In 1941, Leo Strauss, living as a refugee in Manhattan, gave a lecture in which he explored the political and philosophical underpinnings of both Fascism and Liberalism. I was struck by this description of right-wing students in German universities of the 1920s. Some called them nihilists, but to Strauss this was mistake, and an important one:
For what is mislabeled “nihilism” is not a destructive doctrine at all. It is a protest on behalf of something of the highest human importance—something liberalism dismisses at its peril.
What kind of protest? In answering this question, Strauss reflected on the generation of students who had been intellectually formed and politically radicalized during the interwar period. As his later writings would make clear, these reflections drew on his own experiences as a student in the early 1920s. . . . These students, Strauss recalled, had been shattered by war, disoriented by the collapse of traditional authorities, and disturbed by a culture that seemed to celebrate transgression. For many of them, the Weimar-era experiment with parliamentary democracy had proven a failure. Only a rejection of the “cancer” of liberalism, as one author called it, could save them.
Strauss’s portrait of his classmates was unsparing, but not disdainful. Strauss described young men full of vehement certainty about what they rejected, but inarticulate and unreflective about what they affirmed. “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled,” he observed, “was positively horrifying to [them].” Strauss lamented that their passions found no outlet other than the crudest propaganda. Unable to understand or express themselves in any other way—Strauss noted that they had largely rejected Christian belief—they gave voice to savage forms of group identity. The mark of barbarism, Strauss explained, was the belief that truth and justice should be defined in terms of ethnic or racial membership.
But Strauss acknowledged that these students, shaped by defeat, conflict, and social disintegration, were inspired by an ideal—an ideal whose dangers they did not understand but whose allure they keenly felt. . . . Strauss cautioned that he sought not to pardon what deserved condemnation, but to make intelligible what required understanding. He therefore challenged his class to see in the youthful German protest what many had failed to perceive two decades earlier: its moral basis. This protest against liberalism was not fundamentally inspired by a love of war or a love of nation, Strauss insisted. Nor could it be explained by material or class interests. It was inspired, as he put it in a bracing passage, by “a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality.”
Strauss named this outlook the morality of the “closed society.” No sensitive reader of the lecture can avoid being struck by the intensity of the passages in which Strauss describes the gravity of the challenge this “endangered morality” poses to the “open society.” What is the closed society? Strauss didn’t identify it with any one people, tradition, or form of government. By the “closed society” he didn’t mean non-Western cultures, pre-Enlightenment thought, or even undemocratic polities. The closed society represented a perennial moral possibility, whose roots are found in every human soul and whose demands must be confronted by every human community. In its most common expression, the closed society levels a familiar accusation: that the open society is immoral, or at least amoral, because it jeopardizes the very possibility of living a virtuous life.
A closed society in this sense is one that prescribes a certain way of living, denounces or punishes any questioning of that way, and holds up the few who meet the highest standards of morality or honor (saints, crusaders) as examples for the rest to follow.
The point is not that young Nazis, or anyone else, actually lived up to the strict moral standards of certain traditional societies or institutions. It is that Liberalism simply lacks the kind of heroic value system one sees in, for example, the aesthetic rigor of certain Irish saints, or the sense of personal honor that impelled men to fight deadly duels.
I don't think that's entirely true. I would say that the nonviolent civil rights protesters in the US approached a sort of liberal heroic ideal. But I do agree that that liberal values just seem weak and uninspiring to many people. And not just those on the right; you can see much of the Woke movement as a protest against the inadequate moral rigor of liberalism.
To me that makes liberalism more honest, more livable, and a better basis for life in a multicultural world. I do see that many people suffer from the lack of clear guidance on what life is supposed to be. I just wish they would go off and form communes with people like themselves and leave me out of their schemes.