Tuesday, July 27, 2004

My Understanding of the Straussians:

A blogger buddy of mine asked me some questions about my understanding of the Straussians.  Since I spent some time in my email response, I figured I turn it into a post.  The following is based on my email to him:

The Straussians—or the followers of the late professor of political philosophy Leo Strauss—today consist in two schools, respectively known as the “West Coast” and the “East Coast” Straussians.  Harry v. Jaffa and his followers at the Claremont Institute make up the "Western" branch.  ("West" refers to the West Coast, because they are headquartered at Claremont, California).  All other prominent Straussians—The Kristol family, Harvey Mansfield, Allan Bloom, Water Berns, Thomas Pangle, and others—are "Eastern" Straussians (they have tended to be headquartered around the East Coast). 

Strauss held that the notion that the (capital T) Truth could NOT be ascertained by Reason or Revelation constituted a "crisis" in modern philosophy (meaning present day or "postmodern" philosophy—Nietzsche and everything after him).  Now the odd thing is that Strauss and his East Coast followers are atheists/nihilists imbibed in Nietzsche.  They just don't think nihilism is a truth fit for mass consumption, only for a select philosophic "few." 

But there is a split between the two schools regarding how to properly understand Strauss:   Strauss never came right out and admitted to being an atheist/nihilist, you have to sort of read between the lines to "get it"; (and this makes sense considering that Strauss believed that philosophers wrote in “code”).  Jaffa and his followers deny that Strauss was an atheist/nihilist.  They believe, in accordance with Enlightenment and Aristotelian/Thomistic natural law, that Truth is ascertainable by Man's Reason and that Man's Reason tells us that God exists.  And they claim that Strauss believed this too.   

In my mind, it’s clear who is right:  The East Coasters.  It's literally Harry Jaffa & his followers v. everyone else who studied with Strauss firsthand.   There is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was an atheist & a nihilist.  I've heard reliable 2nd hand accounts that he, in private, freely admitted to being so and asserted that all true philosophers—since Socrates—were atheists & nihilist, that this was the "esoteric" truth that philosophers had been secretly passing down through the generations until Nietzsche came right out and "let the cat out of the bag."  But in defense of Nietzsche, he felt that he had to, because it was really "Enlightenment" that killed God.   Even though the philosophers of the Enlightenment did not deny "nature's God," (and again, Strauss believed that the philosophers knew "nature's God" to be a fiction as much as was the Biblical God), their focus on man's reason and empiricism eventually led to the understanding that there is lack of "cosmic support" for God's existence.   

Now even the East Coast gang aren't so explicit about their atheism/nihilism; but they let the cat out of the bag more so than Strauss ever did.   Although Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, beats around the bush, it's fairly certain after finishing the book, especially towards the end, that he cautiously admits to being an atheist/nihilist.   But he prefaces the whole thing with the drastic implications of what all this means ("the implications of the abyss").   And reading Ravelstein—Saul Bellow's account of Bloom (and bear in mind that Bellow was Bloom’s best friend)—Bloom was unequivocal in his assertion that not only did God not exist, but that no true philosopher could believe in God.   And it is certain that he held this way after Strauss, whom Bellow names "Davarr" which is Hebrew for "Word."   (Ravelstein was a Roman roman à clef, a true story with all of the names changed.   For instance, Bloom was changed to "Ravelstein," Strauss, "Davarr," Bellow, "Chick").

(Ravelstein is also delicious with irony.   Bloom, like every other Straussian, was a 1950s style social conservative who supported the fundamentalists in every way.   He was also a promiscuous homosexual who died of AIDS and lived a very extravagant, hedonistic, life.)

As for their power, the Straussians are very influential, probably the most influential conservative scholars of political philosophy and they hold a number of key positions in the Bush administration.   For instance, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz studied under Bloom (and was named "Phil Gorman" in Ravelstein).  But other than that, the notion that it's only them in charge and that we are living under some Straussian conspiracy is highly exaggerated.

Finally, because it seems so likely that Strauss was an atheist/nihilist and believed that no true philosopher could believe otherwise and that ALL of the thinkers whom were close to Strauss understood and accepted this, I am lead to believe that Jaffa too is himself a secret atheist/nihilist and posits natural law/natural rights as a "noble lie" to keep the whole system of morality and rights from falling apart.   

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