Lincoln And Leo Strauss

They’re celebrating Lincoln’s birthday over at Powerline. In fact, they have a really wonderful quote — really — where Lincoln gives one of the best expressions of the notions of liberty and equality in American History.

Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of "don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down" [Douglas's "popular sovereignty" position on the extension of slavery to the territories], for sustaining the Dred Scott decision [A voice---"Hit him again"], for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! [Voices---"me" "no one," &c.] If it is not true let us tear it out! [cries of "no, no,"] let us stick to it then [cheers], let us stand firmly by it then.

As a matter of fact, this formulation of the argument against slavery and oppression in any form is really quite remarkable for another reason. I refer to the extreme irony that it is quoted by Scott Johnson, who among other things, is a fellow at the neoconservative Claremont Institute. That would be the same Claremont Institute where another senior fellow — Harry Jaffa, the old-as-dirt butthole buddy of Leo Strauss dating back to the 1940′s — got his panties in a wad over some comentator "besmirching the good name" of that "great man."

Well, okay. I certainly wouldn’t want to "besmirch" anybody’s good name. On the other hand, the question is fairly raised as to what degree Leo Strauss agreed with Lincoln. Lincoln spoke of the belief that kings "always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they want to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden." He described a point of view in favor of slavery "that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying, that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow." Lincoln described this view as ‘that old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it?" Was this Strauss’ view? Did Strauss favor or oppose an elite "bestriding the necks" of people — for their own good, doncha know? Actually, Strauss believed in the inherent right of the superior to rule over the inferior — the very opinion lampooned by Lincoln.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Leo, in his own words.

Thomas Aquinas teaches that even in the state of innocence, if it had lasted, men would have been unequal regarding justice and there would have been government by the superior man over men inferior to him. God is not unjust in creating beings of unequal rank and in particular men of unequal rank, since the equality of justice has its place in retrbution, but not in creation which is an act, not of justice, buT of liberality and therefore perfectly compatible with the inequality of gifts; God does not owe anyting to His creatures. Considering the connection between intelligence and prudence on the one hand, and between prudence and moral virtue on the other, one must admit a natural inequality among men regarding morality; that inequality is perfectly compatible with the possibility that all men possess by nature equally the capability to comply with the prohibitioN against murder, for example, as distinguished from the capability of becoming morally virtuous in the complete sense of becoming perfect gentlemen. One reaches the same conclusion even if one grants that the creatures have claims against God — claims which appeal to God’s goodness or liberality, provided one understands by justice not a firm will to give everyone his due, but goodness tempered by wisdom, for given these assumptions, even such claims of some creatures as are justified on the ground of God’s goodness might have to denied on grounds of His wisdom, i.e., of His concern with the common good of the universe. Equivalent considerations led Plato to trace vice to ignorance and to make knowledge the preserve of men endowed with particularly good natures. As for ARistotle, it may suffice here to say that moral virtue as he understands it is not possible without "equipment" and that for this reaons alone, to say noting of natural inequality, moral virtue in the full sense is not within the reach of all men. Strauss, Leo; The City And Man, University of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. 39-40.

A little later, he makes explicit the ultimate consequences of this view.

For Aristotle, natural inequality is a sufficient justification for the non-egalitarian nature of the city and is as it were part of the the proof that the city is the natural association par excellence. The city is by nature, i.e., the city is natural to man; in founding cities men only execute what their nature inclines them to do. . . . This is not to deny but to assert that the nature of man is enslaved in many ways so that only very few, and even these not always, can achieve happiness or the highest freedom of which man is by nature capable . . . . Ibid, at p. 41.

Now you might be tempted to observe that Strauss is merely explaining what Aquinas and Aristotle thought — not necessarily what Strauss believed. Except of course that the entire purpose of both [i[The City and Man[/i] and Natural Right and History is to demonstrate the superiority of the political philosopy of "the classics" and to expose the alleged errors of the modern political thought. That being his purpose, you would think that somewhere he would get around to showing the Socratic, Platonic, Aristotelian, or Aquinian version of "all men are created equal." I haven’t seen it yet. He lays out the above views of Aristotle — which he is quite forthright about "preferring" — with a nary a word to refute these particular beliefs that clearly support oligarchy, and not egalitarian democracy. Indeed, Strauss explicitly cites Aristotle’s view — at least, as Strauss reports it — that some people are "natural slaves," and further that "superior men" have a natural claim to rule over their inferiors. Again, he never challenges that view himself, nor does he show any example of Aristotle contradicting himself. Aristotle opposed democracy, believed in slavery, believed in the "natural inequality" of people, and specifically in the inherent right to superior to rule the inferior. To the extent that Strauss supports that "classical" view, and denigrates modern conceptions of democracy and equality, Strauss also supports inequality and oligarchy.

It frankly escapes me, how you square Strauss and the Aristotle he champions, with Lincoln’s uncompromising opposition to slavery — and opposition premised on Lincoln’s regularly stated belief in our natural equality as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal" is a modern view — and is found nowhere in "the classics." And Straussian fellows like Scott Johnson and Harry Jaffa damn well know it.

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