Ancient Greece and American Conservatism: Classical Influence on the Modern Right
By John Bloxham.
I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Hardcover, 284 pages, $99 (Paperback, $40).
Reviewed by Grant Havers
The application of ancient Greek thought and history to modern politics is nothing new. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, in her masterful study Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (1994), analyzed the partisan debates over the nature of Athenian democracy in modernity, usually revealing more about the biases and agenda of the moderns in question than about Athens itself. America is no exception to this rule. Samuel Adams once fantasized that sinful Boston might become a “Christian Sparta.” Benjamin Franklin imagined that the Socratic method could be the basis of modern education in the new republic but only if it replaced its traditional concern for the soul with a focus on practical goals like self-advancement. Xenophon’s portrait of Socrates as a friend of agrarian virtues and foe of commercial vices naturally resonated with Thomas Jefferson. Still, a few of the most famous Founders and Framers resisted the siren song of Hellas. Rejecting Aristotle’s idea of natural inequality, John Adams described the Stagirite’s thought as “the most unphilosophical, the most inhuman and cruel that can be conceived.” Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist (article nine) thought it quite reasonable to feel “sensations of horror and disgust” over the instability that plagued Athenian democracy, a violent history from which “the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty.”
This recurrent interest in the meaning and legacy of Hellenic tradition for American political thought has persisted well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As John Bloxham persuasively shows in his new study, many of the most important conservative intellectuals in recent history rediscovered ancient Greek political philosophy and history as a necessary antidote to the violent fanaticism and irrationalism that the twentieth century had so grimly demonstrated. Bloxham, an English classicist and lecturer at the Open University in the United Kingdom, brings an impressive expertise to his subject. He writes: “I will trace patterns in the appropriation of Greek thought, reading such receptions alongside Greek texts and analysing examples of selectivity, subversion, and adaptation within their broader contexts.”
From the start, Bloxham makes clear that he has no quarrel with the “inherent validity of conservative ideas.” Yet he admits that his methodology, which is based on a synthesis of reception theory and intellectual history, is “fundamentally antithetical to the commonly held conservative belief in absolute truths.” Nevertheless, he insists that “this work makes a conscious effort to maintain a detachment from the arguments over such claims, giving both sides of the issue where possible and refraining from value judgements.” Given the weight of his thesis that many intellectuals on the Right have reinvented or distorted the classics, however, the author’s statement of purpose may be disputed.
Richard Weaver, who was one of the first post-World War II conservatives to enlist Plato’s theory of the Forms as the last, best hope against modern relativism (or the denial of absolute or timeless truths), draws the author’s fire for failing to discuss this metaphysical theory in any detail. Instead, Weaver provides a few references to Plato that “are simply window-dressing.” Bloxham also chides Weaver for “contradictions” that appear in his reading of Plato and Aristotle. For one thing, this famous defender of the old aristocratic South was silent on the most egalitarian elements within Plato’s Laws and Republic. Weaver even went so far as to claim that the Greeks exhibited a “disregard for luxury” that contrasts sharply with modern materialism, thus ignoring all “the ancient disagreements or the purposes for which austerity was idealized in the ancient sources.”
Bloxham examines what he argues is a selective and ahistorical analysis of Greek thought in the writings of other conservative luminaries such as Peter Viereck and Willmoore Kendall. While railing against “mass man,” the former believed that ancient Greece represented an “idealized past,” free of modern vices. Kendall receives some praise from Bloxham for refuting Karl Popper’s misrepresentation of Plato as a “totalitarian” while warning against the temptation to portray Socrates as a defender of free speech. Still, even Kendall fell into an ahistorical anachronism of his own when he tried to justify Athens’ silencing of Socrates and called on America to do the same with its dissenters.
Of all the American conservative intellectuals who came to the fore in the 1950s, Kendall receives the lion’s share of the author’s praise, due to the fact that this populist was influenced by an émigré philosopher whom Bloxham admires even more: Leo Strauss. Although Strauss shared the same animus toward modern relativism as his contemporaries, Bloxham emphasizes that Strauss also provided far more rigorous analysis of classical texts than most of his contemporaries in the postwar era. In particular, he praises Strauss for “uncovering previously hidden layers” in Xenophon’s work on farming, the Oeconomicus.
Although Bloxham avers that Strauss is one of the few bright stars in the postwar Right’s firmament, he doubts that there is any hard evidence supporting Strauss’s secret writing thesis that philosophers from Plato onwards have concealed the true meaning of their intent. Example: “If Plato’s Republic was really intended as a warning against utopian thinking, then it was a warning that was missed by virtually every reader until Strauss.” On a philosophical note, he also faults Strauss for merely pointing out the beneficial effects of believing in natural right as well as the pernicious effects of belief in relativism, without actually refuting relativism itself or proving that a standard of natural right even exists. This charge is supported by Strauss himself, who admits in On Tyranny that the idea of “an eternal and unchangeable order within which History takes place and which is not in any way affected by History … is not self-evident.”
In general, Bloxham faults Strauss and his contemporaries or successors for the same glaring defect, namely, their determination to selectively use Athens (its history and philosophy) for utterly modern purposes. To be sure, there were figures on the Right who were not Hellenophiles. Russell Kirk showed little substantive interest in Plato and Aristotle, despite his undeniable respect for their legacy. The libertarian philosopher Frank Meyer rejected Platonic philosophy for subordinating individual freedom to the needs of the polis. Robert Nisbet did not share the Platonism of his contemporaries, and even endorsed Popper’s crude portrayal of Plato as “unmistakably totalitarian.” Nevertheless, Bloxham gives the unmistakable impression that most voices on the Right appealed to the Greeks in order to shore up modern or American causes. The Straussian philosopher Harry Jaffa reinvented the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln as the quintessential Aristotelian statesman, even though the Stagirite clearly defended slavery “by nature.” Sociologists as diverse as Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, and Charles Murray have confidently applied Aristotelian concepts of virtue to their analyses of America’s social ills (e.g. poverty).
While Bloxham’s central focus on Greek thought has merit, it downplays other ancient influences on American conservative thought, namely Rome. Kirk placed the Eternal City in equal importance to that of Athens. Moreover, conservatives who were interested in the structural protections of English liberties (from London, Kirk’s fourth key city), tended to look to Roman and common law precedents. Roman Stoic philosophy has also resonated with many voices on the Right. This gap in Bloxham’s analysis undercuts his general attack on conservatives and “the classics.”
Nevertheless, Bloxham’s exposure of contradictions on the Right is clearly his strong suit. Taking aim at the Straussians, Bloxham exposes a contradiction at the heart of their thought: “modernity was bad, America was modern, but America was mostly good.” This illogical premise generates two troubling questions. If America shares the same defects as modernity, how can it be a worthy successor to Plato and Aristotle? And, does the modern nature of America have any substantive connection to the glory that was Greece?
Although Bloxham does not explicitly address these questions, he indirectly engages them by revealing certain incoherent attempts to bridge the divide between Athens and America. William Bennett, as Secretary of Education in the late 1980s, was determined to present premodern philosophy as a necessary “inculcation of traditional values and habits,” even though he papered over the rather unconservative views of Plato on morality (as book 5 of the Republic reveals). Allan Bloom’s more famous attempt to protect the “Great Works” tradition from a corrosive leftism sweeping the universities had little to do with either the Greeks or conservatism. Instead, Bloom was primarily interested in fighting an intellectual relativism that questioned the legitimacy of America’s mission to disseminate her liberal ideas throughout the world. Bloxham’s discussion of the neoconservatives (not all of whom were Straussians) who pushed for a more interventionist and aggressive foreign policy in the Bush II era turns on the suspicion that an imperialist agenda trumped philosophical coherence and historical accuracy. In his analysis of neoconservative attempts to enlist Thucydides as a defender of democratic imperialism, Bloxham takes due note of Bill Kristol’s admission (in 2005) that Straussian ideas helped to inspire Bush’s policy of “regime change” that precipitated the second Iraq War. Still, what is more important to Bloxham is whether this policy has anything to do with Thucydides, who warned against the dangers of imperial overreach.
Bloxham’s critical analysis of the political agendas that often inspire conservative interpretations of the Greeks is compelling. Yet it is not always clear what exactly the reader should do with this critique. Bloxham’s own conclusions are rather jarring. In his final chapter, he disparages current conservative thought by observing that “in comparison with Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and even Richard Weaver, today’s conservative debates may appear somewhat lightweight.” To say the least, Bloxham never demonstrates the truth of this claim. It would be preposterous to contend that the contributions of sophisticated conservative interpreters of Greek antiquity such as Paul Rahe, Daniel Mahoney, and Paul Gottfried (among many others) are “lightweight”!
Another concluding observation unwittingly reveals one of the most serious limitations of his study. Bloxham writes: “With its complex fusion of the familiar and the alien, Greek Antiquity is likely to remain an excellent tool with which to think.” Despite his illuminating scrutiny of the intellectual Right’s selective reading of the Greeks, Bloxham never substantively addresses these questions: how exactly should Americans think about Greek antiquity in the third millennium? If there is truly a divide between the ancients and the moderns, what does Athens have to do with America?
The impact of Bloxham’s study would have been stronger had he discussed the philosophical differences between Greek and modern thought that complicate any easy synthesis of the two traditions. Given his expertise in history, his silence on the centrality of cyclical time in Greek historiography is surprising. As Karl Löwith explains in Meaning in History, the movement of history, as understood by the historian Polybius (among others), “revolves in a cycle of political revolutions, wherein constitutions change, disappear, and return in a course appointed by nature.” The sheer fatalism of this pagan philosophy of history is rather difficult to square with a modern republic dedicated to positive change and novelty as well as hopes for a brighter future.
It is equally astounding that Bloxham writes almost nothing about that other great tradition that has inspired the thought of conservatives, namely Jerusalem, or biblical revelation. Given the massive attention that Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and many others have devoted to understanding the relation between Athens and Jerusalem, the two founding traditions of the West, this omission is troubling. How exactly does America’s debt to the Bible relate to the conservative appropriation of classical Greek texts? Bloxham reveals only a passing interest in this pivotal question. In his discussion of Weaver, he targets this southern conservative for misunderstanding nominalism (the denial of abstract universals), the biblical idea of original sin, and Platonic philosophy in one fell swoop:
Weaver’s Platonism was suffused with contradictions. For example, according to Weaver, nominalism also undermined the notion of original sin. This meant that misguided moderns had to attribute man’s moral defects ‘to his simple ignorance’, rather than an innate human propensity for evil. But Weaver was arguing against a well-known Platonic viewpoint here. Plato’s Socrates gave ignorance as the exact reason why people erred, contending that ‘virtue is knowledge’. According to Socrates, if a man could ‘distinguish good from evil, nothing will force him to act otherwise than as knowledge dictates.’
This passage could have been an opportunity for Bloxham to discuss how America’s tradition of constitutional government presupposes the biblical view that the “innate human propensity for evil” requires checks and balances on the authority of the state. As I have contended elsewhere, the biblical critique of sinfulness and idolatry more effectively explains the demonic monstrosity of totalitarianism than the Platonic equation of vice with ignorance.
The only other place that Bloxham addresses the importance of the biblical tradition is in a brief comparative discussion of Strauss and Voegelin. He justifiably expresses some puzzlement over the fact that Strauss (whom he suspects of being an atheist) enjoyed more influence on the intellectual Right than his fellow émigré, even though Voegelin’s “overtly Christian interpretation of history gelled better with contemporaries and his historicism was almost Burkean.” Strauss, by contrast, rejected theological treatments of history and political philosophy. Although Voegelin refused to call himself a conservative, Bloxham implies that Voegelin’s thought should have been the mainstay for conservative intellectuals during the Cold War and beyond. The fact that Voegelin emphasized more explicitly than Strauss how the Bible (especially Christianity) shaped modernity should have resonated with more conservatives in America that it actually did, although Kirk and others thought Voegelin was a deeper source of insight into the political culture of America and of the West generally. In alluding to the differences between Strauss and Voegelin, Bloxham could have devoted more attention to how the historic relation between Athens and Jerusalem has always been of tremendous interest and importance to thoughtful conservatives who are determined to preserve Western civilization.
In fine, Bloxham’s admirable study is perhaps best understood as a critique directed at a group of conservatives who used the Greeks for their own purposes, much like a current crop of “woke” academics today that employ the classics for their own progressive purposes. Despite the undeniable value of this critique, this reader is left hungering for a viable alternative that can overcome and transcend the parochialism of contemporary ideologies.
Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University (Canada). He is the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).