the places in the world to which it refers, as if they really existed. Then somebody points out, “Oh, this is a satire.” This was not greeted with much of a warm reception; it was a heated reception by scholars who spent their lives taking seriously things that weren’t meant that seriously, and who now would have to retract much of what they had written. So Strauss never had much appeal to his own generation. It just shows Kristol’s independence of mind and his discernment that he saw something very powerful in this. Very few people did, and if they did they were so hostile towards it.
Another thing Kristol writes about in Strauss’ work is “the wisdom of the past,” embodied in the ideas of such classical thinkers as Aristotle and Maimonides. Strauss valued their thinking, which stressed the ideal of virtue, over the contributions of more modern philosophers. How exactly is Strauss drawing on these ancient thinkers and bringing them into the present?
It isn’t so much virtue or morality – it’s more philosophy as quest. In the history of philosophy Strauss found a distinction between the ancients and the moderns. The ancients thought that philosophy was not a practical endeavor, that the life of a philosopher was removed from politics, and his discoveries were mostly to the detriment of politics, showing that politics wasn’t as serious as it took itself to be. However these philosophic truths could not be applied in practice because they were too contrary to the human nature of most human beings. So Plato’s Republic was not intended to be a blueprint of an actual proposal for the reconstruction of society. Whereas for the moderns, philosophy became practical, it discovered an agenda, and it found things it wanted to reform. The means of reform was to bring philosophy closer to the people, perhaps borrowing from the Christian practice of propaganda, of bringing difficult truths to people who needed them simplified. This movement was later called “Enlightenment”; Strauss believes it began in the 17th century, or even with Machiavelli. And this was a big difference.
Strauss also thought that philosophy in the modern sense had gone through two or three crises and was now in a time when it began to question itself, especially in the philosophy of nature. This meant that modern philosophy no longer believed in itself, no longer believed in the power of human reason to liberate us. It was now necessary to go back to the ancients and to have another look at what we call “classical rationalism.” Together with this went Strauss’ notion that political philosophy is the crucial part of philosophy, because it’s political philosophy that considers the difficulty of applying philosophy to society.
But if the ancients felt that philosophy was impractical, and Strauss valued political philosophy as it applies to society, isn’t there a contradiction between the two views?
Strauss addresses the question of applying – he’s concerned with the question of why it can’t be applied, or why it could be. Why it can’t be in the case of the ancients or can in the case of the moderns. The distinction between ancient and modern philosophy revolves around politics. Hence political philosophy: how to make philosophy politic, but perhaps also how to make politics more open to philosophy. Without, however, believing the two can ever be brought together to coincide. As Plato says in the Republic, “it would take a great coincidence for philosophers to become king.” But in modern times we now think that it could happen.
Did Kristol think that it could happen?
It’s clear that he doubted it, maybe just from his experience as a Marxist. That was a great theme of Kristol’s throughout his life: the inapplicability of theory to politics, and that the mistakes theorists make are in fact political.
But he certainly promotes a value system that he details in essays like “Republican Virtue and Servile Institutions.” Are these views derived from the ancients?
It isn’t that philosophy despises morality, but it raises questions about those whose highest good is morality. Whether morality’s the highest thing. But it’s still a valuable thing. Modern philosophy, or liberalism (those aren’t quite the same thing, though in many ways they are) had lost its belief in itself, lost the kind of liberal virtues that made it advance and progress in its heyday. So it was a question of old-fashioned virtue.
Do you think he drew this idea from Strauss’ work?
Yes, I think he could. But Strauss never talked about politics. He very rarely used the word “conservative,” though his politics were conservative. But Strauss never wrote anything promoting specific policies.
Would you say Kristol had an accurate reading of Strauss, then?
Yes, I would. He would’ve gone deeper if he’d known more, but it was a very impressive first try at understanding Strauss.
Just glancing at the book’s table of contents, it seems Kristol was able to apply this philosophy to a wide array of subjects – mainly to politics, but also to art, Judaism, and even poetry.
Irving Kristol was very cultured but also very political, and that came out of his experience with Marxism. He didn’t have to be told that everything was political. And so he didn’t make aesthetic exceptions to the reach of politics – arts and culture are not a separate or independent realm with its own rules. He was into both those things throughout his life; so it meant he was a cultured man but also a political man. And that’s a typical combination; cultured means suave, sophisticated, political means powerful, alert. It’s very impressive how well he can find that.
You yourself talk a lot about virtue in society, as well. Kristol writes in one essay “the very word ‘virtue’ so frightens us today.” Why do you think our politics is devoid of the idea of “virtue?”
Today people are frightened of virtue because it implies evil or vice, and people want to be tolerant, which means not being judgmental, which also means not making black and white distinctions. One hears that a lot. And so people have become kind of like politicians themselves, wanting to give positives to both sides. It goes with our democracy to want to include everyone, and to want to be inclusive, and be open-minded – or at least appear open-minded – to people who disagree with you.
In “The Two Welfare States,” Kristol promotes the “manly” New Deal over the “feminine” European social safety net. These are hardly technical terms. Is this a take on social policy from the standpoint of virtues?
He was not an economist, which he was very proud of. He was not a Ph.D. person either [laughs]. And he never felt inferior because he missed one – he could deal with professors on equal terms, or better. And he had no patience for social science jargon.
So Kristol would be more of a political philosopher than a political scientist?
Yes, but he was always looking for a practical point. He wanted if not to do something, at least to promote the right people, or praise the right people and blame the wrong ones. And that would have an indirect effect on not only the particular policy, but also the discussion about it.
(Interview has been condensed and edited.)