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Ignoble Liars and Noble Truth-Tellers

By: Harry V. Jaffa
August 17, 2004

Hillary Clinton's "vast right wing conspiracy" seems to have undergone a metamorphosis into a "vast Straussian neo-con conspiracy," judging from the outpouring of articles, letters, and radio and television interviews denouncing President Bush's foreign policy as a war-crazed Straussian neo-con plot.

The latest contribution to this rush to judgment is an essay in Harper's Magazine (June 2004) by one Earl Shorris entitled "Ignoble Liars: Leo Strauss, George Bush and the Philosophy of Mass Deception." Mr. Shorris is a modest man with, as he himself says, a great deal to be modest about. "I have been told many times," he writes, "that any attempt to write seriously about Leo Strauss for other than an academic publication is a fool's errand." However, he adds, "I am accustomed to running such errands...." I would only add that it is doubly a fool's errand to write about Leo Strauss for an academic publication, unless one has the necessary academic qualifications.

Mr. Shorris says that he "read the late professor's books, two books [he does not say which books] and countless articles about his books [he does not say which articles]." He then "set out to say what [Strauss] had said and how it had gained such influence over the current political regime." Mr. Shorris, however, found Strauss's writings "too abstract, to rabbinical, too long, too short, too difficult" and so he came to rely instead on "popular [not scholarly] articles about Strauss." Notwithstanding the fact that his information about Strauss is all second hand—and may therefore not be unbiased scholarship—Shorris confidently sets forth what he regards as the core of Strauss's teaching. "Plato," Shorris writes, "believed that the wise should rule but who then decided among competing wise men, and what should be the limits of the wise statesman's power?" "It is instructive," Shorris continues, "to listen to Strauss. 'It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule. It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise subjects.'" Shorris does not identify the source of this quotation, which comes from page 140 of Strauss's Natural Right and History. Shorris concludes from it that Strauss, following Plato, believed that democracy was against nature. He thinks that Strauss believed that statesman who considered themselves to be wise (e.g., Bushies, instructed by Straussians) are justified in telling lies (e.g. about WMDs) to the unwise multitude. These lies, being however for the benefit of the unwise, are noble lies.

Shorris has however quoted only part of a paragraph from Natural Right and History. In the whole paragraph Strauss arrives at a conclusion the exact opposite of what Shorris attributed to him. It is extremely unlikely, Strauss says, "that the conditions required for the rule of the wise will ever be met." The appeal to the right of wisdom is more likely than not to result in tyranny. The essence of the political problem is to combine the necessity for wisdom with the necessity for consent. "According to the classics, the best way for meeting these two entirely different requirements would be that a wise legislator frame a code which the citizen body, duly persuaded, freely adopts. That code, which is as it were, the embodiment of wisdom, must be as little subject to alteration as possible; the rule of law is to take the place of the rule of men, however wise." [Italics added.]

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On this subject this is certainly Strauss's last word. It is impossible moreover to read this last word without recognizing that the Constitutional Convention of 1787, meeting in secret, under the presidency of George Washington, and later submitting its work for the approval of the people, approaches the classical ideal more nearly than any other in the human record. Nor can there be any doubt that Strauss had this in mind. It is also worth noting that the calling of the convention, and the successful completion of its business, depended upon George Washington. It is doubtful if there was another man in America under whose leadership the American experiment could have succeeded. Nor would the Constitution, without Washington's influence, and without the belief that Washington would preside at its inauguration, have been ratified. History does not provide a better example of a single man whose wisdom ruled a people. But in nothing more did Washington display his wisdom, than in his rejection of monarchy, and in his absolute refusal to exercise power in any other way than by the rule of law. But let there be no doubt that the rule of law must itself be infused with such wisdom as Washington represented to fulfill its own destiny. Strauss's life work was devoted to nothing more than to understanding this.

Shorris speaks, almost in passing, of "the atheist Strauss." He thinks that Strauss and the Straussians defer to religious beliefs especially in allying themselves with believers like President Bush. But patronizing religious beliefs is just another example of the useful (if not noble) lie. Shorris offers no evidence to support this charge of atheism. Once one adopts Shorris's view of Strauss, as someone who makes a secret of everything, and never says what he means, one can attribute to him any opinion whatever, confident that it cannot be disproved any more than it can be proved. The following is the first paragraph—the exordium—of the ever-memorable lectures on "What Is Political Philosophy?" that Strauss gave in Jerusalem in 1956. We offer it in part as an example of Strauss's writing, which Shorris found "more difficult to read than almost anyone"—as well as evidence of his attitude toward the tradition of his forefathers.

"It is a great honor," Strauss said,

and at the same time a challenge, to accept a task of particular difficulty, to be asked to speak about political philosophy in Jerusalem. In this city, and this land, the theme of political philosophy—'the city of righteousness, the faithful city'—has been taken more seriously than anywhere else on earth. Nowhere else has the longing for justice and the just city filled the purest hearts and the loftiest souls with such zeal as on this sacred soil. I know all too well that I am utterly unable to convey to you what in the best possible case, in the case of any man, would be no more than a faint reproduction or a weak imitation of our prophets' vision. I shall even be compelled to lead you into a region where the dimmest recollection of that vision is on the point of vanishing altogether—where the Kingdom of God is derisively called an imagined principality—to say nothing of the region which was never illumined by it. But while being compelled, or compelling myself, to wander far away from our sacred heritage, or to be silent about it, I shall not for a moment forget what Jerusalem stands for.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, that cannot feel the strength of character and conviction behind these memorable words? Shame on Earl Shorris for besmirching the name of this great man.

Harry V. Jaffa