Saturday, September 19, 2009

Irving Kristol

Other than criticizing the excesses of Great Society lefty liberalism, I didn't appreciate much the neoconservative politics of the late Irving Kristol. The Strauss influenced neocons have been, in my opinion, pretty disappointing as policy wonks. However I am a big fan of their work on the political philosophy of the American Founding.

The dialog between the East Coast and West Coast Straussians is very important in this regard. I think the truth of the American Founding is somewhere in between what the two camps argue. Kristol was part of the Eastern camp that saw the Founding as atheistic/materialistic/hedonistic through John Locke's esoteric plans.

Here West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa recounts his dispute with Kristol:

Here is how Irving Kristol refers to the "moral truths" of the Declaration to which John Paul is a witness.

To perceive the true purposes of the American Revolution it is wise to ignore some of the more grandiloquent declamations of the moment (7).

That "all men are created equal" is of course the most grandiloquent of the aforesaid declamations. Kristol has a habit of asking us wisely to ignore whatever he does not like. In the same essay he refers to Tom Paine as "an English radical who never really understood America [and] is especially worth ignoring."

But Tom Paine gave the decisive impetus to independence in the winter and spring of 1776. Early in the year, General Washington toasted the King's health in his officers' mess, until he encountered the "sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning" of Common Sense. What finally turned George Washington to independence is what Kristol asks us to ignore. It is also worth mentioning that this man who is said never to have understood America, carried a musket in the battle of Trenton.

In 1976, Tom Paine was Kristol's surrogate for Thomas Jefferson. Recently, however, Kristol has lost all restraint in belittling, not only Jefferson, but the entire Founding. The authors of the Constitution, he now says,

were for the most part not particularly interested in religion. I am not aware that any of them wrote anything worth reading on religion, especially Jefferson, who wrote nothing worth reading on religion or almost anything else.

For more context on Kristol's rant, one must understand that the East Coast Straussians of which he was one viewed the American Founding -- or least its natural rights rhetoric -- as flawed. They defend the constitutionalism of the founding, strictly construed, and grounded in a slow moving tradition, sans the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The East Coast Straussians are pretty much Platonists and truer to Leo Strauss hisself. The West Coast Straussians via Harry Jaffa are off Strauss' track, much more Christian and American.

J said...


Madison's condemnation of majority rule is virtually identical with Aristotle's in the Third Book of the The Politics. There, Aristotle denounces the very idea that the poor, by the mere force of numbers, may take away the property of the rich. Only within the framework of natural rights—among which are the equal rights of all human persons: rights to life, liberty, and property—can majority rule function rightly and legitimately.

Jaffa, whatever one thinks of him, understands the Federalist mind, and the dangers thereof. When the statesman's in doubt --like about democracy, voting, property rights, and legislative power itself--he should stick with the Klassix. Aristotle also sanctioned slavery, celebrated military force (ie might makes right), aristocratic heritiage, and hardly supported "equal rights". He was not arguing for democracy, but for a Mussolini-like rule of the powerful. Machiavelli loves Aristotle.

In effect Jaffa wants it both ways--equal rights based on natural law in principle, but a government which can prevent a majority from voting in laws which would harm the wealth/powerful minority.

Madison does at times seem anti-democratic in the Fed papers, but not to the extent that Jaffa believes him to be. Mad. abandoned the Federalists after the ratifying of the Constitution and joins Jefferson's faction, those wretched American jacobins.

Phil Johnson said...

Sometimes we might get carried away on the details of what some supposed intellect like Irving Krostol has to say.
You have to understand where he comes from in order to qualify his worth in any worthwhile discussion.

J said...

What think you of Jaffa's essay, Pinkster?

He's another clever crypto-vichy type from Claremont, methinx

Phil Johnson said...

J asks, "What think you of Jaffa's essay...?"
I think it drives the main spike all the way home.
America's Founding was, arguably, all about slavery.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This discussion is underinformed.

The facts are here, for those interested:

"Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield are two of the ablest among those whose study of America has been shaped and helped by what they learned from Strauss. Both men are patriots. Both admire the Founders and the Constitution. Yet their views on the matter of human equality appear to be complete opposites. Jaffa affirms Lincoln's sweeping claim that the self-evident truth that all men are created equal is "the father of all moral principle" in the hearts of Americans. But Mansfield says that "all men are created equal" is only a "self-evident half-truth," and he argues that constitutionalism today is harmed rather than helped by appeals to equality.

Who is right, Jaffa or Mansfield? or neither? An adequate answer to these questions would require a much fuller treatment than I can present here. But I can at least give an overview, so that readers may have a sense of what is at stake and how to think about the different approaches of these two outstanding scholars...

[Thomas G. West is a personal favorite, BTW.]