Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Attack on Leo Strauss from the Paleoconservative Historicists

The debate over Leo Strauss's political thought has been dominated by two positions.  Strauss's critics on the Left have charged that he was a right-wing--even fascist--enemy of liberal democracy.  In response to this criticism, his defenders on the Right have argued that he was a defender of liberal democracy against the threats coming from communism, Nazism, relativism, and historicism.

Over the last couple of years, we have seen a new position in this debate staked out by the paleoconservative historicists Paul Gottfried (in Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America [Cambridge University Press, 2012]) and Grant Havers (in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy [Northern Illinois University Press, 2013]).  Gottfried and Havers speak for what they identify as the Old Right, which they regard as true conservatism.  Here I will comment on Havers's book.  I hope to comment on Gottfried's book in a future post.  Some of the thinking in this paleoconservative historicist critique of Strauss is stated in Havers's review of Gottfried's book.

As a conservative Christian historicist who wants to defend Anglo-American liberal democracy, Havers contends that such a defense must appeal to history rather than nature, because Anglo-American liberalism is rooted in the historical particularity of liberal Protestant Christianity, and consequently, it cannot be universalized by any appeal to a universal human nature.  As a Darwinian classical liberal, I argue that Havers's antithetical dichotomy of nature versus history is mistaken, because one can rightly defend Anglo-American liberal democracy as rooted in an evolutionary natural history.

In contrast to those like Shadia Drury, Stephen Holmes, and William Altman, who identify Strauss as a man of the extreme anti-liberal Right, Havers takes Strauss as sincere in his professed support of liberal democracy, even if it's the moderate support of a friendly critic.  More specifically, Havers identifies Strauss as a Cold War liberal.  To counter the threats coming from communist universalism, historicist relativism, and Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss thought that liberal democracy had to be defended as grounded in a universal human nature, and thus conforming to the timeless standards of natural right that could be grasped by reason as transcending the time-bound traditions of history.  Although Strauss himself never interpreted this to mean that American ideals should be imposed on all other nations by an American foreign policy of democratic imperialism, that's the message that was advanced by the neoconservative followers of Strauss.

According to Havers, Strauss's primary mistake here is in failing to see that Anglo-American liberal democracy is rooted in the particular historical tradition of modern liberal Protestantism--especially as based on the egalitarian morality of Christian charity--and therefore it has no timeless natural truth outside of this unique historical tradition.  As a result, liberal democracy has no human appeal beyond the Anglo-American world of England, the United States, and Canada.  Any attempt to export liberal democracy to other countries must fail.  And even in the Anglo-American world, liberal democracy will lose its appeal as fervent belief in liberal Protestantism declines.

In the course of developing this general argument, Havers offers insightful commentary on many aspects of Strauss's influence on Anglo-American conservatism.  He criticizes Strauss and his followers for generally downplaying the importance of Christianity in shaping liberal democratic thought, and he indicates how troublesome this has been for Christian conservatives.  He shows how Strauss tried to find ancient Greek roots for liberal democracy.  He observes that while Strauss and his followers have celebrated Winston Churchill, they have failed to reflect on how Churchill stressed the importance of Christianity in shaping Western civilization as a unique historical tradition in ways that departed radically from ancient Greek and Roman traditions.  He explains the complex and confusing relationships that the Canadian conservative George Grant and the American conservative Willmoore Kendall had with Strauss.  And he shows how Strauss's account of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens--revelation and reason--points to the historical uniqueness of modern Western culture in a way that subverts his appeal to natural right as opposed to history.

In the final paragraph of his book, Havers writes:
"Debates over what is universal and relative within Western civilization will not go away anytime soon.  Even if a cosmic 'clash of civilizations' between the West and its historic rivals is not in the cards, the unique contribution that biblical morality has made to the West is bound to be a source of friction with peoples who do not embrace the seven dogmas of Spinoza.  Despite the best efforts of Strauss to universalize Anglo-American political ideas, even he hit the wall of historic and religious particularity.  If the Bible teaches a universal morality that all human beings must practice, it will never logically follow that this morality is historically universal.  Although it is unlikely that the globalist Left and Right will take this message to heart, the survival of the Anglo-American West may well depend on its peoples heeding this lesson."  (168)
I see here four problems that run throughout Havers's book.  First, he never explains exactly when and where we "hit the wall of historic and religious particularity," given that that wall moves in an expanding circle.  Second, he never demonstrates that human nature and human history must be antithetically opposed to one another.  Third, he never explains how this nature/history dichotomy can be consistent with his presentation of the universalistic demands of the Christian historical tradition. Fourth, he is silent about the empirical evidence of history over the past 250 years that shows a remarkable spread of liberal regimes around the world, far beyond the confines of the Anglo-American world.

The smallest enclosure for "the wall of historic and religious particularity" that constitutes liberal democracy is "the seven dogmas of Spinoza" stated in chapter 14 of Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise.  According to Havers, Anglo-American liberal democracy is impossible without belief in liberal Protestantism as defined by those seven dogmas of Spinoza (77-78, 88, 164, 168).  But then at many points, Havers expands the wall outward to embrace all of Christianity, and not just liberal Protestantism, when he speaks of "Christian charity" as the crucial belief.  At other points, however, he speaks of "biblical charity," as if to include Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament.

Havers is also unclear about the geographical and chronological location of this wall.  Apparently, "Anglo-American" refers collectively to England, the United States, and Canada, thus erasing the boundaries between those three.  But then he also speaks about "the uniqueness of the West," thus suggesting that liberal democracy is actually rooted in the whole of Western culture over the last two thousand years.  And yet he also identifies "the Anglo-American West," as if to indicate that the wall does not enclose all of Western culture, but only the English, American, and Canadian parts of that culture.

If this "wall of historic and religious particularity" moves in an expanding circle--from England to America to Canada to all of Western culture--why can't it be moved even farther outward to embrace all of humanity?

In fact, when Havers speaks of "the universalistic demands of Christianity" (125) as foundational for liberal democracy, he implies that Christianity's universal morality of charity teaches a universal humanitarianism.  But then he contradicts this by saying that this can't be true.  Anglo-American liberal democrats must affirm the biblical teaching of a "universal morality that all human beings must practice," but they must deny that "this morality is historically universal," because this universal Christian morality is not really universal!

This incoherence in his reasoning arises from his false antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, which he repeatedly assumes as a first premise that he never demonstrates (15, 37-40, 63-64, 77-85, 90-91, 96, 100, 103, 107, 109, 125, 133).  I have argued that human nature constrains but does not determine human history, and that human nature and human history jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.  If this is so, then we can exercise our judgment in discerning how some historical traditions show a better grasp of human nature than do other historical traditions. 

Havers simply assumes that any standard that is historical as being rooted in some specific time and place cannot also be natural as being rooted in a universal propensity of human nature.  So, for example, he identifies Christian charity as the Golden Rule (59, 62, 78-80, 90, 148, 151, 164).  Since the statement of the Golden Rule in the New Testament belongs to a specific historical tradition of religious thought, he assumes that it cannot therefore be natural or universal.  But this ignores the possibility that many different religious and philosophical traditions have discovered the Golden Rule as a reasonable inference from natural human experience, as an expression of what C. S. Lewis called "the Tao," or as showing how diverse historical traditions can manifest natural law.  (See Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule [Oxford University Press, 1996].)  Charles Darwin and other evolutionary moral psychologists have showed how the Golden Rule can emerge through the coevolution of human nature and human culture.

For Havers, one of the best illustrations of the application of the Golden Rule or Christian charity was Abraham Lincoln's reasoning about the injustice of slavery (63-64).  (Havers is the author of Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love [University of Missouri Press, 2009].)  But Havers is silent about the fact that Lincoln was confronted with two contradictory historical traditions of interpreting the Bible's position on slavery.  Christian abolitionists followed the historical tradition of the Bible as anti-slavery.  But many Southern Christians adopted the historical tradition of the Bible as proslavery.  And indeed both the Old Testament and New Testament endorse slavery and never explicitly condemn it.  Lincoln admitted that the Bible provided no clear resolution of the dispute.  In his Second Inaugural Address, he observed: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."  That's why the American Civil War was such a deep theological crisis for America.

Being faced with two opposing historical traditions for interpreting the biblical teaching on slavery, Lincoln had to appeal to the natural human desire for justice as reciprocity in judging that the anti-slavery tradition was closer to natural justice than the proslavery tradition.  If Havers were right about the antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, such a judgment would have been impossible.

The victory of the North in the American Civil War extended liberal republicanism over the entire American nation.  This could be seen as part of a historical trend towards the spread of liberalism around the world.  Employing Immanuel Kant's criteria for liberal republicanism, Michael Doyle (in Ways of War and Peace [Norton, 1997]) has surveyed the historic expansion of liberalism around the world.  At the end of the 18th century, there were only three liberal regimes: the Swiss Cantons, the French Republic (1790-95), and the United States.  By 1850, there were 8 liberal regimes.  By 1900, 13.  By 1945, 29.  After 1945, there have been at least 68, and they are scattered around the world on every continent.  Many of these liberal regimes are clearly not rooted in the historical tradition of liberal Protestant culture.  They include, for example, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea.  Isn't this historical evidence for the universal appeal of liberalism, suggesting that liberalism really does conform to a universal human nature?  If so, then liberalism is rooted in natural right and history, and Havers is wrong.

Some of my previous posts on Strauss, Lincoln, natural right, and evolutionary natural history can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Edmund Burke Conservative said...

Leo Strauss was an anti-Western neocon who wanted to wall-paper over the real ethnic West with liberal abstractions like "natural right".

You can be Pro-Western or Pro-Leo Strauss, but you cannot be both.

I choose the West.