Monday, January 22, 2007

Two Waves of Modernity?

During the APSLP meeting earlier in the month, I had an interesting conversation with Nathan Tarcov, and I've been turning it over in my mind for some days. I had written (and since posted here) that what passes for modern American conservatism falls under Strauss's "first wave" of modernity. In a sense, then, it is "conservative" if one compares its properties to the subsequent historicist (e.g., Rousseau/Kant/Hegel) or nihilist (i.e., Nietzsche/Heidegger) waves that Strauss discusses. Tarcov was somewhat agitated by my argument, in part, I think, because it created a certain cognitive dissonance. The reason for this dissonance was that Tarcov was forced by his politics to disagree with Strauss. Strauss argued that there was fundamentally a necessary and unavoidable descent from the first to the second and to the third waves, that, in effect, the "first" wave necessarily ushers in the others. Strauss thus posited that modern historicism, relativism, and even nihilism resulted from the "first wave" of modern natural right - i.e. from early modern liberalism itself. Far from representing an alternative, the "first wave" actually represents the first step in an inexorable progression. When I pressed Tarcov about this, he stated he did not agree with that part of Strauss's thesis. And, how could he, or anyone who considers themselves "conservative" in the "first wave" sense? For, if one agrees with Strauss, then one is implicated in the road to nihilist modernity. One must also therefore acknowledge that the effort to "hold the line" to the first wave is a futile and rear-guard action. But, it's also a difficult thing for a Straussian to acknowledge so fundamental a break with Strauss's own understanding of the fundamental options that are available.

I think this is a critical, indeed rather essential point that warrants further reflection and investigation. If Strauss is right, then modern "liberal" conservatism is fooling itself. A great many people who have argued that "progressivism" represents a betrayal of classic liberal principles (e.g., that progressive political theory and jurisprudence has undermined the original Constitution), such as most of the Claremont Straussians and my colleague George Carey, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of modern natural right if Strauss's "inevitability thesis" is correct. However, if these students of Strauss (Jaffa, and Tarcov, among others) are correct, then one can presumably "hold the line" and modern natural right represents a fundamental alternative to both ancient natural right AND the subsequent "historicist" waves. I'm inclined to agree with Strauss, and I think I have history, as it were, on my side. For, there can be no denying that modern natural right - classical liberalism - created the conditions that made possible the rise of historicism, relativism and nihilism. The debate to be had is whether it was a necessary, or an avoidable, outcome.

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