The Defense of Liberalism Requires an Understanding of Its Weaknesses

December 21, 2022 | Matthew Rose
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In a 1941 lecture in New York City, the Jewish scholar Leo Strauss reflected on his experience as a university student in his native Germany in the 1920s as a way to introduce his American audience to the contrast between what he called “closed” and “open societies.” (Four years later, Karl Popper, another German-speaking philosopher of Jewish extraction, would popularize these terms.) Matthew Rose writes:

Strauss’s portrait of his classmates was unsparing, but not disdainful. Strauss described young men full of vehement certainty about what they rejected, but inarticulate and unreflective about what they affirmed. “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled,” he observed, “was positively horrifying to [them].” Strauss lamented that their passions found no outlet other than the crudest propaganda. Unable to understand or express themselves in any other way—Strauss noted that they had largely rejected Christian belief—they gave voice to savage forms of group identity. The mark of barbarism, Strauss explained, was the belief that truth and justice should be defined in terms of ethnic or racial membership.

As Rose goes on to explain, Strauss hoped his American listeners would appreciate the appeal of such a rejection of liberal democratic values, and thus become better equipped to oppose it. But to do so, they would first have to understand liberalism’s weaknesses:

Strauss didn’t wish to turn his students into sophisticated enemies of liberalism. His goal was to turn them into virtuous defenders of democracy. But to become true patrons of the open society, they needed qualities of character that could be developed only through a proper appreciation of traditional society. The open society was right to order its common life through the exercise of reason and the arts of civility. But the closed society was also right about some important things. It acknowledged our need to be loyal to a particular people, to inherit a cultural tradition, to admire inequalities of achievement, to reverence the authority of the past, and to experience self-transcendence through self-sacrifice. It acknowledged as well the importance of a leadership class whose decisions expose them to special risk rather than shielding them from it.

As Strauss observed, these are permanent truths, not atavisms, no matter how unpalatable they are to the progressive-minded. A society that cannot affirm them invites catastrophe, no less than does a society that cannot question them.

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