by Paul Gottfried
In recent years a heated debate has erupted about American foreign policy and about what moral purpose should inform our conduct of international relations. While analysts Robert Kagan, Michael Mandelbaum, and Stephen Schwartz insist the United States should use its power, where possible, on behalf of “democracy,” other commentators have rejected this approach. James Kurth, Andrew Bacevich, Walter McDougall, and now Professor Claes Ryn all deplore an approach to international affairs that views the world as little more than a laboratory for American social engineers. Although none of these critics believes that the American polity can be brought back to where it was a century ago, they insist that the empire which has come into our hands must not be treated as some sort of modernist theocracy. It is foolish to imagine that those political forms we happen to prefer for ourselves should become the basis for international crusades.
These critics presumably winced when President Bush, in an address to the National Endowment for Democracy, insisted that America remain active in the Middle East until women in that region achieve full political and social equality. After all, until the second decade of the twentieth century, most constitutional governments, including our own, did not grant women the vote. Should America then have been forcibly occupied by a more enlightened power until we conformed to a later model of “democracy”? Or should Europeans have invaded America in the early nineteenth century so as to abolish slavery? And once America introduces gay unions, will it become incumbent upon us to impose that policy on other countries as integral to “universal” justice?
In America the Virtuous Ryn never indulges the illusion that our “neo- Jacobin” moralists are defying the popular will. He is admirably free of the populist optimism that affects other conservatives. Like his mentor Irving Babbitt, Ryn values educated social elites that can prevent mass democracy from rearing its ugly head; and he rightly perceives the close connection between the utopian egalitarianism that now characterizes our foreign and domestic politics and the collapse of a leadership class practicing restraint and moderation. Ryn tries to prove that a temptation toward revolutionary politics, which wise teachers from Aristotle to Burke solemnly disavowed, was inherent in our political culture from the beginning. Such tropes can be discerned in the statements of Jefferson expressing admiration for the French Revolution, and similar phrases crop up in Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about our flag “being the ensign of humanity.” Wilson’s boast that America stands as the representative polity doing business for the entire human race seems almost contemporary.
But such rhetorical extravagances, which Ryn cites on every page, were once tempered by the persistence of a particular social type. Can one imagine the kind of verbiage about saving the world that Ryn so fulsomely mocks coming from that alleged Cold War liberal Dean Acheson? Having once read Acheson’s memoirs, I was struck by his measured language and utter contempt for what Burke called “visionary schemes.” Although a New Dealer and the subordinate of a president lacking his taste and manners, Acheson was a WASP aristocrat. The son of an Anglican bishop, he attended outstanding private schools that inculcated social duty and humanistic learning. For all his tinkering with New Deal politics, Acheson differed in his idiom and manners from those whom Ryn identifies as neo-Jacobins. So, for that matter, did James V. Forrestal, Truman’s secretary of defense, who rose from a lower social status than Acheson but who served dutifully and with dignity in the Navy and then in the government, offering timely advice, particularly about the Soviets, but never grandstanding.
Such public figures epitomize the best of an earlier generation of American leaders. That generation entered public life without the media determining their political futures and without Jacobin intoxication. That generation also had a grasp of a shared national history that was alive in their minds and which had not yet dissolved into managerial tyranny and pluralist chaos. Neo-Jacobinism belongs to a different world, composed of interchangeable mass men following plastic fashions and universalist abstractions. It appeals to those whom the Austrian novelist Robert Musil described as “Manner ohne Eigenschaften,” people who have neither moral nor social substance and live by slogans, which they mistake for “principles.”
But what is equally critical for this mindset are its continuities since the early twentieth century. At that time Babbitt and other learned observers offered barbed comments on the growing relationship between humanitarianism and democratic imperialism (this was true for France as well as for the U.S.) and between ideals of public service and emotional exhibitionism. “Crusades for democracy,” as Ryn reminds us, are nothing new in American history, though in the past, as Bacevich has pointed out, such outpourings of passion and destructive power eventually gave way to retrenchment and second thoughts.
A distinguishing feature of Ryn’s analysis, seen particularly in A Common Human Ground, is to relate the political situation under review to a cultural and philosophical problem. It might be objected that this treatment of epistemological and aesthetic concepts is not explicitly related to the political situation Ryn addresses either in this book or in America the Virtuous. But while we do encounter his more theoretical arguments in Will, Imagination and Reason (1986) and in other philosophical tracts, in his newest works “value-centered historicism” provides the perspective for assessing democracy as a “universal value.” Ryn believes that this position’ s advocates are not engaging their subject with sufficient rigor. But the advocates being scolded may in fact know the other side’s arguments quite well. Ryn’s opponents may be driven not by faulty thinking but by a partisan political agenda packaged as universal truth.
Of course, the “neo-Jacobins” in Ryn’s analysis are the so-called “neoconservatives,” and since the start of hostilities in Iraq, much ink has been spilled, both in the United States and in Europe, tracing the genesis of this political position to the thought of Leo Strauss. Ryn’s treatment of the intellectual errors of neo-Jacobinism likewise amounts to a critique of Straussianism. But in my own book The Search for Historical Meaning (1986), I raised the question of whether Leo Strauss entirely believed the attacks he launched in Natural Right and History (1953) on Burke and on historically centered thinking in general.
In his seminal study of the fate of the natural rights tradition, Strauss, whose critique Ryn revisits in A Common Human Ground, features inaccurate paraphrases of the statements of Burke, Max Weber, and Strauss’s contemporary and fellow-German-Jewish refugee Hans Kelsen. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Strauss’s attacks against historicism are undertaken not in a quest for textual understanding but in order to construct battle lines, which have since become permanent. Moreover, what the master divided became for his disciples the interpretive fissure, separating “American democracy” from its “antidemocratic” adversaries, right and left– both depicted as products of relativism or historicism.
Ryn might respond to my suspicion by reiterating that he has written his books not for anti-historicist Straussians but for those whom they might otherwise influence. These neo-Jacobins succeed because they are addressing the philosophically uninformed, whom Ryn is also trying to reach. Well-meaning defenders of moral absolutes cheer on the anti-historicists because they share the apparent Straussian concern about disintegrating morals . It is therefore necessary to show that a belief that moral and political truths are historically embedded does not entail moral “relativism.” But to do so seems like treading water, what the schoolmen called a pons asinorum. After all, is anyone really a relativist-or do purported relativists not merely use such arguments as a pretext for the imposition of their own anti-traditional values?
Is it not obvious, once we consider it, that someone such as Richard Rorty, who rages against Christian intolerance and celebrates gay and feminist protest movements, is no relativist but a committed moral dogmatist? The effort to invert traditional values does not in fact arise from an excessively broad sense of tolerance. It is far more often the preliminary step to forcing “progressive” values down someone else’s throat. When Rorty famously urges his readers to put aside “metaphysical ” quibbles and to get on with action, what he means to say is that everyone should accept Rorty’s own theoretical premises as the basis for all action.
This brings me to my sole reservation about Ryn’s case for historicism, which is methodological rather than substantive. Much of the discussion in A Common Human Ground is a summing up of Ryn’s attentive study of Hegel, Croce, and Babbitt and a compelling argument for a certain subgenus of historicism. Thus, Ryn stresses the interdependence of the universal and the particular and the impossibility of thinking about universal principles outside of the shifting contexts in which they present themselves. These contexts are constantly undergoing changes, so that their specificity is affected by time and place . The individual who is called upon to act morally must operate within fluid circumstances, but the historicity that informs his decisions brings benefits together with limits. We learn from past examples and from our own historical consciousness; in a sound community, as Aristotle taught, we become habituated (eithismenos) to communal norms that direct us toward the Good.
Ryn strengthens his case by making ample use of Aristotle’s ethics, and he maintains that Straussians erroneously ascribe to the ancients their own “purely ahistorical rationality.” But Ryn should have broadened this polemic by elaborating on this misrepresentation. Such an investigation seems particularly relevant, given the commanding positions of recognizable Straussians in the current administration, and given their identification as advocates of a return to the classics.
Straussians attribute to dead Greeks and medieval Italians not only “ahistorical rationality” but even more pertinently, they attribute to their favored Great Authors what they value about themselves and their own present society. Thus, an extensive reading of Strauss and his disciples might lead us to think that Aristotles was a sexual egalitarian who would have been an abolitionist in antebellum America, that Thucydides was writing his Histories to vindicate democratic imperialism as an ideal, and that Plato was a metaphysical skeptic who only pretended to accept eternal forms. Can those who hold such positions have any historical imagination? Can they possibly imagine that past thinkers might have been “wise,” despite their inability to think like modern religious skeptics ensconced at elite universities?
The Straussian contention that “political philosophers” were expressing themselves esoterically is anything but a subtle point. It is, rather, a justification for late modernists to force themselves upon the past. It opens the door to interpretive gymnastics, which bear comparison to the liberties that postmodernists take with their preferred texts. By means of a doubtful premise, one can flatter oneself with the conceit that one is as “wise” as those geniuses who went before, who missed the good fortune of living in today ‘s cosmopolitan America.
While Straussians speculate about morally acceptable alternatives to “human rights democracy,” one can never quite discover what such an alternative might be for them. Rhetorical allusions to an imaginary “rule of the best” are not the same as offering an actual, alternative regime to the one currently found in New York and Washington. Can Straussians come up with such an alternative government that exists now or might have existed in the past? In the end we are made to believe that the only moral regime that is possible is the one that has benefited Straussians disproportionately. The operative principle is the advocates’ self-interest, disguised as a universal democratic value. This value, it is further suggested, as Ryn reminds us, has supposedly made its unique merit known through a prolonged study undertaken by Straussians of ancient political texts. While the rest of us see the world “through a glass darkly,” the selfidentified interpreters of “political philosophy” have figured out what brings them gain must be accorded universal validity.
But it might be useful to reconsider the charge that the Straussian-neoconservative objects of Ryn’s censures are engaged, properly speaking, in an “attack on history.” The truth is more complex. One advantage of those whom Ryn criticizes is how effectively they in fact appeal to the past, through their cults of Lincoln, Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt. Like the Romans being shown exemplares virtutis, the Straussians “sell” models of statesmanship; while their blood-flecked models for saving or expanding “democracy” are for me distinctly unattractive and glaringly contrived, they obviously impress others, who subsidize and diffuse Straussian tracts. The purpose of these models is to highlight the path of democratic progress, which has led into foreign wars fought for democratic globalist ends. Furthermore, Strauss and his students have devoted works to ancient historians, specifically Xenophon and Thucydides, and although their conclusions might be ideologically colored, it is wrong to assert that these writers are not at all interested either in history or in historians.
What may be closer to the mark is that Straussians abuse the past badly. They illustrate the defects of Hegel’s progressive view of human history, without the conceptual brilliance found in Hegel’s theories of knowledge. Thus, the Straussian epigone Francis Fukuyama celebrates the current American moment even more tastelessly than Hegel praised the Prussian monarchy, circa 1819, as the final form of the World Spirit. While Ryn might object to the lack of “moral imagination” in Fukuyama, one may be justified in doubting that this rhapsodist has whited out the historical dimension. Rather vulgarized it; he has turned the entire past into an imperialistic celebration of the most recent American moment. And while the New Jacobins may claim that today’s America is a refinement of what the Founders were seeking to build-having defeated sexism and racial inequalities-for most traditionalists the presentism that the Straussians impart seems tiresome and exaggerated.
This too may be traceable to vulgarized Hegelianism. One criticism of Hegelian historicity made by the postwar Marxists Louis Althusser and Lucio Colletti is that it operates as a conceptual construction-in search of historical particularities. Hegel is commenting on concepts and historical forces that need to be fitted, or better yet wedged, into a teleological scheme. Actual particularities are then merely the usable historical contexts or randomly chosen facts that make the scheme look plausible. Although there are stretches in Hegel where this is not the case, the criticism does describe a major defect in his work. It also describes the Straussian-neoconservative appeal to History, as a progression of exemplifications of abstract universals or as steps leading into the luminous present. Such an approach never allows one to respect the past on its own terms-or to treat it, where it is politically different from the present, with any respect.
All the talk about the ancients versus the moderns conceals the real game, which is to present the past as a backdrop to late modernity, or as the adumbration of “principles” that we only see given full form in contemporary America. Putting aside phrases about “rule of the best,” what the Straussians wish us to hear is both simple and simplistic: what is politically feasible and is alone just exists in their present society-and should be universally exported.
The past, for all of these presentists, is the antechamber to the moment in historical time that they inhabit. Hegel and the nineteenth-century Whigs marveled about how well History was turning out, while the Straussians express their self-satisfaction in their own updated idiom. These new and even smugger Whigs mistake personal job success for the realization of “political philosophy,” or as the fulfillment of “the modern enterprise.”
Paul Gottfried was the Raffensberger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and he is author of, among other works, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (2007).
This essay originally appeared in Modern Age (Winter/ Spring 2004) and is published here with their permission.