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A Note on Leo Strauss
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Having seen Samuel Goldman’s thoughtful response to Kenneth McIntyre’s sizzling review of my book, I think that I might introduce myself as the author of the still rarely read volume that Professor McIntyre discusses in his essay. By now I am used to the admission that most critics of the review use to introduce their reactions: “I have not looked at Gottfried’s work but am responding to McIntyre’s remarks about Strauss.” Allow me to note that it might be a good idea if these commentators looked at my book, however steeply priced it may be. That would certainly help improve my sagging sales but even more importantly would throw light on what is being argued in my work about Strauss, his hermeneutics, and his academic and political following.

I fully agree with Samuel Goldman on two points. He is correct in his conclusion that Strauss’s greatest contribution to scholarship may be his early (German) writings, more specifically his work on the relation between politics and religion in Spinoza. Moreover, I would add to this early achievement Strauss’s brilliant remarks on Carl Schmitt’s 1932 edition of Begriff des Politischen, which may have been the young Strauss’s most insightful work.

I also think Goldman is correct to assign more significance to Strauss as a scholar than my reviewer suggests. In my book I underline the extent of Strauss’s linguistic training and his prodigious reading in political thought. Although I share McIntyre’s skepticism about Strauss’s way of reading texts and although I find Strauss’s interpretive quirks magnified in his disciples, I would not deny that there is immense erudition in everything he wrote. His disciples impress me far less than the master, as Goldman would learn from reading my book. Finally I don’t think Goldman, who has written splendidly on classical conservatism, would dispute my conclusion and that of Kenneth McIntyre that neither Strauss nor his leading followers would qualify as “conservatives.” One can describe them more properly as Cold War liberals or fervent “liberal democrats,” to use their own phrase. Nor does the intensity of their desire to protect Israel from its enemies or their eagerness to spread America’s democratic creed if necessary by force add up to what Goldman, McIntyre, and I would consider to be true conservatism.

There are a few mistakes in Goldman’s otherwise informative response to McIntyre. Contrary to what Goldman states, Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner did not share Strauss’s views about reading texts, as McIntyre documents in a relevant essay in the Journal of the Philosophy of History (2010). Skinner was appalled by how little historical sense Strauss and his disciples displayed in their hermeneutic work, and he mocked the kind of “Einfluss studies” in which Straussians assumed that certain thinkers were decisively influenced by other ones although they could not prove the connections drawn. In my book I cite the preposterous attempt by Walter Berns to attribute the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia to the influence exercised by Hobbes on early American political thought. Because of Berns’s Straussian reading of the U.S. as a secular democracy, he failed to notice that Baptists had taken the lead in the disestablishment of the Anglicans in Virginia, for theological reasons that Berns would have no interest in exploring.

I am also far less impressed than Goldman by the extent of Strauss’s illustrious German connections. In my book I show that Strauss had few such admirers in his youth, and even his vaunted relation to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who was born a few miles apart from him in Brunswick, was far more tenuous than Straussians have been willing to recognize. Strauss came to America as a virtually unknown researcher, and it was entirely in the U.S. that he established himself as a political as well as academic presence. Most of his bridge-building with European intellectual luminaries came toward the end of his life, and Strauss had no serious influence on Hans Blumenberg or Gadamer, at least none that I can detect. And though he attended the lectures of Heidegger as an obscure student without any professional prospects, I can’t find evidence of a personal relation between the two men. Sholem and Löwith were long-term acquaintances, going back to Strauss’s youth.

Pace Goldman, there are indeed signs of Strauss’s liberal democratic boosterism in his writings. His Walgreen Lectures, published as Natural Right and History (1951), and his published attack on the American Political Association in the 1960s for its insufficient enthusiasm for the democratic West during the Cold War, abound in praise of American liberal democracy. And similar ideological remarks came up in Strauss’s lectures, conversation, and correspondence. One has to doubt that his students’ obsession with the universal applicability of the American liberal-democratic model did not come from an idolized teacher whose legacy they claimed to be carrying forward. In my book I try to show that his disciples picked Strauss at least partly because of ideological and ethnic considerations.

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Goldman is right that Strauss was not the only reader of political texts who focused on esotericism or who was aware of the operation of censorship in the past as a factor contributing to “hidden writing.” But what distinguishes the Straussian approach are two characteristics: the far-fetched, numerologically arcane character of the reading and the tendency of the Straussian interpreter to discover his own contemporary views reflected in the thinker whose secret thoughts are supposedly being uncovered. A critic of this hermeneutic, David Gordon, has asked: “Are all producers of secret writings, as Straussians would have us believe, secularists and liberals? Aren’t any of them Christian dissenters, that is, Catholics in Protestant lands or Protestants in Catholic countries expressing what are at bottom Christian thoughts?” In an attempt at humor in my book, I notice that a Straussian reading of secret writing indicates the author in question was a Jewish agnostic living in New York or Chicago in the late 20th century.

Finally I must challenge Goldman’s statements about how the Straussians have made their concept of esotericism generally acceptable “because Strauss and the Straussians have defended so vigorously and for so long.” My book argues exactly the opposite, that Straussians have formed a self-insulated cult that avoids serious combat with incisive critics. It has survived because of networking and because it has been able to use neoconservative publications to advance a particular hermeneutics as well as Straussian politics. McIntyre is spot on when he cites multiple scholars in political theory, including Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, who find Straussian hermeneutics to be risible. Until I began my research, I assumed that the only methodological critics whom the Straussians scorned were Old Right intellectuals like me. As it turned out, they have avoided dealing with the same type of criticism when it comes from widely respected, mainstream academics. I wrote my book because I hoped to force Straussians out of their comfort zone, but considering the silence my work has met, outside of a few tolerant journals and websites, my strategy has clearly not worked.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Leo Strauss 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Dr. Gottfried is one of the nation’s leading intellectuals, he is a champion of the truth.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    This response is decidedly less inflammatory than McIntyre’s review, which seemed designed to provoke and was positively misleading.  I’m happy to give Gottfried’s book a full hearing, once I can afford it (it’s currently retailing for $90).  My local university library has yet to stock it. 

    I cannot really disagree with much of Gottfried’s position as expressed here, except to say that many scholars whom he would, no doubt, name “Straussians” have often expressed to me (in private) identical frustrations with their scholastic colleagues.    Some, in their understandable desire to avoid the danger of historicism, ignore the historical record itself.  This leads them into the most trouble when dealing with American constitutional history: one Straussian once tried to argue that the 10th amendment was merely a repetition of what the Constitution already implied, and then proceeded to offer an interpretation which the 10th amendment was explicitly enacted to contradict.  I marveled that this scholar obviously did NOT follow Strauss’s dictum, which was to understand an author as he understood himself.  The right procedure was to follow Brion McClanahan’s observation of the discussion of the amendment in the state legislatures i.e. the comments of those who drew it up and voted for it to have the force of law.

    But here we are in the realm of statesmen making decisions in the heat of debate and events, where prudence (not wisdom per se) is king.   I don’t think it a coincidence that Strauss avoided this area himself, nor do I find that his gratitude to the Western democracies which saved his bacon during the WWII era say more or less than what many traditionalists would have him say, or would say themselves.  The reference to some kind of boosterism in Natural Right and History is confusing to me–the book is nearly silent about America except in its beginning, and that could be easily read as a concession to the default position of his audience.  As far as Strauss’s advocacy of imperialism goes, it does not exist, as Tom West rightly demonstrated during the climax of most Straussian support for the Iraq invasion.  But then again, many were agitating for it, and one did not have to be a Straussian for that in 2003.

    I would only reply that most political theorists today would have about the same level of scorn for Gottfried’s traditionalism as they do Strauss’s hermeneutics.  Popularity contests are irrelevant, but the assertion or implication that Strauss’ interpretations or “method” have been discredited is simply false.  Strauss never claimed a hermeneutics, and did not despise criticism but in fact addressed many serious critics such as Kojeve and Voegelin.  In the work I am thinking of here, On Tyranny, Strauss revises his own thesis several times in the same essay: he was not even an authority to himself.  But the fact that many professional theorists despised what he was doing is unquestionable.  So what? 

    It is at least possible that the reason secular liberal democracy is in such ascendancy in the  West has something to do with philosophers who did the most to undermine the authority of the alternative political-theological vision.  It doesn’t take a twisted mind to think that Machiavelli was a dissimulator, though trying to prove he had some proto-neoconservative America in mind is, of course, a great stretch.  Some writers seem franker than others, but expecting total honesty in the age of witch burnings is just not credible.  On the other hand, if Gottfried wishes to convince me that many Straussians’ imaginations are bigger than their talent as sociologists of knowledge, well hell, tell me something I didn’t know.  My own professor once refused to let me read a course transcript from one of Strauss’s classes outside of his presence, presumably in order to keep me from spreading the secret doctrine.  Another professor, both a Straussian and a mutual friend of mine and my mentor’s, found such “caution” hilarious and, of course, absurd.  And now these transcripts are available for online download by these same keepers of the keys.  Go figure. 

    So what’s the right balance?  Is the problem with method or the conclusions reached?  Numerological analysis, for instance, is a standard technique of respectable literature scholars such as Alastair Fowler and Ernst Curtius (non-Straussians), and is only “arcane” to those unfamiliar with its techniques.  Really nothing Strauss did in his books was really new, except in the sense that what is forgotten seems new.  In the end, can we convict him for the crimes of his students?  And what is the limit to that?  Maybe Gottfried’s book will try to answer.

  3. Not being overly familiar with Strauss, I took the time to listen to a couple of his audio lecture tapes and read the introduction and first chapter of “Natural Right and History”.  In the book, he apparently points out a dichotomy between the view of reality expressed by Aristotle and Aquinas, and the modernist relativistic view represented as deriving strictly from science thereby excluding moral values.  Obviously, Strauss derives his values from a Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.

    To the extent that his work prompts consideration and discussion of moral values and absolutes in the marketplace of ideas, it is definitely worthwhile.

  4. @Jack Strocchi

    Dr. Gottfried is a reactionary ivory tower snob with absolutly no relevance to the problems facing America or the world today. Liberal democracy is the best system invented so far, and the closest in intent to the founders visions. No one sane is pining for Franco’s Spain as Gottfried has done in the past. When Paul can say something about Medicare, Global Warming, Social Security, Gay Marriage than we can listen. Otherwise its just mental masturbation.

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