Peter Minowitz contacted me about his new book Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians Against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers a couple of months ago and has been in correspondence with me since (we have become friends). The book challenges the gut opposition which Strauss and his political followers have sometimes inspired, arguing rightly for scholarship and care in thinking about Strauss. Recently, Scott Horton interviewed him about the book on Harpers.org here. Peter defends Strauss but judiciously acknowledge some of the political problems (that he was, in Strauss’s own words, a fascist in 1933 or in Peter’s somewhat exoteric phrasing “flirted with fascism”). In response to my correspondence with Charles Butterworth (see my “Shadings: “they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here – Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933, here and Charles’s letters and my replies here and here), Peter also wrote me a letter, raising three questions. As he notes, these do not get to the core of the differences between us over Strauss. I will start out in this post mostly with some comments on the interview with Scott, focusing on what I take to be some leading differences about how to interpret Strauss In another post, I will then reproduce his letter, and respond to the other questions.
Though Strauss is an arcane writer, this is not really an arcane subject. Strauss is a figure on the right, and even Peter, whose politics are thoughtful and who thinks usefully about harmful stereotyping, admires William Kristol, who campaigned influentially for invading Iraq, for torture as an electoral tactic (in 2006, he thought Bush could put the Democrats on the defensive about national security) and even gave us Sarah Palin. Peter rightly argues that many of the figures identified by critics as Straussians are not students of Strauss, or had some contact with Strauss but were not simply or even mainly influenced by him. These issues are complicated. Still, the influence of neocons who are Straussians or who admire Strauss in and around the government is plain enough. Peter fights against a tide of abuse, as he sees himself in Straussophobia – it was plainly a great task to take on these battles seriously and there is a lot of ignorant vilification - but does not ask whether there are any direct causes in Strauss’s own somewhat Delphic politics, for this. He sees the issue too narrowly in the light of group stereotyping in which the harms of the oppressors are vast particularly to blacks, the truth in what they claim almost nothing. Racism or patriarchy or homophobia are the views of fools – or of people who are in this respect fools - (see Only a Reactionary Fool could maintain ‘there are no women philosophers’ here), but many of the people who oppose Strauss, however far they have gotten with him, are anything but fools.
A cause of misunderstandings is Strauss’s deliberate self-ghettoization as an intellectual (this idea was suggested to me by Sean Walsh who is making this the theme of a thesis). Strauss speaks fiercely as an interpreter, and never engaged with any sympathy any aspect of the modern liberal project – the one that centers around toleration of religious differences and the abolition of slavery – and which includes conservatives and radicals as well (see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). About Mill or Hegel, Strauss has nothing interesting to say; there are no arguments so far by Straussians of any subtlety or interest about John Rawls’s democratic theory. On the other hand, Strauss offers detailed commentaries on theorists others don’t read and writes complex commentaries. The wave of revulsion against Strauss as an agent of “black reaction” began in the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, at Yale as Walter Berns describes in letters to Strauss which I found in his papers at Regestein Library; the idea of reading “between the lines” – what Strauss claims as his fundamental discovery – put others off. A potential argument or dialogue has been frozen in the isolation of those who specialize in Strauss - Strauss once again offers Delphic or hidden interpretations of medieval Arab and Jewish philosophers or of Xenophon whom many other theorists do not read - and those put off by him. There have been few conversations with the aim of getting at the truth on various levels about Strauss as a scholar, a philosopher and a politician. I am therefore particularly grateful to Charles Butterworth and Peter and Will Altman and Scott Horton (and among others, at APSA debates I organized in 2007 and 2008, to Steve Lenzner, Tracy Strong, Catherine Zuckert, Tim Fuller, Mike Goldfield and Robert Howse) for furthering a conversation about these matters.
As Plato’s dialogues reveal, all responses to arguments are local, conditioned by the insights of the interlocutors; other and better arguments are often possible. Students at the time and later readers of Plato are invited to think about what such arguments might look like. Dialogues or in today’s terms conversations help break down ideological foolishness and sectarian isolation; they conjure the real issues on which one may seek the truth. These conversations, many of which I have posted, so far seem to me to reveal that Strauss was an authoritarian well into the 1930s at least, that he had a far out view of Nietzsche, one hard particularly for post-World War II Americans to understand and one which is almost sublime as a reactionary (wanting in 1932 to do away with the Jewish prophets and what he takes to be their influence on a despised modern and liberal culture), that one must choose to think about his own double or hidden meanings, that the surface of Strauss’s writings is not enough and is often deceptive, and that the most prominent political influence he has had is on the move to a tyrannical or authoritarian executive (today “commander in chief power”; Cheney's words “prerogative” from Ford's chief of staff Robert Goldwin and "executive power" from Herbert Storing, Gary Schmitt and Michael Malbin, author for Cheney of the Iran-Contra Minority Report come pretty directly from Strauss). There is dispute about whether Strauss endorsed the German National Revolution and for how long (Charles will reply to my previous comments). Though he has commented at length on Strauss’s letter to Loewith and distances himself from Strauss’s “principles of the Right” (Straussophobia, sections V-VI of ch. 4, notably p. 160), Peter disagrees with some of these points (I will take up some of the disagreements below, and he can respond). But even without the details which require a long and bemused effort of attention, any reader can get the significance of dialogue or conversation about these issues, and the considerable stakes (Cheney and the neocons – a number of whom are students and/or admirers of Strauss - have put the Constitution at risk and we all need to walk this back step by step…). This is what honorable debate should be about.
On my disagreements with Peter, first, at the American Political Science Association this year, William Altman raised the question, given Strauss’s fundamental theme of the theological-political problem, why did he never speak of the liberal solution: the separation of church and state? The question itself seems damning: neither in his early writings nor when he came to America (in the ostensible, surface or “exoteric” shift to admiring constitutional democracy, much emphasized by some of his supporters) did Strauss devote one whit of attention to a liberal attempt to solve the problem. Emphasizing Plato’s Laws in his last book (1973), Strauss speaks eloquently of the use by a philosopher-tyrant of religion to put across his measures. If one thinks of Strauss as a “friend” of liberal democracy who wants to strengthen its executive power say in its fight against the Soviet Union or perhaps against terror (the “best friend liberal democracy has ever had,” in the words of Stephen Smith), this emphasis should give one pause. For Strauss also admires Al-Farabi who talked about how Plato sought gradually to subvert Athenian democracy. If one substitutes say Evangelical religiosity in the United States or fanaticism for “greater Israel” in Israel, one sees the reactionary bent of the Athenian Stranger’s and Strauss’s (and the main, political Straussians – those who have gone into government) thinking quite clearly.
In addition, in 1932, as I emphasized in the discussion with Charles Butterworth, Strauss endorsed with Nietzsche the kings against the Jewish prophets. He sought to root out the entire tradition stemming in his view from the prophets and Jesus and resulting in democracy, socialism, communism and the “last men.” The presence of biblical impressions in Israel was the closest Strauss could come (something which of course contradicts Strauss's Nietzschean animosity to the poor). Nonetheless, Strauss’s 1957 letter rightly criticizing the anti-semitism of the National Review, stresses that the Israelis are “near to biblical Antiquity.” They are thus no observers of the separation of church and state. In the same letter, however, in his most liberal moment, Strauss praises the diadem of “an independent judiciary.” On my reading of Strauss, this point seems the best one in favor of Peter’s point of view, though perhaps Israel might not be considered, for Muslims for instance, a great defender, in its earliest days or now, of freedom of conscience.
Horton’s interview addresses this fundamental question: “Why does Strauss never speak of religious or political toleration?” (see here). Peter’s response is complex, necessarily brief, and it seems to me, more about his own views than Strauss's: “In his English-language publications, Strauss also condemns ‘pious cruelty,’ the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the ‘Jacobin terror,’ which punished intentions; he even touts the contributions that American religious diversity makes in warding off conformism and philistinism. As you know, however, he also tends to highlight religion’s role as a prop to social order, and I suspect that he’d have little problem with school prayer or with state aid to parochial schools. A final thought: America, compared to Western Europe, is a very religious country despite the First Amendment, and it’s difficult to imagine how we’d be better off with a religious ‘establishment.”
Peter limits Strauss to supporting certain “Christian reforms,” Forcing others to pray to a Christian deity is very unattractive - it underlines Strauss’s opposition to freedom of conscience and lack of sympathy ever with modern individuality; state aid to parochial schools is less problematic. He moves then in the direction, against Strauss I think though Peter does not acknowledge this, of warning against a Christian establishment in the U.S. But if religion is a prop to the social order, what stops Strauss from going further, envisioning as the neo-cons have advocated, Evangelical and Republican politician hostility to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in the Schiavo case? The unanswered question shadows Peter's liberal comment.
In his letter to me, however, Peter insists clearly and rightly, “A compelling virtue of liberalism, obviously, is that it protects every ‘orientation’ from totalitarian oppression by other orientations.” But is this point ever made by Leo Strauss? Peter never says. On Strauss’s own account as I will argue below, he is a self-consciously careful writer. He says “literally” only certain things, and it is very important to figure out what he might mean, not just fill in the blanks with bromides. Strauss is really “like us.” No, he is interesting because he is not “like us” and many of his admirers troop rightward into reaction and authoritarianism – the Republicans and many Democrats like Lieberman are imperial authoritarians, not conservatives. In addition, being “like us” is not, without argument, a good thing (racism, patriarchy, homophobia, anti-Arab bigotry and many other detestable things are as “American as cherry pie,” as H. Rap Brown, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee, once put it). Strauss’s omission of toleration or freedom of conscience pretty sharply indicates a deep problem.
A few weeks ago, I asked Peter whether he knew of any examples from Strauss of the separation of church and state. He could not think of any. But in the interview with Scott, he brings up a 1924 essay, “[Hermann] Cohen’s Analysis of Spinoza’s Bible Science” written when Strauss was a political Zionist and in which Strauss mentions the “separation of church and state.” In Peter’s words in response to Horton, “In a recently translated 1924 article, Strauss did commend the 17th-century ‘struggle for the independence of science and state from the church.’” Prima facie, Peter’s use of this citation seems more an admission of a weak case than a showing that Strauss admired or endorsed the separation. In the 1924 essay, Strauss mentions it as an historical fact, but it is not clear that he commends it: “The need that had to give rise to Spinoza’s enterprise, that is the struggle for the independence of science and the state from the church was hardly perceptible in Cohen’s time: it had been resolved by the efforts of the previous centuries.” (Strauss, Early Writings, ed. Michael Zank, p. 159).
But even if we take Peter’s interpretation at face value (don’t read on in the essay itself), why is this mention so isolated in Strauss’s work? Why does it come only in a period in which Strauss would characterize his politics as “fascist, authoritarian, imperial” (his May 1933 letter to Loewith)? The whole case by several of his defenders rests on the notion that Strauss “had not yet become Strauss” a) intellectually, in terms of his emphasis on hidden writing and b) politically, with his support for Churchill in World War II and to a lesser extent – he does not say so directly though some of his followers greatly admire Lincoln – the United States. He clearly affirms the cause of America in being brutal to "answer" the Soviet Union, as in his advice on Cuba to Senator Percy (see Scott’s fifth question and Peter’s response, and my post here). As I emphasize, he makes a case for imperial authoritarianism or executive power in America, and betrays no affection for democracy or individual rights. One might say: his support for American democracy goes unsaid in his advising of Percy, a potential Republican Presidential nominee. But what goes unsaid in Leo is deliberate and must be thought about (an exile from Hitler, a German Jew, cannot have been, just on the face of it, a fascist…). The question about whether someone who meditates thematically and over his entire scholarly career on the theological-political problem but never discusses the separation of church and state or toleration of religious differences needs to be answered, to defend the claim that Strauss really became a constitutional democrat, with examples from the later writing. An alleged citation from when he was a fascist doesn’t help…
Second, Strauss despaired of integrating Jews into Germany. He thought Weimar toleration weak, and part of the weakness of the Weimar republic in general. He admired Prussian order as a protection from pogroms. But he did not seek assimilation into Germany as a Jew. Instead, he sought to be a German Jew, one who is recognized as a German. Thus to the shock of his German-Jewish intellectual contemporaries in Paris even in late 1933, he could support what he saw as a somewhat anti-Jewish, National Revolution or national socialism – see here. In addition, as a political Zionist, Strauss could support a similar, national project for Jews in Palestine. In fact, one might argue, he got to his sympathy for Heidegger and national socialism in Germany largely through his views on what he saw as a reactionary Jewish experiment. In the early 1920s, he defended the fascist (or “halbfaschistisch” in the words of his later friend Gershom Scholem) politics of Blau-Weiss, a Jewish wandering youth group, modeled on the German youth groups which excluded jews. Blau-Weiss was headed by an authoritarian Fuehrer Walter Moses (or perhaps one might say, given the triumph of Mussolini in 1922, a Duce); Strauss defended this and attacked any cultural or religious Zionism within the organization (see “Response to Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle'”, Early Writings, p. 64-74). Further, Strauss already had a revulsion from historicism in the Jewish context. As an atheist, Spinoza, about whom Strauss wrote, had debunked the unlikely literality of the Jewish experience; in effect, he had historicized it. This is Spinoza’s “Bible criticism” for which he was ostracized by Jews and of which the liberal German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, whom Strauss attacked, was tolerant.
But Strauss rejected such debunking biblical criticism point-blank.* The pure religiosity of the early period, Strauss recognizes, could not be sustained by a modern consciousness (at least an historical and critical one); in response, Strauss uniquely becomes both an atheist (though not on the surface of the 1924 essay) and a denouncer of the modern consciousness. He sees atheism as an ancient possibility among philosophers – he retreats to this possibility - but he was first moved by Nietzsche (he, is in Catherine Zuckert’s idiom, postmodern, an offerer of a “postmodern Plato”). There is little consistency in his own position. He wants the (paradoxical, modern, self-deceiving on the part of the adherent) revival of Jewish religiosity for others (what he would later call the “nearness of biblical antiquity”) which could then be used by statesman of his imagination – atheist and modern - to further authoritarian political ends (If one tries to do this as argument, one runs into an alleged decisionism: one can decide for inconsistency, the atheist or philosopher-statesman-tyrant who purveys “beautiful” religiosity for the masses. But as argument, this position is self-contradictory. To get it off the ground one needs assertions about human nature as evil and democracy bad which Strauss asserts but does not argue for, and are hard, if pressed by counterargument, to defend. Finally except as surface, Strauss thinks that philosophy and philosophically-motivated politics are superior to religion. In Strauss's The Action and Argument of Plato's Laws (1973), the Platonic solution to the theological-political problem is to annex "the God" as support for the lawgiver's project.
Third, Will Altman sent to Peter and to me the relevant text from the end of the essay in which Strauss celebrates this anti-liberal thought.
“please note [Will writes to Peter] the following passage on p. 160 of Leo Strauss's Early Writings (ed. Michael Zank) following the passage you quoted (you too must be wary of "careless scholarship and a tendency to quote out of context") from p. 159 which belies your claim that Strauss ‘commends’ the separation of church and state:
‘We may point ad hominem to the greater ‘honesty’ of this method, as against Cohen, who knew of no fundamental reservations about the right of science. From our standpoint, however, it must be asked in all seriousness how this ‘honesty’ relates to possible higher needs of Judaism, whether it bestows a right to destroy the beautiful world of tradition? What does the struggle for the autonomy of science and the state have to do with the interest of Judaism?’”
In his 1934 correspondence with Klein about the national revolution, Strauss speaks of the reservation of a philosopher in returning to Judaism (see here). But a philosopher, in Strauss’s idiom, might also have political reservations, as he reveals in 1924, against science. In this passage, Strauss elevates the beauty of the tradition for authoritarian political reasons. This is part of his distinction all the way through between philosophy, which he thinks of as atheist, cosmopolitan, and in a sense, eternal, and politics, which is national – of one’s own – particular, and for ordinary people, needs a local belief without understanding the actual motives or purposes of rule. One could maintain a la Strauss that every culture has or is local beliefs; this trivial thought does nothing to justify the separate, elite, authoritarian rule of fascists hidden from and pretty obviously against the interests of ordinary people. Strauss thus has at best no interest in the separation of church and state. In fact, he would like it to vanish with modern secularism or the last men generally. Thus politically in this essay, he attacks the separation of science and religion or church and state against Cohen who defends them. Read carefully as Strauss always recommends, even Peter’s 1924 example in which Strauss mentions these separations turns out to illustrate that Strauss opposed freedom of conscience and celebrated the use of the “beauties” and bigotries of religion to further a “wise” authoritarianism.
Fourth, in the brief interview, both Scott and Peter do not name or shy away from Strauss’s central insistence on exoteric writing, or on writing between the lines. Strauss always maintained: one writes as one reads. In 1921, Strauss submitted his doctoral thesis on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, an esoteric writer. He always wrote between the lines about others whom he said wrote between the lines. When asked by Scott about Irving Kristol’s bizarrely arrogant and hierarchical formulations (Kristol’s most gripping phrase: “one must not spook the horses,” i.e. ordinary people; see Neoconservatism: the Autobiography of an Idea, introduction), Peter responds that some truths must be hidden, are only for a few:
“Here’s a truth that Strauss has helped many of his readers and students to appreciate: most people routinely adjust the complexity of their speech and writing to accommodate the differing capacities of their audience. In addition, Strauss did claim that certain ‘sad exigencies’ should be veiled, and he consistently maintained that several exalted philosophers wrote energetically ‘between the lines.’
In the first line, Peter tries to make the surface of Strauss palatable to others and himself. But the second says that Strauss hid what he thought about the most important things because of a need fundamentally to deceive most people – what Strauss loftily spoke of as “sad exigencies.” Though Peter says this is harmless, how would one know without being able to look it? In any case, without great effort at scholarship, one can’t look at the reasons for Strauss's decision. The truths are at most to be revealed only to a few. All the repetition of Strauss’s surface bromides can’t disguise this issue, and the burden of proof which Peter attempts to shift to me and Altman I am afraid is his (I am grateful for his appreciation of the two of us as scholars; I of course appreciate Peter in the same way). As Peter puts the issue to Scott:
“ During his decades living in the United States, [Strauss] offered numerous formulations that illuminate the blessings of American democracy. For example, he stated that ‘wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism,’ he emphasized that ‘premodern thought’ would elevate liberal democracy above fascism, and he faulted Nietzsche for having prepared a regime (Nazi Germany) that made democracy look like ‘the golden age.’ As early as 1939, he disparaged Sparta in print, and two years later he faulted Hegel and Nietzsche for overemphasizing ‘the dignity of military virtue.’ Scholars such as Alan Gilbert and William Altman are skillfully trying to work around such passages, but I think the burden of proof lies on them, and I hope I won’t have to write a sequel to Straussophobia.’
To reiterate a point, in the APSA debate with Catherine Zuckert here, I emphasized that Strauss's view of Hegel, the great defender of equal liberty and opponent of slavery, as just stressing military virtue is foolish. Further, Strauss is not a critic of Hegel or Nietzsche in this respect. Rather, he was suggesting that only an authoritarian regime was possible in post-World War II Germany, not one imposed by conquerors (in this he turned out to be wrong).
More importantly, recall Peter’s statement about the “sad exigencies” which require Strauss’s hiddenness or lack of straightforwardness about the most important things - on the face of it, the advocacy by some of Strauss’s prominent political followers of “commander-in-chief power,” torture, the Iraq war, bombing Iran, and supporting “greater Israel” looks anything but harmless. Hence the need among some of his academic admirers like the Zuckerts and Stephen Smith and to a lesser extent Peter, to celebrate Strauss’s “unhesitating loyalty…to the cause of constitutionalism” (a loyalty except, for example, to the separation of church and state and the First Amendment) and remove Strauss the philosopher from any relevance to his practical neocon admirers.
In relation to Irving Kristol whom he seems to admire, Peter stresses a difference. On the surface, Strauss maintains that philosophy can never achieve a resolution between what he regards as the basic alternatives, Athens and Jerusalem; in contrast, Kristol wrote mainly and as a partisan on practical issues:
“Kristol addresses the matter more subtly in print, but the above formulation suggests that he’s got a drawer full of truth files with labels that designate the targeted recipients. Perhaps Kristol here forgot that, for Strauss, philosophy is fundamentally a quest for ‘the truth’ and that ‘the fundamental and comprehensive problems’ may be insoluble. Unlike Strauss, Kristol regularly wrote polemically about ‘hotbutton’ issues.’”
But Kristol was a subtle reader of Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli. He did not admire Strauss for overt politics, but declares himself a Straussian. He thought there was a connection between Strauss’s politics (what he understood of them, way on the right) and the philosophy. He was thrilled that his son Bill went to study at Strauss’s or a student’s of Strauss’s “feet.” Also a practical enthusiast, Bill worked with Strauss’s student Harvey Mansfield, lauded Strauss several times in political contexts in his New York Times column last year, and has co-authored interesting articles with Steve Lenzner, one of the subtlest readers of Strauss. Can one draw this distinction as sharply as Peter’s argument needs?
In addition, even Strauss’s remark about insolubility might be a bit of Straussian surface (I should say: he always took Judaism very seriously in contrast, as Stephen Smith has emphasized, to many of his American followers; yet he was always a vehement atheist in his letters and published writings until perhaps his correspondence, as he was dying, with Scholem - see here). Strauss does not seem to have had many doubts about how to handle the “theological-political predicament” ("the God" plays a role in legitimizing authoritarian leadership) and never entertains, let alone states plausibly, even for the sake of argument, the liberal separation of church and state. The latter is remarkably not a competitor for the solution to what is billed as, by Strauss on the surface, a perhaps “insoluble problem.”
The interview with Horton is brief. Peter must cover much ground in a few sentences. Nonetheless, Peter at most implies hidden meanings but does not say how they affect (or how they subvert) what Strauss thought of as certain surface bromides. He does not talk about Strauss’s and others’ technique of writing. This is also true of Straussophobia. His introduction is called Persecution and the Art of Writhing, a joke modifying Strauss's famous title, and his book is overwhelmed by the task of answering people whom he regards as otherwise serious intellectuals and journalists, but who have been possessed by gut hatred and ideology. He never considers what it means to write between the lines about writing between the lines.
Strauss’s method of investigation, as I have emphasized previously, is of great value in scholarly terms. Following Heidegger, he reads authors with great care and attention to detail. See here. Beyond Heidegger, he makes genuine discoveries, notably his argument about why, given political and religious persecution, great writers needed to hide some of their thoughts so that only some can detect them (a few on the Right as Strauss says, but many, as he does not say, on the left). Strauss’s insight is relevant both on the left and among scientists (the Catholic Church burned Tycho Brahe at the stake), and on the right. (That Strauss sometimes seeks to defend the right by persecuting the left is, however, one of the less attractive hidden meanings of the title of his book Persecution and the Art of Writing; Walter Berns and Willmoore Kendall, the former a student and the latter a follower, both fans of McCarthyism were striking examples of this).
To understand Strauss, one must ask what Plato was attempting to teach his students with the dialogues; one must think about how the surface of Plato's dialogues might remain silent to less careful readers. This idea is beautifully expressed in Plato’s Phaedrus – writings are like statues, Socrates says; if one asks them questions, they have no father to defend them; ordinary readers will say anything about them; but dialogues permit access to a joy that lasts til eternity, see here - and in Persecution, p 160 – what Peter will refer to in his letter to me as the “flight to eternity.” One can and should be willing to learn from Strauss in this respect (though some of the exact meanings are merely pointed at and not stated explicitly by Strauss, and some of what he sees as such meanings and techniques probably aren’t accurate). Of course the danger in hidden meanings may be satirized as in Myles Burnyeat’s telling “Sphinx without a Secret” written in The New York Review of Books in 1986. A great classical scholar, Burnyeat alludes to the emptiness as argument of hidden writing, even though Strauss is closer to the meaning of the Plato's dialogues than he is. Burnyeat goes back and forth between the true point that Strauss is politically a reactionary and meant to have an authoritarian and imperial influence in American politics, and the idea that he is, as a scholar, empty, a joker, a “sphinx without a secret.” One must beware making merely political inferences, a practice which Burnyeat partly initiates i.e. Strauss has a right wing influence, therefore Strauss’s thought, not investigated in any depth, is foolish (on Burnyeat’s behalf, however, Strauss is extraordinarily difficult or hidden even to many of his students. Many including to some extent Peter do not want to follow the hints and instead cling to wholesome inferences from the literal meaning of some surface things Strauss says…). Strauss's esoteric vision is in fact reactionary, and the political offshoots often a faint copy.
Peter shies away (and Scott does too) from hidden meanings because spelling out how to find such meanings and giving examples is an arcane scholarly quest. That quest is ridiculed by, for example, Burnyeat. Few others might be interested, and some just shake their heads. But I think the stakes are great enough – we have lived through a period of authoritarian, commander in chief power, the darkness of Cheney – and readers are alert enough so that many will pay attention. We “horses” do not belong to you, each of us must respond to the Kristols; we are human beings and equal citizens. We need to be told the truth, and reach our own democratic conclusions (get rid of torture and endless aggressions, for example). Given recent American crimes by high officials, perhaps we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though as of this moment, neither the torturers nor their abettors show the slightest remorse…
Because Peter is presenting Strauss’s phrases which have more than one facet or are ambiguous as straightfoward, he sometimes emphasizes the less provocative but also less obvious one. Consider the following remark to Scott: “The statement I quoted about unhesitating loyalty, by the way, is reinforced by Strauss’s reflections on the circumstances that spawn ‘esoteric writing.’ If society is so fragile that philosophers should muzzle themselves in order to protect it, utopianism is a perennial danger and no one should blithely promote ‘regime change.’” Strauss main point, however, is the hostility between the city and philosophy: how Athens put Socrates to death. That is the persecution that worries him. The first reason Plato creates a hidden and secretive Academy is to prevent a similar crime. The protection of philosophers against the citizens is Strauss’s emphasis, not how philosophers need to “muzzle themselves to protect” the city. Strauss’s latter point – Peter’s emphasis - makes the Platonists or Straussians sound self-sacrificing (“self- muzzling”) and high-minded. It elides, once again, the question of what they need to muzzle themselves about (for instance, and most obviously, the autocratic rule of a wise man which Strauss always said was best, or as Cropsey, Strauss’s literary executor did, the letters in which Strauss indicates he was a fascist and “misunderstood” by fellow Jewish exiles in Paris as a follower of the German National Revolution).
Strauss's first point invites the suspicion that some philosophers such as Plato may have sought to harm democracy. Wouldn’t it be important to figure out why philosophers need to muzzle themselves and appear as something different from what they are? Once again, Athenian democracy committed a great crime against Socrates and philosophy, as Martin Luther King underlined in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail. But Plato sought as in the Timaeus to subvert Athenian democracy. Not being interested in swift “regime change” which Peter emphasizes, does not mean not trying, a la Farabi’s Plato, to make the regime more authoritarian over time.
A further irony. Yes, Strauss thought there were “ truths” not to be shared with the masses. So did Plato. If this were true, however, why would he have shared them with even some of his admiring students? Wouldn’t it be useful to have many who read him repeat, over and over again, that he really is not the reactionary some suspect him to be. He is a wholesome, indeed the best friend of liberal values. Though such apologies make Strauss much less interesting and sublime than I find him, I am grateful for every follower of Leo who wants to protest the recent wars, the Patriot Act, the torture, the madness of current Israeli reaction, to support Obama against Republican authoritarians, and the like. I am particularly grateful to Peter who distances himself, to some extent, from Strauss’s imperialism . In the interview, he responds to Scott:
Horton: In the early sixties, Strauss wrote a series of memos to then-Congressman Percy [sic: Senator] in which he advocates a posture of military engagement with the Soviet Union over their activities in Cuba. Do these memos give you any insight on Strauss’s political posture, particular as to its proximity to the very aggressive foreign policy views of the current neocons?
Minowitz: I think these letters are very revealing, and I commend you and Alan Gilbert for publicizing them. Even in his published writings, Strauss took a hard line on the Cold War. He described the Soviet Union as a ‘barbaric and cruel, narrow-minded and cunning foreign enemy,’ and he speculated about the possibility that nuclear war would be preferable to surrender. In the 1961 letter to Percy, he takes a particularly strong stand against surrender. Later in the letter, however, he celebrates the prospect that sufficiently tough policies would bring about a modus vivendi whereby the Soviets would permanently abandon their campaign to communize the world. In the 1963 letter, Strauss seems to elaborate these policies by implying that the United States should invade Cuba.”
“ Strauss was no dove, and I think he would have listened seriously to the arguments made by belligerent neocons, some of whom cut their teeth in criticizing détente and promoting Reagan’s defense build-up. Living in a post-Soviet world, however, we needn’t fear the scenario— ‘perpetual and universal’ communist tyranny—that alarmed Strauss.”
Congressman Charles Percy from Illinois was a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. Strauss sought to advise him just as in Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger advises the Cretan Klinias on giving laws to the new colony of Magnesia. After the Cuban missile crisis in which we now know that some 100 nuclear missiles were in Cuba, pointed at the United States, Strauss urged taking out Cuba as the USSR had Hungary. Peter elides this point and is not nearly as sharp on the dangers or irrationality of Strauss’s advice as he could be. Nonetheless, he does underline that for Strauss, the disappearance of the USSR would have removed one danger of “universal” tyranny. What it would not have removed, however, is the danger of the “universal and homogenous state” in his and Kojeve’s terms, a market oriented liberal democracy (read carefully On Tyranny, p. 27 where Strauss speaks of the gradual triumph of technology and tyranny in the liberal rival to the Soviet Union, and looks, following Martin Heidegger, for an alternative). Strauss might well have sought to undermine gradually such a regime – recall the passage from Farabi about Plato mentioned above – and substitute an authoritarian and imperial one. It is the desire to make war, to have an enemy, which differentiates the seriousness of politics from the decadent entertainment of the last men, for both Strauss and Schmitt, in Strauss’s commentary on Schmitt in 1932. I suspect that Strauss despised a universal tyranny mainly and perhaps only when it arose from the left (and modern liberalism is, oddly, for Strauss as a follower of Nietzsche, assimilated to the tyrannical left).
I think one might take some of Strauss’s surface statements (I am unclear that many of them are arguments) and articulate a well-argued and decent political standpoint based on them. But consider the care with which he speaks. I am not a conservative, he says, meaning to his would-be followers, I have some complicated view in political philosophy in which I think constitutional democracy is the best regime, but I will not, for the sake of probity, affirm the narrow stance of this historical time. Sure. But I also hear: I am not a conservative, I am a reactionary. What in Strauss’s writing – particularly his emphasis on esoteric writing - gives one the authority to affirm only the seemingly nice surface meaning, fail to notice the literal ambiguity between the two possible inferences from the statement, and finally, rule out the obvious meaning I suggest? The meaning I suggest is now supported by Scott Horton’s and Eugene Sheppard’s translations of the May, 1933 letter to Loewith in which Strauss affirms the “principles of the Right- fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” Let us recur to the theological political problem. He writes of Jewish religiosity as a “beautiful” thing entirely in the light of external political purposes about it. It is only at the end of his life, in his letters to Scholem, that he is overtaken by some deeper and more mystical sense (see here).
A certain kind of Straussian asks us to take the surface meaning as the only one. But ironically, in the case of the theological-political problem, there is no surface meaning, no reference to the separation of church and state. There is mainly the esoteric meaning : that religion is of use to a philosophical lawgiver or tyrant, at least one advised “by a reasonable man” (the ostensible surface meaning in Strauss is that philosophy cannot refute religion, but this ducks the central political issues which ought to be, since he was dealing with the liberal separation of church and state, to the fore). To take Strauss seriously as a scholar, one must abandon this need to apologize for him politically, to make him into an uninteresting idol of modern American democratic politics, a tame conservative. To honor him as a scholar, as I do, means to make clear that the argument about how Strauss “became Strauss” politically is fostered only by certain exoteric or surface phrases, deceptive or for some of his defenders, self-deceptive, and false.
In the interview with Scott, Peter, for brevity of space, has to rely on snippets, which for Strauss of all people, are inadequate. As Peter acknowledges, these are countered by other snippets. For instance, his argument on Strauss’s memo on nuclear war to Percy takes up my point in the NYU lecture here that On Tyranny ends with a long nihilist statement – nuclear war is better than surrender.
“He described the Soviet Union as a ‘barbaric and cruel, narrow-minded and cunning foreign enemy,’ and he speculated about the possibility that nuclear war would be preferable to surrender.”
But here he does not quite look in the eye the contradiction between Strauss’s seeming defense of liberal democracy at least his phrase about it in On Tyranny which is followed by his peroration on nihilist revolt and nuclear war and the return to “spring” of then ravaged humanity: Strauss hopes, the stone age. Instead, he notes Strauss’s image in the letter to Percy of a modus vivendi based on the demonstration, which Peter also does not mention, that America could be as brutal in foreign policy toward Cuba as the Soviet Union was in Hungary.
My argument rests on seeing how Strauss’s finished writings provide in this case barely hidden meanings. But Peter’s Strauss is contradictory in two ways: if one regards every snippet as equal, these two (the brief affirmation of constitutional democracy, the lengthy statement of nihilism down to nuclear destruction or extinction) are contradictory to each other. As a student questioner Michael asked Catherine Zuckert at the APSA debate in 2007 here: how do we know which snippet to believe? Consider Peter’s going back as I described above to 1924 for a snippet from Strauss about the separation of church and state. The point of Strauss’s essay refutes any sympathy for liberal toleration (this case is not an example of self-refutation, since Strauss describes but does not affirm toleration).
As a seventh broad point, Strauss’s esotericism – sad truths only for the few - is self-refuting. Sometimes, the surface argument defeats, contrary to the author’s intention, the hidden pointing. This is the case, as I realized from reading Strauss, with Plato’s Republic here. The Republic is the greatest indictment, including psychologically, of tyranny ever written. And yet, Plato indicates that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher-tyrant and rules tyrannically (expelling everyone below the age of 10 from the city). Plato hints at this: extremes are nearest to one another he says; the potential philosopher who goes bad, goes very bad; most people, including monarchs and sophists, are mediocre and can hope to be neither philosophers nor tyrants. But the surface argument makes it terminally unlikely that a tyrant will be of the right sort (young, tyrannical, and somehow moderate, not a likely killer, let alone a big killer) to become a philosopher-king. Nonetheless, Plato’s Academy sent out students to advise tyrants and occasionally monarchs. Plato himself advised the tyrant Dionysius the second of Syracuse, as his Seventh Letter reveals, and his best student, Dion, became briefly the ruler (a potential philosopher-king, though Plato, in another example of hidden meanings, does not directly say so). But neither became a philosopher-tyrant actually. It surprised and even disappointed me at first to learn that the Republic, which I had taken as a beautiful and whole work, a marvelous indictment of tyranny, actually contains this hidden and self-contradictory message. One has but to ask the question: how did Plato expect his students to read him, then and in the future? to see that it is a tyrant of a certain kind, one with unlikely characteristics of youth, intelligence, daring, and moderation, who has yet to become steeped in murder – see here – who will become the philosopher-king. But once again the surface argument makes the hidden pointing implausible. The argument is self-refuting.
In On Tyranny, however, Strauss provides his own unique variant on self-refutation. Strauss mainly speaks through the arguments of others; he rarely makes arguments of his own though he does, for example, make reactionary views such as Schmitt’s more coherent. He gives no worked out argument for constitutional democracy, just the occasional sentence avowing “loyalty” to it. What follows this sentence is a longer and passionate exhortation of nihilism. The hiddenness bursts out. He makes a faint effort to point the careless reader away from it, but the nihilism is the main point. In Strauss – and here he differs dramatically from the restraint or mere pointing of Plato and other philosophers - one has to stick very selectively to the surface to extract constitutional democracy: when Strauss gets to the hidden message, he lets fly. The argument is thus unusually overweighted on behalf of the hidden message. One has religiously not to read Strauss – to deny what he plainly says at the end of On Tyranny and about hidden meanings in Persecution - to get the literal message the Zuckerts and more cautiously Peter aver. But Strauss’s hidden message is just as un-argued for as Plato's – Strauss just speaks of the aversion of the noble for the last men and their capacity to rebel nihilistically, to bring an end to the modern order. He is passionate against Soviet tyranny. Yet his vision is so remarkably destructive and self-destructive (one might meditate on what nuclear war leads to) that it is frightening and sad. In the letter to Percy, there are echoes of this peroration. In On Tyranny, neither the brief claim for constitutional democracy nor the fierce affirmation of nihilist revolt and nuclear reversion to the stone age is argued for. But the two claims are self-refuting.
A technique of hidden writing which Strauss emphasizes in Farabi is for another author to state the hidden meaning on the surface. Farabi does this with Plato. His commentaries on Plato, which he wrote for people who had Plato’s writings at their fingertips, initially seem bizarre, for example his assertion that Plato sought to change gradually the Athenians away from democracy. He says it as if it were a fact. But the Seventh Letter, even hiddenly, does not suggest this. As of the lecture I gave at NYU this spring, I didn’t see it. But then I read Timaeus again, and discovered that Farabi was right, see here. Down to the original title of his essay in French on the “political conduct of philosophers” Kojeve reveals Strauss’s hidden meaning in his first essay on Xenophon’s Hiero – that a wise man Simonides advises a tyrant how to rule better - and even jokes with him about Stalin: Stakhanovism – rewarding workers who work extra hard for the public good or, often not the same thing, the regime’s purposes – is exactly the kind of measure that Xenophon’s Hiero recommends. In Thoughts on Machiavelli, 10 years later, Strauss reveals the hidden meaning: the Hiero is the classic example, he says, of a defense of tyranny by a wise man. But again this is not an argument. It is all just passionate opinon. Strauss tells us vehemently what he doesn’t agree with.
Once one notices Strauss’s esotericism as Peter does at least elliptically, and allows oneself to consider my argument about self-refutation, Strauss, philosophically and politically, collapses. Note again I distinguish these two levels from the scholarly insights which are often very valuable and deserve to be honored. But the philosophical and political position is at best incoherent, and mostly unattractive (even the briefly stated surface in Strauss beats the not so hidden pointing). Peter and Robert Howse and to some extent Michael Zuckert stick fiercely to the surface, and find decent positions there. Again, I wish them well. The watered down politics are much better; it would be best if Strauss’s and his political followers reaction (I am speaking of the Kristols, and Wolfowitz and Robert Goldwin, and Gary Schmitt to some extent) receded into the dark. But that will not happen without a push, without clarifying what is the case politically and philosophically both with Strauss and his followers (his political followers are interestingly not very philosophical, just reactionary; it is the politics that count).
With some tentativeness, Peter goes further than the others in recognizing that Strauss himself was often way to the right politically. In terms of the specific reaction Strauss refers to, he wanted to create new or revolutionary regimes, ones led by tyrants who were wise, who commanded others in war and relied, for legitimacy, as Strauss saw it, religious mumbo-jumbo. Strauss affirmed this because he detested modern secularism and liberalism. He hinted at these affections throughout (including in his last book on Plato’s Laws). But his hidden writing is self- contradictory or self-refuting. One can acknowledge Strauss’s brilliance as a scholar and teacher and even affirm affection for him in these respects (by now, I have quite a bit), without providing a surface for the dark political undercurrent – one very alive in the neocons and in America even today, in the rumblings to murder Obama or have a military coup - and what is either contempt for or ignorance of argument.
*In Strauss’s 1921 thesis on Jacobi, Strauss was already cognizant of exoteric/esoteric (hidden meaning) writing. He tried his hand at this from the first. He did not just arrive at insights into it – though perhaps at a more full blown and creative vision of it – in Persecution and the Art of Writing (Peter makes some brief, interesting suggestions about this change in Straussophobia). Paying no attention to Strauss in Germany, to Strauss as an admirer of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Schmitt, the defenders of Strauss put his arrival at the idea of exoteric writing, in scholarly terms, very late. As with historicism, there is no evidence that about esotericism, Strauss “became Strauss” in the sense which they hope to find.