Leo Strauss and the Cult of the Noble Lie
by James Horrox
As the “Free World” slowly but surely catches on to the idea that its so-called ‘War on Terror’ is largely an elaborate fabrication, an illusion brought into being by Western leaders in order to justify the execution of long-held policy objectives, it is becoming increasingly clear that this one gargantuan, overarching fiction of our times has been propped up by an infinite multiplicity of smaller, auxiliary untruths. As new tales of corruption, faulty intelligence and ham-fisted governmental cover-ups unfold in Western “media”, it is becoming ever more self-evident that the culture of institutionalized deception in Washington is one deeply embedded in the strategy of those who have shaped United States policy during Bush’s tenure in the White House. While the reputation for dishonesty acquired by Britain’s Labour government during recent years is widely seen as symptomatic of a simple pathological inability to tell the truth, coupled with a desperate need to explain an ever-growing catalogue of blunders and a truly dazzling ineptitude at being even remotely subtle vis-à-vis lying through its teeth in order to do this, in Washington it’s a different story altogether; the strategy of deception so demonstrably fundamental to the Bush administration’s modus operandi is calculated, deliberate, and a crucial part of a new era in American politics.
* * *
The centrality of organized deception to the U.S. policy agenda is attributable in large part to a controversial political thinker by the name of Leo Strauss. Until recently, outside the political and academic arenas Strauss (1899-1973) enjoyed a position of relative obscurity, but as the principal ideological inspiration behind the Neoconservative movement he has over the last few years found himself on the receiving end of all manner of accusations, particularly as blowback from neocon bellicosity has finally begun to elicit something resembling meaningful dissent within the ranks of the American electorate. In fact, the first mainstream mutterings about Strauss began as far back as 1996, when Time magazine identified him as one of the most influential and powerful figures in Washington, “the man most responsible for the Newt Gingrich ‘Conservative Revolution’ on Capitol Hill", and the intellectual godfather of Newtzi's ‘Contract on America’ blueprint for vicious fascist austerity. Not long afterwards Canadian academic Shadia Drury echoed these claims in her highly acclaimed book Leo Strauss and the American Right, in which she paints a somewhat less-than-complimentary picture of the thinker; Drury again stressed the centrality of his ideas to neoconservative ideology and her book prompted a certain amount of discussion of Strauss’s role in modern U.S. politics in the sub-mainstream media. But it wasn’t until several years later, after the neocons had assumed power, after the twin towers had fallen, after the Project for the New American Century had taken the reins of the foreign policy agenda and America had made clear its intentions of all-out global war, that Strauss’s name began to enter everyday conversation.
So Why So Controversial?
In response to an article of mine on Get Underground in early 2006 I was rebuked by one zealous reader for rather glibly referring to Strauss as a “Nazi philosopher”. The reader in question cited the fact that Strauss “was Jewish and fled Germany in 1934” as evidence of his being nothing of the sort. Strauss was indeed Jewish, but the claim that he “fled” Nazi Germany is a more disputed one; it has been suggested that he in fact left the country in pursuit of a better position abroad, and that he did so on the “warm recommendation” of the jurist Carl Schmitt. In 1934 Schmitt, a prominent Nazi Party member widely known as ‘Crown Jurist of the Third Reich’ was personally responsible for arranging a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship for Strauss which enabled him to leave Germany to study in England and France. In 1937 Strauss arrived in the United States where he would remain until his death in 1973. During his career he occupied various academic positions in U.S. universities including a stint at the New School for Social Research, and most notably a Professorship at the University of Chicago where a young Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky were among his students.
Although Strauss repeatedly professed disgust for the Nazi regime in Germany, much has been made of his early relationship with Schmitt (to be fair, Strauss actually broke off all contact with Schmitt after leaving Germany), and also of his interest in the political philosopher and Nazi Party Member Martin Heidegger, for whom he continued to express admiration throughout his career. To attribute totalitarian sympathies to Strauss purely on this basis would be as unfounded as to do so on the basis of his similarly controversial affinity with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. But while his supposed political loyalties with respect to key figures in the Third Reich have been enough to earn him the revulsion of many within the contemporary Left, it is for his own philosophy that he has attracted the most damning and most justifiable criticism.
In 1999 Drury set the ball rolling with her argument that Strauss is responsible for inculcating “an elitist strain” in American political leaders that “promotes imperialist militarism and Christian fundamentalism”. She accuses him of teaching that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them.” For Drury, Strauss was nothing less than “a Jewish Nazi” whose “pretense of American patriotism and piety hid a cynical and extremist antidemocratic ideology”. This ideology has its roots in ideas contained in Plato’s Republic, a book Strauss dedicated much of his academic career to studying and one on which his own philosophical outlook would be based. A staunch follower (or skewed interpreter?) of the latter’s concept of the Philosopher King, Strauss essentially put forward a belief in a totalitarian system run by a sophist elite who saw their mission as “absolute rulers”. This elite would rule over the populace through deception and consolidate their position of power by disseminating myths designed to keep the general population in blissful ignorance and docile servitude. Strauss thus believed in a hierarchical social structure that sees society divided into two classes: the elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. Unlike Plato, whose Philosopher King (a hypothetical paradigm and one never meant as a blueprint for reality) is more of a ‘benign dictator’ with the altruism and moral rectitude to be able to govern genuinely in the interests of the people, Strauss is unconcerned with the moral character of these leaders; rather, according to Drury, he believed that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”
Deception for Strauss is therefore not just an unavoidable bi-product of politics but a central and necessary part of it, a condition of “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled being the sine qua non of a stable society. Strauss suggests that “noble lies” therefore have a key role to play in uniting and guiding the mass of the population – the elite, in other words, need to proliferate certain “myths” in order to give people meaning and purpose and to ensure stability in society, on the basis that a populace dedicated to the relentless examination of what Nietzsche called “deadly truths” can never be conducive to social cohesion and a stable social order. As another Strauss analyst summarizes, he advocates a society in which “the people are told what they need to know and no more”, and he puts forward certain key myths that he claims all governments need to exert control.
Important among these is religion; in Strauss’s eyes religion is essential in order to impose moral law on the masses, and for this reason he had a “huge contempt” for secular democracy.While the elite few, he argued, are capable of absorbing the nonexistence of any moral truth, the masses would not be able to cope, and “if exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy [sic]”. But while advocating religion as an instrument of social control, he stressed that it was solely for the masses – the rulers who preached it need not be bound by it. Indeed, it would be ridiculous if they were, seeing as the truths proclaimed by religion were “a pious fraud” – i.e., lies.
Another crucial myth Strauss advocated was that of nationalism. Following a Hobbesian line of thinking he argues that mankind’s inherently aggressive nature can only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state: “because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people” [my italics]. In other words, Strauss believed that “a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat”. Moreover, according to Drury “following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured”.
To read the rest of the essay