WISE MEN TELL NOBLE LIES
The President of the United States told the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. His secretaries of defense and state made the same assertions. They claimed to be telling the kind of truth that enables good countries to go to war against evil ones. . . .
One of the great services that Strauss and his disciples have performed for the Bush regime has been the provision of a philosophy of the noble lie, the conviction that lies, from being simply a regrettable necessity of political life, are instead virtuous and noble instruments of wise policy. The idea’s provenance could not be more elevated: Plato himself advised his nobles, men with golden souls, to tell noble lies . . . to keep the other levels of human society (silver, iron, brass) in their proper places, loyal to the state and willing to do its bidding. Strauss, too, advised the telling of noble lies in the service of the national interest, and he held Plato’s view of aristocrats as persons so virtuous that such lies would be used only for the good, for keeping order in the state and in the world. He defined the modern method of the noble lie in the use of esoteric messages within an exoteric text, telling the truth to the wise while at the same time conveying something quite different to the many.
For Strauss, as for Plato, the virtue of the lie depends on who is doing the lying. If a poor woman lies on her application for welfare benefits, the lie cannot be countenanced. The woman has committed fraud and must be punished. The woman is not noble, therefore the lie cannot be noble. When the leader of the free world says that “free nations do not have weapons of mass destruction,” this is but a noble lie, a fable told by the aristocratic president of a country with enough nuclear weapons to leave the earth a desert less welcoming than the surface of the moon.
ALL MEN ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
William Kristol has written that "Strauss, by way of his students, is in large part responsible for making the thought and principles of America’s founders a source of political knowledge and appeal, and for making political excellence more broadly a subject of appreciation and study. America’s founders thought it self-evident that all men are created equal, and yet increasing inequality has been the hallmark of the Bush Administration, as it was of the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Donald Rumsfeld’s primary task under Ronald Reagan was to rid the country of the Great Society programs of the early 1960s. Irving Kristol, an early Straussian, advised Reagan and Rumsfeld and their staffs of the need to stop coddling hungry children, educating the poor, and helping the aged, the infirm, victims of prejudice. The current Bush Administration works more boldly toward inequality. It has adopted a tax system suggested by Grover Norquist, another Straussian, a man who publicy compared the inheritance tax to the Holocaust.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, the founder of the Great Books Program, said, “The best education for the best is the best education for all.” In 1959, Strauss wrote that “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society.” In one sentence he had stated his elitism and his distaste for what he called the vulgarity of democratic society. Three years later he made the ruling elite permanent: “We must not expcet that liberal education can ever become universal education. It will always remain the obligation and privilege of a minority.” Arrogance follows elitism. It leads to cruelty, the capability, even the desire, to use people, to make them into things. No follower of Strauss can agree with Kant’s description of human dignity: man is not a means but an end in himself. The Straussians assign dignity to the few, and those who are deprived of dignity cannot pursue happiness. The study of Strauss’s work does lead to thinking about the Founders: not how they would agree with Straussians but how they would oppose them.
DEMOCRACY IS THE RULE OF THE UNWISE OVER THE WISE
Plato believed that the wise should rule – and who could quarrel with that? But who then decides among competing wise men, and what should be the limits of the wise statesman’s power? It is instructive to listen to Strauss: “It would be absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule. It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise wishes of the unwise; hence the wise rulers ought not to be responsible to the unwise subjects.” Strauss explains that this would result in the subjection of what is by nature higher to that which is lower. His reading of Plato comes down to this: true democracy is an act against nature and must be prevented at all costs. Seen in this light, the Bush Administration’s public claim to be bringing “democracy” to Iraq, all the while working to ensure that elections do not take place, takes on new meaning.
NATURE ABHORS A CONTRACT
Long before the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration – goaded on by Wolfowitz, Kristol, the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century, and others on the right – had made a decision to oust Saddam Hussein. Bush seems to have had a personal vendetta, but the others had more philosophical reasons. There was nothing Machiavellian about the attack. It was based on principles the planners derived from natural law. One suspects that President Bush, with his simplistic messianic mind-set, was attracted to this line of reasoning: The natural law in the very heart of human beings, the innate ability to know right from wrong, took precedence over mere convention. And so the Bush regime flouted the contract that was agreed to when the United States joined the United Nations; it flouted the U.S. Constitution, which is also a contract, by attacking without the required declaration of war by Congress; and it disregarded the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in other secret detention camps around the world.
The administration’s wise men held up Strauss’s version of natural law as the model, dismissing contracts as mere laws of men. Natural law, interpreted by Bush’s “wise counsels,” gave the President permission to launch a pre-emptive war through an appeal to the higher power. Natural-law theory assumes that men seek the good and that by asking the perennial questions – what is virtue? what is justice? – they will come to wisdom. Straussians, like Kristol, hold that the Founding Fathers espoused natural-law theory, saying that natural law was both divine and self-evident. But the Founders were concerned with inalienable natural rights. After much debate in their convention, they wrote a contract.