Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Linker on Strauss

Peter Lawler wonders why we haven’t been discussing Damon Linker’s review of two recent books on Leo Strauss. My excuse is that I’m in South Carolina--home of E.J. Dionne, Jr.’s favorite Republican--retrieving my children from the clutches of their grandparents.

Having now read Linker’s piece, I think it’s subtly but interestingly wrong about Strauss’s philosophy, and wildly and implausibly wrong about his politics. On the former, I think he underestimates the force of the claim that there are permanent questions and overstates the significance of the "Reason and Revelation" lecture (at least if the extracts he presents are telling). On the latter, there’s much that Strauss says about democracy and gentlemen that Linker doesn’t acknowledge and take into account. Indeed, Plato’s philosopher doesn’t want to rule and hence doesn’t want to sit at the top of a political order, preferring, perhaps to read books and raise rabbits (or rabbis?). I’ll have more later after I return to Atlanta.

Discussions - 19 Comments

Joe is right that Damon is try too hard to be sensational and that both Meier and Damon put too much stock in an unpublished and clearly unfinished essay by Strauss (do unfinished, unpublished versions of lectures rank higher or lower than unpublished but finished letters?). But to "stimulate discussion" let me say this: The philosopher described by Socrates in the midst of a very particular idealized and stylized discussion about justice (in the REPUBLIC) shouldn’t be confused with ANY living mortal. In order to be presented as a plausible just ruler or king, the real-life loving pursuer of wisdom has to unrealistically transformed into a wise man, one who knows the idea of the good or what gives being its beingness and who exists ENTIRELY outside the cave or the world of images. The character Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is abstracted from the "real guy" who once hung around Athens (made young and beautiful yadda yadda). The philosopher-king is abstracted from the character Socrates--or is two steps removed from reality. That that wise man (oxymoron?) wouldn’t want to rule is not proof that real life philosophic types like Plato or Bacon or Machiavelli or Nietzsche etc. don’t want to rule.

This is some highly esoteric Continental philosophy stuff...naturally if people don’t understand it...they have some fear of it. Naturally a person of Lockeian mind can’t really comprehend "the idea of the good or what gives being its beingness." I don’t have my copy of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding at hand...but if I did I could quote a rather clueless understanding of what it is you think you are talking about. Locke wrote among other reasons to clear the way for the thinking of Newton...David Hume famously declared that all ancient texts of Metaphysics should be examined for practical truth and usefullness and if none are found that they should be commited to the flame...Bacon took a similar approach and view. Locke rightfully declares in my view that the scope of matters of which clear understanding can be procured, should necessarily take front seat to the matters covered still and perhaps indefinately in mist.

In the end I take it as a sign of national health that our best minds are no longer directed towards "getting out of the cave" but rather directed towards seing what is visible within its and our scope.

But of course political scientist/philosophers must have fun somehow...and scope of the rhetoric allowed the Continental philosopher is without bounds.

A couple of comments, maybe three: 1) Peter’s right, of course, about the difference, even dichotomy, between the philosopher-king described by Socrates in the Republic and the dramatic character in the dialogue, Socrates (as Mary Nichols said: Socrates wouldn’t be allowed in kallipolis, the beautiful city-in-speech, home of the philosopher-king); a similar difference between an "idealized for the sake of the interlocutors and certain readers" is found in the Theatetus. As I indicated, Mary Nichols does a nice job of detailing the differences between Socrates and the philosopher-king in her Socrates and the Political Community, but many other commentators make it as well. I remember that Marc Guerra has some good comments on Strauss’s likely intention in alternating between employing the apolitical, more-than-human, idea of the philosopher and Socrates, the erotic madman, as the models of the philosophic life (the duality appears in his On Tyranny response to Kojeve, for example.) Guerra’s piece may have appeared in Perspectives on Political Science. And Strauss himself, of course, doesn’t quite fit either portrait, in part because of his Judaism (which was an essential component of his identity), as well as the post-Biblical, post-Christianity, late-or post-modernity situation in which he found himself. Hence the necessity to connect Strauss not only with Socrates but with Maimonides (and his ilk), to take care of the relations to Biblical religion. (I actually think Strauss felt himself blessed to live in these late, most interesting, of times; in this regard he probably thought he was more blessed than Socrates living in Athens when he did.)

2): Damon Linker. Peter’s question - intended, as usual, to be beneficially provocative - about why not respond to Linker on Strauss, got me thinking about why I don’t see a need to respond to him in the sense of point-by-point disputation. It’s because he doesn’t cross my threshold for taking a writer seriously as an intellectual matter (as a culture-wars phenomenon, he needs to be confronted).
My threshold questions for reading him/taking him seriously (except in the one regard) are the following: 1) Can you (Peter) really expect to find anything significantly true in Linker’s report of RJN and the pejoratively entitled "theocons" from Damon Linker? (I’ll say a word about Linker-on-Strauss in a minute.) By "significantly true," I mean: accurately reported, properly highlighted, helpfully emphasized? And at the maximum: found nowhere else? (For example, reread your fine piece on Neuhaus, which does all the above.) Or is Damon even signficantly interesting from the point of an interesting, worth-considering, criticism? I don’t think so (people, of course, may differ from that judgment); it’s obvious to me that his ’reading’ of RJN et al. is tendentious, a more-or-less ’elegant’ hit-job; among other things, he doesn’t try to understand them as they understand themselves; he puts them in no context, so they appear to be firing missiles at non-existence or innocent targets: Linker’s portrait of them proceeds as if the 60s and 70s, the Warren and Burger Courts, the hegemony of liberalism and the advent of postmodernism (wrongly understood) never happened! And in a connected vein, he doesn’t put forth, much less subject to criticism or defend his own views of the American experiment in ordered liberty, constitutionalism, the relations between morality and our public life, etc. What would he answer if Socrates was able to pose questions to him?
Now, given his intelligence and the variety of his intellectual encounters and experiences, I/we have reason to think that he knows better, that he could/should be able to do a balanced job of accurate, critically, but with some sympathy, analysis. The Neuhaus hit piece in TNR indicates that he’s taken a different tack, a different path.
So, two of the main reason to read and respond to him are to defend the reputation of decent men and authors and to show the dishonesty to which certain figures on another side of the culture wars will stoop to denigrate their opponents. The main reason, though, remains: stating the truth about our moral-political order, as best we can. The main interest that Damon Linker has for me, in short, is that he represents a type, he indicates and deploys a relatively recently strategy and tactics that I’m seeing more and more from the "respectable" Left (G. Wills, M. Lilla, A. Wolfe).
3) I’ve gone on long, so I’ll reserve til later some thoughts on Linker-on-Smith-Meier-and Strauss. One telling thing: he mocks Strauss’s Epilogue to The Scientific Study of Politics, for bringing the heavy arsenal of continental philosophy (I paraphrase) to bear upon poor public-opinion surveys. This is revealing. That Epilogue is a magisterial analysis of "scientific" or postivistic social science and its unavowed alliance with value-free, lifestyle liberalism. It is one of the several pieces or discussions by Strauss that take on the leading tenets of 1950s-60s "liberalism" (and scientific social science). In short, Strauss was a great critic of Linker’s predecessors. Rather than avow that and engage with Strauss’s arguments, Linker mocks and omits. Once again, Strauss is decontextualized, vast aspects of his intellectual work are ignored: this great man’s thought is fit into a grid constructed by Linker, with predictable misemphases and omissions. For example: in his entire piece Linker never mentions "eros": can one credibly claim to accurately report Strauss’s views on anything, much less philosophy! and omit eros?
In the foregoing, I’m reminded on one of Rousseau’s replies to objections to his First Discourse; in it Rousseau said that he would not reply to a critic, and explained his reasons why. That served as his reply. While I’m no Rousseau - (I probably need to state that or some unfriendly critic will claim that I think I’m Rousseau!) - I’ll adopt his stance toward DL.

Paul’s response makes me wish that this comment box was more paragraph friendly. The one interesting thing about Damon’s Strauss review is his ok summary of Smith vs. Meier on Strauss, philosophy, and revelation--the difference, I think, of an atheism that always remains skeptical of itself (because every atheistic pretense presupposes a wisdom not available to human beings--even if Socratic is obviously ironic about the gods of Athens he still takes his bearings from a god, divine voice etc. that he can’t quite fathom-[that still makes sense if divine voice simply equals eros]) and an aggressive, allegedly radical, ultimately transerotic atheism--Meier is singularly lacking in irony about himself and his wisdom (well not quite singularly, but I won’t name other Straussian names). I’m not at all saying the Strauss can be reduced to either Smith’s skeptic or Meier’s dogmatist, but the comparison is still worth thinking about. Anyway, Paul made a lot of sense, and I didn’t get around to talking about why. Well, for one thing, it’s exactly right that Damon mocks and omits to get a name for himself and sell books. And his salesmanship is going to have be outstanding really to move that book.

What is the appeal of Continental philosophy if not the ability to make "sexy"(perhaps erotic but I will use a modern word) provocative claims concerning alienation or World Spirit? Can an author like Fukuyama who writes about the end of history really be disproven? Can Hegel be taken seriously if in his Epistemology he includes Phrenology? Is the truth that all cows are black at night deep? Is the guy who sits around smoking dope and quoting Nietzsche supposed to impress? Does Marx’s Das Capital not receive more consideration than Human Action...regardless of the blatant misrepresentations in the first, and a deeper philosophy in the latter. Does the Nothingness itself nothing consist in a view towards all possible or previous Metaphysics?

Screw Continental philosophy I won’t go further than Hume...and I think it is high time we start commiting some things to the flame.

I am just kidding... but continental philosophy does makes itself largely impossible to counter on its own terms once it has emasculated empiricism...

Peter, I like/agree with your nice limning of the contrast: Smith’s Strauss is consistently (and properly) skeptical, i.e., unpretentious, about his own attainment or achievement of Wisdom (with a capital "W") versus Meier’s "trust me, I’ve find IT" Strauss as the Wise Man. But what both accounts (i.e., Smith’s and Meier’s book-length accounts) fail to do is convincingly lay out Strauss’s pathways. There’s always going to be something unconvincing about presentations of Strauss that "give away the Answer already"; there’s a lot in Strauss - fundamental problems, eternal, answers permanently elusive; the intelligible and mysterious character of the heterogeneous yet coherent Whole; the necessity of starting with doxai or endoxai (plus sense perception); and so forth that both make sense and need to be queried. Strauss was aware of that philosophical need; he put a lot of stuff out there, I believe, so that people would have pointers and claims to consider, not as doctrines. Yes, I believe he had "deeper thoughts," but to try to get to them quickly, or even not-so-quickly, fundamentally misrepresents what he actually did himself and how he presented thinking.

You’re right about the need for a paragraph-friendly format.

One last thing: Strauss is infinitely more than any particular Straussian’s take, and certainly more than Meier’s reductionistic treatment, or Smith genial kinder-gentler Strauss. As I said, my Strauss includes the devastating critic of both mid-century liberalism and positivism. He had a great ability to treat phenomena - political, cultural, intellectual, theological - at appropriate levels, while never losing sight of his philosophical interests and agenda.

Where’s Joe?

Paul’s on the money. Beware of book burning libertarians, though.

I read the article but parts of it were over my head... I have never read Strauss. So I am definately in the dark there. But I started picking up a strong Humeian vibe...and it occured to me that I didn’t need to rely on any conspiracy theory...the reason such a thinker would ultimately come under fire is somewhat obvious. In fact I think David Hume was the first to write about the Straussian conspiracy. So I re-read how Hume Opens his tome. Section 1 of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Of the Different Species of Philosophy...absolutely brilliant.

Read the whole thing.

But I continue reading... and rediscover several key points...and if Hume is right...then a huge amount of philosophy can be tossed aside...including a sizeable chunk of continental thought...and Hume says: "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

But then I the authors knowingly inject sophistry and illusion...and if what end? I will reserve judgement on Strauss...perhaps indefinately(because I am not serious enough to wade through all that continental philosophy)...but certainly a lot of the "continental philosophers" or those who seek to echo them employ sophistry and illusion for political purposes.

If Hume is right then automatically a lot of the philosophy I have read is sophistry and remains then only to show intent. Therefore I think I have secured in Hume a universal blueprint for all future conspiracy theories involving philosophic museings.

Dear Mr. Lewis, while I am a professor of philosophy, I rarely conduct philosophical disputation over the internet. So, let me just warmly commend to your reading TH Green’s wonderful introduction to his edition of Hume’s collected works. Green was a famous British "idealist" (and social democrat), and his critique of Hume (and Locke’s) empiricism is to my mind devastating. Perhaps his most frequently employed critical technique is to show how Hume’s employment of certain common noun terms cannot be accounted for on the basis of his epistemology. There’s more you’re uttering than is contained in your account, David.
Leo Strauss would observe that we are guided by noetic or eidentic intuitions, which of course need to be considered and refined during the course of a dialectical investigation. But as a Continental born philosopher you might not think his thoughts much worth considering. (The foregoing lines about Strauss were a jeu d’esprit.)

My dear Thales-es, great stuff, but there is this little thing atop the comment box entitled "new paragraph." The problem comes when midst one’s ingenious rambling, one realizes that there probably ought to be a paragraph break in there somewhere, but then you discover to your consternation that "new paragraph" only lets you create just that. But you get around that by simply cutting, and then pasting, after hitting "new paragraph."

Even I figured that out. And if Thales was able to corner the olive-market, or whatever it was, he would have also. He’d probably even have a blog, wherein he would talk about water, water, all the time.

So that’s what those words above the "Comments" box mean? We really do live in a technologically advanced civilization. I however am a belated participant.

Hume’s antiCatholicism is patent on every page of An Inquiry. But the philosophical issue/difficulty I would point to is his fundamental notion of "impression." You should pay attention to what he means by it - and see if it’s 1) credible and 2) accounts for what Hume claims we know.

Thales’s monopoly was olive-presses, I believe.

Boy, this "New Paragraph" thingy is a gas.

I’m back home from South Carolina (actually the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C.), where my parents have taken up residence in a community for "active adults" over 55 (an age that I’m rapidly approaching myself). They showed the grandkids a good time.

There is, by the way, another way to start new paragraphs: use these brackets-->--and insert a "p" in them, placing the combination immediately after the end of the last sentence in your paragraph.

Thanks by the way, for all the commentary on the various versions of Strauss.

To fan the embers a bit, I should add that Peter’s right in Comment #1: the actual philosophers from Plato to Machiavelli and Locke did want to rule; indirectly and over a long term, by reforming opinions and culture, rule of a high or deep sort, but rule nonetheless. On the other hand I don’t think Bloom was right that the ancient and modern philosophers concurred in the aim - make the world safe for philosophy or Socrates - and just disagreed on the means: which class - the aristocrats or the demos - do you ally with?

Late serious comment, but I found the Linker review a more impressive piece than the comments above would suggest. Omissions, yes. Brief unsubstantiated statements, particularly toward the end about politics and education, yes. Bad parallel implied between Strauss and philosopher-king, yes. Hyperbolic quick-descriptions of the Straussians, also there. But I think those not as familiar with Strauss as Seaton, Lawler, and Knippenberg are, will find it an informative and vivid summary if they have a passing familiarity. For one thing, the Smith/Meier framing of Strauss on reason and revelation really helps the essay come alive.

And yet, three things. First, the doubts sowed by Paul’s long comment about the basic trustworthiness/worthwhileness of Linker’s thought are hard to shake. Second, I will confess to being a bit more troubled by his quotation from the Hartford essay than the others here. That is simply what it is, but it is also Linker drawing a little blood with his intellectual rapier from this Strauss-influenced evangelical. Third, with his clear preference for Meier’s interpretation, I think one detects a larger strategy that is going to emerge in his coming career of theo-con repudiation--an agressive confrontation of Strauss-influenced (often rather loosely) conservative thinkers of Christian faith with evidence that they are the mere auxiliary guardians--they think they are out of the cave but aren’t, and they’re being used by amoral Straussian masters. In the intercine fights Linker wants, such thinkers will become marginalized by their more rigorously philosophical (i.e., Meierian) peers, and the orthodox will make Straussianism a top intellectual bogeyman, like "humanism" was in the 50s-80s. This will vindicate those intellectuals who defend "the moral convictions affirmed by the rest of us," that is, the balanced Linker-like thinkers, profoundly democratic, properly skeptical, but still able to account for morality, apparently.

I don’t think things will turn out that way, but Linker knows such a strategy will serve, if nothing else, to discredit in advance both Strauss and (especially) Strauss-influenced Chrisitian thinkers to those unfamiliar with them.

Carl brought me back to my own interpretative principles, as I’ve been applying them to Damon: what’s interesting and important about him is that he’s a representative of a type and someone who is unfolding a strategy, advancing an agenda. Carl though went well beyond what I’d said, or seen, in his analysis of Damon’s strategy. This "blindspot" on my part reminded me of the fact that "passion’s a bad counseller": I should have "respected" Damon more, so as to try to unpack what his strategies and agenda more amply are. Carl made a signficant contribution in that regard. Thanks.

Listen to Carl!

Thanks for the cool, dispassionate, friendly counsel, Peter.
(How’s Big Sky? I hear Ralph’s in very good form.)
Don’t forget: According to Carl, Linker’s out to discredit you as well! "Faith-based Straussians, beware!"
But in truth, Catholic Socratics or hillbilly Thomists or faith-based Straussians are particularly well situated to unite faith and reason, as well as respond to attacks on, or caricatures of both.

Paul, I just figured out that they call it Big Sky because the sky is really big up here. Ralph was very poetic and remarkably clear in showing why finally Strauss couldn’t quite free himself from Heidegger’s monstrous and incoherent attempt to detach himself from ordinary human concerns. The big question on Heidegger: Where’s the love (of real people)? There’s a lot of faith-based discussion of Strauss going on up here, but nobody thinks we’re on the eve of Linker destruction. Still, you’re right in principle.

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