Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Not a Fair Criticism of Strauss:

This post by Scott Horton at Balkinization is not a fair reading of Strauss and Straussianism.

The post focuses on one of Strauss's private letters, reproduced in its entirety in Horton's post, which seems to reveal fascist tendencies that Strauss felt at one time. The offending passage is as follows:

There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, "men of science," - as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves - non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus...(4) And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l'homme(5) to protest against the shabby abomination.

"Droits imprescriptibles de l'homme" refers, I am told, to the notion of "the rights of man" or natural rights liberalism. The letter is just one more piece of evidence that the Shadia Drury types will use to argue that Strauss was really a fascist, not a defender of liberal democracy.

But they are mistaken. From what I've read of Strauss, and of Bloom and the other Straussians, they are indeed defenders of liberal democracy (in a Churchillian sense -- not "flatterers" of the system).

Bloom's work in particular lets "out of the bag" (makes explicit) some teachings which Strauss previously only taught privately. And Ravelstein (where Leo Strauss is dubbed "Davarr," which is Hebrew for "Word"), Saul Bellow's novel on Bloom, is even more explicit regarding certain Straussian doctrines previously kept secret, for instance, where Bloom states "no true philosopher can believe in God." Strauss was never so publicly adamant about his atheism. Indeed, he taught that God's nonexistence could not be proven. Yet privately, he too was known to say things like "philosophers are paid to be atheists." And Strauss meant even philosophers like John Locke who on the surface claimed to believe in God.

So I am someone who a) is not a Straussian (I disagree with much of their social conservatism), and b) recognizes Strauss had private esoteric teachings which, if known, would turn off many admirers, especially those religious conservative "gentlemen" whom Strauss and company supported.

But that esoteric truth is not that liberal democracy is bad and fascism is good. Rather the esoteric Truth is as follows: God doesn't exist; rights aren't grounded in nature; indeed the entire natural law is a fiction. And Nietzsche and Heidegger were right as to the ultimate (nihilistic) nature of reality.

I'm not saying I believe this; rather this is the "secret" teaching of Strauss and his followers.

We can't stop there though. Strauss was still a defender of liberal democracy. And that's because he didn't believe this secret Truth was a "pearl" as Shadia Drury put it; it was not a "good" Truth that would set men free; but rather a dangerous flame -- capable of producing the most horrible destruction and suffering -- to which only philosophers, not the masses could tend.

Strauss was not a fascist because he didn't believe political orders could be founded on such a nihilistic "Truth." Indeed, that fascism and Nazism resulted when liberal democracy was thrown out and the abyss was looked to for "new gods" to lead, demonstrated that liberal democracy was the only "solid" place where public orders could rest, even if such a system was "low" in the way it made productive use out of man's baser instincts.

Back to the letter. And the context should help us to understand why Strauss, post WWII, in America where his teachings had their impact, wasn't a fascist. The letter was written in 1933. Now, I'm no historical buff, but this was well before the extent of Nazi horror was fully realized.

Strauss no doubt was imbibed in Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Heidegger. One of the reasons why Strauss believed that you couldn't found political orders on Nietzchean nihilism is because a thinker as profound as Heidegger, Nietzsche's heir, ended up supporting the Nazis!

I do believe that Strauss himself, before WWII, flirted with fascism. That makes perfect sense. Strauss followed Heidegger. And Heidegger himself became a Nazi. But when all (WWII, the Holocaust) was said and done, Strauss was profoundly disturbed by Heidegger's support of Nazism (and no doubt his own flirtation with fascist principles which led to such horror).

And this -- the dangers of nihilism being consumed by the masses -- was what inspired Strauss to write Natural Right and History in the first place where he argued that the philosophical rejection that Truth can be found in either Reason or Revelation constituted a crisis in the West.

In this past post, I quoted part of Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, which explains all of this. Here Bloom uses Heidegger's Nazism to demonstrate that the Truth of nihilism was not something that set men free, or was otherwise a sublime "treasure," but rather a dangerous fire.

I shall not comment on the Nazi period of the now de-Nazified Heidegger, other than to remark that the ever more open recognition that he was the most interesting thinker of our century, formerly chastely displaced in admiration for his various proxies, gives evidence that we are playing with fire. p. 154

On the same page Bloom notes that you cannot found political orders on Nietzsche's Truth, that nihilism will just as easily take one down the road to Nazism as to liberal democracy. "Once one plunges into the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy, or socialism will be found on the other side. At the very best, self-determination is indeterminate."


Anonymous said...


I'm hardly able to referee the dispute, for the ostensible reason I find Leo Strauss unintelligible. I've tried reading "Natural Right and History" several times and always give up.

Distillations, such as encyclopedias and surveys, offer no better clue. Perversely, I think I understood Allan Bloom, but subsequent reviewers suggest I missed his insaliency.

Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, et al, are hardly paradigms of their mentor. Perhaps you could find a "denotation" to help the rest of us understand what in the world is at stake (besides the War in Iraq). I'm not sure if it's incoherency or unintelligibility. But the consequences are very real.

Anonymous said...

Just some "obvious" questions:

Must one be Jewish to participate in Strauss's "private esoteric teachings?" If Bellow, Bloom, Kristol, and Wolfowitz are the only ones who "get it," the only common denominator is that they are all Jewish. Yahweh's chosen may have a step above us gentiles, but at least let us us heathen know what we're up against.

The Bloomian caricature of Nietzsche is either naive or intellectually dishonest, or both. Nietzsche, while accessible, is not "obvious." His intent, according to scholars, is to defeat the Platonic and Judeo-Christian inheritance that inverts "ordinary" virtues, and if left to its devices, will result in nihilism. But Nietzsche was no nihilist! To the contrary, he had a very positive philosophy, but it required demolishing the "negative" conceptual schemes inherited. Walter Kaufman, Robert Solomon, and Robert Stich all have the "same" perspective, and it's not Bloom's! The "straw man" argument is classic, even if you didn't question Bloom's motives.

But Bloom's caricature and misattribution aside, what does Strauss's esoteric ideas include? Like Marx and Freud, his ideology may be way off base, but unlike his fellow prophets, we can at least understand and disagree with them. With Strauss, ambiguity and incoherence (except for the initiated) reigns. Besides the charge of "elitism," I prefer to understand his "essence," even if that is a mistaken epistemological error.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Jon. Except for the nihilism part, which is still by no means disproved per Strauss, the "esoteric" part seems accurate. But for sure, he thinks nihilism (or value-free social science/utilitarianism) is no grounding for a society.

In the least, Strauss is about, per the ancient Greeks, the pursuit of excellence as man's end. He opposes the enforced mediocrity of communisms and egalitarianisms, altho his "elites" in a liberal society are self-selected: everybody gets an education, some do more with it than others.

It will be by definiton the best and brightest, not those who pull everything down to the easily achievable mean, who will lead a society to greatness. (His philosophical crisis was triggered by the Weimar Republic's lack of ability or will to save the Jews from the Nazis, which is what that letter he wrote as a very young man was about.)

I would add that per the letter, "fascist" was not the pejorative in 1933 that it is today, after the Nazis and Il Duce. It could refer to anything statish and authoritarian, like imperial Rome (which Strauss cites in the very same letter).

Rome still (largely) enjoyed the consent of the governed, and so was by no means an illegitimate regime.

Anonymous said...

A "third" (and I promise final) difficulty:

If the outstanding scholar Stephen Holmes misunderstands Leo Strauss (assuming this is true, since only Straussians have access to Strauss's "private esoteric teachings,"), whatever anyone claims or disclaims that Strauss "taught," who's to judge? If the "subject" is so elusive to elude one of the best scholars in political science, it's irrelevant what is signified or what is the signifier, since neither can be pinned down, dialogue about "it" is already impossible.

From primary and secondary readings by and about Strauss, my impression is that his metaphysical speculation is itself a metaphysical speculation that at best an infinite regress is "all there is," but I want to insist even a regress requires a tangible "subject," and Strauss seems unable to give us that much. "Lost in space" is the best of possible descriptions; incoherent, unintelligible, meaningless, inchoate, indecipherable, are probably closer to the mark, but who knows?

I'm not appealing to authority, I'm only claiming that if a recognized political science scholar misunderstands Strauss, what hope is there for anyone to penetrate the "esoteric?" It's an entirely meaningless and useless project.

Anonymous said...

van Dyke:

What is significant about the appeal to excellence? 2,500 years before Strauss's rather lame remark, Aristotle claimed:

"Human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with excellence, and if more than one excellence, in conformity with the best and most complete" (NE, 1098(a)16). He added, "Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it" (op. cit, 1106(b)36).

Some people insist Aristotle's thought is difficult, and perhaps it is. But no one questions its intelligibility. Advocating "excellence" rather than "mediocrity" was done superbly in intelligible English by Matthew Arnold a century ago. His contrast of Hebraism and Hellenism as confluences remains influential (an accurate observation some of us lament). "The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light," is something one expects from a poet. But his immortal words, "to make the best that has been thought and known in the world everywhere," is itself outside mediocrity and evidence of excellence.

A philosopher, a poet, and then there is Strauss. By your rendering, the closest he comes to profundity borders on plagerism. It must be those "esoteric" teachings only other Straussians understand, like dialectical materialism that only other Marxists understand. At least with Marx he's clear enough to discuss outside the proletariat. Strauss does not even fit "elitism." That first requires intelligibility, which Strauss lacks.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I happen to be in mid-exchange with a Strausspal of mine, GS, and my arguments are similar to yours, except not as well-formulated.

I shall plagiarize yours and let you know how it comes out. :-)

I too detect a hole in Strauss' donut where some soul oughta be, as well as a complete disregard for the concept of The Other. (Or mercy, beauty, joy, and a lot of other stuff. He strikes me as an aesthete for reason and truth, without aesthetics.)

I will say that I value Strauss as a bulwark against the moderns, (particularly Kojeve, who is an ideological father of the EU), who have gone much farther than Arnold's day in what CS Lewis regards as The Abolition of Man. Enforced mediocrity as "egalitarianism" is being sold as a moral imperative.

I myself favor Lewis' precriptiveness, which would read something like "Let's put the 'human' back into Humanity."

(And you may call me Tom or Mr. or TVD, sir. "Van Dyke," even properly punctuated, is a bit unaesthetic.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Gay Species:

I'm not sure if I am qualified to say much more about Strauss's beliefs than I've already said in my posts.

A couple things though. First, there are two ways of approaching Strauss. The first is a cautious way, that is, simply take what he says at face value. Read his words as he wrote them and nothing more.

This Leo Strauss is a fairly reasonable fellow. He says among other things, we must hold out that objective Truth can be found in Reason and Revelation. That these two systems are agreed on many matters; yet that they disagree on some other fairly important things. And that their disagreements will often lead them to an impasse, that they could not refute on another. Regarding God, similarly, while he may not have been much of a believer, God's non-existence cannot be disproven.

this book is probably a fair review of Strauss using this cautious method as is this article on it.

Yet, textually, as you noted Strauss was a very abstruse writer. There were many passages that are hard to understand. I think, he uses these abstruse passages to write in code, which only his private circle are able to decipher. The stuff is hard to understand for a reason.

Privately, Strauss was a not so cautious in his assertions. He believed that Reason and Revelation were more at odds than what he wrote textually. And was a fervent atheist who believe no true philosopher could believe in God. Belief in God was useful for the masses though (a noble lie). It especially helped when it came time to send men off to war. He probably also believed that man by his very nature had a need for war, and that it was good for the soul (or I think this is what Bloom, and until recently, it seemed Fukuyama believed). "War" kept men from turning into Nietzsche's last men, whom Nietzche despised as ridiculously content with reality.

Regarding Nietzsche, I'm sure Bloom et al. would disagree with you. I think they made a point of disagreeing with those thinkers you mentioned as presenting Nietzsche's case without enough focus on the abyss.

I don't see how, with the abyss, Nietzsche can be seen as a happy or positive thinker.

But, I've not read enough of him to make that case.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Regarding who is "fit" for the private teachings, it had nothing to do with Jewishness. Francis Fukuyama (in Bloom's circle) and countless other non-Jews (most of Strauss's circle, like Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, etc. aren't Jewish), were part of the "inner circles."

Rather, it had to do with those who could look into the abyss without flinching. Left-wing post-moderns, Straussians believe, are faux Nietzscheans because they don't fully appreciate the implications of the abyss.