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Orwin on Smith on Strauss

Cliff Orwin’s review of Steven Smith’s book on Leo Strauss is worth reading, as, apparently, is the book. In Orwin’s estimation (which I regard as quite reliable, if not authoritative), Smith deals ably with the grand themes of Strauss’ work, above all, the relationship between reason and revelation. If there is a shortcoming, it is in Smith’s effort to offer up Strauss as a critic of the Iraq war:

The climax of Smith’s attempt to rescue Strauss from his critics, especially those who consider him the progenitor of neoconservatism, lies in a final discussion offering a critique of the war in Iraq delivered in the name of Strauss himself. The discussion focuses on the Bush administration’s definition of its goal as the elimination of political evil. By contrast, Smith emphasizes, Strauss always considered evil a permanent aspect of the human situation, and just as he stood against liberal illusions on this score, he would have objected no less strenuously to the illusions of present-day neoconservatives.

About the effort to pigeonhole Strauss as a neoconservative, Smith is undoubtedly right. But, to deal with last things first, his own effort to recruit Strauss to the anti-war cause is every bit as dubious. It is also an open question whether the current architects of American foreign policy have really been seized by the naive expectation of ending evil—as opposed merely to recognizing the need to fight it. Of one thing we can be sure: in politics, Strauss always insisted on calling things by their proper names. It is difficult to imagine that he would have objected to labeling 9/11 an act of evil; that is merely to call a spade a spade.

Still, as Smith is well aware, there is something futile in speculating about Strauss’s views on this or that policy. Far more important is the task of coming to terms with his thought. In this regard, Smith’s book is an excellent introduction, and can be read with profit by those already familiar with Strauss as well as by those coming to him for the first time.

Read the review and buy the book.

Hat tip: Bruce Sanborn.

Discussions - 13 Comments

Smith’s treatment of Strauss on reason and revelation is somewhat reserved or edifying, as is his treatment of the relationship between Strauss and Heidegger. In neither case did I learn anything from him. And as Orwin and Joe out he tries to put Strauss on the trendy side of foreign policy. All in all, he tries too hard to make Strauss unthreatening to the libertarian impulse that animates mainstream intellectuals today.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s book The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy for more reliable guidance in these matters.

My cup runneth over with reading options--Smith, Zuckert & Zuckert, and Heinrich Meier--all inevitably superior to this (and I don’t mean to damn with faint praise).

Well, it’ll be great to finally know the truth about Strauss!

Irony, Peter? How Straussian!

No irony damn it! It really would be great just to know and put that guy behind us.

Pangle has his own book on Strauss forthcoming this summer, just before Zucker & Zuckert, according to Amazon.


Which work by Strauss, and which interpreter of Strauss, is best to read on:

1. The Fact/Value distinction

2. Strauss on Heidegger

also, which are the best survey treatments of natural law/natural rights?

I am departing from my usual bitter sarcasm. This is a sincere question.

Here’s the link to the Amazon page for Tom Pangle’s forthcoming book.

If the Straussians told you, they would have to kill you. No, I’m serious.

wm, as for the fact/value distinction, read chapter 2 of Natural Right and History and An Epilogue to the Scientific Study of Politics, both by Strauss; Eric Voegelin has a very fine discussion in The New Science of Politics; and Raymond Aron has a good discussion of Strauss and Weber (and the issue) in his introduction to an edition of Weber’s two post-war lectures, Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation. (I think it’s reprinted in History, Truth, Liberty.) Pierre Manent also has a good discussion of Weber in chapter 2 of The City of Man. And lastly Charles Taylor (the Canadian Catholic philosopher) has a good discussion in an article whose title escapes me right now. It came out in the 60s and is a good critique of behaviorism, which presupposed the distinction.
Later on the Heidegger.
Oh, I almost forgot: Nasser Behnegar’s book, Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics, is first-rate. Good reading.

thank you both very much

Well, philosophy is learning how to die, arguably by the hands of others.
If knowing the truth means they have to kill me, so be it.

On Heidegger, read what Strauss actually wrote in the ch. in CLASSICAL POLITICAL RATIONALISM. My own view, which ain’t worth much, is nobody yet has given Heidegger the credit he deserves for setting Strauss’s agenda.
For Heidegger, Plato (against the poets, maybe pre-Socratic philosophers, and even against "pure" revelation) started the metaphysics which morphed into technology through applying the "what is" question to all things; so "Who is God" becomes "what is God." That transformation over the millenia became devastating for human life. Strauss tried to split the difference, in a way, by asking "who is the philosopher" who asks the "what is" questions, directing attention away from the effectual truth of Platonism to the actual (personal) approach of "the dialogue form."

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