An American Agenda: Leo Strauss, Nietzsche and Neoconservatism
By Darryl Naraji
Just World Publications, 2008
There is a specter haunting the West. The specter of Nietzsche.
Not only are large areas of the academic curriculum — such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, business management, government administration — basically courses in Nietzschean philosophy. But the popular understanding of politics along with the way many if not most people in Western societies go about their moral ‘reasoning’ (please note the inverted commas) and discussion is very Nietzschean.
When we adopt the language of the reification of ethics into discrete ‘values’ we are talking Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s core idea that such values are chosen by the individual and indeed by whole cultures — in sociological terms that values are ‘constructed’ — is in contemporary Western culture taken for granted.
But Naranjit’s book An American Agenda focuses on an aspect of the Nietzschean presence in the contemporary world that is very little understood. These may be termed the ‘right Nietzscheans’. This school of thought revolves around the enigmatic figure of Leo Strauss. Furthermore Naranjit suggests that this obscure philosopher has been dominating American politics including global policy with the rise of the Neoconservatives.
Now saying this is to stir up a hornets’ nest of controversy, a controversy that Naranjit himself traces in his book. He discusses at length the different interpretations of Strauss and his link to Nietzsche. Many of Strauss’s disciples deny such a link. But to me at any rate one thing seems clear. That even in the kindest interpretation of Strauss there is set up a dissonance between the ethics of the city — which is to say the general society — and the ethics of the philosopher which is to say of those who really know. One can here note two key things. First a skepticism as to whether there is such a thing as ethical truth. Second, the fact that such knowledge of the deadly truth is the preserve of an elite group. To me the case is simply made. The combining of skepticism and elitism points to Nietzsche.
But of course I cannot do justice to Naranjit’s finely weaved argument ranging from a discussion of contemporary American politics to very complex philosophical questions. There is a discussion of different interpretations of Nietzsche as well as the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger (we will get back to him).
We may crudely summarize the history thus:
In the good old days there were two spheres of knowledge, that of the city and that of the philosophers. The former is that of ethical orthodoxy in the West more recently represented by Christianity (which Nietzsche saw as Platonism for the masses). The latter are the true Gnostics who know the deadly truth… that there isn’t any. If philosophers attempt to convey this to the city they may run into trouble, note what happened to Socrates, moreover knowledge of the deadly truth will destroy the city. So philosophers engage in the ‘noble delusion’: they support the Platonic-Christian orthodoxy of the masses. This protects the city from self-destruction and allows philosophers to engage in their dangerous pursuit of reason in peace.
The modern Enlightenment comes along and ruins all this. Although the real culprit may very well be Christianity itself which — unlike Judaism and Islam — is ‘a Faith not a Law’ and therefore seeks to reconcile revelation and reason, religion and philosophy. The Enlightenment Project attempted to bring together the two spheres by establishing a rational basis for the ethics of the city. When this failed and the absence of ethical foundation was laid bare the door was open for nihilism, the destruction of the city. Naranjit (p. 69) quotes Strauss as saying, ‘The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism.’
And so we come to Nietzsche.
He proposes that with the collapse of ancient ethics and in the absence of rational morality that we choose our values by an act of will-to-power. Indeed this is how it has always been except now we are being open and honest about it. But with this explicit realization we now come to a fork in the road. The two Nietzsches.
One Nietzschean position is for whoever who may, to will whatever values they choose unfettered by any rational concerns — ‘decisionism’, the absolute freedom of the moment. Strauss attributes this (in my own view clearly incorrectly) to Heidegger. This leads to Nazism. To nihilism the deadly visitor at the door. More recently it was evident in America in the 1960s in the counter-culture. Strauss’s disciple Alan Bloom critiques such American nihilism in his very influential popular book The Closing of the American Mind.
The other Nietzschean option and the only alternative to nihilism is to return to the noble lie. In a surprising, remarkable and utterly revolutionary interpretation Strauss attributes this position to Plato. In an esoteric reading of Plato Strauss sees him as advocating his pivotal idea of the Platonic ‘Good’ as a needed deception for the masses. This good, as the true philosopher knows, cannot be determined. In a single brilliant stroke Strauss can publicly disown Nietzsche while advocating a Nietzschean Plato.
Hence it is the elite who will both their own values and the sustaining of the mask of orthodoxy for the masses. Hence for instance the pseudo-philosophical discipline of political science.
The scene is now set for what Naranjit describes as the confrontation between Heidegger and Strauss in America. However while the counter-culture as Naranjit points out is Heideggerian it is not ultimately nihilistic (although there are definite nihilistic elements) but a legitimate quest for ‘authenticity’. This was overtaken at least for now by the conservatism of Middle America. But unlike the old conservatism that possessed a genuine concern for tradition and values Middle America has been increasingly taken over by the Neo-Con disciples of Strauss who put forward ‘orthodoxy’, the old time religion of Christian fundamentalism, as a balm and a justification for the masses, the noble delusion, in the name of which the knowing elite can will and perpetuate their necessary imperial atrocities at home and abroad.
This is Nietzsche’s planetary rule:
… train men for the heights, not for comfort and mediocrity, a morality with the intention of training a ruling caste — the future masters of the earth — must, if it is to be taught, appear in society with the prevailing moral laws, in the guise of their terms and forms. That for this, however, many transitional means of deception must be devised. (Quoted in Naranjit pg 198.)
What more can I say in review? I rarely enjoy reading a book this much. The argument is engrossing and compelling. And it deals with deadly serious contemporary issues. For me the core of the argument is the first section of chapter four on Strauss’s Nietzsche. Here it is established by Nietzschean logic that deception is the highest truth carried out by philosophers who embody the highest most spiritual form of the will-to-power. Hence philosophy is not about describing reality but prescribing to nature ‘how it ought to be’.
Finally let me say that it is vital that we come to terms with this in our parts of the world as it is the colonies (that means us) who are at the receiving end of this history. We will also watch with interest how the Straussian agenda will play itself out in this time of economic crisis and in the wake of the recent regime change in the Empire itself. Thus we await the next chapter of the American Agenda.
(c) Burton Sankeralli 2009