‘Bring Me Some New Clichés’

Recently I’ve been interested in understanding postmodernism, specifically the work of the prolific author and social critic Michel Foucault, who died in 1984. Reading his abstruse, jargon-filled writing isn’t fun. But I’m not studying him because I enjoy it. Unlike Foucault himself, I’m not a masochist. 

Foucault and the other “pomo” writers of the late 20th century—e.g., Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Lacan—are important resources to help us understand our current political situation. That’s why I’m giving a presentation on Foucault at ISI’s Politics and Government Summit in Fort Lauderdale this week. My panel, “What the Right Can Learn from the Left,” includes Michael Anton speaking on Karl Marx and Hillsdale’s Kevin Slack on the New Left, with the Claremont Institute’s Ryan Williams serving as the panel’s chairman.

That paper will be published elsewhere. Here I want to focus on one minor but crucial point: People on the Right need to get out of their comfort zones and accept that we are living in a new reality—a reality described perceptively by the postmodernist writers of the 20th century. For better or worse (OK, worse, by far), our moral-political life today is shaped far more by Friederich Nietzsche than by James Madison. 

In some ways, this is obvious; in other ways, it can be difficult or almost impossible for many people to accept. Paradoxically, this new reality should be most evident to academic students of political philosophy, especially those influenced by Leo Strauss. But for reasons I can’t explore here, many of these academics are stuck in a comforting but false narrative about the nature of American constitutionalism. This misapprehension has to do with different meanings of truth, which Foucault helps to clarify. I’ll explain that briefly in a moment. 

There are two reasons Straussians should be clear-eyed about our present predicament. First, Strauss taught his students to appreciate the common-sense empiricism that originated with Plato and Aristotle. The day after Winston Churchill’s death in 1965, Strauss commented to his class on the connection between statesmanship and the classical approach to political science, observing: “[W]e are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness.” 

Students of political philosophy have a “pressing duty,” Strauss said, to be morally courageous in accepting the truth—even if it is distressing. We should not cynically reject the possibilities for greatness and excellence, but neither should we imagine that we can wish them into being; nor should we avert our eyes from misery and vileness.

The second reason is a bit subtler and more difficult to explain. Confronting the state of political philosophy in the 20th century, Strauss believed that two millennia of doctrines, systems, and schools of thought (including several centuries in which the study of philosophy was controlled by the Catholic Church) had covered over “the freshness and directness” of the ancient Greek thinkers. Long-established traditions, while politically indispensable, create “a screen between the philosopher and political things,” as he wrote in one essay. And to the degree that the various dogmas and ideologies which emerged over the centuries had distorted healthy political life, Strauss believed that the recovery of classical thought could help cure some of the theoretical as well as practical ills of modern society. 

Has something similar happened to the American political tradition? One of Strauss’s first students, Harry Jaffa, thought so. 

Almost 50 years ago, Jaffa was already worried that the revolutionary ideas of 1776 were losing their vitality. In an essay published the year before the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, he observed that Jefferson’s ringing phrases about equality and natural rights were becoming little more than “sonorous phrases,” and “clichés.” But in a recursive irony Foucault would have appreciated, Jaffa’s own observation from 1975 has itself become a cliché that eclipses clear thinking. How so? 

Nowadays, quite a few professors who teach the political theory of the founding acknowledge that those principles are mere slogans or banalities in our public life. This includes many conservative think tanks that monotonously invoke “the founders” in their fundraising boilerplate. Yet somehow, the recognition of this fact—that the principles of the Declaration have become widely rejected or forgotten—doesn’t seem to lead them anywhere or have any effect on the thinking or writing of these scholars. Unlike Strauss himself, who was genuinely radical in recovering a fresh understanding of political philosophy, these Straussians don’t seem able to break free from the mantras they have been repeating for decades. They go on mechanically teaching the theory of the founding as if nothing in our political life has changed. 

Strauss and Jaffa believed that since human nature is permanent, the insights of Plato and Aristotle (and Jefferson) will always offer profound truths. But those truths can’t be reduced to simple formulas; they have to be translated—by thoughtful students of political philosophy and by prudent statesmen—in ways that are meaningful and relevant to any particular society. 

Here’s where Foucault comes in. His writing, like other postmodernists, was often convoluted and artificial, in part because he was trying to explain the very weird and disturbing condition of human life today. Under the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, the intellectual elites who control all the major institutions of our society have lost any faith in reason, God, and nature. They embrace a moral and intellectual nihilism. For them—and, therefore, for us—power is truth, and truth is power. This is our political reality. 

Many Straussian scholars see this in an abstract way, but find it hard to reconcile it with their attachment to Greek philosophy and their belief that Jefferson’s words about human equality are indeed self-evidently true. They find it hard to accept the “miserable” and “vile” fact that these ideas, while theoretically true, are politically dead—at least as far as our ruling class is concerned. Whatever the voters may think, the founders’ principles have as much standing in official Washington as Aristotle’s teaching on the human soul.

Foucault showed that what really matters in modern society is the “discourse of power,” which is wholly detached from any ideas of objective truth. Controlling the “narrative” is the mechanism of power—which, for Foucault, includes the use of technology to manage the flow of information and manipulate key propaganda concepts like healthy and normal. Foucault originated the term “biopolitics,” and he is especially helpful in understanding the COVID crisis as a form of political control. His writing shows that it doesn’t matter what may or may not be “objectively” true. (For him, that is a meaningless question.) What is politically true is what the power structure declares to be true. For all practical purposes, that is how our society works now.  

It wasn’t always this way. One of the legendary figures of pre-woke Hollywood was Samuel Goldwyn, who produced many of the best movies of the 1940s and ’50s. There is no evidence he ever heard of Leo Strauss; yet they were both Jewish immigrants to the United States and died within three months of each other. Goldwyn was famous for his malapropisms, and one of his best expressed a kind of Straussian insight in its own brilliant way. “I’m tired of these old clichés,” Goldwyn once yelled to a screenwriter, “Bring me some new ones!” In the same vein, Leo Strauss and his student Harry Jaffa understood that once philosophical insights and political principles ossify into clichés, they are no longer meaningful. 

Our job today is to rescue the truth from our postmodern elites. That means connecting theory and practice—as Christopher Rufo has done, for example, by showing the malicious influence of critical race theory in public schools. The next step is to reveal how the entire woke project is united, fundamentally, by a rejection of human nature. To formulate such an agenda, with an effective rhetoric, we have to summon for ourselves, and for the demands of our own situation, the daring and originality Strauss revealed at the level of theory, and that the founders demonstrated in their revolutionary statesmanship.

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

Photo: Samuel Goldwyn, 1956 (John Chillingworth/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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