PARIS -- The trouble with American conservatism during most of the 20th century was that it was not particularly intelligent. The Republican Party was and is a business party, anti-intellectual and to a considerable degree xenophobic.
The radical neoconservatives, who appeared in the 1960s, are the first seriously intelligent movement on the American right since the 19th century. They want to remake the international order under effective U.S. hegemony, destroy America's enemies and cripple or eliminate the United Nations and other institutions making a claim to international jurisdiction.
They have a political philosophy, and the arrogance and intolerance of their actions reflect their conviction that they possess a realism and truth others lack.
They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.
The main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss, who left Germany in 1938 and taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Several of the neoconservatives studied under him. Wolfowitz and Shulsky took doctorates under him.
Something of a cult developed around Strauss during his later years at Chicago, and he and some admirers figure in the Saul Bellow novel, "Ravelstein." The cult is appropriate because Strauss believed that the essential truths about human society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.
He held that philosophy is dangerous because it brings into question the conventions on which civil order and the morality of society depend. This risks promoting a destructive nihilism.
According to Strauss, the relativism of modern American society is a moral disorder that could block it from identifying its real enemies. "Moral clarity" is essential. The Weimar Republic's toleration of extremism allowed the rise of the Nazi party.
Strauss made an intellectually powerful and sophisticated critique of post-Enlightenment liberalism. He saw the United States as the most advanced case of liberalism and thus the most exposed to nihilism.
He believed that Greek classical philosophy, notably that of Plato, is more true to nature than anything that has replaced it. Some critics say that his interpretation of Plato is perverse, but he said that he had recovered the "real" Plato, lost by later Neo-Platonic and Christian thinkers.
He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to "virtue" as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss's appeal to America's neoconservatives.
The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order.
This is obviously a bleak and anti-utopian philosophy that goes against practically everything Americans want to believe. It contradicts the conventional wisdom of modern democratic society. It also contradicts the neoconservatives' own declared policy ambitions to make the Muslim world democratic and establish a new U.S.-led international order, which are blatantly utopian.
Strauss, who died in 1973, was no friend of hegemony, American or otherwise. He said that "no human being and no group of human beings can rule the whole of the human race justly." His concern during the Cold War was that Soviet universalism invited an alternative American claim to world rule.
His real appeal to the neoconservatives, in my view, is that his elitism presents a principled rationalization for policy expediency, and for "necessary lies" told to those whom the truth would demoralize.
Strauss's thought is a matter of public interest because his followers are in charge of U.S. foreign policy. But he is more interesting than they are.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune