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Straussophobia

A good counter to what has been said in recent Comments about Leo Strauss and his view of America can be found in Peter Minowitz's Straussophobia.  Minowitz responds to questions in this recent Harper's on-line interview.  Neocons, fascism, rule of law, etc. all come in for clarification.  As I have in various posts on NLT, I would argue some of these points rather differently, but Peter does restore some reason against wild accusation.

Discussions - 19 Comments

there's sojme good commentary on STRAUSSOPHOBIA, the interview and such if you want to check it out on the postmodern conservative site.

I haven't read Minowitz's book yet, but since he seems like a reasonable fellow who has actually read Strauss's work, I plan to. However, I would also recommend looking at Alan Gilbert, "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants" and William H.F. Altman, "Leo Strauss on German Nihilism: Learning the Art of Writing". Gilbert and Altman have some good points, and also make some mistakes, which seems to me similar to the Minowitz review. Regardless, a good counter to what Ken Thomas says about Strauss and America can be found from simply reading Leo Strauss. Thomas's view of Strauss is imaginary, based on his ignorance of what Strauss actually wrote. Here is part of my reply to him from a previous thread:

"Nothing else he [Diogenes] says makes his case either--e.g., consider whom he writes to in the letters that have been published; how many are Americans or students of America?"
- They're not American students, but, as I pointed out, one of the points which Strauss makes explicit in his letters is that he deliberately 'dumbed-down' his ideas for his students, and he found teaching frustrating for that reason (e.g., letter to Jacob Klein of July 12, 1949). Moreover, Strauss does talk A LOT about the revival of classical philosophy. If he thought that America was relevant to that, he could have easily said so. But he never does. He does often defend Nietzsche and Heidegger against the criticisms of Karl Lowith, but he never says, "Karl, you should really read Lincoln". As for American students: there's a reason why Strauss didn't have comparable correspondences with them: as his published letters indicate, he didn't care as much about them. This is demonstrated also by his lengthy (but not yet published) correspondence with an American student: Seth Benardete. They talk constantly about classical philosophy. Not about America. Even though Benardete was actually an American.

"Strauss wrote many books besides his last two."
- His last two Xenophon books are not his last books, but he explicitly says that his Xenophon books are his best (letter to Gershom Scholem, November 17 1972). And although those books are all about America, they say not a single word about America.

"Frankly, nothing he writes can be trusted as having any truth content whatsoever."
- You don't have to trust me. Read the letters by Strauss.

"See Peter Minowitz's Struassaphobia for a diagnosis of the malady "Diogenes" suffers from"
- Straussophobia? I respect Strauss much more than you do. That's why I've actually read him, and take his words seriously (e.g., if he says his Xenophon books were his best, I think that's probably important, instead of ignoring it or being ignorant of it, like you).

Incidentally, in order to appreciate just what a superficial view of Strauss Ken Thomas has, you just have to look at the Minowitz interview, where he admits:

"It’s certainly fair to say that Strauss was flirting with fascism [in the 1920s and 1930s]"

Well, what's the difference between "flirting" and being in bed with fascists, or just outright supporting them? Minowitz doesn't say, but many of Strauss's German contemporaries believed that he was doing the latter, and there's some support for that in Strauss's own writings. Minowitz then claims:

"but there’s also evidence that he changed his assessment."
- Minowitz's "evidence" here is pretty shallow. Strauss's remark that "wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism" reads like an exoteric remark if you pay attention to the slippery way in which Strauss uses the word "we" in that essays (i.e., Strauss sometimes speaks as "we", only to later criticize what he says "we" say); moreover, some of Strauss's other writings explicitly attack the idea of constitutionalism - for instance, in On Tyranny, in a comparison of tyranny and constitutional rule, he repeatedly puts the latter term in scare quotes, while defending the former (in the name of classical philosophy). In that context, Strauss also says that the worst sort of constitutional rule is that which derives from elections! (On Tyranny, pp. 74-5 of my edition: but the pagination of this book will vary slightly from one edition to the next, so you may have to flip a few pages.) The rest of Minowitz's alleged "evidence" for the claim that Strauss moved away from fascism is even more questionable, and certainly no stronger than Altman or Gilbert's finding of esoteric (or not-so-esoteric) fascist sympathies in Strauss's mature works. But Minowitz does make one very valid point: Strauss DID disparage military virtue, and not just in the source that Minowitz cites. In several places, Strauss makes clear that soldiers belong to a lower class of human beings.

I explicitly distanced myself from some of Minowitz's argument. Since you boast about having read Strauss (do you claim that those who differ in their understanding of Strauss have never read Strauss?) what about Strauss's quotation of Jefferson in his essay "On Classical Political Philosophy," footnote 9? You seem to think that because Strauss didn't talk like Harry Jaffa to Benardete or Loewith he had a low regard of America. If he didn't talk about Jerusalem with various scholars, does that mean he had a low regard for Judaism? Neither conclusion follows.

Indeed, on your last point, Strauss says in Natural Right that a philosopher looks at a good citizen and sees a mutilated human being. In the same vein, the letters comments are interesting, but they tell only part of a story. For example, one can take Strauss's American education to moderate his earlier political views. Thus the Strauss "Diogenes" presents is a mutilated Strauss.

The Jefferson quote in Natural Right and History is not important. Strauss could have quoted any number of people to make the same point, and the quote says nothing favorable about the United States. He quotes Jefferson simply because its an 'exoteric' essay. By Strauss's own testimony his most best books are his last two books on Xenophon. Regardless, the Jefferson quote certainly does nothing to prove what you claim: namely, that Strauss thought that America had anything to do with the restoration of classical philosophy.

What Strauss's letters to Benardete and Lowith show is simply that he didn't care that much about America. If Strauss thought like Harry Jaffa, then in his numerous discussions of the possibility of restoring classical philosophy with Benardete or Lowith, he would have mentioned America at some point. He doesn't. He does defend Nietzsche and Heidegger, however. He also says (in a letter to Jacob Klein, who seems to have been the contemporary scholar whom he most admired) that in his teaching he can't pursue his real interests - which, in that letter, he names as Lucretius and Rousseau. Maybe he told Jaffa to study Lincoln. But if Strauss's real interest was Lincoln, he could have said so when telling Klein what his real interests are. I gave references for all of these letters in previous posts (some of the letters are in German though). You can say that "one can take Strauss's American education to moderate his earlier political views", but where does Strauss suggest anything like that? To the contrary, he never wrote much about America, and the further into his career he went, the less he did - until, in what he calls his best books, although they're all about classical philosophy, he says nothing about America whatsoever, let alone about how America supposedly has something to do with restoring classical philosophy (as Jaffa claims).

By the way, Strauss certainly does talk about "Jerusalem" (and religion in general) in his letters - just as he talks about it a lot in his books. Of course, he also talks about being an atheist. But he talks about religion a lot, in his books and his letters, because it was important to him. He does not talk about America very much if at all, either in his letters or his books.

All this is interesting. Altman's work is very careful and subtle and is worth reading, even he can't see the differences between the early and the more mature Strauss. Read in context, Strauss's quote of Jefferson is somewhat ironic and may suggest a certain naivete, from a classical view, in the view that any real political solution is the rule of the natural aristoi.

Incidentally, I would criticize Altman less for having ignored a difference between a younger and older Strauss (since I'm not clear on what the difference is), as for simply exaggerating the importance of certain point, or reading too much into certain statements. But I think its clear enough Altman's smoke is the product of some genuine fire. From what I have seen, Minowitz is similar, but on the opposite side: i.e., his defense of Strauss has some merit, but he also over-emphasizes some points, and ignores others. Perhaps that's because his target is critiques of Strauss that are far less sophisticated than Altman or Gilbert.

Minowtiz has joined the thread at postmodern conservativism. Altman is very prone to exaggeration and almost unhinged moralism, but he's still a very smart guy and a careful reader. Two differences between the young and mature Strauss: The latter has much greater confidence in the sustainability of American and American-style liberal democracy. And there's the movement from Nietzschean style atheistic probity toward the thought that human eros culminates in philosophic insight and "zetetic" skepticism about God, cosmology and all that. The result is, I think, a greater irony about the modern world and its failings and possibililties.

I know next to nothing about Strauss, but to demonize the fellow for, during the early 1930s, having said nice things about Mussolini, and for questioning the sustainability of American democracy, strikes me as ahistorical. Read the major journals of the period--many, many public figures, on both the left and the right, were suggesting that liberal democracy was doomed, that the Constitution needed to be replaced, and that ultimately America was destined to adopt some species of socialism or fascism.

John is right.

Yup. John is right. The president of the American Pol Sci Assoc. was among them. See Patrick Deneen's Democratic Faith book for chapter and verse.

I find this reliance on letters troubling for the purpose at hand--Strauss's Socratic manner is necessarily ad hominem, so the letters cited prove nothing about the issue of America, what he ultimately thought about fascism, or the status of politics vis-a-vis philosophy. Yet of course those of us who do not share, e.g., Strauss's religious views can learn a great deal about a life of faith, as he discusses these issues with others. And so on.

Good grief, who ever said that Strauss's "real interest was Lincoln"?

Ken Thomas:

There is nothing"ad hominem" about Strauss saying that his two best books are his last two on Xenophon. Its a declarative statement, which he asserted without being asked. Anyway, no one has to rely on Strauss's letters: they just make certain things more implicit which he says implicitly in his books. For instance, if you've studied Strauss and Heidegger very closely, you can see just from his books that he actually has considerable sympathy for Heidegger (and also has some differences with them(. His letters just make that more explicit. Similarly, its no accident that Strauss barely says anything about America in his books, and the less 'exoteric' the books are, the less he says about it. America just wasn't very important to his thought. Again, his letters just make that point more explicit. Regardless, if you think that "Strauss's Socratic manner is necessarily ad hominem", then how would you ever know what he thought about anything? Why would your interpretation be any closer to the truth than Will Altman's, or Shadia Drury's, or Stephen Holmes, or mine, or the Zuckerts, or Jaffa, or Kojeve, or Jonas, or Arendt, or anyone? The whole point of Jaffa's appropriation of Strauss, which you defend, is to claim that Strauss's thought has certain political implications: for instance, you and Jaffa claim that Strauss thought that America, and American "statesmanship", had something to do with the possibility of reviving classical political philosophy. Well, what do you base that on? Its not in his books, which you admit by saying that Strauss didn't need to say it because he could let his students (Jaffa) say it. So you're relying on what Strauss personally communicated to Jaffa - or, more likely, what Jaffa claims that Strauss communicated to him, and which cannot be learned from his books. But if the issue is personal communication, then look at what he actually wrote to people he respected a great deal (e.g., Jacob Klein), and then see how it confirms or contradicts what is in his books.

Diogenes: Are you a fan of Strauss or critical of him?

Owl of Minerva: I'm both a fan and a critic. The fact that you even have to ask the question helps to show part of what's so deeply troubling about Straussianism, however. Appreciation and criticism are not exclusive. Strauss was not some sort of God. Starting from the premise that one must either be simply a "fan" or a "critic" or Strauss is part of what it makes it impossible for many so-called "fans" to understand him properly, and prevents many so-called "critics" from taking him seriously. One can admire Strauss and the same time as one is skeptical of, or even deeply critical of, him. My guess is that no a single person who thinks that one must be either "for" or "against" Strauss has ever understood, or even read very seriously, more than a few pages of his work.

Good point(s), Diogenes. As I understand it, Strauss was very concerned with delineating who is friend and who is foe. The Straussians seemed to pick up on that, and they've run with it, to put it mildly. They're all but obsessed with it, and it tends to work well for those who look with disdain upon such things as "nuance" (see the right's attacks on Kerry in '04) and prefer to think of things in absolute, black-and-white terms in virtually all areas of life, both personal and political.

The idea of seeing both merit and flaw in the same person is confounding to them. Strauss - you've GOT to love him or else you MUST hate him and be his enemy. Whose side are you on, anyway? You're either with us or you're against us, etc., etc.

Scanlon: Strauss was concerned with delineating friend and foe according to certain folks. After all, this board has been quibbling about how few people truly understand Strauss - especially Americans.

Diogenes: The only reason I asked was because I picked up hints of both criticism and merit for Strauss from you, and I sensed that this was the case. I only wanted to see what you had to further say about it. But yes, I read Strauss as seriously as I can, thanks.

Diogenes: how were you able to read the correspondence between Leo Strauss and Seth Benardete? Any way I could?

Diogenes-

Having read Strauss like yourself, can you show me anywhere where he states that he wrote esoterically?
I have been looking and can't find it and would greatly appreciate it if you can point that out in his text. Thanks.

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