Leo Strauss, the Randian

25 February 2007 at 4:47 am 11 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Yes, that’s right . . . well, almost: If you put together the key political ideas of neo-con idol Strauss, “we will arrive at Objectivist Libertarianism.” So says philospher Tibor Machan in the most recent issue of Philosophy Now (an excellent, bi-monthly journal written for, as they used to say, the “intelligent layman”).

Machan arrives at this conclusion by juxtaposing these passages from Strauss: 1) “[the good life is] simply the life in which the requirement of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste” (Natural Right and History, p. 127). 2) “. . . political freedom and especially that political freedom that justifies itself by the pursuit of human excellence . . . requires the highest degree of vigilance” (idem., p. 131). And 3) “There is no adequate solution to the problem of virtue or happiness on the political or social plane” (On Tyranny, p. 194).

Machan is a professional philosopher, and I am not; still I feel uneasy with his argument. One may agree with Machan that the thought of contemporary neocons may not be entirely Straussian (see this), but it does seem a bit farfetched to conclude on the basis of the above quotations that Strauss is an objectivist libertarian. Several strands of classical liberalism/libertarianism would seem to be consistent with them.

Furthermore, while both Strauss and Rand preferred Athens to Jerusalem, Rand preferred a smaller and rather different part of Athens than Strauss did, and this seems pretty decisive (see this). Here is an interesting discussion of what Rand may have thought of the Noble Lie.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. disembedded  |  25 February 2007 at 4:32 pm

    You might be interested in reading my brief article from last year on Leo Strauss:

    http://disembedded.wordpress.com/2006/06/27/on-leo-strauss/

    With best wishes to you.

  • 2. totaltransformation  |  25 February 2007 at 8:00 pm

    I remember being quite into Rand when I was in college. However, I outgrew that phase of my life. Keep up the good blogging.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  25 February 2007 at 9:35 pm

    As it turned out, today’s episode of “Prairie Home Companion” featured a skit about a librarian who started out as a left-winger, leading protests against the Dewey Decimal System for racial and ethinic bias, then read Rand, and was converted into a pro-capitalist advocate for library privatization. Funny stuff.

  • 4. You Know Me  |  26 February 2007 at 12:56 pm

    I cannot in any way understand how a guy who taught that society was composed of philosophers, gentlemen, and the rest of us dumb asses; and that the philosophers, with the gentlemen doing their bidding, were to keep us dumb asses in line by always presenting us with an enemy and encouraging our practice of religion could even remotely be considered a libertarian.

  • 5. David Gordon  |  27 February 2007 at 2:43 pm

    The passages that Machan quotes from Strauss don’t show that Strauss was a libertarian. Where in these quotes does Strauss say or imply that everyone should be free to pursue virtue? They are consistent with confining freedom to a philosophical elite.

  • 6. Kevin Carson  |  28 February 2007 at 1:26 am

    You Know Me,

    Well, in Ayn Rand’s version, the philosophers and gentlemen went on strike in Galt’s Gulch and left the rest of us dumb asses to starve.

    So you may have killed two birds with one stone.

  • 7. Freedem  |  28 February 2007 at 5:50 am

    It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, or twist the reality, it is all people with power saying that they should not be held responsible for their effects on others. The Straussians only warn against drinking your own koolade, and then proceed to guzzle a different flavor.

    Almost any goal cannot be accomplished without the input and assistance of others. To do that, they must have some form of organization. Any such organization is a “government”, and political. If the others are not conned or forced they must have a say. To the extant that the organization is not a democracy it is a tyranny. Names, ideologies, and titles are just window dressing.

    My website has much more on the subject.

    “The self made man just isn’t admitting where he got the parts.”

  • 8. Mark Humphrey  |  28 February 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I am a little baffled by Mr. Foss’s editorial comment to the effect that Tibor Machan is off base in identifying in the writing of Strauss ideas essential to the classical individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. I suspect Mr. Foss, and several respondants in this thread, may be ignorant of the essentials of Rand’s thinking. For when those essentials are revealed in Strauss’ writing, Mr. Foss and others do not get it.

    The quotes from Strauss cited by Tibor Machan identify the nature of moral good, which is individual human flourishing; extols the moral value of political freedom that defends the rights of individuals to pursue moral excellence; and opines that state activity is not capable of promoting individual achievement of excellence.

    None of this strikes orthodox Rothbardian or Misesian libertarians as profound. The reason may be that Rand arrived at her classical individualist libertarianism thorugh ideas that differ radically from the Humean atomistic individualism of von Mises. Rand’s philosophy was primarily a defense of reason as an epistemological absolute; from that defense she derived her insights about the source and nature of moral values, which Strauss summarized beautifully in his first quote; from her insights about “the virtue of selfishness” (human flourishing as the good), Rand arrived at her justification of capitalism and libertarianism.

    In contrast, Mises denied that moral values could be proven, viewed reason as a nearly non-volitional mental process through which “actors” sought to maximize subjective utility, and saw man as–essentially–molecules-in-motion.

    Although I haven’t read Tibor Machan’s article, I can readily appreciate that the three quotes attributed to Strauss do in fact contain the essentials of Rand’s outlook, although Strauss didn’t logically integrate those insights, free of erros, to arrive at Randian libertarianism. What is important about the broadly Randian ideas Machan attributes to Strauss is that they were, I assume, essentials to Strauss’s thinking. As such, had Strauss followed the logic of those essentials to ultimate conclusions, he would have been a libertarian.

  • 9. Tibor R. Machan  |  3 June 2009 at 3:21 am

    Mark Humphrey has it dead right! (Nice to be understood once in a while.) In contrast Mr. Foss is mistaken. No, Strauss was no Objectivist or Libertarian but what he believed, as per his book Natural Right and History, suggests an affinity between his ideas and those of Objectivist- Libertarianism.

  • 10. Tibor Machan  |  18 September 2009 at 12:12 am

    Regarding the comment of having outgrown Objectivism, first of all this is no argument–some people become more stupid as they grow older. On the Phil Donahue Show Rand had a very nasty exchange with a young woman who said exactly this. Rand lost whatever cool she ever hand but I can sympathized since it is such a non-sequitur and Rand had no patience with irrationality.

  • 11. Tibor R. Machan  |  2 October 2010 at 3:19 am

    What I wrote was that from the quotations I give from Strauss “we will arrive at Objectivist Libertarianism.” Not at all the same thing as saying Strauss was an Objectivist Libertarian. One may discover ideas in the works of others that one finds logically imply something other than what those others thought they would. It is all arguable, of course, but since this is no journal of philosophy the arguments will need to be conducted somewhere else. (In my Human Rights and Human Liberties [1975] I do go to some length to show that Strauss’s ideas give some support to libertarianism. But, of course, Strauss and his students would disown anything like this, given their super-elitism. (A very good discussion of Strauss and his neo-conservative followers can be found in C. Bradley Thompson (w/Yaron Brook), Neoconservatism, An Obituary for an idea [Paradigm Publishers, 2010].)

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