From Plato to Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: On the Roots of Right-Wing Anti-Liberalism
It is helpful when thinking about the contemporary intellectual landscape as it concerns the problem of liberalism and the alternatives to it not to ignore the phenomenon of right-wing anti-liberalism. Yet this phenomenon is not as well understood as it should be. The historical reasons for this state of affairs are not difficult to grasp and do not need elaboration. But the question remains whether something of importance was lost when alternatives to the right of liberalism were discredited for reasons of political history. Failure to understand the varieties and theoretical merits of right-wing anti-liberalism will make it harder to deal adequately with the return of the right, if there is one. Historically justified talk about the vices of right-wing anti-liberalism may have blinded us to the problem of its virtues. But we won’t do ourselves favors by willingly proceeding blindly through a matter of such consequence.
You could not go through a list of the top five or maybe three right-wing anti-liberals, in all likelihood, without coming upon Carl Schmitt. In the name of the friend-enemy distinction and the real possibility of physical killing implied by war against an enemy, Schmitt’s Concept of the Political polemicizes against liberalism with inimitable conceptual clarity and lethal reserve. Schmitt the Nazi jurist, like no other thinker in so little space and with such effectiveness, reminded us that depoliticization, neutralization, and evasion of the responsibilities of sovereignty are not likely to represent a safe and serious path forward for a people.
Surprisingly, though, in his notes on Schmitt’s book, the more moderate Leo Strauss asserted that Schmitt did not manage to find a horizon beyond liberalism. For Strauss, Schmitt’s position is liberalism with an inverse polarity. Whereas a liberal tolerates any form of life so long as it is peaceful, Schmitt tolerates any form of life so long as it is dangerous. Both sides are neutral as to the content and mirror each other in their empty formalism. Moreover, Schmitt returns to man’s natural state of enmity. But that natural state of enmity is just the Hobbesian starting point for civilization as pacification. Schmitt doesn’t pass Hobbes, the founder of liberalism.
Schmitt said Strauss saw through him like an x-ray. We, therefore, have it on Schmitt’s authority that Strauss’s interpretation merits our most attentive consideration. For Strauss, the primary cause of disagreement among men concerns the dispute over the right way of life. A man who no longer asks the question of what is right is no longer a man. “But if we seriously ask the question of what is right, the quarrel will be ignited… the life-and-death quarrel: the political — the grouping of humanity into friends and enemies — owes its legitimation to the seriousness of the question of what is right”. Not an empty formalism but the substantive matter of the utmost concern is decisive for the political. We can’t ask the question of what is right or what is good, however, without understanding how the tradition of political philosophy has influenced the way we formulate and respond to that answer. The serious life needs the history of political philosophy. To reiterate this surprising point, starting from the gold standard of right-wing anti-liberalism, Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, we quickly find ourselves down a road that starts not with enmity and risk but with the question what is good, whose origins lie, in our tradition, in Plato and Aristotle (and the Bible).
But we have moved too quickly. Let us slow down. It is possible to say that for Schmitt, and more generally for a certain kind of right-wing anti-liberalism, what matters is the willingness to risk one’s life in battle against an enemy. What matters is courage. Why should courage be the primary virtue? Strauss reasons as follows. The bourgeois ideal is to live a riskless life: we’re motivated to avoid a violent death and to seek increasingly comfortable self-preservation. The most straightforward way to reject the bourgeois ideal is to embrace a risky life, to be open to death and to expose oneself to non-utilitarian self-sacrifice. That is clear. What is the problem?
The problem of assessing the proper place of the virtue of courage in the order of human affairs did not arise with Schmitt or his followers. It is an old problem. You can find it in Plato. Indeed, you cannot do better than to read the beginning of Plato’s Laws if you want to assess the claim that warlike virtues are primary for man.
The Laws tells the story of an old man from Athens who visits the island of Crete to talk to an old Cretan and an old Spartan about law. The first question of the dialogue is the Athenian Stranger asking them who they say gave them their laws, a god or a man? Incidentally, that makes the dialogue indispensable for the theological-political problem and not only for the problem of the status of courage. They respond by saying that, to answer justly, their laws were given by a god. The Athenian Stranger asks them: with an eye to what end has your legislator legislated? In our case, we’d be familiar with an answer that said that legislation has been made with an eye to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or peace, order and good government, or something like that. The interlocutors in the dialogue respond that their legislators legislated with an eye to victory in war; all cities are always in a state of war with one another. The Athenian Stranger, questioning them like Socrates, asks whether it is also the case that individuals are always at war with one another, and then whether individuals are at war with themselves. Yes, they say. When we celebrate victory in war, he asks, do we not celebrate the victory of the better part over the worse? We would not, after all, celebrate the victory of the worse part of the better, right? Right. So, the aim of victory in war has some orientation to the question of the better or worse, and it could not be that the god, who is wise, wanted you only to think about victory and not about that other issue. They agree.
Before too long, if you pay attention, the Athenian Stranger is providing an absolute masterclass on the tactful reform of a code of law. But for our purposes what must be emphasized is that Plato shows that properly understood, independently of reference to the god, it is not true that courage is the highest human excellence, nor is it true that courage is the highest political virtue. It is plain to see why the rejection of the bourgeois ideal initially thinks otherwise. However, under the broad theme of the virtues of right-wing anti-liberalism, we have to acknowledge the Platonic argument, which also rejects the bourgeois ideal yet positions courage in its right place in the hierarchy of human excellences.
We’ve moved too fast again. It is somehow too easy to pass from contemporary right-wing anti-liberalism to Plato. If it were that obvious a step to take, you’d see more Platonists among the erstwhile deplorables or their most radical subset. But you’re more likely to see, together with Schmitt, Nietzsche and possibly some other thinkers, including traditionalists and German conservative revolutionaries. There are obstacles among these thinkers that prevent a simple return to Plato. To take the most obvious example, Nietzsche criticizes Platonism ably at some length. Heidegger does, too. Platonism seems like a quaint, refuted thing. Socrates was old and ugly. The new right-wing anti-liberalism is young and hot. Plato’s Socrates did what? He talked and talked and talked. But we’ve had enough talking. It’s time for action.
It is fitting and natural that the young right-wing anti-liberals want action. It would be dereliction of duty and a sign of incompetence for their elders not to understand that and instead to offer them pathetic bromides that reinforce among the youth the impression that the old and ugly elders are hopelessly out of touch. At least, that’s what Strauss argued in 1941 when he said that the worst and most dangerous thing for the young German nihilists, those that rejected civilization and hated the leftist version of the future, was progressive teachers who didn’t understand the positive significance of their youthful “no” unaccompanied by a coherent “yes.” Old-fashioned teachers undogmatic enough to comprehend what the young people wanted, and why, could have helped them see that the alternative to the bourgeois life and the communist vision need not be the destruction of civilization. But there were no such teachers, and the students were further radicalized by clueless progressives.
Strauss ultimately acknowledged the decency of the moral passion represented by right-wing anti-liberal antipathy towards bourgeois and communist ideals, a passion he says was shared by Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. His analysis of German nihilism showed that although under the circumstances this moral passion was partly expressed in vulgar form in Hitlerism, it had profound antecedents and could be justified on high ground. Strauss combined his justification of the philosophically necessary criticism of modern civilization with a responsible corrective of what he regarded as its politically disastrous consequences. He did so partly and with reference to the situation then prevailing by arguing that the pre-modern ideal, more desirable than the modern one, was better preserved in the advanced countries of the West than it was in young Germany, which in its zealously militaristic rejection of modern civilization forgot the classical concern with the good life.
More importantly, Strauss’ recovery of the tradition of classical political philosophy showed that the necessarily immoderate character of the philosophical quest for wisdom need not be incompatible with the virtue of moderation. To paraphrase one of Strauss’s many brilliantly astute formulations, moderation is a virtue of not the philosopher’s thought, which is private, but of his speech, which is public or political. It is an open question to what extent present-day right-wing anti-liberalism shares these virtues of thought and speech. They are not particular to Plato. For Strauss, they characterize the tradition of political philosophy, where the moderation of speech is reflected in the practice of exoteric writing and the immoderation of thought in the practice of writing between the lines. That suggests that the alternative to the right-wing anti-liberalism that champions the virtue of courage need not return to Plato: it can draw upon the broader tradition Strauss called “Platonic Political Philosophy,” by which he meant the specific combination of immoderation and moderation mentioned above.
The fact that there are varieties of right-wing anti-liberalism forces us to raise the question of whether any of them is true. We are not particularly well equipped today to even understand the intention of such a question, for who today still believes, and thinks he can prove, that there can be the truth simply about political life?
The problem is that we are lagging behind some old debates that are quickly becoming matters of the first importance and that we can no longer defer. Eighty years ago, Strauss assessed the Spenglerian claim that scientific knowledge and other domains of human life are relative to their time and place and that therefore there cannot be the truth simply, not about political life and not even about mathematics or logic. Strauss argued that among the problems fatal to Spengler’s approach is that Spengler assumed too much. When claiming that truth varies according to culture, he assumed he could describe something as a culture that did not describe itself that way or that he could interpret cultural life in terms of central and peripheral concerns regardless of the question whether the people he was talking about divided their concerns into central and peripheral ones, and if so, whether the specific areas were the same ones Spengler took for granted. Strauss showed that a hermeneutically adequate assessment of the claim that truth varies according to culture would at least have to study a culture’s texts to grasp how it understands itself, without imposing modern conceptual schema on it from the start (e.g. we do not understand the polis as a “city-state,” because “state” is an interpretation drawn from a conceptuality that is foreign to ancient Greek political thought). If we begin with the thesis that all truth is culturally relative, we are led, then, to the interpretative task of understanding cultures on their own terms through the study of their old books. That study, Strauss thought, leads not to historical and cultural relativism but to a set of basic problems and concerns that remain constant over time and place and that therefore reveal something about permanent human nature. If that is right, it should be possible to assess whether a teaching is true to human nature simply. Relativism does not hold. The question which if any right-wing anti-liberalism is true is meaningful.
Strauss also saw, though, that the thesis of historical and cultural relativism had a more serious philosophical dimension than what Spengler himself provided, namely Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger’s historicism forces us to think differently about the truth and virtues of right-wing anti-liberalism. But where is this research project competently pursued? Do we have enough of an understanding of Heidegger to consider him in relation to Schmitt and other critics of the bourgeois and communist ideals? Heidegger’s philosophy intimately concerns us in the moment of the crisis of liberalism.
What if the issue of the truth of a teaching doesn’t matter not because truth is relative to time and place but because the truths of reason are subordinate to a greater authority? Among the varieties of right-wing anti-liberalism there are, after all, not only the atheism of Nietzsche but also positions based on obedience to divine command, political theologies. You can already imagine a few people in the intellectual landscape who represent that alternative.
That is nothing new, however. Strauss was writing about a similar dynamic in 1940 when recounting the intellectual atmosphere of postwar Germany. When we are faced with the same situation, with radical atheism on one hand and obedience to divine authority on the other, what then? Strauss said his contemporaries lacked the conceptual wherewithal to think about such a situation clearly. Are we any better off?
Some among Strauss’s contemporaries who aimed to return from authority to reason turned to the natural law theories of the 17th and 18th centuries. At least that way there could be a rationally defensible moral standard to provide cohesion to a political community. Yet Strauss showed that these teachings did not provide a solid basis for a return to reason. They depended too much on the traditional belief that modern philosophy had refuted classical philosophy and progressed beyond it on the back of that refutation. Heidegger, however, demolished that belief. He showed that the classics cannot have been refuted because they have not been understood. A return to reason that was not marred by a faulty tradition could only be a return to premodern reason. That return could not rest content with scholasticism, because it was clear that scholasticism depended on Aristotle; it had a derivative nature. A genuine return to reason could only be a return to Plato and Aristotle. All philosophy after Plato and Aristotle, Strauss argued, was based on concepts inherited from them without taking over the genuine encounter with ordinary life that engendered those concepts initially. Studying Plato and Aristotle meant encountering man’s natural lifeworld, seeing naïvely in the best possible sense and in the only way we still can. Later philosophies are overly artificially constructs uprooted from that natural state, itself gradually forgotten. Interpreting ourselves by their light, we’re uprooted, too.
From Spengler’s relativity thesis through the irrational authority of political theology to the inadequate invocation of natural law and scholasticism, Strauss returns us, then, to Plato. Could this be the greatest virtue of right-wing anti-liberalism: that, unlike liberalism and left-wing anti-liberalism, it leads us back to the origin of our history, and to the origin of our future? For we cannot overcome Plato without having understood him.