The Origins of Neoconservatism

Harvey Mansfield, "The Origins of Neoconservatism" (An interview with Eli Kozminsky), Harvard Political Review, March 7, 2011.


What did Kristol find so radical, yet conservative, about Strauss?

The article in Kristol’s book is a review of Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing, which came out in 1952. That was before Strauss wrote the books that were addressed more to a general audience. It was quite remarkable that Irving Kristol saw merit and interest in this book, because the book was about Jewish and Arabic authors – not on the minds of most people – and then that he should have been so impressed.

Strauss overturned things because he showed that philosophers speak in two voices: one is their address to other philosophers over the ages and the other is to their own time. The first one concerns questions that philosophers raise against established institutions, especially religion. The second is what they might say in support of or to reform the politics of their own time. This means that much of what it is in a philosophical book is satire. It’s as if all those scholars of English literature were studying Gulliver’s Travels, and looking for the places in the world to which it refers, as if they really existed. Then somebody points out, “Oh, this is a satire.” This was not greeted with much of a warm reception; it was a heated reception by scholars who spent their lives taking seriously things that weren’t meant that seriously, and who now would have to retract much of what they had written. So Strauss never had much appeal to his own generation. It just shows Kristol’s independence of mind and his discernment that he saw something very powerful in this. Very few people did, and if they did they were so hostile towards it.

Harvard Political Review