A follower on Twitter posed the following question to me and Jonah Goldberg in a Twitter post over the weekend: “Is there any rough contemporary corollary to the Lionel Trilling—Russell Kirk, lib.-con. intellectual battle?” What Chad M (Chad 1320 if you’re Twitterversical) is referring to is the fact that Russell Kirk’s magisterial book, The Conservative Mind, was written largely in response to Trilling’s assertion in The Liberal Imagination that “In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is a plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Conservative or reactionary impulses, Trilling added, do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Kirk’s book was an impressive rebuttal to Trilling’s too casual dismissal. It is also worth noting that Trilling’s Liberal Imagination can today be considered something of a conservative book; I am sure it is read and valued more by conservatives than liberals today—another sign of how far to the left modern “liberals” have traversed.
Anyway, two important, albeit narrower, intellectual clashes of the first order come to mind that are as serious as the Trilling-Kirk contrast. The first would be John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice (unquestionably the ur-text of modern liberal thought), and Robert Nozick, who answered Rawls impressively in Anarchy, State, Utopia. Nozick’s reply is very high-toned libertarianism, and as such might be considered too narrow or limited in scope. There have been other impressive short critiques of Rawls from conservative thinkers: Allan Bloom wrote at least one sweeping critique that I know of, and Brian Anderson in the Spring 2003 edition of The Public Interest (an issue notable for its splendid article on “Sensible Environmentalism” from . . . guess who?).
The other extraordinary and direct intellectual clash that comes to mind is one carried out between two thinkers inside the covers of a single book: it is the argument between Leo Strauss and the Russian-born French Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve, in the book entitled On Tyranny. On the surface (isn’t that where Straussians start every exegesis?), it presents itself merely as an interpretive argument over Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero or Tyrannicus, but it becomes before long a fundamental argument over the nature of political wisdom and political power. Kojeve openly argued for what modern liberals won’t admit—or are so confused over that they don’t know the implications of their premises—namely, that the twin object of philosophy and politics is the creation of the “universal and homogeneous state” (think a global EU bureaucracy as a model) in which tyrannical rule is a perfectly acceptable, and probably preferable, mode of governance.
It is an abstruse and dense argument, which is why it isn’t on the radar screen of most sensible people, but that should not detract from the spectacle of two thinkers of diametrically opposed views conducting a serious disputation about fundamental alternatives without resorting to name-calling or categorical denunciation. As such, the Strauss-Kojeve argument wouldn’t play well on a cable news show. (Heck, it wouldn’t even play on C-SPAN BookTV.) The last edition of the book includes the long correspondence between Strauss and Kojeve that shows how they carried on a dialogue for many years.
I say Strauss wins the argument, of course. Here’s Strauss’s last word in On Tyranny:
From the Universal Tyrant, however, there is no escape. Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the completely unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferretting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought. Kojeve would seem to be right although for the wrong reason: the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will be the end of philosophy on earth.