Saturday, September 19, 2009

Irving Kristol:

Other than criticizing the excesses of Great Society lefty liberalism, I didn't appreciate much the neoconservative politics of the late Irving Kristol. The Strauss influenced neocons have been pretty disappointing as policy wonks. However I am a big fan of their work on the political philosophy of the American Founding.

The dialog between the East Coast and West Coast Straussians is very important in this regard. I think the truth of the American Founding is somewhere in between what the two camps argue. Kristol was part of the Eastern camp that saw the Founding as atheistic/materialistic/hedonistic through John Locke's esoteric plans.

Here West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa recounts his dispute with Kristol:

Here is how Irving Kristol refers to the "moral truths" of the Declaration to which John Paul is a witness.

To perceive the true purposes of the American Revolution it is wise to ignore some of the more grandiloquent declamations of the moment (7).

That "all men are created equal" is of course the most grandiloquent of the aforesaid declamations. Kristol has a habit of asking us wisely to ignore whatever he does not like. In the same essay he refers to Tom Paine as "an English radical who never really understood America [and] is especially worth ignoring."

But Tom Paine gave the decisive impetus to independence in the winter and spring of 1776. Early in the year, General Washington toasted the King's health in his officers' mess, until he encountered the "sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning" of Common Sense. What finally turned George Washington to independence is what Kristol asks us to ignore. It is also worth mentioning that this man who is said never to have understood America, carried a musket in the battle of Trenton.

In 1976, Tom Paine was Kristol's surrogate for Thomas Jefferson. Recently, however, Kristol has lost all restraint in belittling, not only Jefferson, but the entire Founding. The authors of the Constitution, he now says,

were for the most part not particularly interested in religion. I am not aware that any of them wrote anything worth reading on religion, especially Jefferson, who wrote nothing worth reading on religion or almost anything else.

For more context on Kristol's rant, one must understand that the East Coast Straussians of which he was one viewed the American Founding -- or least its natural rights rhetoric -- as flawed. They defend the constitutionalism of the founding, strictly construed, and grounded in a slow moving tradition, sans the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.

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