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The Great Persuader

The wisdom and wit of Irving Kristol.

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Kristol rejected the idea of unlimited plasticity, insisting that there was something permanent in the character of human beings and in the structure of social processes. He expressed this theme at the time less by reference to the philosophical category of “nature” (that which remains unchanging) than to the theological category of sin. Not sin, of course, in the sense of the judgment of an angry God holding his charges above the flames in the pit below, but in the sense of an “awareness of a subsistent evil” in human beings and of the recognition of the fact (quoting Trilling) that “good will generates its own problems.” In starker terms of his own a few years later: “The horror that breathes into our faces is the realization that evil may come by doing good—not merely intending to do good, but doing it.”

Talk about the law of unintended consequences! Long before Kristol was lamenting the unfortunate results of well-meaning Great Society welfare programs on family structure, he was contemplating the vaster problem of some of the unforeseen and disquieting effects of Enlightenment thought and technology on modern civilization, such as the advent of atomic weaponry and mass demagogy. Yet what Kristol ultimately took away from these ruminations was not an attitude of despair—this was against his genes, too—but a sense of moderation. At least for social policy, he called for a scaling-down of social programs to match human beings as they are, not as some would like them to be, and for making such improvements as are possible, not for designing grand schemes based on changing the whole environment. Kristol cautioned against a liberal optimism that ignored the natural limitations of human beings and the recalcitrance of social structures: “What it comes down to is that our reformers simply cannot bring themselves to think realistically about human nature.”

It is always difficult to know whether it is a student’s traits that lead him to select a mentor, or the mentor’s teachings that shape the traits of the student. Kristol’s case leaves the matter unresolved. The two figures Himmelfarb singles out as most important to Irving Kristol seem to have fit with and reinforced Kristol’s existing “neo” gene, but they also channeled that gene in unforeseeable directions. The first was the aforementioned Lionel Trilling, who in the 1940s helped Kristol to develop his view of moral realism. The other was Leo Strauss.

So much has recently been written about Leo Strauss, a great deal of which is ideologically driven nonsense, that the revelation of Strauss’s impact is bound to fuel further conspiratorial fantasies about the origins of the Iraq war. In vain will it be pointed out that Kristol first discovered Strauss in 1952, when George W. Bush was not yet seven years old and when Strauss was writing not about hidden WMDs but about esoteric teachings in Maimonides and Farabi.

The lesson that Kristol derived from Strauss was something arguably far more important than a political stance. A key tenet of the progressivist theoretical viewpoint of the time was that past thought was best understood as preparative of present thought—that although (or because) we today stand on the shoulders of past thinkers (thank you very much), we are in the privileged position of being able to look down on them. Strauss’s presentation of how to read old texts, and thus of what one could learn from them, challenged this premise, opening the door to an entirely new theoretical stance: “If in time the victory goes to Professor Strauss, he will have accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history, and most of us will—figuratively, at least—have to go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past that we thought we knew.” One can’t get much more “neo” than this.

Kristol’s intellectual encounter with Trilling and Strauss only begins to hint at the breadth of his intellectual interests in the decade from 1942-52, when he was writing mostly on literature, philosophy, and religion, not politics. For those of us (I count myself one) who until now had only known Irving Kristol the neoconservative writer, imagining that he must somehow have gone directly from wearing swaddling clothes to becoming a founding editor of The Public Interest, this volume is an eye-opener; and we can thank Gertrude Himmelfarb, by some uncanny fate nicknamed “Bea,” for serving, like Dante’s Beatrice, as our trustworthy guide. 

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