An Esoteric Reading of Claes Ryn

One of the gang at the Claremont Institute, Matthew J. Peterson, has been piqued by Claes Ryn's criticisms of Strauss and the neo-Jacobins (for more of Ryn on Strauss, see here). Daniel Larison puts paid to Peterson here. I'll just add a few thoughts of my own.

Peteson writes:

First, Leo Strauss is one of the key figures responsible for bringing back the serious study of ancient and Christian political philosophy over the last 100 years. This is a simple fact, accepted by those who completely disagree with Strauss and all of his students. Modern political science rejected the traditional study of politics, but Strauss and his students sought to return to it.

Actually, even non-Struassian neoconservatives who are serious classicists see Strauss's reading of the ancients as extremely problematic. Don't take my word for it: here's Robert Kagan relating his father's (Yale classicist Donald Kagan) objections to Allan Bloom's reading of Plato, which applies by extension to Strauss himself:

…my father explained to me, as well as to Bloom, of course, that Bloom did not understand Plato. This may seem a bit outrageous to many people today, given Bloom's reputation. But I still think my father was right, and at the time I had no doubt that he was right. My father was and is a great arguer, and as a boy I was inclined to believe that he was right about practically everything. So to me, the Kagan-Bloom debates always looked like a complete wipe-out.

As best I can recall, their biggest point of contention was whether Plato was just kidding in The Republic. Bloom said he was just kidding. I later learned that this idea–that the greatest thinkers in history never mean what they say and are always kidding–is a core principle of Straussianism. My friend, the late Al Bernstein, also taught history at Cornell. He used to tell the story about how one day some students of his, coming directly from one of Bloom's classes, reported that Bloom insisted Plato did not mean what he said in The Republic. To which Bernstein replied: "Ah, Professor Bloom wants you to think that's what he believes. What he really believes is that Plato did mean what he said."

Anyway, my father said Plato was not kidding. The argument would go back and forth for hours, and in my memory it always ended with Bloom saying, "We'll have to look at the text," which was a great way of ending the discussion because there was no ancient Greek text of The Republic available in the Statler's lunch room. So, as I saw it, and as my father saw it, that was sort of a surrender.

I learned from my father that the problem with Straussians was that they were ahistorical. They were consumed with the great thinkers and believed the great thinkers were engaged in a dialogue with one another across time. This made Straussians slight the historical circumstances in which great thinkers did their thinking.

Far from reviving the serious study of classical political philosophy, Strauss (and his pupils) have butchered the ancients to serve their own purposes — and this is something Donald Kagan knows as well as Claes Ryn. Most serious classicists know it too, which is why Struassians are most often found not in classics but in fields like political philosophy, government, and English. Most of them are not serious philologists — and you cannot be a serious student of classical political philosophy unless you are a philologist. Translations, even Straussian "literal" translations, will not do.

Peterson is right about one thing, though: Ryn fails to give credit Straussianism for its "traditionalism," and Straussianism is traditionalist in at least one sense. The techniques of esoteric reading, and the teachings behind the "true" readings of classical (and other) texts, are traditions in the truest sense of the word, handed down personally from master to disciple, from Strauss to his pupils to theirs. (Which is not to say that the later Straussians always accurately reflect Strauss's own views.)

Peterson's next two points should be taken together: 1.) classical and Christian traditional political philosophy is concerned with the good, right, and true; 2.) "to say that Leo Strauss, who is likely most famous for his claim, contra many modern thinkers, that reason is unable to disprove the claims of revelation, would have us 'heed only the principle of reason' is manifestly absurd."

Larison sets Peterson straight about Christian and classical traditional political philosophy, both of which are indeed concerned with the good, right, and true, but which are not (by and large) ahistorical. But what about Struass? From "Persecution and the Art of Writing," one comes away with the clear impression that Strauss was very uncomfortable with the Thomistic tradition precisely because it addressed reason to faith. Strauss prefers that reason not be applied to theology and God's Law: "The praise of philosphy is meant to rule out any claims of cognitive value which may be raised on behalf of religion in general and of revealed religion in particular." Reason applied to religion can lead to popular unbelief, and to the exposure of the philosopher's unbelief, which in turn puts the philosopher in danger: religion and philosophy must be kept separate.

The official recognition of philosophy in the Christian world made philosophy subject to ecclesiastical supervision. The precarious position of philosophy in the Islamic-Jewish world guaranteed its private character and therewith its inner freedom from supervision. The status of philosophy in in the Islamic-Jewish world resembled in this respect its status in classical Greece. It is often said that the Greek city was a totailitarian society. It embraced and regulated morals, divine worship, tragedy and comedy.

Notice that Struass most often writes about classical and medieval Jewish (and also Islamic) traditions, not the mainstream of medieval Christian political thought. "The place that is occupied in Christian scholasticism by Aristotle's Politics, Cicero, and the Roman Law, is occupied in Islamic and Jewish philosphy by Plato's Republic and his Laws." Strauss sides with the Islamic and Jewish traditions against the Christian tradition. So revelation and tradition both play important roles in Struass's thinking: but the philosopher knows that revelation is really buncombe — a fiction to maintain public morals and order — and the traditions that most concern him are the traditions of revelation (as a means to keeping the public in order) and the secret tradition of philosophy. Pure reason is the philosopher's way — religious tradition and revelation are tools of social control.

Obvoiusly that's very far removed from a Christian's idea of the role of tradition and revelation in the world. And inimical, in fact.

Next, Peterson says, "Fourth, we live in a regime where tradition itself proclaims that it is based on truth." Read that in light of the discussion above: the philosopher must insist that the tradition is true and there are no disparities between truth and tradition. That's why the Jaffaites worship (almost literally) the American Founding. Putting the founding in its historical context is, of course, submitting it to critical reason, and that has to be avoided: it has to be above criticism, it has to take on the properties of Revelation.

Peterson's final point might seem to contradict all of this:

Dr. Ryn, I suppose, would have been happy to rid Athens of that pesky Socrates, who dared judge tradition by means of human reason. I suppose that Plato must have been the ultimate Jacobin, what with his obsessive striving to know what The Good truly is combined with his constant meddling in the politics of his day based on radical, reason-based doctrines.

Socrates is exhibit A. in Leo Strauss's case of what happens when philosophers are a little too outspoken about the truth. Socrates, of course, was trenchantly critical of Athens: by reason he arrived at an idea of the good that was at variance with the political order. Lest that order be disreputed, he had to die. Plato, however, escaped death — and the disruption of the polis — by hiding his true meanings — by writing esoterically.

Again, to quote "Persecution and the Art of Writing":

The Platonic way, as distinguished from the Socratic way, is a combination of the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus; for the intransigent way of Socreates is appropriate only for the philosopher's dealing with the elite, whereas the way of Thrasymachus, which is both more and less exacting than the former, is appropriate for dealign with the vulgar. … by combining the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus, Plato avoided the conflict with the vulgar and thus the fate of Socrates.

In the context of Strauss, when Peterson accuses Ryn of siding with Athens against Socrates, he means that by dragging transcendent values (which Straussians believe are useful, but not true) through the mud of history, Ryn is setting up conditions that will lead the polis to kill the philosopher.

The Straussian reading of Plato holds that he did not really believe in the Forms and transcendence; what he really believed was what Strauss taught, that phony absolutes have to be given unwavering credence so that the few who know the nihilistic truth can survive. The reason the Platonic philosopher meddles in politics, as Peterson puts it, is to help the statesman maintain the fraudulent transcendental basis of society. Note, by the way, that although Peterson asks some questions about Aristotle and Aquinas, Straussians don't actually write very much about them — Plato is their man.

For more on Strauss and the Straussians, see Anne Norton's excellent Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire. And be sure to read the Chicago edition of Strauss's own Persecution and the Art of Writing — if you want to delve into this stuff, that is!

Addendum: Plato is indeed their man, but some Straussians write more about Aristotle than others, and Harry Jaffa apparently consider himself an Aristotelean of sorts. What sort might be adjuged from Jaffaite Charles Kesler's description of one of Jaffa's books — "Thomism and Aristotelianism was a kind of propaedeutic, liberating Aristotle from Scholastic theology and not incidentally justifying the right of the Straussians rather than the Neo-Thomists to speak on behalf of the Philosopher."

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9 thoughts on “An Esoteric Reading of Claes Ryn

  1. Daniel Larison April 7, 2006 / 11:00 pm

    Very nicely done. I wish I had had your familiarity with Strauss to make an even stronger case than I did. I take your point about Straussian “tradition” and it comes across even more strongly than before as a variant of a form of modern gnosticism. I confess to not knowing the answer to this next question: how strong is the influence of Voegelin’s critique of modern gnosticism on Claes Ryn’s conception of the neo-Jacobins? It seems fairly strong, but they may simply have reached similar conclusions along different lines. I’d be interested to see what you think.

  2. Daniel McCarthy April 8, 2006 / 11:58 pm

    Thanks. I’m afraid I’ve read too much Strauss and too little Voegelin, though, so that I can’t give a satisfactory answer to the question of how much Voegelin is in Ryn’s conception of the neo-Jacobins. I’ve read virtually no Voegelin, in fact — a major deficiency.

  3. scriblerus April 9, 2006 / 3:45 am

    Nice work. Strauss and co. in a few paragraphs. On Strauss’ utter misunderstanding of Aquinas (and Christian things generally), I’d really urge you to read Pamela Hall, “Narrative and the Natural Law.” Short but very good, especially in demolishing Jaffa’s argument in “Thomism and Aristotelianism” that St. Thomas completely misunderstands Aristotle.

    Very nice point about Straussians’ refusal to deal with work done in the field of classics. Hence, their preference for absurd literalist translations (see Leo Paul De Alvarez’ one of the “Prince” for an especially awful example). Not to get too personal but, especially among Claremont folks (at least among the folks I knew at Claremont and the Clarmont colony in the University of Dallas political science department), the quality of students they get just isn’t that high and they don’t have the Latin and Greek to really study classical political philosophy correctly. Focusing on American stuff is often a practical choice as much as much as a principled decision.

    Strauss and Voegelin had a weird relationship. They were cordial to each other but Strauss’ students (Stanley Rosen in particular) wrote reviews trashing his work. There is a particularly egregious one in Review of Metaphysics for 1958, I believe. Rosen accuses Voegelin of being, you guessed it, an historicist and a nihilist.

  4. Michael J. Keegan April 10, 2006 / 5:23 am

    Gentlemen – As a previous student of Dr. Ryn, I can confirmed that he has some affinity to Eric Voegelin.

    Besides receiving his doctorate at LSU, though not under Voegelin but at the institution Voegelin mainly taught while in the States, Ryn seems to give much credence to the older Voegelin (possibly pre-Ecumenic Age).

    Although, it is safe to say that he isn’t as much a Voegelinean as his colleague David Walsh.

    Ryn’s main intellectual influence includes: Irving Babbit, Benedetto Croce, Hegel, Folk Leander, and Russell Kirk.

    I suggest the following Ryn works that you may find of some interest. In fact, I may have a couple of addition copies that I’d be glad to send you if possible

    Democracy and the Ethical Life
    Will, Imagination, and Reason

    Btw – Daniels, you gents have resusciated life and imagination into truly tradition oriented conservatism.

  5. Paul Cella April 11, 2006 / 2:44 pm

    A fine blog you have here.

    I came to Strauss through Willmoore Kendall, and have perhaps a more sympathetic view of the former because of it. Interestingly, Kendall shifted toward the Voegelin camp later in his career; and his very incisive remark that Strauss was at base a religious thinker has incensed Straussians ever since — probably for reasons relating to what Mr. McCarthey has laid out here.

  6. Joseph Baldacchino April 12, 2006 / 2:15 am

    In his comments on Daniel McCarthy's “An Esoteric Reading of Claes Ryn,” Daniel Larison raises the question: “how strong is the influence of Voegelin’s critique of modern gnosticism on Claes Ryn’s conception of the neo-Jacobins? It seems fairly strong, but they may simply have reached similar conclusions along different lines. ”

    For those who are interested in the intellectual influences that have helped shape Ryn's views on neo-Jacobinism, the Straussians, and other matters, the entry on Ryn by the noted rabbinical scholar Professor Jacob Neusner in the recently released Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books) may be helpful. Neusner describes Ryn as an “internationally known moral philosopher” whose “interests center on ethics and politics; historicism and values; politics and the imagination; the history of political thought; democracy and constitutionalism; the epistemology of the social sciences and the humanities; and on the figures Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benedetto Croce, and Irving Babbitt. The influence of Babbitt, particularly his critique of sentimental ethics as found in Rousseau, is prominent in most of Ryn's writings. . . . Ryn has also done important work developing a value-centered historicism that rejects the ahistorical, abstract theories of ethics and politics that discount the concrete, lived reality of actual social and political life. . . .

    “Though often identified with the Old Right, Ryn has gone his own way on key philosophic and political questions. Unlike most of the postwar Right, he has acknowledged his debt to the historically based philosophies of the modern era, especially the work of Croce. Both dialectical thinking and a historically situated ethic are basic to Ryn's technical studies. His historicism explores the universal elements operative in changing historical circumstances. Ryn has also clarified the concept of moral imagination found in Burke and Babbitt and demonstrated the interaction of will, reason, and imagination in ethical acts and all forms of judgment.”

    Ryn is generally sympathetic to Voegelin but has also expressed reservations about a tendency in his work toward a conception of radical transcendence and insufficient attention to the needs of ordinary practical politics and ordinary life more generally. See, e.g., his article “The Politics of Transcendence: The Pretentious Passivity of Platonic Idealism.” This article, together with many more on related subjects by Ryn and other scholars, is available under “Issues that Matter . . . ” (http://www.nhinet.org/issues.htm) on the Web site of the National Humanities Institute (http://www.nhinet.org).

  7. Kralizec July 25, 2010 / 5:27 pm

    The argument that a critique of Bloom’s interpretation of the Republic is applicable “by extension” to Leo Strauss seems to fail on grounds that Strauss wrote his own commentary on Plato’s Republic. Moreover, at least two other students of Strauss have written their own commentaries on the Republic, Seth Benardete and Stanley Rosen. It seems each of the four commentaries is best judged by studying the commentary and the Republic together.

    As for the question as to whether “Plato did mean” or “did not mean what he said in the Republic,” Plato did not say anything in the Republic.

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