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“Does Spengler know, for instance, that in the last century 2,000 distinct ethnic groups have gone extinct?” Eric Garrett asks in his June 12 riposte, A question of identity, to an earlier article of mine, Neo-cons in a religious bind.
Garrett’s organization, the World Conservation Union, is devoted to preserving fragile cultures. As a matter of fact, I reported in this space that in the next decade, yet another 2,000 distinct ethnic groups would go extinct (Live and Let Die of April 13, 2002). Ignore the endangered Ewoks for a moment, Mr. Garrett, and explain why the imperial peoples of the past two centuries – Germans, Japanese, French, Italians, Russians, and so forth – have elected to disappear, through failure to reproduce (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8).
Garrett and I focus on the same data, but with different agendas. His concern is the mass extinction of primitive cultures, which I think inevitable; my concern is the fall of Western civilization and the possible triumph of radical Islam. In neither case does the influence of Leo Strauss have any relevance. Europe and Japan, the erstwhile imperial oppressors of Garrett’s 2,000 lost tribes, are dying out for the same reason that oppressed peoples died out, and thousands more soon will die out as well. With few exceptions, they were neither butchered nor dispossessed. Unlike the colonizers of the 16th century, who brought smallpox, the European colonists of the 20th century brought antibiotics. Western intervention secured the physical existence of aboriginal cultures, but undermined their will to live. Now it is the Europeans themselves who are endangered.
Socrates (like Strauss) was wrong. It is not the unexamined life that is not worth living, but the life defined by mere animal existence. Unlike lower species, humans require a sense of the eternal. The brute instinct for self-preservation is a myth. It should be no surprise. Precisely a century ago, George Bernard Shaw in his 1903 interlude Don Juan in Hell warned that Western hedonism would lead to depopulation.
The day is coming when great nations will find their numbers dwindling from census to census; when the six-roomed villa will rise in price above the family mansion; when the viciously reckless poor and the stupidly pious rich will delay the extinction of the race only by degrading it; whilst the boldly prudent, the thriftily selfish and ambitious, the imaginative and poetic, the lovers of money and solid comfort, the worshippers of success, of art, and of love, will all oppose to the Force of Life the device of sterility.
This brings us to the reason why Strauss has become something of a bore. The good professor (I mean this sincerely) hung his political-science hat on Hobbes, who threw out the traditional concept of God-given rights of man. He derived the social contract instead from man’s brute instinct for self-preservation. In order to protect themselves against violence in the state of nature, men surrender part of their freedom to a ruler who in turn guarantees their security. By deriving natural rights from brute instinct rather than divine law, Strauss argued (Natural Right and History, 1950), Hobbes invented modern political science, that is, a discipline distinct from faith. Thus he made it possible to create a practicable republic composed of selfish men, unlike the utopian vision of Plato, which depended upon virtuous rulers. (Strauss sought to conjure out of Plato’s writings a view similar to that of Hobbes, and I will let the classicists argue over whether his “esoteric” reading has merit.) Kant summarized the modern viewpoint: “We could devise a constitution for a race of devils, if only they were intelligent.”
History exposes Hobbes’s “self-preservation instinct” as a chimera. If men have no more than physical self-preservation, self-disgust will stifle them. Strauss knew that Hobbes’s approach leads inevitably to nihilism, and he proposed a return to Athenian political philosophy as an antidote, although what that might accomplish is unclear. His students still quibble fruitlessly over whether Strauss “stayed with the moderns” or “went back to Athens.”
Did someone in Washington take Kant literally and set about devising a constitution for devils with the Arab world in mind? Does it matter? Washington must talk about democracy in the Arab world, Strauss or no. Strauss, as in the Jewish joke about the man who sees a shop whose windows are full of clocks. He enters and tells the proprietor, “I want to buy a clock.” The proprietor responds, “I don’t sell clocks.” “Then what do you do?” “I am a mohel [ritual circumciser].” “Then why do you put clocks in the window?” “What do you want me to put in the window?”
Which brings us to the threat of radical Islam. “You are decadent and hedonistic. We on the other hand are willing to die for what we believe, and we are a billion strong. You cannot kill all of us, so you will have to accede to what we demand.” That, in a nutshell, constitutes the Islamist challenge to the West.
Neither the demographic shift toward Muslim immigrants nor meretricious self-interest explains Western Europe’s appeasement of Islam, but rather the terrifying logic of the numbers. That is why President Bush has thrown his prestige behind the rickety prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And that is why Islamism has only lost a battle in Iraq, but well might win the war.
Not a single Western strategist has proposed an ideological response to the religious challenge of Islam. On the contrary: the Vatican, the guardian-of-last-resort of the Western heritage, has placed itself squarely in the camp of appeasement. Except for a few born-again Christians in the United States, no Western voice is raised in criticism of Islam itself. The trouble is that Islam believes in its divine mission, while the United States has only a fuzzy recollection of what it once believed, and therefore has neither the aptitude nor the inclination for ideological warfare.
Relativism is America’s religion, as Leo Strauss complained. Only superficially can one explain this by the peculiar composition of the American people – that is, a collection of immigrants who willfully abandoned their cultures to begin again there, and view each other’s customs with a peculiar blend of sentimentality and indifference. Americans fail to grasp decisive strategic issues not only because they misunderstand other cultures, but because they avert their gaze from the painful episodes of their own history. In his book The Metaphysical Club, Prof Louis Menand observes that the horrors of the Civil War discredited the idealism of young New Englanders (his case study is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr), producing the vapid pragmatism that has reigned since then in American culture. Americans suffer from a form of traumatic amnesia, such that every generation of Americans must learn the hard way.
Garrett thinks that Strauss’s critique of relativism provides a moral prop for American unilateralism. He can relax. Strauss’s case is weak. It amounts to reductio ad absurdum: “All societies have their ideals, cannibal societies no less than civilized ones. If principles are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible or sound as those of civilized life.” Now comes Garrett, whose job it is to defend cannibal societies’ right to exist. Strauss in his worst nightmares could not have imagined Garrett.
Strauss cannot convince Garrett. Indeed, he could not convince himself. Strauss knew perfectly well that philosophy could not refute relativism (“radical historicism”), hence his helplessness before Heidegger’s parlour tricks. Strauss gave up on Nietzsche largely because Heidegger offered a sharper critique of rationalism. (Garrett’s interpretation of Nietzsche as a philosemite seems idiosyncratic, to say the least, considering that Nietzsche denounced his erstwhile idol Wagner as a Jew after Wagner made peace with Christianity in Parsifal.)
Critics of the neo-conservatives accuse them of following Machiavelli, via Strauss. The charge sticks to Michael Ledeen, but surely not to Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism, who spurned Machiavelli as a “the first nihilist.” Who cares? Machiavelli was a Florentine lightweight who hoped that the poisoner Cesare Borgia would unite Italy. What Italian has done anything of political importance in the past 500 years? What effect on history had all the stiletto-and-arsenic games of the Italian condottiere?
Grim men of faith – Loyola, Oldebarnevelt, Richilieu, Mazarin – led the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, while the Florentines amused the tourists (The sacred heart of darkness, February 11). The trouble with Strauss, I reiterate, is that he was an atheist, rather a disadvantage in a religious war. The West has no armed prophet. It doesn’t even have an armed theologian.