In September 2007, I organized the first panel at an American Political Science meeting which featured those sympathetic to Strauss and those critical of him debating his famous May 1933 letter to Loewith (see preceding post) and its relevance for understanding his later work. The debate pivots around whether Strauss himself engaged in what he called exoteric writing – in his own case, commentaries or in Plato dialogues which have one meaning for ordinary readers, including sympathizers, and another meaning, an esoteric meaning, for those who read carefully. Catharine Zuckert has co-authored with Michael Zuckert a book defending Strauss and arguing that he does not himself write esoterically. The panel was attended by perhaps 150 people, better than half of them Straussians. The link to the video is here (for those who get this separately, the link can be activated on my blog:democratic-individuality.blogspot.com).
As Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing reveals, discovering such esoteric or hidden meanings was the centerpiece of Strauss’s scholarship. There have been waves of fierce Strauss criticism; the initial reaction to Strauss which his student, Walter Berns, who calls himself a reactionary and is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington (one of many, the group before which Bush spoke, thanking it for producing many advisors) first reported from Yale. You and Wilmoore Kendall (an interesting student of Locke and American government, a devotee of Strauss, an admirer of Franco and McCarthy), Berns wrote to his mentor, are “agents of black reaction.” The Yale political science faculty apparently had a meeting in which they removed a weak student from the program who was supposed to have been recommended by Strauss; at the meeting, several faculty members disparaged Strauss. Berns looked into the matter by getting the transcript from the registrar, and discovered that the student, an undergraduate when he attended the University of Chicago, had never studied with Strauss. He was shocked (Strauss spoke in response of the blackness of the human heart). The reactionary character of Strauss’s politics and the (self-)isolation of Strauss’s students, even though they have been very widely hired in political science departments, has long been a phenomenon; the revulsion of many other political theorists toward Strauss, based on a weak understanding of Strauss and what he represented beyond reactionary politics (his dense readings of Plato, Xenophon, Farabi, Maimonides, and others whom he regarded as central to political philosophy, yet other political theorists did not read carefully or at all). Strauss was particularly mocked for being “the man who reads between the lines.” This distaste – not a rational matter – culminated in the disreputable conduct Berns identified at Yale.
The second stage of this uproar occurred during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and reached a new height around the second Iraq war. Many of Strauss’s students or students of his students have participated in the Reagan, the first Bush and later the second Bush administration. The group is distinguished by having the least objection to Bush or supporting him to the end. Many serious conservatives who believed in he rule of law and objected to torture resigned - for instance, Alberto Mora, James Comey and Jack Goldsmith. No Straussians were among them. Only Francis Fukuyama objected to the Iraq War after initially supporting it (he never criticized torture, however); curiously, he remained on a Bush-appointed panel on bioethics. William Kristol is a very public advocate of Strauss and campaigner for the Iraq war and bombing Iran even in the New York Times, Paul Wolfowitz was a student of Bloom, and so forth. Yet some of Stauss’s students who remained in academia opposed the war (Nathan Tarcov, who had worked for Alexander Haig in the Reagan administration, spoke out against it, as did Michael Zuckert, among others) and the Patriot Act (Michael Zuckert was strongly against it). Others like Harvey Mansfield and Walter Berns argued vehemently for tyranny in Wall Street Journal op-eds, in Mansfield’s word of choice for unrestricted “executive power.”
In the late 1980s, critics like Shadia Drury began to make a case that Strauss was directly an American imperialist (Drury has some interesting writings, but they often purport to identify hidden meanings without showing what Strauss thought on the surface) or the former Chicago student, Ann Norton, who blames primarily Allan Bloom, the famous translator of Plato’s Republic and author of The Closing of the American Mind). Nicholas Xenos published an interesting essay in an online journals\, and Stephen Holmes a brilliant chapter on Strauss in the Anatomy of Anti-liberalism, identifying the leading hidden meaning as atheism and mocking this, amusingly (it is doubtful that being an atheist in would have lead, in mid-twentieth century America, to getting oneself killed or blacklisted). In the run-up to the Iraq War and afterwards, the indictment of Strauss became a nasty, popular trope, without much knowledge.
In addition, four books came out in 2006 defending Strauss, by Catharine and Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle, Stephen Smith and Daniel Tanguay. The New York Times began publishing only favorable material to Strauss, that he was really a liberal or constitutional democrat. At this point, Scott Horton mentioned a vague recollection of the 1933 letter to Loewith to me and I found it in Strauss’s collected works. He made a lively translation (the last post) which was put up on Balkinization website (the leading constitutional law website in the United States and a quite highly influential one). See my introduction to the publication of the letter in Constellations, March, 2009 here. Much heat has preceded the debate I organized.
On the panel itself, there are five participants. Catherine Zuckert defends the view that Strauss was “the man who gave away the secrets.” Revealing some esoteric meanings in others, she suggests, Strauss could not have written between the lines himself. Timothy Fuller is an eloquent admirer of Michael Oakeshott, the great British conservative, and also Strauss and Voegelin. He, too, believes that what Strauss apparently said is, in the main, what Strauss meant. I thus had no Straussian participants on this panel who thought that Strauss himself proposed hidden meanings, such as the one I nominate in Plato – that the best ruler is a philosopher-king or tyrant who rules wisely but without laws. This is the idea of executive or commander in chief power, defended by many Straussians and influential, as I have described in other articles and posts, in American politics (through for example, the Ford-Cheney advisor, Robert Goldwin, still at the American Enterprise Institute; through Gary Schmitt and Michael Malbin, in the Iran-Contra Minority Report also written for then Congressman Cheney). But this panel I think represents a striking first step at some engagement over these issues.
Michael Goldfield, a perspicuous scholar and theorist of racism in American political life (see The Color of Politics for example), was a student in Strauss’s last courses, and took meticulous notes. Though conversations with him, I learned that Aristotle, in the Politics, book 5, defends Xenophon’s view of beneficial tyranny, and as a student of Plato, reveals that what would make the Republic’s decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant perfect and a circle is if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king. See my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?” here. Tracy Strong stresses rightly on a letter of Strauss to Kojeve in which he says as an exile, he must work through “rhetors” in American politics. Strong also gives a very amusing, esoteric interpretation of Struass’s unusual use of an allusion to a biblical story in the epigraph to his Natural Right and History, one challenged in the question period by Michael Zuckert.
Watching the whole tape of the panel is a, for a blog reader, some effort, but the exchanges in the question period especially lively, valuable and even revelatory. For instance, at the very end, a questioner of Catherine Zuckert (the student she refers to as Michael), asks her why we should believe her account. She had insisted that I had read Strauss or Plato’s Laws out of context, only in snippets, whereas she follows Strauss in reading the whole text. But as he pointed out, her citations on his defense of liberal democracy, only in the midst of longer texts, are also snippets. This is a devastating, internal critique of her argument (Catherine applies to critics standards which her own arguments fail). In response, I stressed that Strauss taught me to figure out the leading hidden meaning in Plato to his students, present and future, on the philosopher-tyrant. But the Republic is the greatest indictment of tyranny every written; its surface and even slightly hidden main argument refute the esoteric pointing to some kind of tyrant who becomes or listens to a philosopher. It is technically, in philosophical terms, a self-refuting argument.
Catharine Zuckert even acknowledges being confused by Strauss – she and Michael Zuckert refer in The Truth about Leo Strauss to his “pedagogical reserve,” that he wanted students to work over the texts themselves and not just provide answers, as she rightly saw it, but also that there is a lot more to the texts that they got. Heinrich Meier edited Strauss’s works in German, now teaches at Chicago, and is an arcane student and aficianado of Carl Schmitt (he has written learnedly on Strauss and Schmitt). He says that Strauss’s students often rely on what they remember of his teachings to them rather than the books. Perhaps this applies to the Zuckerts’ interpretation. The books he says in the introduction to his new Strauss and the Theological Political Problem, are the main thing. To explore or debate Strauss’s esotericism, I organized a panel this past year at the APSA meetings with Stephen Lenzner, who gives a very subtle account of Strauss’s labyrinthine texts – he was a student of literature and is a fan of mysteries - and reads Strauss pausing over every word (what Strauss requires in his own readings of earlier authors), and Charles Butterworth, the great student of medieval Arab philosophy (no videotape was made of that meeting, however).
On this panel, Timothy Fuller draws a moving picture of conservatives in philosophy who put aside prejudices and consider life from the point of view of the divine (this might also be a Buddhist view, for example, or one that considers life from the standpoint of death, of the underworld). He articulates, particularly in the questioning, the notion that it is from the distance of eternity that philosophers see life (this is also the point of Montaigne and Socrates, that to philosophize is to learn how to die). Tim starts, as he amusingly says, as a reader of Oakeshott, but not a student, just as he was a reader of Strauss, but not a student. Oakehott is a British conservative. In On Human Conduct, essay 3, he defines civitas or civil association as one in which laws enable each person to pursue his (or her) individuality. Though I am critical of Oakeshott in some ways (he opposes all public intervention in the economy, as a different kinf of association, a universitas, even though the wealthy are likely to corrupt a civil association, make the law and government serve them at the expense of the poor, crush the lives, let alone the pursuit of individuality of many), I admire and agree with his insights into civitas (see my Democratic Individuality). In contrast, Strauss never affirms, or demonstrates the slightest affection for modern individuality or any modern conception that the laws or democratic institutions of some sort may further it. He is much more a fan of order, for example, the admirable Prussian order which as he says in his 1962 introduction to his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, when he was a child, kept pogroms far away in Russia. Worked up as an argument, this would be a defense of toleration or equal freedom of conscience. Strauss never translated this initial feeling into argument.
In response to the last question to Catherine Zuckert, Tim responds movingly that he may have misread Strauss or Oakeshott or Voegelin, though he has spent his whole adult life doing it. It is an attempt to say: I have done this very seriously, listen to me. Tim is the best reader of texts, straight up, that I had encountered when I came to Denver (he reads texts more carefully, than even my teachers at Harvard who were often careful and brilliant). He acknowledges that there may be esoteric meanings in Strauss. But he wants to postpone looking for them and assimilate Strauss to a grand eternal philosopher looking away from practical politics..
In his talk, he made the true point that there are vast powers and complex traditions in the United States that led to the mad invasion – more accurately, aggression – in Iraq. A substantial coterie of Strauss’s students or the students of his students, perhaps even 20 or 30, could not have done this alone. Perhaps one could make the parallel point about the American Enterprise Institute; there are an unusual number of Struassians on their faculty and among their commentators (Wolfowitz, Berns, Gary Schmitt, among others) does not make their role decisive. There is a coincidence here between economic power and political ideas, in this case, the neo-conservative idea that acting tyrannically America can remake the Middle East through war and torture and impose “democracy” and Halliburton control over oil or money – which is quite striking. The interests of money are dominant in both cases; nonetheless, the neocons as an echo of Strauss have set America on a crazy and unsustainable course.. Fuller also makes the point that the Nazis were mainly, as they saw themselves, exterminators of jews (they also committed genocide against the Roma, slavs, and homosexuals, as well as “defective” Aryan children, inter alia). It would be abstract, he says, to consider what they were outside that context, to link them to the Right more broadly.
This is a good point. But it is of limited help to Strauss. Strauss reports that he was mesmerized by Martin Heidegger and revered Carl Schmitt. Though he held the “principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” as he puts it in his letter to Loewith, he was prevented from following them into the Nazi party because he was a jew. This was a mercy to him. But long ago at Cornell, I went to a party with Werner Dannhauser, one of Strauss’s students and close friends. In a long evening, he asked: what was wrong with Nazism, except the anti-semitism? Listen carefully to Strauss’s 1933 letter and you might also hear that question.