Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
we should be (‘nature’ is here used in the second sense of ‘character’, rather than
the first sense of ‘origin’). The logic of natural right is that those possessing the
greatest wisdom should rule, and their power should be in proportion to their
possession of the virtue of wisdom (Strauss, 1953: 102). This is incompatible with
the modern – that is, post-Hobbesian – emphasis on consent: the rulers rule by the
consent of the ruled and not by appeal to the rulers’ superior wisdom. Strauss argues
that under modern conditions the conflict can be reconciled by the rulers drawing
up a code – or constitution – to which the people consent, and to which they can
pledge allegiance. It is not difficult to see where this argument is heading: the
recognition of the United States Constitution as the expression of natural right, and
that Constitution should not be interpreted simply as a framework through which
conflicts are settled, but must be understood as embodying religious virtue.
Commitment to a ‘politics of virtue’ requires the resistance of tyranny, and this has
practical implications for foreign policy, which we discuss briefly at the end of this
Strauss links his defence of natural right with a particular interpretation of the
history of political thought. Drawing on Judaic ideas, Strauss argues that when we
read pre-modern – and some modern – political texts we must ‘read between the
lines’ (Strauss, 1973: 490). Writing has two levels: a popular or edifying teaching
directed to a contemporary audience (the exoteric), and a ‘hidden’ or secret teaching
that is only revealed on careful reading (the esoteric). The great political thinkers
had a storehouse of literary devices that allowed them to obscure the meanings of
their texts. The reason why they had to do this is made clear in the title of Strauss’s
Persecution and the Art of Writing. Thought is the enemy of tyranny, but it can
only fight tyranny in its own way, and on its own terms, and that is in a literary
way. Esoteric writing survives tyranny and transmits its message between political
thinkers, and to their intelligent readers across the centuries. Quite clearly, a cultural
relativist will reject this claim, and argue that the only audience capable of being
moved by a writer is the contemporary, or near-contemporary, one.
Strauss died in 1973, but if you enter cyberspace and do a Web search using the
keywords ‘Leo Strauss’ you will encounter a heated debate over his influence. Like
much Internet debate, the subtleties of thought tend to be lost. However, it is
interesting to explore the connections between Strauss and neo-conservatism.
Although the term ‘neo-conservative’ – or ‘neo-con’ – is more often used as a
pejorative term by its opponents than by those identified as neo-conservative it still
has validity. The prefix neo- is intended to identify the movement as a distinct stream
within US conservatism. It indicates that adherents are new to conservatism, but
also that traditional conservatism is the subject of critique, and must be infused
with new policy positions.
Many, but not all, leading neo-conservatives began their political life supporting
what, in American terms, is the left: state intervention in the economy, policies to
overcome poverty and the civil rights movement. In demographic terms neo-
conservatives are drawn disproportionately from the Jewish and the Catholic
communities of mainland European origin. This is significant because traditional
conservatism was perceived as dominated by the so-called WASPs (white Anglo-
Saxon Protestants) and hostile to the waves of immigrants who came to the United
States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those waves of
immigrants were subjected to ‘assimilationist’ policies (the ‘great melting pot’) and

206 Part 2 Classical ideologies

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