Friday, January 21, 2005

Read this blog; read this post:

Any of my readers interested in the Straussians ought to be reading this blog, by novelist Douglas Anthony Cooper (who kindly permalinks to me).

He appears to have studied with the Straussians (including Bloom and Pangle) at University of Toronto, and was enamored with their philosophy. Although now critical of them, he's constructively, not hysterically critical, like so many of Strauss's critics seem to be these days.

Therefore, you'll get a lot of insights into that philosophy (insights that those in the group aren't always so up front about -- like their esoteric nihilism) without the distortionist garbage that typifies critics of Strauss like Shadia Drury and Anne Norton.

Here's a taste from this post:

On the other hand, the conservative political theorists who dominated life at the University of Toronto were among the most beguiling figures I have ever met. I have since come to realize that he was a perilous demagogue, but Alan Bloom --who was in exile in Toronto at the time -- was hypnotic. He had not yet written The Closing of the American Mind, but on campus he was already much much larger than life, either reviled or adored.

It's easy to see the attraction. Before encountering Bloom, I don't think I had really encountered thought. Most of my friends in high school imagined themselves intellectuals, and spent their stoned hours finding profundity in the lyrics of (Christ!) Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant; whereas suddenly I was confronted with a man who was capable of presenting philosophy as a worldhistorical drama, as a terrifying battle whose stakes were immeasurable. Things mattered. Later I read Hannah Arendt's letters, in which she spoke with awe about her first encounters with Heidegger, about her astonishment that such a man could even exist: "There is a teacher!" Bloom was not Heidegger, but he was a superb rhetorician, and he effectively channeled far more intelligent men (including his own teacher, Leo Strauss.)

Perhaps we'll get some juicy gossip out of this blog:

While I never became a Straussian (I have come to suspect that you had to sleep with Bloom to enter the inner circle), I was very much a fellow traveler. Bloom -- and Emil Fackenheim, and Thomas Pangle -- rescued me from the banal.

And here is what I was referring to re: his fair criticisms of that group:

Many aspects of Straussian thought bothered me from the start. It required an approach to texts which was very much like an atheist brand of Christian fundamentalism: an exegetical insistence upon The One True Reading. Nothing is multivalent. Single words are always philosophical terms. "Virtu" in Machiavelli means virtue, even if it is translated as "cunning" or "wiliness." (In fact, I agree with this particular instance, because the other translations are simply euphemistic, but in many cases the Straussian way involves making a text into a textbook.)

Even more disturbing was the insistence that all metaphysical reasoning was simply a smoke-screen, set up to hide the inner meaning of the text, which was always political. Some smoke screen! You had to suppose that entire books were written simply to lead lesser readers down the wrong path... and some of those books were rather large and impressive. Are we really meant to believe that Aristotle's Metaphysics was a calculated red herring? It's kind of ludicrous, when contemplated from a distance, but I was hardly distant. In fact, from my brush with the Straussians, I've begun to see how radical Marxists, for instance, are capable of feverish loyalty to the most patent absurdities. It's the cult dynamic. It's the excitement of belonging to a select group, the only ones who have access to the narrative.

The final break with the Straussians came when I recognized how inept they were when operating in the actual political sphere. A crucial tenet of Strauss's doctrine is that the philosophers must ally themselves with the gentleman class, in order to preserve and safeguard their own subversive activity. This involves subtle manipulation: the philosopher is an atheist, but he must suck up to dominant politicians, however pious. The philosopher is intelligent, but he must ingratiate himself with the powerful, however ignorant. In short, Wolfowitz must manipulate Bush. Unfortunately, the first pol that the Straussians prominently identified as a crucial figure, the linchpin to the gentleman class, was Dan Quayle. Oops.

Repeatedly, when the Straussians step down from the ivory tower, they just get it wrong. Wolfowitz is certainly doing an effective job as the Machiavellian advisor to princes, but Jesus: look at his advice! Everything he has done has simply served to cause America terrible grief abroad, or to undermine the foundations of democracy at home. Hannah Arendt has pointed out that philosophers almost always get it wrong when they enter the real world -- and in fact generally end up in support of tyranny. She wrote this in defense of Heidegger's flirtation with Hitler, and she referred back to Plato's embarrassing attempt to become math teacher to the tyrant of Syracuse.

The walking disaster that is George W. Bush is responsible for my final break with ideological conservatism. It is impossible to support this man, much less admire him. He proudly flaunts the worst of human attributes: avarice, numbing piety, slack-jawed stupidity wedded to absolute certainty. To remain a conservative, with this dangerous buffoon stalking the planet, is to be a traitor to the human species.

Well, maybe he got a little unfair towards the end, but you see his point.

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