I would like to underline epistemologically what I take to be the great insight in John’s thinking about Strauss [see John Mearsheimer on the Germanic formation of Leo Strauss with his letter here]. Strauss was a German reactionary thinker. “The key to understanding Strauss for me," John notes, "is to recognize that he was first and foremost a German thinker. His world was that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, the crisis of historicism, Kaiser Bill, Ludendorf, Hitler, Imperial Germany, Weimar Germany, and Nazi Germany. He came to America rather late in life, well after his world-view was established and at a time when America was an intellectual wasteland. America had little influence on him. Furthermore, Strauss was not a liberal and not even sympathetic to liberalism. Indeed, he disliked liberalism. As Heinrich Meier points out, Strauss criticized Carl Schmitt for not going far enough in his critique of liberalism in 'The Concept of the Political.' It is hardly surprising that he distrusted liberal democracy, given that his only experience with that political order before coming to the US was Weimar Germany, which not only collapsed under its own weight, but gave way to the Third Reich. I believe that Strauss -- for good reasons -- had a very dark view of history and humankind, which, I might add, is not reflected in the story that his acolytes tell about his thinking.”
By the time Strauss came to admire Churchill on a barely hidden nihilist basis (those who out of a stark soldier’s courage want to take down the modern age or die fighting – like Juenger), he was 42 years old. See here. The “young Leo,” as John says, was not so young. Further, formed in German culture, he looked down from a great height on lesser lights. He had once admired Max Weber, still retained some of his attitudes as a great power or imperial realist (he wanted to make Germany a “have” nation also), but told Franz Rosenszweig, a Jewish existentialist and theologian, author of the Star of Redemption written in the trenches of Macedonia and sent to his mother during World War I, that he was blown away by Heidegger. Once again, Strauss later responds to very few American intellectual figures and none except to destroy them (he does accept the obeisance of some sycophantic rightists like the Yale follower of Franco Willmoore Kendall and perhaps William F. Buckley). See my posts on Liberalism Ancient and Modern here and here.
He thinks, and John says much too easily, that America was a wasteland. There were the pragmatists; John Dewey was far better at argument than Strauss or his mentor Schmitt (Strauss, as I have emphasized, was a great scholar, but as far as I can see, labored largely on behalf of Schmitt’s politics, though with a Heideggerian laying bare of the roots of philosophy in Greece). He was not a man who worked out his own ideas by thinking, fully and empathically, into the views of others, and answering their best arguments; this was a slogan for students, although Herbert Storing, with regard to the black experience in the United States, found a resonance in Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X that Strauss might also have discovered if he had lived out his slogan about great alternatives – he didn’t and perhaps couldn’t.
Strauss never got the chief arguments for a modern regime – what is good about the idea of equal liberty or equal rights and a democracy based on them, why someone might defend such a regime. Instead, he leaped too quickly to a Nietzschean mantra about the “last men.” He missed the liveliness and international impact of jazz, Diego Rivera’s murals in Detroit, the upsurge of a struggle for unions and against racism which prevented fascism here (there was in 1935 nearly a coup against Roosevelt), and contributed to the America which would become, as Strauss says in the second sentence of Natural Right and History, the most powerful and prosperous empire, succeeding England, after the defeat of Nazism. He opposed the civil rights movement and promoted segregation. See Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, the social science of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, and Leo Strauss here. In contrast, with wider sympathies or more philosophical ones, he could have found something to admire here and perhaps not devoted himself to creating a reactionary sect, to seeking to make America more authoritarian, to bring it down, as Al-Farabi saw that Plato had striven to do with Athens. See my post on the Timeaus here.
At Chicago, students had to do two M.A.s. But there was a fierce division in the Political Science Department (hierarchical pettiness and misery in major departments is sometimes, sadly, hard to beat). Those who worked with Strauss had few others to choose from. His students also worked with C. Hermann Pritchett, the constitutional lawyer, who emphasizes FDR’s imprisoning of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, today the mantra of neocons and other aficiandos of tyrannical commander in chief power (h/t Gary Schmitt). As John suggests, some also worked with Albert Wohlstetter, the Trotskyist mathematician, who gave America and the world fail-safe (which requires re-instructing missiles as they fly to go to the target; otherwise, they abort) and thus preserved us from being destroyed by the ordinary incompetence of our “security technicians.
Wohlstetter also gave us Wolfowitz and Gary Schmitt and Fukuyama, inter alia, shaping some political Straussians. This generation arrived at Chicago when Strauss was ill, less interested in or able to deal with new students, the sect already in motion. Although John underestimates the formation of Wolfowitz by Bloom, he is certainly also his own creature; Schmitt was trained by Storing, a decent man, and started as a writer on executive power and Democratic hawk) who have pushed the US to belligerent, social engineering occupations. One might think that the two US invasions are reflected by the “soldier” (mercenary) company in Avatar and one wouldn’t be wrong about the essentials. Unsurprisingly, the US blew away ordinary Iraqis; it is a Western, mainly white occupying army after colonialism has died, getting blown up, or bogged down, stumbling ever more deeply into “the big muddy.”
Like Schmitt, Strauss had no sympathy for the newness of America (they are both a little like John Herz, Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, who also came here from Germany and looked down on the supposed one-dimensionality - the Heideggerian falling into the one, the Nietzschean last men – of American culture. Again, Hannah Arendt, for all her Heideggerianism about the “banality of evil,” ably sees possibilities of newness in America here. Not Strauss but his followers looked into Lincoln – and it is too bad that they found there only the suspension of habeas corpus, only the reaction against militant abolitionism (John Brown or Harriet Tubman are more heroic and honorable than Lincoln the best day Lincoln ever saw). His followers also do not see Lincoln’s greatness in opposing the aggression against Mexico, in coming to the need to recruit blacks to save the Union and freeing the slaves, or in his noble thought that both sides pray to the same God, both suffer and both cannot win - “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” This is a precursor of Gandhi’s and King’s insight that we all are souls and can change and that one does not have to murder to be a man. Obama wanted something of this tone in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but has not yet lived enough or suffered enough as a leader quite to find it. The speech was hollow, the references about just war with regard to anything America is doing to answer Al-Qaida’s crimes, except committing more crimes itself and thus helping Al-Qaida, foolishness. See here and here.
Osama bin Laden predicts hopeless aggressions for oil, endless torture, endless crushing of the Palestinians. The US needs not to be the aggressor and not to kill innocents – this is international morality, international law, American law and common sense – and these wars are in every way, and daily and hourly – more and more counterproductive. Bush had contempt for law, decency, and intelligence, but except for stopping torture and for some beautiful words in Cairo and elsewhere, Obama’s war policy is also ugly and self-defeating. Obama’s words tried to respect others, while pursuing elite American purposes, but they have been broken by the war complex and the counterproductive – and monstrous with regard to the Palestinians – belligerence of Israel.
Strauss was a German reactionary. As an eccentric, would-be assimilating Jew, he moved Nietzsche’s hostility to the creativity of the prophets – responsible for identifying the words “holy” with “true” and “friend” – to the Right. He and a handful of Nietzschean Jewish friends, notably Jacob Klein, gravitated even to support the National Revolution, despite its anti-semitism. See here. It took Klein till 1934 to get it, and Strauss rejected him then, and went on admiring Nazi blitzkriege (see here) well into his stay in New York. Once again, he analogizes his teaching about Socrates to overrunning the students’ defenses – how the esotericist brings it on – just like the Panzers* sweeping through the Poles.
As a student of Judith Shklar (subsequently I also was a student and friend of Dida’s), Isaac Kramnick, whom John studied with, was very interested in thinkers in context, in figuring out what the arguments meant in the life of the person. I have employed a kind of contextualism (Marx’s theory in the setting of French and English radical and his own political activity; Weber’s theory in interaction with his politics; Rousseau and Montesquieu in the subsequent American Revolution, forthcoming; and about Strauss). Particularly concerning Strauss, it would be useful to clear up any misunderstandings. At the conclusion of my first book, Marx’s Politics, I also criticized a misguided relativism in the lively contextualism of Quentin Skinner and John Dunn. A famous slogan of Straussians is that one must pay attention to the texts, meaning that a great deal of knowing the context – being an historian of thought, but without the thought – is unhelpful. But this is not a deep stage in understanding Strauss’s argument.
Consider Strauss’s interpretation of any dialogue of Plato. One must know every literary allusion (Plato magically transforms every story and if you don’t know the story, you will not be struck by the transformation) and historical reference (who is Minos, of the dialogue of that title, whose laws the Cretan Klinias advocates in the Laws?). Leo insisted on knowing the languages and the cultures at least as much as Quentin Skinner and say, his erudite work on Machiavelli. Ironically for some not very learned followers of Strauss, Strauss is arguably at least the equal of, and perhaps more a contextualist - again, sensibly and often comparatively eruditely, given the texts – than the contextualists.
But ironically both share a common weakness. To understand what the bent of an argument is, what its subtleties are, whom it is directed against, what the author means to say and what, given her particular opponent(s) and purposes, she may not have thought of is vital to doing serious philosophy. But it says nothing yet about the actual quality of the argument. One can, one might say, look at Plato or W. in context. The Onion once suggested that W. thought that God was Cheney disguising his voice over the intercom. One will find no thought in W.
Unlike Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss’s weakness was to hide himself in the masks of others (Nietzsche was more deeply into masks, but the subtlety of his insights largely dominated Strauss, except, of course, that Strauss missed Nietzsche’s brilliant psychology entirely). One can only do cryptography on Strauss’s writings and find Plato’s philosopher-tyrants, who veil their views in pseudo-religiosity (see my "Do philosopher counsel tyrants?," Constellations, March 2009, here). His originality is solely in how he hides the meaning, how he also casts light on how Plato hid (sometimes self-refuting) meanings, not in any argument for the meaning itself.
Some contextualists - Strauss foolishly and namelessly would include all American authors except his followers - start from prevailing mainstream values, Since in the Bush period, these become increasingly those of torturers and tyrants, a very large intellectual current now sees them as wrong and has the insight that torture is a crime and must be stopped. The neo-con complaints now have a particular staleness. In contrast, Strauss goes back to Plato or alternately, to Carl Schmitt (and a bit of Nietzsche and Heidegger). Despite the hiddenness, one can ironically discern that Strauss fell into the “one” or as Nietzsche might have said of Epicurus, that garden god in Beyond Good and Evil,** one can discern his initial context, the German Right, in his esotericism (or in his 1920s and 1930s letters and essays). As John rightly says, Strauss just brought some other context to the United States, masked in the Greeks. Again, that one speaks in or from a context, or has experiences which underpin one’s views says nothing yet of their truth. Einstein and W. both have views about the universe...
Except for his Zionism, if one looks in Strauss’s writing for Leo independently, as opposed to Leo as a hidden bearer of theological/authoritarian messages, it is very hard to say what one finds (perhaps he out-Nietzsches the worst in Nietzsche about the Jews as the initiators of slave morality, for example). More importantly, one does not find argument, the search for the truth beyond the positions he has taken and asks one to decode. One does not find, intellectually or contextually, the fair statement of and answers to others’ views. For instance, Straussians have yet to write any thing of interest about democratic theory or democracy – even about Lincoln, they miss his adherence to democracy - and they often sneer at people – Rawls or today Sen, for example – who are far great thinkers than their crowd, and of course, in terms of humanity, comparatively decent ones.
This mirrors pretty much the weakness of Strauss on Rousseau (Rousseau without inequality and public corruption; even Allan Bloom, in whom I am unable to detect an argument rather than flamboyant opinions, read Rousseau enough to get him, compared to Strauss – see Bloom’s essay in Strauss and Cropsey, ed., History of Political Philosophy); Mill on liberty or the subjection of women; Hegel on equal liberty – Strauss had read some Hegel, but even his friend Kojeve, so famous for his insights into master and servant, doesn’t understand the issue of equal liberty in the Philosophy of Right – Marx (I once heard Harvey Mansfield give a talk on Capital on how the good society for Marx was the society of exchange value, a view at once so dopy, brazen, and unable to use the resources the Greeks gave him, that it struck me as kind of sublime in the way of unintentional, stand-up misreading or alternately, in reading for those who, because of fierce prejudice, can’t or won’t read,*** etc. That Strauss dislikes these thinkers, that he has some Delphic perhaps intelligent comment on a particular point, that he believes something different than they – all this is clear. That he thinks about them, that he offers a philosophical alternative which acknowledges and rejects plausibly what is decent in modernity, I see no evidence.
As a scholar, Strauss works on great thinkers like Al-Farabi, Maimonides and Spinoza who deserve to be and are being revived as political thinkers; he has read many of the Platonic dialogues together, and sees interrelationships that escape other writers. On those he admires, Strauss is a great and illuminating scholar, even if his parti pris, his religious authoritarianism, shapes what he sees and what he does not. Not a breath of Ibn-Rushd’s adaptation of Plato to oppose the sexism of Cordoban society which is poor, Ibn-Rushd says, because it treats men as animals and women as plants will be found in Strauss. But applying Plato creatively in Cordoba, making the most decent argument about women in the Arab world for perhaps 7 centuries and in Europe for 5 (Montesquieu) – too bad Strauss’s prejudices prevented him from noticing or led him to be silent about the matter, not even to embarrass himself (though less) by uttering some patriarchal stupidity. About decency, Strauss is often silent (he gave a seminar course on the Meno, but somehow omitted Socrates’s opposition to slavery).
In addition, Strauss has taught me sadly that Plato’s Republic, the greatest argument against tyranny ever written, is, esoterically, self-refuting. For a tyrant of a certain sort becomes a philosopher-tyrant, and as the Seventh Letter reveals, Plato sought him unsuccessfully far and wide, because it is so rare to have a tyrant who is decent, moderate, and philosophical, since you need to kill quite a few people (in On Tyranny, Strauss says many and then reiterates it on the next page more strongly) to be a tyrant. Even Dion, Plato’s best student and briefly ruler of Syracuse, trusts an Athenian Calippus who betrays and murders him. See here.
If you believe Plato is “the philosopher” and seek to master every word, providing some sub-thought or message for other followers of the master here or there or if you think Heidegger is “the great philosopher of our time,” Strauss, as an adherent, is a “philosopher.” But this is merely sect-talk. As a questioner, as someone who does argument, who fashions arguments every day, as Socrates puts it, zero. If you want see the difference read any piece by Hilary Putnam’s (see here and here) or John Rawls.
Just a couple of minor concluding notes on John’s letter: Cropsey often had a more limited view than Strauss. In speaking with a new student in 1966, Mike Goldfield, he was shocked: "how could a political philosophy student be against the Vietnam war?" I guess Cropsey couldn't imagine Kojeve as a student of political philosophy...
Fukuyama actually followed Kojeve (whom Strauss admired as a “philosopher” and whom he won to his view of hidden writing but with whom he never agreed politically) about modernity. It is Kojeve’s position in On Tyranny about how perhaps everything is coming together in Europe (by the time he was the philosopher/advisor on economics to De Gaulle, he was more certain about Europe) as the realization of Hegel which is what Fukuyama retails as free markets and democracy in The End of History.**** But John is right not to be able to entertain Strauss himself offering such thoughts. This is the opposite of Strauss. In the first article about the end of history written at Rand, Fukuyama admits that he had not read a word of Hegel (poor dear) and recently, he retails the exoteric Strauss without a glimmer that Strauss himself is into hidden writing.. In general, he is good on some matters of policy, noticing the threat of immigrants in Europe producing at the margins terrorists far more swiftly than others. And he at last abandoned (having been one of the signers of the infamous Project for a New American Century letter to Bush of September 20, 2001 demanding aggression against Saddam – among the usual suspects, Cheney amusingly didn't sign it because he was still head of Halliburton, as Gary Schmitt, one of the organizers, pointed out to me), once the unreality of the neocons came home to him. But except for his own account of his thinking changing, dating to 2002 - see a Der Spiegel interview here - he didn't publish anything critical of the war or the neocons that I have been able to find until 2006. Fukuyama has issued no statement against torture. That among the sycophants of the American war complex, he cuts a figure I have no doubt – at least he commendably opposed the war as misguided***** - but no, he is not a major intellect.
I agree with John that Strauss is a great scholar – and that he is in this sense a major figure. Further, he sometimes had a realist understanding of political dangers and follies which is striking. But I would add, that he can’t do argument to save himself, and more significantly, that he was sublimely a man of the way crazy Right.
***Some Straussians refuse to read beyond the master’s opinion, that is, they do not to read things that are allegedly “disliked.” Strauss’s commands in this regard extended even to Heidegger, so Catherine Zuckert told me, even though Strauss hiddenly regarded him as the great thinker of our time.