Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Response to Charles Butterworth


     Charles Butterworth, a scholar’s scholar, a man of public insight and courage, and my friend, wrote me the following letter in response to the post: Shadings: “they call ma a ‘Nazi’ here” – Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933 here.

Dear Alan, This most recent post on Strauss is very interesting, but I continue to think that you are mistaken on the most important point.  So please do not take these remarks amiss.  I admire your willingness to keep at this and try to get it right, but here I think you have gone astray.  And these are my reasons for thinking so. The major point is that I do not think Strauss was an admirer of National-Socialism, but an advocate of using tactics similar to those of the National-Socialists to solve the Jewish problem.  He was a political Zionist, not a cultural Zionist.  And he was perfectly willing to lord it over others - e.g., the Palestinians - to accomplish his goal of making a place for Jews in Palestine. 1.  In your references to the Strauss-Klein correspondence, you stop short of citing the references to Zionism.  But you should cite them or at least re-read them, for they explain Strauss's position and show that he was not a National-Socialist nor even an admirer of it. Rather, he embraced its use of power. a.  You come close to this position here, but you do not draw the necessary conclusion: "Strauss's enthusiasm for national socialism paralleled his Zionism.  He was a Zionist who hoped for the dissolution among Jews in Palestine of modern secular sentiments, who, with Weber, saw secularization as a lapsed Christian stance (the ‘ghosts’ of lapsed Protestant vocation haunt the modern capitalist). He also scorned cultural Zionism or any orientation other than political." 2.  Similarly, remember to read Strauss with care, especially when he is speaking about the thoughts of other people or even other movements.  He carries those thoughts out to their ultimate conclusions in order to show what is wrong with them; carrying them out in this fashion does not mean that he embraces them.  I doubt that Strauss was a Nietzschean, even though he loved Nietzsche's language.  Strauss was too convinced that Plato and Aristotle actually had answers to the human dilemma.  This prevents him from siding with Nietzsche. 3.  Unless you and I are reading different parts of the Strauss-Scholem, I think you are mistaken to claim that "his dying
letters to Scholem, however, take on occasional shadings of mysticism
and ecstatic (if one may use such a word about Leo) affection for Jewish spirituality." a.  To the contrary, over and over in those letters, Strauss explains to Scholem that he would like to die as a philosopher and over and over he refers to himself as an Epicurean.  Observant Jewish colleagues tell me that to call someone an Epicurean is a great insult.  Yet to the very observant and pious Scholem, Strauss says this of himself. b.  Citing Averroes as his sources, he also says again and again:  "moriatur anima mea mortem philosophorum."  See GS, 3: 22 November, 1960, pp. 742-743; also 30 September, 1973, pp. 770-771. 4.  What possible evidence do you have for the following claim? "But Strauss did give his soul to that great philosopher and the
German 'national revolution' in 1933, and after, 20 years silence, again after Heidegger began speaking of true national socialism in 1953. . ."?  a.  Consider this as a counter:  Strauss recognizes the great mind of Heidegger and acknowledges to himself that he must have a very deep understanding of philosophy to refute Heidegger.  But he does not have that understanding, so he points to Heidegger's shortcomings
as a way of rejecting what Heidegger's thinking leads to. b.  To say, as Strauss does often, that in the 1956
edition of his 1933 Einführung in der Metaphysik, Heidegger said there was no reason to alter anything  and to note that this means Heidegger thereby means that his praise of National-Socialism in the preface need not be changed is to point to Heidegger's erroneous politics, but that does not refute Heidegger's understanding of philosophy.  Note, please, that Strauss cannot blame Heidegger for being a Nazi if he were a secret admirer of National-Socialism. c.  As I tried to indicate in one of our exchanges, in that 19-20 June, 1934 letter, Klein is scolding Strauss for not knowing enough to keep his mouth shut when speaking to people who have simple views about politics. 5.  Again, there is no evidence for this:  "It can have been, for Strauss, no pleasure to see his two great mentors, Schmitt and
Heidegger, join the Nazis on May 1, 1933, when he could not.” a.  Strauss's review of Schmitt shows that he thought
Schmitt simply did not understand where his thought led.  But he also
thanked Schmitt for being big enough to recommend him for the Rockefeller grant to France, surely all the while knowing that Schmitt especially wanted to rid Germany of this Jewish scholar. 6.  Here, I think you mis-read the letter to Loewith:  "He
also wanted, too much, to be German.  And he appalled all the Jews and
other decent Germans he knew." a.  Strauss greatly admired his German learning and was
happy about the way it allowed him to write.  He thought he would never learn to write in another language as he wrote in German.  As someone
who had studied many languages and liked to dabble in them as he became
familiar with them (see the letters to Klein and others in French and then in English), he recognized that doing so was not like writing German. b.  Few people learn to be as expressive in another language as they are in their mother tongue.  What would Conrad sound like if he had ever tried to write in Polish? Best wishes, and do let me know, please, what you think of these
observations, Charles

Dear Charles,

      Thank you for a very serious response which I think may move the argument to a new level.  As I emphasize in my post, Strauss pioneered a form of reading which casts light – sometimes great light – on important philosophers of the past.  At his best, he trained students brilliantly as a scholar, and created a network of important scholars – you, Seth Benardete, Stanley Rosen, George Anastaplo and many others – and this is something to be honored, admired, and learned from.  You are right to speak of doing justice, and as I currently see it, the politics – both in Strauss’s time and now – is another matter.  There is sometimes a certain nobility in surviving politically beyond one’s lifetime – Lincoln’s spirit in American life, for example in Obama and many others or Martin Luther King’s – but the partially intended and sometimes, unintended consequences are often sad and wretched.

     For instance, I am not sure that the defense you offer actually is, morally speaking, a defense.  That Strauss was willing to use national socialist tactics against the Palestinians is true and damning.  The “transfer” as we both know, was a horror. It is one thing, in its public self-image,  for Israel as a small democracy to struggle against Arab tyrannies; it is another, in fact, as a colonial and even in this respect, fascist project to brutalize indigenous people.  This context makes glaring Strauss's distinction between philosophy and politics.  In philosophy, Strauss admired Arabs, and sometimes taught and perhaps befriended Arabists; in politics, he justified or to some extent (later) spawned something close to genocide, and with a pretty self-conscious national socialism (just if you are right not quite at the extreme, but I also think this).

   Heinrich Meier, a self-conscious reactionary, says rightly in his introduction to Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem that students believe what they were taught rather than what the finished books – and in this case, the essays and letters say.  I suspect that this point is true to some extent for all of us who work with creative scholars.  In this respect, I am lucky to come at this from the outside, never having met Strauss, hearing only reports of the wonders of his teaching and reading some of his often subtle and delightful lectures, for instance, on the Symposium.

       In the early 30s, Strauss wrote to Loewith that between the ages of 22 and 30, he agreed with every word of Nietzsche that he understood.  What may have changed is his admiration for Heidegger against his Doktorvater Cassirer at Locarno.  That is, he appears to have moved in the direction of National Socialism.  But he says nothing then of Plato.  Esoterically, I think he often takes Plato as Nietzsche or Schmitt.  It is of course one of the perils of esoteric reading that one can never quite be sure of what meaning the ambiguous author is serious about. And to some extent, Strauss jokes around – enjoying his own ambiguities. Some students will always find reason to adhere to the surface.  But even if one gives his vision of Plato great, though I think anachronistic credit, where is Plato on the surface in his 1932 writings about Schmitt?

     You read Strauss’s critique of Schmitt as a scholarly one, moving toward the ancients (so does Robert Howse). Sure. But I also read it as, in practical terms, a more explicitly fascist one, urging Schmitt to go beyond detested liberalism.  I see Strauss as to the Right of Schmitt, a more coherent reactionary than Schmitt.  Think of the 1932 letter to Schmitt I cite: he speaks of men forming groups in the light of an enemy.  This is purifying Schmitt and has no element of – it is the farthest thought from his mind – a common good even among one’s own nation.  Pretty distant from Plato or Aristotle.  I think your view projects Strauss’s later teaching to his students back into his writing on Schmitt, into his earlier unalloyed affection for Nietzsche or Heidegger (the one great philosopher of our era).  Later American students took Strauss as he presented himself, interested primarily in philosophy, not a reactionary but a cautious or qualified democrat. They heard the affection for Churchill and more rarely, constitutional democracy favorably and not the undercurrent, for instance the nihilism of the end of the “Restatement” in On Tyranny. They learned from him, in this context, Plato and Farabi...The best argument on behalf of your perspective I think is to acknowledge how reactionary he was and then argue as Meier first suggested, that he was but on the way to becoming Strauss.  I grant the significance of the thought: in scholarly terms, he becomes in America the teacher and scholar that we think of first.  But I deny that he was speaking of that future in the remarks on Schmitt.  Instead, he was speaking of the “urgency” of the political change he and Schmitt were expecting in 1932 and 1933.  The triumph of national socialism.  To read Strauss in 1932 solely as a scholar and in the light of a future Platonism and qualified affirmation of democracy, interpreted against his great affection for Nietzsche and Heidegger, is implausible.

     Because I didn’t understand the political subtext of Strauss when I started out, I couldn’t figure out his anger at Schmitt for not citing him when Schmitt edited the text of On the Concept of the Political to respond to Strauss’s criticisms.  I thought his annoyance was purely scholarly – and he struck me as off his rocker about the politics – what did he expect from a Nazi and a vicious anti-semite (though not toward Strauss himself)? a leader of the new Reich?  Klein or Loewith if I recall, speaks about how sharply things have changed, how the ears of the Nazis are everywhere, how one (a Jew) can no longer write honestly from Germany.  Schmitt doesn’t answer Strauss's letters, and Strauss feels, as a scholar hurt…Something didn’t add up.

     Put differently, I think Strauss was both a German national revolutionary and a Zionist.  I think he, Klein and Loewith were all Heideggerian/German reactionaries, hoping that German Jews – at the expense once again of the Ostjuden – could be taken in to the new regime.  That had happened after all with Mussolini (many Zionists worked for Mussolini before later emigrating to Israel).  It took time to disabuse each of the German Jews  (as Klein says, apologizing for his onetime hope in the aufhebende Tendenz of the national revolution).  Your argument sees only the political Zionism as Strauss’s national socialism.  I see both.

      I now think I get it more psychologically.  Strauss was I think on the same team with Schmitt, and to the Right of him.  He was hurt by Schmitt's failure to acknowledge him politically. I think he was enormously riven about Jews, and even worried then about what might happen.  I just think he hated liberalism more even than Klein – and realized consciously what was happening much more slowly.  Hence, Klein’s reprimand in the 1934 (!) exchange.  I take this, as well as what Arendt said about him which I think is very likely true – not certainly as you say – and infer that he did indeed feel badly that he could not follow Schmitt and Heidegger into the Nazis because he was a Jew.  There is no letter from Strauss that says this, however.  You can certainly choose, and perhaps wisely, not to take it for what it seems to me to be plainly. I would rather have your view and I find it easy to understand.  But in the light of this consideration (that Strauss was hurt that Schmitt did not acknowledge his superior fascist formulations) and the previous one (that many Straussians seem to  project backward a supposed moderation from the ancients onto Strauss’s reference to getting beyond the horizon of Hobbes), this thought does not seem persuasive.

      Again, I think he envisioned two paths, was both a German national revolutionary and a Zionist.  Your argument sees only the political Zionism as Strauss’s national socialism. Your argument and Strauss’s future course provide evidence that he favors a sweepingly anti-Palestianian Zionism.  Perhaps this was enough to upset Arendt one might suggest, making her reject Strauss despite the engagement of both with Heidegger. But I don’t recall her being passionate about, as opposed to worried about the Palestianians.  Her affection for Heidegger who traded his customary black for a brown shirt and joined Hitler on May 1, 1933 seems to have, with a lapse of 20 years, continued.  But Heidegger was her teacher (the master of them all) and her love.  If Strauss as a Jew and a Zionist were to have affirmed the German national revolution...I think his affirmation of the national revolution, which she cuttingly emphasizes is just what he thought.  Where is the Zionism or the hint of it in his remarks about Schmitt?  Schmitt would have had no interest in this, but why did he engage with Schmitt politically, except that Strauss, a German Jew, was as  interested as Schmitt in ridding the world of liberalism?  Why does Strauss make such a hit with Schmitt, so that Schmitt continues to worry about Strauss’s views on two separate later occasions (what Meier writes about in his book on Strauss and Schmitt, a dialogue among the absent (Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss und der Begriff des Politischen. Zu einem Dialog unter Abwesenden), what I comment on explicitly in “Politics and the God” – I will post this when it is about to be published)?  Perhaps the same thought that would repel Arendt. Hannah says it was about his attitude toward the National Revolution.  My line of argument makes this obvious, yours obscure (perhaps Hannah just didn’t like Leo and rationalized it nastily, one might say in the end, but there is nothing else, given your argument, to say).  Affairs of the heart often have little philosophy or politics to them – or utilize the latter to some extent, to mask something else -  but for these two, and particularly in their long exile in Chicago, I wouldn’t bet on it.

     One other thought on Schmitt.  I think Strauss’s groveling to Schmitt – that Schmitt had offered him the highest praise he could ever hope to receive – is not sarcastic, but completely genuine.  Schmitt was a very smart man and Strauss worshipped smart men (the two or three who might really understand what he was saying as he later wrote to Kojeve; Schmitt was probably one of them). You take him to be critical of Schmitt and to write as a (potential) moderate.  And you unfairly say of Schmitt that he wanted to rid Germany of this Jew (even in 1938, as I emphasize, Schmitt praised "the Jew Strauss" for saying something true).  He wanted to rid Germany of the influence of the prophets (but so did Strauss, in fact, more explicitly as the citation from "Relgioese Lage der Gegenwart" in my post indicates).  He was of course willing to kill Jews, which Strauss did not dream of.  Strauss’s criticisms of Schmitt as a fellow reactionary were all to make him more reactionary.  No sarcasm was called for.

      Strauss blames Heidegger’s vulgar nihilism (see The courage to destroy here) but defends true nihilism (in the 1941 lecture on German nihilism) and becomes interested again when Heidegger defends a true National Socialism (though he does not make the connection explicit).  I am not sure that when he speaks of Heidegger in “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” he is critical of Heidegger (I initially thought of course he favors Nietzsche who would “naturally” not have become a Nazi, not Heidegger. That is the surface. But as the essay goes on, he seems to combine them to indict the US and USSR as “the night of the world.” Yes, Strauss criticized Heidegger’s stance in 1933 (though perhaps he would have then had the same misunderstandng).  But Heidegger criticizes and defends true national socialism.  As opposed to your perspective, that is an exact parallel to Strauss on true nihilism as opposed to Hitler’s vulgar form in the 1941 lecture on “German nihilism.” Except as an ironic or bodily stance, Leo was not a poor, small and self-abnegating person; he said Heidegger was the great philosopher of our time because he believed it (I think Strauss was a great scholar but confused about arguments; I also think Heidegger has some striking insights, even though he bent them very directly toward fascism.  Strauss took them in and extolled them. No one else is required to make this sacrifice of intellect.

      Note that nothing in my argument that Strauss favored the German national revolution in 1933 – the central point of the post – requires that he still held that position when he taught at Chicago.  One could imagine that Strauss had genuinely changed his view and wanted to hide his previous, now regrettable allegiances (hence Cropsey’s remark: some of the letters might be misunderstood).  But here again the exoteric/esoteric distinction gets in the way.  Unless one believes with the Zuckerts’ that he is the “man who gave away the secrets” but alludes to none, it is very very hard to say that his 1941 writing, already in the United States, which distinguishes vulgar nihilism which he opposes from true nihilism with which he admires Churchill is not the underlying political point of view.  Or the 1952 version at the conclusion  in the "Restatement" to On Tyranny (republished by Strauss as chapter 4 of What is Political Philosophy?).  It all gets further and further into his later career, for instance, even his last book, admiring smart authoritarianism and detesting democracy, on The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws (1973).

     On your note on reading, if one writes exoterically, of course one will spell out what philosophers think and say I am not advocating what others think, I am just spelling it out for the sake of argument (a careful reader has to figure out when this is true, and when he is saying something different; he points this out as a central mask of Farabi, advocating atheism in his writing on Plato, in the middle chapter of What is Political Philosophy?).  So I doubt that your claim about what Strauss is doing, given Strauss’s argument which you rightly admire as innovative, is plausible.  With the Socrates of the Phaedrus, one must be a careful reader, for “eternity.”  One need only read his interpretation of others doing this – writing between the lines – to see how he himself does it.  But how does one insist only on the surface of a writer who claims for himself the discovery and naming of hidden writing?

     You rightly emphasize Strauss’s affection for medieval men of science and his desire to die a philosopher.  He repeats this in many vital contexts.  In the exchange with Klein, he speaks of the decisive reservation he would have praying in a returned ghetto.  He also had such a reservation in Israel.  But does this alter his politics?  Was he not pleased by a Jewish revival – and military victory - at the expense of the Arab regimes and also, as he does not allow himself to say, of the Palestinians?  Was he perhaps not pleased by the German national revolution as I have suggested – even though he finally saw it as too anti-semitic some years later (slower than others)?  Is there not a reason for Strauss’s failure ever to mention the separation of church and state – the liberal solution to the theological-political predicament that was his central theme (at the panel on What is Political Philosophy? at the APSA this year, Will Altman rightly emphasized this question)?  Strauss saw philosophy as perfectly consistent with working toward political reaction – toward the use of the God to justify whatever policies an authoritarian ruler hopes to employ.  Not surprisingly, his political followers in America feed off the evangelicals even though few of them (Ken Masugi from Claremont excepted perhaps) have the slightest intellectual sympathy for them.  Think of the boat trip of Bill Kristol and Sarah Palin and her subsequent rise in American politics…

       As you say, Klein’s 1934 correspondence with Strauss raises the complexity of the attitude of both men toward Zionism.  Klein speaks with affection of teenagers (Strauss and Klein were still quite young) who take up Zionism and emigrate to Palestine. But he wonders if the Jews will not bring Europe (and liberalism) to Israel: in a cacophony (“Kultur”-Quatsch), he suggests they will but listen in Tel Aviv to Verdi's opera "Rigoletto" translated into Hebrew  (Klein to Schmitt in Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:513).  If one listens to this highbrow, clever remark in the context of their Nietzscheanism/Heideggerianism, however, it is not hard to hear frightening resonances.  Strauss himself says little in response except amusingly that the difference between them is like “Mixed Pickle” and raspberry sauce (Himbeersauce), nothing of principle (GS 3:517).

       So I don’t this restricts Strauss in the 1934 letter to hope in Zionism alone, as you suggest, nor does it make his politics, in either setting, more attractive.  On Klein’s behalf, he does see and regret his view on the aufhebende Tendenz of National Socialism in this long letter, and as Strauss would later judge their differences in their 1973 evening – “A Giving of Accounts” - was not political in the way Strauss was.

        The project of settling the Jews in Palestine – advocated by the United Nations and even Stalin once upon a time – had in it a desperate hope and a crime.  The pogroms of Europe, even before Nazism, are among those atrocities which make one wonder about humanity, which should give anyone pause about religiosity.  The spirit is impersonal; a God who could allow this has no human characteristics.  The Jews were under the influence of European colonialism – fascist toward ordinary people, even in the celebrated but in fact odious English version – and in Strauss’s case, of national socialism.  One should be careful about mocking Rigoletti in Hebrew. For one might look at Leo with the same cold eye.  In Paris or Chicago, Rigoletto sure beats Heidegger, Nietzsche or Schmitt (or even the Athenian Stranger) in Hebrew.  Strauss was a reactionary part of his time (many leftist Zionists went along with this; I seem to remember a Kibbutz which admired Stalin and the Russian Revolution but admitted no Arab members; the Histadrut taking no Arab unionists (internationalism or solidarity is the hallmark of Marx and, in this deep respect, of decency).  Emigres had the fantasy of a people without land for a land without people.  But the Palestinians were there and had done nothing to the Jews (Ben Gurion infamously speaks of indigenous people slaughtered or cast away in the United States, and how the West would do nothing about the transfer).  Jews needed to make a home in the Middle East and to commit no further crimes.  Palestinians, too, need a home and to live in peace (a very sad thing: both Jews and Arabs are semites, and both have been subjected to European and American racism; Edward Said’s Orientalism, which recognizes this, deserves to be taken in deeply by all of the Middle East).  The 1967 expansion and its impact on Israel – to create grotesque settlements, make the regime more and more overtly fascist – has greatly undermined Israel's limited, parliamentary democracy. It has harmed ordinary Jews.  In the name of fear, the current blind and greedy political leadership has a death wish.

        A minor point about Scholem – of course you are right that Strauss affirms his own philosophical stance and skepticism in the last letters. And somewhat self-deprecatingly, he jokes around about Epicurus.  But the correspondence has an entirely different and unusual element.  I think he amusingly acknowledges Scholem’s wife’s thought “that the BOSS can even make space for an apiquorsiut (unbelief) like mine” but that it moved him, and that his remarks on Scholem’s lengthy Sabbatai Sevi, the last thing he read, were at once scholarly and something very different.  Strauss’s last blessing on Israel is quite moving.  It doesn’t remove the crimes which he advocated against the Palestinians, but reveals: as the night opens to us we sometimes reach a place which is different from who we were before…

      Un fuerte abrazo (as one says in Spain),


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