Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Letters: some meanings of hidden writing


        My cousin Joe Conason wrote me a note taking pleasure in the “Strauss chronicles” as he calls some of these posts.  They are.  Strauss’s writing and my often amusing quest to understand it has a bit of fairy tale in it in that Leo is a hidden, would-be eminence (he would be a lion, leonine, almost an Aslan), is a very creative scholar,  a stoic in personal demeanor, and is also, the sad, lonely and weak person behind it all. He once wrote jokingly in this vein as a “little and weak” creature to his friend Gershom Scholem, but the feeling of falling apart – “my fingers refuse me their services” – was real enough, and, in terms of isolation, and thus a kind of helplessness and rage – he also once wrote of Jacob Klein’s book on Greek mathematics that it would be understood by only a handful of people, which is both a reflection of its genuine merit and for Strauss, of a kind of invisible and not likely successful striving - of longstanding. (Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:764, 771).    It is sad that he once annexed himself to reaction, fell into it as a rural German (Heidegger’s thrownness) and never got beyond it.  Yet there is also something sublime about Strauss's reaction particularly in America where it is so distant in origin – “Nietzsche!” as Strauss once put it – as well as horrifying in its unfolding corruption of the Presidency (“executive power”).  There are American exemplars, Lincoln and FDR at their worst, but there is a Nietzschean-Schmittian strain here – do away with the legislature and judiciary, what the President does is law.  He is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception is the opening line of Schmitt’s Political Theology – 1923.  This borrowed thought is Strauss’s theme.

     A comment on “Using a god for politics” here from my friend Mark Kramer gets at the belligerence of Strauss’s esoterica.  He was at war, as his metaphors often show – see here.    There is trust only among “philosophical” reactionaries. But these were extraordinarily rare.  In a letter to Kojeve on December 6, 1948, he says that you are one of three people who will get “what I am driving at” in his first American essay “On Tyranny” – see here and here (When he was not being a philosopher or perhaps a god or an acolyte of Stalin, Kojeve sympathized with ordinary people).  The third was probably Carl Schmitt (whom Strauss was no longer directly in touch with).  For the rest, there is what they find – the surface - myths or, for Strauss, deliberately misleading ideas even for many Straussians. For others, there are bromides and hiddenly, fear and enmity.  Strauss, as I have suggested, was not only anti-democracy but anti-the modern age.  See "Seceding from the last men - Strauss's fascination with nuclear war" here.

       For self-deceived acolytes, there is the myth that such practices are “salutary,” designed to help them and others.  But why such things should be healthy when neither the hearer nor often the utterer understands them is a mystery. The “soft” authoritarianism of the sect (leaving some students of Strauss often bewildered but giving them a kind of identity) and harsher authoritarianism guided by religion for the masses is easy to annex to war and torture.  The highest percentage of Americans for torture in polling (a useful, but extremely peculiar, easily biased specimen of social “science”)  is among Southern Evangelicals.  But the neo-cons who use them for the most part do not abjure torture (in an interview with me, Gary Schmitt was an exception).   Endorsing torture, perhaps the Evangelicals should really admire Roman soldiers nailing perpetrators up on the cross.   But this miasma of smug reaction is anything but healthy to the Bill of Rights (and the separation of church and state). See here and here.

       In a second note on the post on Arendt and Strauss here, Don Campion, a wonderful correspondent with me and former student with Gary Schmitt at the University of Dallas, remarks on Strauss’s elitism even toward the elite.  As in his own view an outstanding man in exile in America, he could not rule, but he hoped to shape the rulers. In addition, Don emphasizes Strauss’s loneliness (in Arendt’s sense).  The god is by himself.   As a scholar, Strauss had some sort of inner dialogue of the sort Arendt mentions.  But there are some complicated further elements, that of fear and rebelliousness as well as a peculiar humor, even self-deprecation, in Strauss’s elitism.  He was a Jew, ever having to hide in Germany, as well as a would-be German.  He was also furious at this condition.  In the story of his and Klein’s pretending to be businessmen studying in a coffee shop, and his suddenly shouting “Nietzsche!” at Klein and observing/laughing at Klein’s expression, one can discern all these elements.  He (and perhaps others) might find an awful place as a god, looking down, with Spinoza, on the play of nature, the supposed advantage of the stronger. What Strauss describes as Spinoza's view about that advantage was also his own view.   Spinoza threw flies on a spider’s web to watch godlike the spider’s attack and consumption (Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, p. 302 n. 302.)  Strauss's friend Hans Jonas promoted himself, on Strauss's view at the end of his life, as a philosopher. Strauss responded: if that is philosophy, I want to be a "pants-cutter" (Gesammelte Schriften, 3:771).  If this is the divine, one might choose irreligion and compassion.

      When Aristotle writes of the beauties of contemplation in the Nicomachean Ethics, perhaps he is thinking of this kind of state.  But at the least, he was more restrained and had a rather different image of nature (things unfolding to their potential or goal).  Wherever one is fortunate enough to get in these matters, one is still just a human being, one among others.  As the Greeks thought, it is off one’s rocker with resentment and hubris to quite, even in imagining, “become a god.”

       Don also mentions Stanley Rosen, Strauss’s first student, regarded skeptically by other Straussians, who is more independent of Strauss than most  – a modern – and who says Kojeve, whom he knew well,  as well as Strauss, desired to be gods in Hermeneutics as Politics: "Strauss and Kojève, and Strauss as much as Kojève (once we put aside Strauss's exoteric flirtation with Hebraic tradition) are atheists who wish to be gods" (pp 16-17, 92 - Rosen also speaks amusingly of a conversation in which  Kojeve suddenly remembers he is a god).  Strauss and Kojeve were able men, who were a bit unfortunate (stewed in their own abilities). Again, at least Kojeve sometimes remembered he was once an Hegelian and Marxian, sympathetic to the slaves and the Chinese peasants…

      They were atheists.  Perhaps the Spinoza citation illustrates that Strauss could see, he imagined, from the standpoint of a god.  Rosen suggests that this is the esoteric meaning of On Tyranny.  In contrast, I think it is mainly that a philosopher becomes or advises a tyrant, who then rules wisely but without laws (what I call philosopher-tyranny).  But Rosen was close to both and had this sense of them. In Hermeneutics as Politics, he says, they wanted to be gods. Perhaps Kojeve imagined this in the sense of creating a world (what Kojeve's interpretation of Hegel and modern politics and action as counselor to De Gaulle tries to do).  I do not see it fully, although it seems a frame of mind into which they might on occasion have fallen.  

      Rosen’s recent interpretation of the Republic (2005) – seeing it as an experiment in philosopher-tyranny - is important and far superior to Bloom’s.  See my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?", Constellations, March, 2009, here.

     Mark writes:

     “Just back from my trip--did succeed in gathering the infrastructure to put together an ongoing conference on narrative nonfiction in Amsterdam.  Then went to Auxerre for a few days with friends.  Ran into a young instructor in Poli Sci in Paris, who went on for a while, more subtly than I do here in this brief note to you, Alan, describing his dissertation, on the interesting fact that the same act, depending on context, can be criminal or heroic, namely con games, double-dealing in one's own tribe, vs. in time of war.  If you hide inside a FedEx crate, get hauled into a neighbor's house, then leap out and rob and rape the occupants, that's criminal.  But if you arrive inside your enemies' gates inside a large wooden horse, the sky's the limit.  I suppose you dexterous and learned scholars of these matters know this and may find it commonplace, but it was indeed an aha! moment for me [for me, too].  Thinking about why, I suspected it might have to do with the fundamental expectation of and trust of civility among citizens that's missing between enemies.   Seemed relevant to your posting, as well as I could get it.”

     The use of a god to justify politics can secure a common good in legislation (can be friendly, if elitist, to ordinary people) or can deceive and harm ordinary people to justify wars and torture.  Strauss rarely speaks of a common good for ordinary people, and was, sadly, much more the latter sort.

       Don writes:

       “Thanks for another great post. What has struck me is that for Strauss, it seems that only the philosopher is happy and has a life worth living.  Somewhere he says we are lucky if there is one philosopher in the world during our lifetime. Talk about loneliness. Rosen, a Strauss student who seems to have tried to think for himself thought that Strauss thought he was a god! This disdain for the ‘last men’ makes sense only if one elevates one self above the crowd. It seems to be elitist to the extreme.  

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