A Quick Comment on Leo Strauss' "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero" and the phenomenon of "Red Caesarism"

...some academics contend the United States has entered a "post-Constitutional" period where the emergence of a "Caesar" is necessary and/or deserved.

A Quick Comment on Leo Strauss' "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero" and the phenomenon of "Red Caesarism"

It has come to my attention that some academics contend the United States has entered a "post-Constitutional" period where the emergence of a "Caesar" is necessary and/or deserved. Since law and policy could benefit other groups of people who deserve rights, reactionaries believe all the laws we currently have should be discarded. Here's Jason Wilson in The Guardian on this insanity:

Slack, a politics professor at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, made conspiratorial and extreme arguments now common on the antidemocratic right, that “transgenderism, anti-white racism, censorship, cronyism … are now the policies of an entire cosmopolitan class that includes much of the entrenched bureaucracy, the military, the media, and government-sponsored corporations”.

In a discussion of possible responses to this conspiracy theory, he wrote that the “New Right now often discusses a Red Caesar, by which it means a leader whose post-Constitutional rule will restore the strength of his people”.

These claims exaggerate so much they do not survive the slightest contact with reality. They are produced by cultures which place strict limits on others and indulge abuse. Anyone who has survived a fundamentalist church or family can discuss this further. For my part, I'm interested in the terms "post-Constitutional" and "Caesar." I distinctly remember these from an essay by Leo Strauss, his "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero." It's an essay I've learned much from because Strauss does not hedge on the significance of philosophy. Strauss at his best builds to fruitful problems from careful consideration of the classics:

Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher does not even know the way to the market place, almost constantly in the market place? Why was the same Socrates, who said that the philosopher barely knows whether his neighbor is a human being, so well informed about so many trivial details regarding his neighbors? The philosopher’s radical detachment from human beings must then be compatible with an attachment to human beings. (1)

Someone might call it worthless to ponder whether or not a philosopher knows his way to the marketplace or gossips about the neighbors. But that's just it--the vast majority of human history has not featured science or the collection and organization of knowledge. Lots of societies killed people who made impertinent inquiries. The figure of the philosopher wraps around the question of how civil society deals with the possibility of knowing more. It sounds strange to constantly say "the philosopher," as many Straussians do, but "the philosopher" serves to highlight a number of issues with the acquisition of knowledge, e.g. how a knower can be authentic, not just a bookworm; the inevitable conflict between traditional wisdom and a critique of that wisdom; how the genre of philosophic literature is necessary. Many thinkers have latched onto this figure in various ways to discuss their own concerns. And yes, one of those concerns has been whether a lust for knowledge divorces or attaches one to others. A lot is at stake in whether Socrates knows where the marketplace is or not.

This same essay which presents a powerful portrait of a philosopher also opens the door for accepting "Caesarism." Strauss is far too clever for his own good in the "Restatement." He begins by summarizing and critiquing Vogelin's account of Caesarism. Strauss concludes that classical authors would be able to account for it, but he fails to adequately emphasize that this might not be terribly relevant. To wit:

Caesarism emerges only after “the final breakdown of the republican constitutional order”; hence Caesarism or “postconstitutional” rule cannot be understood as a subdivision of tyranny in the classical sense of tyranny. There is no reason to quarrel with the view that genuine Caesarism is not tyranny, but this does not justify the conclusion that Caesarism is incomprehensible on the basis of classical political philosophy: Caesarism is still a subdivision of absolute monarchy as the classics understood it....

One has only to read Coluccio Salutati’s defense of Caesar against the charge that he was a tyrant—a defense which in all essential points is conceived in the spirit of the classics—in order to see that the distinction between Caesarism and tyranny fits perfectly into the classical framework. (2)

Vogelin asserted that classical thinkers could not account for Caesarism; a more modern account of tyranny is needed. In response, Strauss asserts that Caesarism need not be tyranny. "[Genuine] Caesarism is... a subdivision of absolute monarchy." You can see Strauss say that one can advance the claim Caesar himself isn't a tyrant "in the spirit of the classics." I need to say at this point that I have a rather different reading of what the spirit of the classics has given us.

The argument that we have to take Caesarism seriously depends on knowing that a society is thoroughly corrupt and beyond redemption. I would hope anyone claiming to have or pursue wisdom would be extremely careful with such claims. Perhaps so careful that they do not even mention a desire to be ruled by one who rules without any opposition. One should note that wise people who suffered under oppressive regimes not only worked to resist but documented the abuses of those regimes. Strauss does not mention whether warning humanity of the horrors of which it is capable is a species of wisdom.

Strauss' essay is a combination of speaking about tyranny and elaborating the philosopher. I believe his intention is to open a space for the philosopher to contemplate things ordinary people find reprehensible. One of those things is the degree to which a philosopher would contemplate "absolute rule." If a ruler simply knew better and could make society better, what matter their means? Doesn't a degraded society deserve whatever rule it gets?

Strauss does say things on the lines of "previous philosophers had to commit to the improvement of bad situations" (my words, not his), e.g. they had to accept tyranny to a degree. He somewhat shuts the door he opens when he asserts:

[Caesarism] means encouraging dangerous men to confuse the issue by bringing about a state of affairs in which the common good requires the establishment of their absolute rule. The true doctrine of the legitimacy of Caesarism is a dangerous doctrine. (3)

However, he does not shut the door entirely. The very next sentence: "The true distinction between Caesarism and tyranny is too subtle for ordinary political use." You'll note that neo-Nazis obsessed with Ancient Greeks and Romans are crawling everywhere and have intellectuals to join them in their lairs. Strauss entertaining the idea that wise people would welcome bloodthirsty despotism has very obviously had consequences.

I want to conclude by circling back to the notion that a lover of wisdom is not only radically detached from the everyday, but somehow more attached to human beings because of this. I don't think this is just an excuse for angry nerds to read an esoteric book and then project violent fantasies upon the body politic. Or for people to get lost completely in whatever they read and not have any idea that Taylor Swift is dating Travis Kelce. What's missing in Strauss' "Restatement" is any idea that a philosopher matures or grows, and moreover, that this maturation is a model for all of us. Strauss and his fellow Straussians in other works argue that the maturation of Socrates, the Socratic turn from doing only natural science to considering the human things, depends on Aristophanes' "Clouds" making fun of him in front of the whole city. I feel like that's both an overdramatization and also essentially correct. What I would like to see from people who read widely and deeply is an openness to others who have found their way to making the world better and how they found their way. At one point in the "Restatement," Strauss talks about how the philosopher needs friends, that philosophy is an inherently social activity lest it collapse into solipsism. It would be nice to see some people capable of making friends comment on philosophical matters.

tl;dr the ancients literally stabbed Caesar. Classical writers under the Emperors stabbed him again.


(1) Strauss, Leo. On Tyranny: Corrected and Expanded Edition, Including the Strauss-Kojève Correspondence (p. 178). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

(2) ibid, p. 179

(3) ibid, p. 180