Leo Strauss and the Grand Inquisitor
by: : Shadia B. Drury
Leo Strauss and the Grand Inquisitor
by Shadia B. Drury
There is a certain irony in the fact that the chief guru of the neoconservatives is a thinker who regarded religion merely as a political tool intended for the masses but not for the superior few. Leo Strauss, the German Jewish émigré who taught at the University of Chicago almost until his death in 1973, did not dissent from Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the people; but he believed that the people need their opium. He therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit.
Not all the neoconservatives have read Strauss. And those who have rarely understand him, for he was a very secretive thinker who expressed his ideas with utmost circumspection. But there is one thing that he made very clear: liberal secular society is untenable. Religion is necessary to provide political society with moral order and stability. Of course, this is a highly questionable claim. History makes it abundantly clear that religion has been a most destabilizing force in politics—a source of conflict, strife, and endless wars. But neoconservatives dogmatically accept the view of religion as a panacea for everything that ails America.
Using religion as a political tool has two equally unsavory consequences. First, when religious beliefs become the guide for public policy, the social virtues of tolerance, freedom, and plurality are undermined, if they are not extinguished altogether. Second, the use of religion as a political tool encourages the cultivation of an elite of liars and frauds who exempt themselves from the rules they apply to the rest of humanity. And this is a recipe for tyranny, not freedom or democracy.
There have always been those who deluded themselves into thinking that they were akin to gods who are entitled to rule over ordinary mortals. But no one has described this mentality more brilliantly than Dostoevsky, when he created the figure of the Grand Inquisitor. In his short story of the same title, Dostoevsky imagined that Jesus has returned to face a decadent and corrupt Church. As head of the Church, the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus to death, but not before having a long and interesting conversation with the condemned man. Jesus naively clings to the belief that what man needs above all else is freedom from the oppressive yoke of the Mosaic law, so that he can choose between good and evil freely according to the dictates of his conscience. But the Inquisitor explains to him that truth and freedom are the sources of humanity’s greatest anguish and that people will never be free because “they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.” He declares that people can be happy only if they surrender their freedom and bow before miracle, mystery, and authority. Only then can people live and die peacefully, “and beyond the grave, they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity.” The Inquisitor explains that the “deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.” But in the end, “they will marvel at us and look on us as gods.”
To say that Strauss’s elitism surpasses that of the Grand Inquisitor is an understatement. Undeniably, there are strong similarities. Like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that society must be governed by a pious elite (George Bush the second and the Christian fundamentalists who support him fit this role perfectly). Like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought of religion as a pious fraud (something that would alarm the Christian fundamentalists who are allied with the neoconservatives). And even though Strauss was sympathetic to Judaism, he nevertheless described it as a “heroic delusion” and a “noble dream.” Like the Grand Inquisitor, he thought that it was better for human beings to be victims of this noble delusion than to “wallow” in the “sordid” truth. And like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that the superior few should shoulder the burden of truth and in so doing, protect humanity from the “terror and hopelessness of life.”
All the similarities between Strauss and the Grand Inquisitor notwithstanding, the Straussian position surpasses the Grand Inquisitor in its delusional elitism as well as in its misanthropy. This shows that while one need not be a religious thinker to be misanthropic, religion is an excellent vehicle for implementing misanthropic policies in public life.
The Grand Inquisitor presents his ruling elite as suffering under the burden of truth for the sake of humanity. So, despite his rejection of Christ, the Grand Inquisitor is modeled on the Christian conception of a suffering God who bears the burden for humanity. In contrast, Strauss represents his ruling elite as pagan gods who are full of laughter. Instead of being grim and mournful like the Grand Inquisitor, they are intoxicated, erotic, and gay. And they are certainly not too concerned about the happiness of mere mortals. They have little pity or compassion for them. On the contrary, the pain, suffering, and tragedies of the mortals provide them with entertainment.
The Trojan wars and similar tragic atrocities were festivals for the gods, intended for their pleasure and amusement. Nietzsche thought that only when suffering is witnessed by gods did it become meaningful and heroic. Soaring high, Strauss discovered that there are no gods to witness human suffering; and finding the job vacant, he recruited his acolytes.
Strauss thought that the best way for ordinary human beings to raise themselves above the beasts is to be utterly devoted to their nation and willing to sacrifice their lives for it. He recommended a rabid nationalism and a militant society modelled on Sparta. He thought that this was the best hope for a nation to be secure against her external enemies as well as the internal threat of decadence, sloth, and pleasure. A policy of perpetual war against a threatening enemy is the best way to ward off political decay. And if the enemy cannot be found, then it must be invented.
For example, Saddam Hussein was an insignificant tyrant in a faraway land without the military power to threaten America. And he wasn’t allied with the Islamic fundamentalists who attacked the World Trade Center in 2001. But the neoconservatives who control the White House managed to inflate the threat to gargantuan proportions and launched the nation into a needless war. Even though they are not hardcore Straussians, neoconservatives share Strauss’s view that wealth, freedom, and prosperity make people soft, pampered, and depraved. And, like Strauss, they think of war as an antidote to moral decadence and depravity. And this should make us wonder if they purposely launched the nation into a needless war because they were convinced of the salutary effects of war as such.
There is a strong asceticism at the heart of the neoconservative ideology that explains why it appeals to the Christian Right. Neoconservatism dovetails nicely with the views that humanity is too wicked to be free; too much pleasure is sinful; and suffering is good because it makes man cry out to God for redemption. With the neoconservatives and the Christian Right in power, Americans can forget about the pursuit of happiness and look forward to perpetual war, death, and catastrophe. And in the midst of all the human carnage and calamity that such policies are bound to bring, the Olympian laughter of the Straussian gods will be heard by those who have ears to hear it. In short, the Straussian elite makes the Grand Inquisitor look compassionate and humane in comparison.
The fact that so many of the most powerful men in America are self-proclaimed disciples of Leo Strauss is rather troublesome. For example, Abram Shulsky, the director of the Office of Special Plans, which was created by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was a student of Strauss. Shulsky was responsible for finding intelligence that would help to make the case for war in Iraq. We know now that the intelligence was false and misleading. Shulsky tells us that he learned from Strauss that “deception is the norm in political life.”10 But deception cannot be the norm in public life without subverting democracy and robbing people of the opportunity to deliberate freely in light of the facts.
Another important Straussian close to the Bush administration is William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century, in which the neoconservative foreign policy is clearly outlined. Kristol wrote his thesis on Machiavelliæ a theorist who was much admired by Strauss for everything except his lack of subtlety. Strauss endorsed Machiavellian tactics in politicsæ not just lies and the manipulation of public opinion but every manner of unscrupulous conduct necessary to keep the masses in a state of heightened alert, afraid for their lives and their families and therefore willing to do whatever was deemed necessary for the security of the nation. For Strauss as for Machiavelli, only the constant threat of a common enemy could save a people from becoming soft, pampered, and depraved. Strauss would have admired the ingenuity of a color code intended to inform Americans of the looming threats and present dangers, which in turn makes them more than willing to trade their liberty for a modicum of security.
Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney, is also a self-proclaimed follower of Strauss. Like many of Strauss’s students, he is animated by a sense of missionæa mission to save America from her secular liberal decadence. And what better solution is there to secular liberal sloth than a war effort? I am inclined to give these powerful students of Strauss the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they have no idea of the sinister depths to which Strauss’s political thought descends. And I think that by revealing aspects of Strauss’s dark philosophy, I may dissuade some of them from following Strauss too blindly into the abyss.
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor with Related Chapters from The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett, trans. (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1948). I am very suspicious of this interpretation of the message of Jesus. See my new book, Terror and Civilization: (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
2. Ibid., p. 30.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 31.
5. Ibid., p. 30.
6. Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews: Can Jewish Faith and History Still Speak to Us?” in Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker, Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski, eds. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), p. 61.
7. Ibid., p. 61.
8. Leo Strauss, Philosophy And Law: Essays Toward the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors, Fred Baumann, trans. (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1987), p. 18.
9. Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: Essays and Lectures, Thomas L. Pangle, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 107–08.
10. Gary J. Schmitt and Abram N. Shulsky, “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (by Which We Do Not Mean Nous),” in Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley (eds.), Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), p. 410.
Shadia B. Drury is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina, where she is professor of philosophy and political science. Her most recent book is Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).