Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Another excellent review of a bad book

Clifford Orwin’s scathing review of Anne Norton’s bad book is posted here. In case you’ve forgotten, my review is here. Orwin elegantly wields a stiletto in slicing and dicing the hapless Norton. By contrast, I am merely an earnest hacker.

Thanks to the folks at the Claremont Review of Books for posting the review.

Discussions - 29 Comments

Stiletto? Cliff Orwin’s review is more like a dirty bomb. Instead of targetting Anne Norton’s mistakes, Orwin’s critique is indiscriminate. He is at least as interested in impugning Norton’s motives and engaging in bogus psychoanalysis of the author as he is in providing any real illumination of the thinking of Leo Strauss and where Norton went wrong in trying to understand it.
Orwin makes much of the long association of Allan Bloom and author Straussians with the Democratic Party; yet he has written elsewhere that both the Republican and Democratic Party are "big tents" that can accomodate persons of a very wide range of divergent views. The fact that they are or have been registered Democrats does not in itself prove much about the individuals in question, and certainly does not disprove that at least some of their views veer to the radical Right. While some liberals have become (in my view much over-)exercised that the Republican Party has been "captured" by the Right, seen from my own perspective as a student of European politics and society, both the Republicans nor the Democrats are too centrist to provide a natural and permanent political home for radical Right ideologies. This leaves a a choice of political affiliation for those who hold such views based on more pragmatic or sentimental considerations.

I was very amused by Cliff’s upbraiding of Anne Norton for her lack of footnotes, and impressionistic and ancedotal treatment of the subject. The reason for my amusement is that the same could be said for Allan Bloom’s treatment of his intellectual "enemies" in the Closing of the American Mind: figures such as Derrida are dismissed or demonized in a manner that suggests he never read a word of their writing. Here we have the Straussian double standard!!

Anne Norton’s book has all the strengths and also all the defects of a work that attempts to deal with serious philosophical matters in the form of a passionate personal essay (just as does Bloom’s Closing.) Orwin accuses Norton of being angry, indignant. Similar accusations were made (and rejected by) Bloom after the Closing of the American Mind. But actually there is a subtle sense of irony that runs through Norton’s essay, and it is especially reflected in the way in which she contrasts Strauss’s own "Bhagdad"--that of the medieval Islamic philosophers with Wolfowitz’s "Bhagdad."

As for Orwin’s cagey denial that Wolfowitz is a Straussian, I will only say that in years of hanging out with Straussians in my youth, every one who ever mentioned Wolfowitz described him as a Straussian and loyal disciple of Allan Bloom, indeed as "their" man in Washington. At the time, I thought that silly, because everything I knew about Wolfowitz suggested to me that he was a very ambitious and sophisticated political actor, and such people know that they can only afford so much to be tethered to the intellectuals. Nevertheless, based on the explicit (if silly) claims of the Straussians themselves to own Wolfowitz, Anne Norton can be forgiven for her conclusions, to a large extent (and I do believe that Bloom at a deep level did shape Wolfowtiz’s political outlook, though not his views on specific issues; that story I’ll be telling in my own long essay in progress on the Straussians and the Iraq War).

Orwin makes a great deal of Norton’s reliance on gossip and anecdote--a strategy that almost certainly must lead to a certain amount of misunderstanding and error. However, the shadowy ways of the Straussians do not permit study by the more obvious tools of empirical intellectual sociology. The same difficulty faces anyone who wants to write about the mob, I suppose, or the inner workings of any secretive and also fractious sect or cult. But at the same time Norton has a point that the Straussians have had too much influence and effect on too many people not to make it a legitimate exercise to bring some of their doings out of the shadows.

Should one take at face value Cliff Orwin’s claim of superior knowledge of the thoughts of Allan Bloom? Cliff refers to Bloom’s triumphs as a teacher at the University of Toronto; I trust this is not an allusion to his having had as (an albeit very rebellious) student someone as smart as myself--that’s a joke, Cliff. But Bloom himself, as I recall, described his time at Toronto to a journalist (of the New York Times I believe, but I’m not sure) as something like his "lost years." If my memory of this is right, then Anne Norton can surely be forgiven for her conclusion that Bloom was thrown of his path after Cornell.
This brings us to Orwin’s most extraordinary revelation of the mind of Allan Bloom: Bloom’s deathbed instruction to Orwin to back Bill Clinton! How I love Bill Clinton and miss him--apparently, he could charm even Allan Bloom (I certainly couldn’t do that). How cruel of Cliff to share this only now, depriving Clinton of the chance to refer to it in his memoirs, surely an accomplishment "hor pair." But I wonder about this story as a clue or key to Allan Bloom’s political orientation; as a novelist, it is also hard to believe that Saul Bellow wouldn’t have used this material. Perhaps this one was for Cliff alone, or perhaps a novelist at Bellow’s level can afford to throw away such amazing material; alas, I wouldn’t know. In any case, this was not knowledge that was at Anne Norton’s disposal at the time she wrote her book, and it would take a pretty unusual spirit to figure out Bloom was a Clintonite from reading the Closing of the American Mind.

CORRECTED COMMENT

Sleepless in Beijing, working on a Chinese version of the browser, I managed to post my comment on Cliff Orwin’s review of Anne Norton without finishing it--or correcting the typos etc. Here is the corrected and complete version:

Stiletto? Cliff Orwin’s review is more like a dirty bomb. Instead of targeting Anne Norton’s mistakes, Orwin’s critique is indiscriminate. He is at least as interested in impugning Norton’s motives and engaging in bogus psychoanalysis of the author as he is in providing any real illumination of the thinking of Leo Strauss and where Norton went wrong in trying to understand it. Orwin makes much of the long association of Allan Bloom and other Straussians with the Democratic Party; yet he has written elsewhere that both the Republican and Democratic Party are "big tents" that can accommodate persons of a very wide range of divergent views. The fact that they are or have been registered Democrats does not in itself prove much about the individuals in question, and certainly does not disprove that at least some of their views veer to the radical Right. While some liberals have become (in my view much over-)exercised that the Republican Party has been "captured" by the Right, seen from my own perspective as a student of European politics and society, both the Republicans and the Democrats are too centrist to provide a natural and permanent political home for radical Right ideologies. This leaves those who hold such views a choice of political affiliation based on more pragmatic or sentimental considerations.

I was very amused by Cliff’s upbraiding of Anne Norton for her lack of footnotes, and impressionistic and ancedotal treatment of the subject. The reason for my amusement is that the same could be said for Allan Bloom’s treatment of his intellectual "enemies" in the Closing of the American Mind: figures such as Derrida are dismissed or demonized in a manner that suggests he never read a word of their writing. Here we have the Straussian double standard!! Anne Norton’s book has all the strengths and also all the defects of a work that attempts to deal with serious philosophical matters in the form of a passionate personal essay (just as does Bloom’s Closing.) Orwin accuses Norton of being angry, indignant. Similar accusations were made (and rejected by) Bloom after the Closing of the American Mind. But actually there is a subtle sense of irony that runs through Norton’s essay, and it is especially reflected in the way in which she contrasts Strauss’s own "Baghdad"--that of the medieval Islamic philosophers with Wolfowitz’s "Baghdad." As for Orwin’s cagey denial that Wolfowitz is a Straussian, I will only say that in years of hanging out with Straussians in my youth, every one who ever mentioned Wolfowitz described him as a Straussian and loyal disciple of Allan Bloom, indeed as "their" man in Washington. At the time, I thought that silly, because everything I knew about Wolfowitz suggested to me that he was a very ambitious and sophisticated political actor, and such people know that they can only afford so much to be tethered to the intellectuals. Nevertheless, based on the explicit (if silly) claims of the Straussians themselves to own Wolfowitz, Anne Norton can be forgiven for her conclusions to a large extent (and I do believe that Bloom at a deep level did shape Wolfowtiz’s political outlook, though not his views on specific issues; that story I’ll be telling in my own long essay in progress on the Straussians and the Iraq War). Orwin makes a great deal of Norton’s reliance on gossip and anecdote--a strategy that almost certainly must lead to a certain amount of misunderstanding and error. However, the shadowy ways of the Straussians do not permit study by the more obvious tools of empirical intellectual sociology. The same difficulty faces anyone who wants to write about the mob, I suppose, or the inner workings of any secretive and also fractious sect or cult. But at the same time Norton has a point that the Straussians have had too much influence and effect on too many people not to make it a legitimate exercise to bring some of their doings out of the shadows. Should one take at face value Cliff Orwin’s claim of superior knowledge of the thoughts of Allan Bloom? Cliff refers to Bloom’s triumphs as a teacher at the University of Toronto; I trust this is not an allusion to his having had as (an albeit very rebellious) student someone as smart as myself--that’s a joke, Cliff. But Bloom himself, as I recall, described his time at Toronto to a journalist (of the New York Times I believe, but I’m not sure) as something like his "lost years." If my memory of this is right, then Anne Norton can surely be forgiven for her conclusion that Bloom was thrown off his path after Cornell. This brings us to Orwin’s most extraordinary revelation of the mind of Allan Bloom: Bloom’s deathbed instruction to Orwin to back Bill Clinton! How I love Bill Clinton and miss him--apparently, he could charm even Allan Bloom (I certainly couldn’t do that). How cruel of Cliff to share this only now, depriving Clinton of the chance to refer to it in his memoirs, surely an accomplishment "hors pair." But I wonder about this story as a clue or key to Allan Bloom’s political orientation; as a novelist, it is also hard to believe that Saul Bellow wouldn’t have used this material. Perhaps this one was for Cliff alone, or perhaps a novelist at Bellow’s level can afford to throw away such amazing material; alas, I wouldn’t know. In any case, this was not knowledge that was at Anne Norton’s disposal at the time she wrote her book, and it would take a pretty unusual spirit to figure out Bloom was a Clintonite from reading the Closing of the American Mind.
This brings us to Orwin’s only real claim of substance about the thought of Strauss as it relates to Iraq. It is condensed in a single sentence: “Would Strauss have supported the bold gambit of extending liberal democracy by draining the Augean stables of Islamic tyranny and theocracy? Yes—if he had accepted the long-term necessity of so doing in order to defend the existing liberal democracies in this age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Would Strauss have accepted that necessity? You’d have to ask him, and he’s been dead for 31 years.” This is a cop out of the first order. Strauss reflected long and hard on the problems of liberal democracy in a world where tyranny continued to exist, he wrote about these problems, and their relation to the eternal questions of war and peace. It is trivial and almost an insult to his readers’ and to Norton’s intelligence to suggest that because we can’t ask Strauss what he would decided facing the circumstances at the moment that the decision for war was made, that we cannot take from his thought—i.e. his writings--a range of universal normative and prudential considerations that would enter into judging the project of attempting utopian political change through bold military action. One need only read the first pages of the City and Man, not to mention the hundred-page essay there on Thucydides, to realize that Strauss had views that are very pertinent to assessing the claims and counterclaims of the War Party and the Peace Party in the case of Iraq. Strauss takes deadly seriously Thucydides’ suggestion that his work might contain lessons for all times, i.e. the possibility of permanent lessons about war and peace, law, right and power in international affairs; but Orwin presents Strauss as a sort of Schmittean decisionist—the universal give no guidance, and you have to ask the man when the time comes (and of course in this case he is conveniently dead!).
Lest someone try to write me off as a hack with standard “liberal” prejudices, I write all these words as a great admirer of Strauss, as someone who has freely and publicly admitted that I learned much from Allan Bloom (even if I refuse to shut up about his dark sides); and in fact as a (doubting and agonized) supporter of the war in Iraq. Whatever there is to disagree with in Anne Norton’s book—and I’d be the first to admit there is a lot to disagree with—she is not closed-minded. After I first read it I emailed her setting out the areas where I read Strauss, and especially Kojeve, differently. She responded graciously, willing to reconsider some of those positions upon further study and analysis. This is more than I can say for any prominent Straussian with whom I’ve attempted to engage (with the notable exception of Harvey Mansfield). They talk incessantly of philosophy but—as Strauss knew more than anyone--philosophy is willingness to question one’s own views, not just attack those of others.

Prof. Howse:

Why do you say that the project of changing Iraq in the direction of self-government and liberty under law following the armed destruction of Saddam’s tyranny is "utopian"? (I take it you don’t mean the word as a compliment.)

In response to PCJ, I was using the expression "utopian" to suggest the nature of this project as political idealism, on which Strauss has a lot to say; I did NOT intend the pejorative senses of "impossible" or "unrealistic." In sum, I was making neither a compliment nor a criticism.

best,

Rob Howse

Thank you for the clarification, Prof. Howse.

I guess my review of Norton’s bad book is beneath Professor Howse’s notice. I suppose I should be glad, given the tone of his comments on Cliff’s review, but I would actually relish the opportunity to defend my judgments regarding the book’s lack of merit. Prof. Howse to the contrary notwithstanding, Norton’s book is in no significant way comparable to The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, for example, didn’t indulge in unsourced and slanderous gossip.

By the way, I wonder whether Prof. Howse has offered these views directly to his former teacher?

Much as I want to read my Isocrates, I can’t let these sentences go unchallenged:

However, the shadowy ways of the Straussians do not permit study by the more obvious tools of empirical intellectual sociology. The same difficulty faces anyone who wants to write about the mob, I suppose, or the inner workings of any secretive and also fractious sect or cult.

The comparison of Straussians to "the mob," or to a "secretive and also fractious sect or cult" is sly and unworthy slander. I begin to understand why Professor Howse is willing to defend the book. he and Anne Norton are to some degree birds of a feather. Like Anne Norton, he once associated with "Straussians" (full disclosure: I knew him in Toronto), but to be charitable (as neither he nor Norton is), he eventually found that his diagreements with "Straussians" (not yet evident when I knew him) led him down a different intellectual and professional path, one where his abilities have been quite well rewarded and recognized.

I look forward to reading and commenting on his forthcoming essay. I expect that I’ll have at least a little something to disagree with.

I want to respond to both of Prof. Knippenberg’s posts reacting to my comments on Cliff Orwin’s Anne Norton review.

No, I have not sent Cliff my reactions to his review, because I have (finally) up on him as an email correspondent. Over the last few years I’ve sent him comments on various things he has written as well as invited him to give me comments on some of my own writings. Only once did I ever get a reply. And that was many moons ago.
On the difficulties of studying closed circles or societies that operate in the shadows in many respects, I can’t really respond to the accusation of "slander" since it is conclusory, supposing but not explaining what false claim I am making. But one thing I am not is "sly."
To suggest that my intent is to defend Anne Norton’s book is not entirely accurate. I think the book has some strengths and also serious weaknesses, which I have (being not "sly") shared with her.
As for my own long essay, it doesn’t deal with Straussians much at all; it is mostly about Strauss’s thought as reflected in his writings. There will be a final section about Allan Bloom, whose political outlook differs from that of Strauss, primarily I believe due to the influence of Rousseau. I’d be happy to share the first draft with Prof. Knippenberg; but to give you all a taste of my analysis (already I have more than 60 pages) I show that ALL the various claims about Strauss’s thought made by those who see a link to the Iraq war are erroneous. What Mr. Knippenberg may not like is that some of these misunderstandings of Strauss’s thought are the responsibility of Straussians themselves to a large extent, although that isn’t the most important part of the argument.
As for charity, I don’t believe that charity belongs in intellectual life. On the different "intellectual and professional path" I have taken, intellectually, this has been the path away from Straussianism and toward Strauss--and greater understanding of the questions that he and his main interlocutors, especially Kojeve, considered to be of central importance. I am not sure how much "recognition" the published results of my investigations have obtained: the best so far is that the FAZ, a leading German daily newspaper, has twice run articles mentioning my work on Kojeve. It’s also true (but unlikely that Professor Knippenberg would know about it) that Pascal Lamy, just appointed to head up the WTO, once instructed his staff at the European Commission to read an essay I co-authored that discussing among other things Strauss and Kojeve. However, I think overall, if I were aiming at recognition, I’d have to write something more sexy than extremely dense and detailed essays about Strauss, Kojeve and Schmitt. Unlike Mark Lilla, for instance I don’t have the light touch, and those who expect my long essay on Straus and Iraq to be something like Anne Norton’s book will be disappointed--after the first five pages of my intricate discussion of Strauss’s view of Thucydides’ view of the place of treaties and oaths in international relations, such a reader will be well on their way to sleep.
So much for the intellectual path, the professional path HAS brought external reward and recognition, i.e. in the world of international economic policy and negotiations. Here I follow Kojeve--I somehow couldn’t imagine Strauss giving advice on tariff treatment for developing countries.

As for Professor Knippenberg’s mention that I did not address his review, the only reason is that the click on doesn’t work; it could be that it is censored in China (they "filter" some web pages). This makes me even more curious to read it when I get back to the US.

best,

Rob Howse

Professor Howse,


The claim that I regard as false should have been obvious. I do not regard Straussians as a "secretive and also fractious cult or sect," a claim that I suppose could be used to "prove" that I must be a member of such a cult or sect. It is sly at least in that sense: denials from "the inside" can be discounted and indeed adduced as further evidence of the secretiveness of the cult or sect.

Furthermore, how is it, according to you, that Straussians "operate in the shadows in many respects"? How do Straussians constitute a "closed circle"?

I would like to see the article in something close to final form, and I have taken the liberty of sending the text of my review to you in an email. The link works on this side of the Pacific.

First of all, thanks for your review; I got the email.

I can give you many first hand examples of secretive, non-transparent practices. But of course the problem is that to the extent that the Straussians are successful, even identifying the practices depends on first hand experience, anecdote and gossip.

One practice that was common in both Toronto and Chicago was that selected sub-groups of students in seminars or courses taught by Straussians were invited to "reading groups" or private discussions in professors’ homes. These activities were not open to all students duly enrolled, but only to a closed, select group. Since I was systematically excluded from such groups
I can’t say exactly what went on there, but I will say that those present were not keen to disclose very much, except the fact of their being among the elect.

Joining the Straussians is not like joining the Democratic Party or the YMCA. There is a big premium placed on being inducted by a student of Strauss, or a student of a student, etc. down the line of epigones. Proof of loyalty and correct personal habits is required, but the exact criteria remain in the shadows. Why one is excepted and another rejected is never entirely clear. Looks may matter, according to an anecdote from (I believe) Stanley Rosen. Esotericism is itself a form of secrecy, and is definitely part of Straussian practice--though not necessarily what Strauss regarded as PHILOSOPHICAL esotericism (see my Article on that in Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1999).

best,


Rob


l

If looks mattered, I never would have been invited anywhere.

And reading groups are hardly examples of secretiveness or sectarianism. Graduate school can be a kind of apprenticeship; that graduate students develop special relationships with mentors and see them outside the seminar setting is hardly exclusive to Straussians and is in no way evidence of secretiveness and sectarianism.

Yes, at Toronto in the late 1970s there were "camps," though many of us have outgrown the youthful exuberance and bellicosity of those days.

I also object to this statement: "There is a big premium placed on being inducted by a student of Strauss, or a student of a student, etc. down the line of epigones." It doesn’t explain any of a number of interesting and prominent "Straussians," including Leon Craig, Heinrich Meier (I adduce this example with some trepidation, since I’ve skimmed the first part of your draft essay), and Till Kinzel. I guess I don’t understand how anyone who pays attention to teaching can’t but understand that there is an irreducibly "personal" aspect of it. As an undergraduate, you’re moved by a particular way of investigating questions (usually associated with a particular professor) and you seek to continue that in grad school. I don’t think that this phenomenon is unique to Straussians, though I will say that few people come to study with Straussians for reasons of ambition, since there aren’t many universities that actually welcome students of students of students of... as employees. And few come out of a curiosity incited by a non-Straussian teacher, since relatively few non-Straussian teachers offere an even-handed presentation of "Straussian" scholarship.

Finally, you were "systematically excluded" from reading groups, as I recall, because you were an undergraduate. So, yes, there was a "system": no undergraduates in the reading groups to which grad studens were invited.

In sum, all of this seems like a pretty slender evidentiary basis for the claims you’re making.

Of course, the evidentiary basis is not the best, and this was my point about Anne Norton: because of the way the whole thing works, it is very difficult to gather evidence that would satisfy the standards of empirical social science. Thus, one is faced with a rather tough choice: either shut up about it or be willing to place emphasis on anecdotes, one’s own idiosyncratic experiences, apocryphia (is that a word?) and so forth.

Not all undergraduates were excluded from the reading groups in question, and not all graduate students included. There was a certain selectivity involved. In any case, here I am speaking not only of Toronto but of my far unhappier experience in Chicago.

Yes, there are people who have ended up getting in to the Straussian society who were not "inducted"--thus my careful words that the Straussians put a premium on it, which means that it is prefered not that it is indispensible. The case of Meier is a unique one, which I explore in the essay I refer to on my website.

At the same time, one should not confuse serious people who have been greatly influenced by Strauss with Straussians: my dear friend Peter Berkowitz is often a victim of this confusion. I myself am sometimes a victim of it as well. (By the way, I wasn’t introduced to Strauss’s thought myself by a Straussian teacher, and this may have been part of the problem I faced with the Straussians: I encountered Strauss for the first time when writing an essay on Maimonides in high school then again when reading Xenophon in junior and senior year Greek at high school.) As Mark Lilla has noted, there is, especially in Europe, siginficant interest in Strauss completely seperate from the phenomenon of American "Straussianism."

By the way you repeat one of the characteristic myths of the Straussians: that the reason that all of them are not teaching at Harvard, Yale, etc. must be that people who are openly sympathetic to Strauss are persecuted or discriminated against in mainstream academia: after all, as a matter of "natural right" they are entitled to those posts. But many of the Straussians who are really smart have done pretty well in the pecking order of academia, especially considering they tend to explicitly present themselves as and act as epigones rather than originals (I’ll come back to this point later). This is even more true, when you include people who are publicly very sympathetic to Strauss’s thought even if not Straussians--such as Mark Lilla and myself, for example, who don’t present as epigones. Pangle as I understood was offered a Chair at Harvard and turned it down; Orwin is at Toronto; Tarcov, Chicago; there is a whole gang of them at Boston College, which I regard as a very respectable institution; and I could go on to mention Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Emory, Duke (Gillespie and arguably Ruth Grant are Straussians, though I’m less sure about Grant), etc. etc. The fact is that most people starting academic careers, even when the job market is good, don’t end up at top institutions, even though their supervisors think they are great, they have excellent grades from top graduate school, etc. The same is true for law, actually.

My sense is that Straussianism may well create more internal than external constraints on success in academia. My impression about Allan Bloom, for instance, is that he had made a judgment of just how suited each student was to what rank in the academic world, and that one was very much discouraged from the sort of ambition that would lead one to go beyond one’s station. Also, great intellectual achievement is fuelled by a belief that one can exceed the achievement of those who went before one, or at least rival the best: "Moi aussi, je suis peintre." However,and again I simply rely on what I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, Straussian students are supposed to believe that they are necessarily inferior to their teachers, and especially to the teachers of their teachers, and will remain so.
And this tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Strauss himself, to his credit, opposed this attitude: he challenged his students to exceed or surpass him and I think on Rousseau (Bloom), Machiavell (Mansfield, though true to the cult of devotion, he denies it), and on Plato (Bernadete, with the dramatic exception of his book on the Laws, somehow influenced by (Meier’s?) decayed right wing existentialism, and much inferior to Strauss’s book on the Laws) they did in certain respects live up to the challenge; Strauss opened the horizon but they better and more fully grasped some of the objects in the distance. But Bloom only made his peace with Straussianism once he healed his rift with Strauss and was assured a leadership position in the movement. And Bernadete, once he was out of graduate school, kept his distance from Straussianism, even though he maintained friendships with a (very) few of them. As for Mansfield, he was an exception to the typical method of "induction." But to come back to my basic point, the last thing one is encouraged to do in mainstream "Straussianism" is to try and exceed the achievements of one’s mentors. And it is just the kind of boldness that is likely to be helpful in producing work that has the vitality to it that attracts attention and leads to promotion in the academic pecking order.

But again I certainly don’t want to overstate the value of these observations as general truths--they reflect only, as I say, what I have seen and heard with my own eyes.

While I’m prepared to have a few more exchanges on "Straussianism," I’m starting to get bored, just because we are dealing with anecdotes, my observations vs. someone else’s etc. In fact, I am just more convinced than ever that "Staussianism" is not worth spending years writing about, and one of my differences with Anne is that I think she would have crafted a more exciting and interesting book if she had engaged in a focused way with Strauss himself and only at the end drew conclusions about what has been taught or done in his name. Still it is healthy that she brought out of the shadows what deserves to be seen in the clear light of day, but maybe what we need is not so much a book but a "survivor’s website" for those who have been in close contact with the Straussians.

On the other hand I AM very interested in engaging with you about two interesting issues that you raise in your well-written, if rather polemical, review. The first is Strauss’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and democracy (Strauss makes a lot of Socrates high praise for democracy in the Republic), and this is related to your attribution to Strauss of the notion that the philosopher’s appropriate stance is that of "ironic distance" from every regime.
Connected to both these matters is your very interesting discussion of Norton’s treatment of the distinction between honor and glory, which reminded me of Strauss’s response to Kojeve’s account of "recognition" in On Tyranny


The second is your discussion of "esotericism." Unlike you, I think that --ultimately--even the pedagogical use of esotericism is related to the challenge of persecution, according to Strauss. I also understand Strauss as saying that the ancient philosophers wrote EXoterically, but these exoteric books contain passages that are facilitative of oral ESOteric teaching or pedagogy. Here, if you don’t mind, I would like you to read my article which is entirely devoted to this issue.

But I don’t have the required books here with me in China, and I’d like to look up a few things before we engage on these more interesting questions--albeit in the end not unconnected to understanding, philosophically not anecdotally, the practice of intellectual sects and cults.

best,

Rob

I wish to further bore Robert Howse with another utterly unverifiable old memory concerning Bloom’s politics. From being with Bloom at Toronto in the mid-70’s, I am very certain, although I cannot bring up details of the scenes, that Bloom was an enthusiastic supporter of Jimmy Carter in the early days of his term; although it is also true (and here I can conjure up details) that he had turned very bitterly against Carter by 1980. But Howse has no more reason to trust me with these anecdotes than he has to trust Cliff, or indeed any other mobster.

On Henry Higuera’s anecdote about Allan Bloom and Jimmy Carter, yes, I can well believe this: many people on the Right who didn’t like the Nixon/Kissinger detente strategy (and some not on the Right who didn’t like the sacrifice of human rights to Machtpolitik in dealing with the East) had high hopes when Carter appointed the supposed "hawk" Zbig Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser. They counted on Brzezinksi to pursue a principled and firm stance toward Soviet tyranny. Alas, once part of the administration he revealed himself as, mostly, a Kissinger wannabe (I think, since I’m in Beijing right now, of his China diplomacy, for instance).
And no, I don’t think Cliff is a mobster (don’t be tendentious about my analogy to the mob:obviously a suggestion that A may share common features with B in no way entails the claim that A IS B. Nor are my reactions to his review in any way based on a theory that he is not reporting the anecedotes accurately. It is more a matter that Bloom (notoriously) told different things to different people; he had many "masks," even to his friends, and thus even a work like Ravelstein by a literary genius is limited because it shows how Bloom presented himself to one person, however close a friend.

With this caveat in mind and applying it fully to myself, a last ancedote before I head off to work for the day: a political figure on the "Left" that Trudeau said to me he admired was Pierre Trudeau. Since the National Review crowd reviled Trudeau as a crypto-communist and Castro-lover, I had a double take when he told me that--perhaps, for once Bloom was trying to be nice to me, knowing that I myself was a huge Trudeau fan (though at the time ideologicallly more aligned to the red tories). But then Bloom explained that Trudeau could be forgiven all of his "socialism" because of an act of political greatness that put him head and shoulders above other contemporary politicians: the invocation of the War Measures Act (essentially, martial law) in response to the FLQ hostage-taking episode! But I guess even Carl Schmitt (the "emergency," the "exception") would have liked Trudeau for that . . .

Prof. Howse:

With regard to Strauss and "political idealism": Was Strauss more complimentary than critical toward it, or vice-versa? Or did he--as you say you are doing in the case of the idealism instantiated in Operation Iraqi Freedom--maintain a scrupulously neutral stance toward such idealism?

If Strauss did take a stand one way or the other on such idealism, would you mind briefly summing up the reasons which impelled him to make his choice?

In my estimation, there are four crucial texts of Strauss for understanding his view of "political idealism": 1) his essay on Plato’s Republic in the City and Man; 2) his book on Plato’s Laws; 3)Thoughts on Machiavelli; 4) the exchange with Kojeve on tyranny and wisdom, or intellectuals and politics.

I don’t have a formula at hand to sum up the treatment of political idealism that emerges from these four works. Perhaps, this will help: unlike traditional conservatives, to use Norton’s category, Strauss embraces the aspiration of political idealism as healthy and desirable, indeed as rooted in man’s natural orientation towards the good, towards perfection; but unlike modern or contemporary radicals, and some liberals, he is very attentive to the risks and dangers of philosophers or intellectuals pursuing such idealism through direct involvement in projects of social engineering. (Risks and dangers both to the idealists themselves and also to society). Or one might say, tentatively--tentatively, because I have still not fully understood Thoughts on Machiavelli and the Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws--Strauss, on balance, prefers the political idealism of the ancients to that of the moderns.

Also, compare Bloom’s commentary on the Republic with Strauss’s; Bloom simplifies the Straussian position in the direction of a straightforward critique of political idealism, suggesting a greater affinity between Strauss and the conservatives than Strauss’s own reading of the Republic would indicate.

but I have none of these books here in Beijing, and I’m going way out on a limb, based on your invitiation!

best,

Rob

Prof. Howse,

When you write: "compare Bloom’s commentary on the Republic with Strauss’s; Bloom simplifies the Straussian position in the direction of a straightforward critique of political idealism, suggesting a greater affinity between Strauss and the conservatives than Strauss’s own reading of the Republic would indicate."

Are you saying that Bloom is deliberately misrepresenting Strauss--twisting his views for partisan or quasi-partisan ends--or could it be the case that Bloom just takes a different view from Strauss here and is somewhat more critical of political idealism than was his teacher?

I’m sure you’d agree that Bloom was not under any kind of moral or other obligtion to agree with Strauss, and I’m not sure at all that you’re imputing any underhanded motives or actions to Bloom (I don’t think you are), so what it seems to come down to is that you find Bloom’s view a bit too simplified and prefer Strauss’s more nuanced "one the one hand, on the other hand" position vis-a-vis political idealism.

Or ARE you in fact suggesting that Bloom is somehow being nontransparent, sneaky, or otherwise somehow less than forthright here by not being clear about his own difference of opinion with Strauss? I thank you in advance for the clarification.

On Bloom vs. Strauss on the Republic,I certainly wasn’t imputing any MORAL errors to Bloom. He does refer in the preface, I believe, to Strauss’s interpretation of the Republic as "authoritative." (Again, I don’t have the book in front of me and forgive me if memory fails). Why deviate from an interpretation that one considers "authoritative"? Indeed, why bother even writing another interpretation if an "authoritative" one exists? The answer could be because the "authoritative" interpretation does not adequately serve one’s political or pedagogical aims.
Anyhow, which interpretation I prefer isn’t important. I was only suggesting that one way of seeing the subtle and complex nature of Strauss’s views on political idealism is to make the comparison between the two essays.

But then why give the game away at the outset by calling the interpretation from which you plan to deviate "authoritative"? It seems too clever by half. Could Bloom not foresee that attentive readers like you would come along to "bust" him for his maneuver of calling Strauss authoritative and then putting out an interpretation that differed from Strauss’s own? I mean, what’s the point?

Exactly,Mr./Ms. PCJ, what’s the point? I’m not "busting" him, but only trying to puzzle out exactly why someone would call an interpretation "authoritative" and then offer his own that differs from it. Do YOU have an alternative explanation of what he was up to?

I’m signing off these exchanges because I’m in planes for the next 20 hours, getting back to the US. (I’m unfortunately on an airline which doesn’t have high-speed or any speed connection in their business cabin on Asian flights--unlike Cathay, which at least has it in First Class, and maybe now in business too).

best,


Rob

Nah, I’m stumped. Maybe Bloom was just being too intellectually "cute" for his own good by tossing in the problematic word "authoritative"--he did have a show-offy Rousseauan side, IIRC. But I still respectfully think that your interpretation should take into account the questions that I raised (after all, me not having an answer doesn’t mean that you have the right answer, does it?).

Perhaps you’ll be able to devote more attention to the matter at another time. I’ve enjoyed the exchange, and wish you a safe and pleasant trip home. Thanks for the tip about Cathay Airlines, too.

On the issue of Bloom’s deviations from an essay he astonishingly calls "authoritative":

In Bloom’s Preface to his translation of the Republic he says, "The interpretive essay relies heavily on Leo Strauss’ authoritative discussion of the Republic..." That it does. Does "relies heavily" mean Bloom was forbidden from deviating from Strauss’ interpretation or obligated to document any such? I would say, no.

Bloom’s intention to simplify Strauss’ quite difficult essay is evident very quickly, in my opinion, to anyone who compares the two, as is also, significantly, his intention to change the tone. His willingness to depart from both the letter and the tone of Strauss’ pronouncements can be seen in the matter of Thrasymachus’ blush. Bloom says, edifyingly, "The apparently shameless Thrasymachus ... is revealed in all his vanity, for he blushes...He is attached to prestige, to the applause of the multitude and hence their thought." Strauss says, dryly and somewhat enigmatically, "[Thrasymachus] is lawless and shameless in deed and speech; he blushes only on account of the heat. And ... he is greedy for money and prestige." I am fond of this example because as a grad student I was actually bothered by it.

I also recall Bloom writing, in response to M.F. Burnyeat’s attack on his and Strauss’ Republic essays, something like, "It is in the nature of a derivative work [meaning his essay] not to attain to the level of the original [meaning Strauss’]."

I would put it this way: in Bloom’s opinion Strauss’ essay did not fully meet what Bloom (legitimately) considered to be significant pedagogical needs. So he wrote a different one, in some respects highly derivative and in other respects quite original. Robt. Howse alludes to the possibility that Bloom had "pedagogical aims" in his deviations: I want to underline that and underline their legitimacy.

As to how significantly Bloom and Strauss differ on the particular matter of political idealism (i.e., partly, how much is real and how much is a matter of emphasis or tone or even simplification for pedagogical reasons), I am not sure. I will say, finally and with great confidence, the following: in terms of understanding Plato’s actual teaching in the Republic, Bloom wanted and expected his ideal reader to move beyond his interpretive essay. Maybe in the direction of greater agreement with Strauss’ ideas on various points, maybe away, but at any rate beyond his own.

Now Mr. Higuera and I appear to be in full agreement on two points: Bloom’s interpretive essay deviates from that of Strauss and that one explanation that reconciles such a deviation with Strauss’s statement that Strauss’s discussion is "authoritative" is Bloom had pedagogical aims not adequately served by Strauss’s interpretation.

But Mr. Higuera’s opening rhetorical questions imply that I was making an ACCUSATION against Bloom that he deviated from Strauss’s interpretation, without explaining each deviation. I suggested nothing of the kind; such an expectation would indeed be absurd. All I was indicating was that, on the surface of things, it poses a puzzle why someone would write another interpretation when they recognize an earlier one as "authoritative," that’s all. A puzzle. No accusations, not even that Bloom was being sneaky or (to use Prof. Knippenberg’s expression) "sly."

I welcome Prof. Higuera’s elaboration of what he thinks the pedagogical aims of Bloom were that couldn’t be served by Strauss’s essay; his rather general or vague statement at the end of his post has piqued my curiousity. I promise to reciprocate. The view that I’m now tending to is that Bloom’s pedagogical aims shifted somewhat once he had understood the project of the Emile, and that the essay on the Republic is the peak of the pre Emile phase. More soon,

best,


Rob

ANOTHER BOOK REVIEW BY ORWIN

I wonder if readers of this site have read Cliff Orwin’s review of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, in Perspectives on Political Science?

I don’t think it is available for free on the Internet, but if you have read it or are interested in reading it, maybe this is another good subject for some exchanges.

This is, to say the least, a very strange essay. Orwin claims that Bellow’s relationship with his wife, as depicted in Ravelstein (and by implication in reality since Bellow presents Ravelstein as a roman a clef) was based on "Christian" (he means something like care, "Caritas" the like) and not erotic love. I want to give Orwin the benefit of the doubt, because he says he was friends with both Bellow and his wife, but this strikes me as EXTREMELY implausible. Without turning this blog into a triple-X kind of site, one can say with all due respect and modesty (especially when we are talking about a very distinguished man who recently passed a way) that both these people were extremely good-looking, they had a baby together,etc.

Almost equally odd, but again this is less some kind of criticism as only a puzzlement, is Orwin’s apparently dogmatic rejection of the possibility of the afterlife. Based, it seems, on philosophical considerations. But if the soul cannot be adequately accounted for entirely in materialist terms, then it would be philosophically unwarranted to conclude against the afterlife, especially since so many of our natural hopes favor its existence, at least for the soul; this of course does not mean that we can prove philosophically the afterlife or its exact nature, only that philosophy can and should co-exist with belief.

best,


Rob

(By the way, I am not Prof. Higuera; I am Mr. Higuera. We Tutors at Saint John’s do not have the title Professor. If you really want to tickle my vanity you may refer to me as "The Honorable Mr. Higuera," a title which I can claim by law thanks to a stint in government service.)

How to begin? Oh well. By the time Janis Bellow (nee Freedman) left Toronto, I was head over heels in love with her (I had been her T.A. two years prior). I always considered Saul very, very lucky in that marriage. I grieve for her loss but am confident that they had something wondeful and rare. Um, anyway, next. On moving beyond Bloom: If you compare Bloom’s discussion of the ideas in his Republic essay with Strauss’, you see striking differences. Strauss openly attacks the plausibility of their self-subsistence; Bloom does not. Bloom seems (SEEMS) to rest the possibility of philosophy on the ideas’ being "beings," i.e., apparently (APPARENTLY) on their being self-subsistent; there is, not surprisingly, a loud silence from Strauss here on this point. I know from very painful but ultimately profitable experience that Bloom wanted his students to eventually take Strauss’ discussion much more seriously than they took his own. More vaguely (sorry), Bloom told me more than once that there was a lot more to be said about the nature of the soul in the Republic than he had said in his essay. But what he thought that meant or how it related to what Strauss had said, I never found out.

That’s very helpful on the Ideas. Did Bloom every mention Bernadete’s book on the Republic? (I guess that came out a few years before Bloom’s death). Quite independent of my project on Strauss, I’m reading the Republic these days line by line in Greek with a colleague who is cross-appointed in classics (and whose Greek makes mine look like an embarassment). We read a few pages a week. Anyhow, as a COMMENTARY to go along with such a reading, I’ve found Bernadete to be more useful than either Bloom or Strauss. He is great at mining many different levels in the dialogue.

best,

Rob

At the risk of inviting more bizarre inventions, er, interpretations, I am posting the relevant paragraphs of Cliff Orwin’s essay on Ravelstein.

I will return shortly to the role of Judaism in the novel. For now, however, I will take up the question of eros. Ravelstein’s understanding of eros also makes a great impression on Chick. Yet as Chick understands him, Ravelstein promotes not the Socratic but the Aristophanic teaching on eros, with its notion of the one and only "other half," which each of us is seeking. Chick interprets as Ravelstein’s serious teaching the position that Plato in the Republic assigns to the comedian Aristophanes, which for this very reason cannot be taken seriously. Could Ravelstein have held seriously notions that the Platonic Aristophanes propounds only comically? Can he have held that the existence of one’s "other half" is anything more than a poignant but laughable illusion?

What about the novel? Does it confirm the existence of the "other half"? Consider that the clearest case of erotic attraction in the novel is that which the curvaceous Vela once held for Chick. Of the relationships among the major characters, this one alone is powerfully carnal and therefore resembles eros as Aristophanes presents it. Chick has proceeded to marry Vela, but their union has proved a disaster, as they are utterly mismatched. And in the end, even her erotic charms prove illusory, as Ravelstein teaches Chick to see. Which is to say that Vela is Chick’s other half only delusively and therefore comically. This case of erotic attraction Aristophanes would have recognized: You get a serious case of the hots for someone and suppose that some god made you for each other.

But what of the other attachments in the novel? Is Nikki Ravelstein’s "other half," or is Rosamund Chick’s? Perhaps this is true in some sense, but neither of these instances conforms very well to the Aristophanic model. We see Ravelstein’s attachment to Nikki only when it is no longer erotic--Chick describes Ravelstein as Nikki’s "father"--and although Rosamund is presented as both intelligent and attractive, there is no stress on her physicality or that of Chick’s attraction to her as there is in the case of Vela.

Looking at these relationships from the other side, are the beautiful young Rosamond’s devotion to the old, desperately ailing Chick and the no-longer-quite-youthful Nikki’s devotion to the dying Ravelstein examples of eros at all? I think that it is fair to say that Aristophanes would not have recognized them as such, nor any other character in the Symposium. Would, then, Ravelstein have done so? In the main episode of the novel that occurs after Ravelstein’s death, Rosamund nurses Chick through a near-fatal bout of cigua poisoning. Chick thereupon assures us that she "knew more about love than her husband, more than her teacher." By this he seems to mean that she is capable of greater love than either her husband or her teacher. But the model of this love appears biblical rather than Platonic, and the more selfless we take it to be, the more biblical it appears--and the less what either Aristophanes or Ravelstein would have understood by eros.

"Biblical" isn’t Christian.

And here is Orwin on Howse’s other point:

The second argument that Chick wishes to win has to do with life after death. It is on this point that he takes pride in having drawn the "atheist-materialist" Ravelstein in his direction; one might say that although the novel otherwise shows what Chick owes to Ravelstein, here its theme is what Ravelstein owes to Chick. This is the aspect of his friend’s deathbed return to Judaism that really matters to Chick. Here it is worth quoting the left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens, that lynx-eyed enemy of almost everything he took Allan Bloom to stand for. Only almost everything, for the novel moved him to utter the following remonstrance on Bloom’s behalf: "Say what you will about the Straussians, they aren’t hypocrites or weaklings and they don’t burble about heavenly rewards to make up for when the mind has gone. Indeed, they make a rather pointed study of the dignified hemlock terminus. Bloom should have been allowed this last nobility."

Here, then, Hitchens defends Bloom against Bellow. Again I must insist that Ravelstein is not Bloom. Still, Hitchens is right that Ravelstein’s philosophic stance clashes with Chick’s hopes of an afterlife, and Chick knows it. It is a comfort to Chick that in the end Ravelstein, too, subscribes to this hope. "If Ravelstein the atheist-materialist had implicitly told me that he would see me sooner or later, he meant that he did not accept the grave to be the end. Nobody can and nobody does accept this. We just talk tough" (222-3). "This is the involuntary and normal, the secret, esoteric confidence of the man of flesh and blood. The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop" (222-3). It is a measure of the gulf between Chick and the real-life model of old Davarr that what Chick means by the esoteric is the philosopher’s secret inability to decline the consolations of religion.

Is Chick right about this? Ask me when, like Chick, I hear death knocking. For now, still the picture of health, I am too philosophic not to feel the force of the arguments against an afterlife, and not philosophic enough to face up to their full implications.

I think Howse mischaracterizes Orwin’s rather carefully stated position. Feeling the force of arguments isn’t the same as endorsing them fully.

Having put the actual evidence out there for any reader who has gotten this far to examine for himself or herself, I retire from the field. I urge anyone who wishes to continue to do so by email, so the Ashbrook Center’s server space isn’t further consumed and so that no one embarrasses himself or herself in public.

Yes, Orwin uses "biblical." Yet what he is DESCRIBING doesn’t, for me at least, bear any relation to anything I have read in the Old Testament. But I do apologize for "Christianizing" Orwin; I hope I will be believed when I attribute the imprecision to having not slept very much for two days or so (my connecting flight in Chicago on the way back from China was cancelled leading to one awful mess).

As Prof. Knippenberg says, readers can judge for myself whether I have misread Orwin on the other points. I’m especially interested in what you all think of this notion that the force of the arguments against the afterlife increase with the extent to which one is "philosophic." But perhaps this can be true while it can ALSO be true that at some point one becomes SO philosophic that the arguments against the afterlife begin to recede. That would be consistent with the letter, if perhaps not the spirit, of Orwin’s confession. This would be the alternative to Kojeve’s Hegelian "circle": philosophy ULTIMATELY vindicates our natural hopes by its incompleteness, namely its incapacity to refute, or speak against (with philosophical certainty) our tendency by believing in the soul to believe in its eternity, and thus shows that wisdom is not just knowledge of how man becomes man AGAINST nature (natural mortality).

best,

Rob

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