Strauss the Skeptic

There’s an excellent, thought-provoking essay on Leo Strauss and Straussians in the new (Sumer 2006) issue of Modern Age by Richard Sherlock of Utah State University. He’s sympathetic to Strauss in some respects and particularly values Strauss’s close readings of ancient texts. But ultimately he finds the project of Strauss and the Straussians sterile:

At bottom Strauss appears to be a skeptic on the most fundamental question of all: Can either philosophy or theology ground either wisdom or virtue? It is not that Strauss did not do all he could have done. It is rather that, on his own terms, such a grounding of natural right seems not to be possible. This is why in his masterwork [Natural Right and History — D.M.] the language of natural right is so fervent and pervasive while the pay-off is so meager. On the question at hand the project appears as rhetorical, not philosophic. In Natural Right and History Strauss argues that classical natural right is superior to modern natural rights, but he nowhere shows how classic natural right is anything more than rhetoric.

Nowhere does Strauss provide solutions to, or show how Plato or Aristotle provided solutions to, fundamental epistemological problems found in Plato’s own work. Nowhere does he engage Aristotle’s metaphysics or biology in search of natural right, in the way that Aristotle himself might have done. Nowhere does he seriosuly engage the nature of the physical cosmos. On his own view, philosophy must aspire to and thus assume a comprehensive account of the whole. But to invoke the whole–a cosmos–immediately raises the question of the grounds on which we can assume that whole to be intelligible. Such a move, of course, leads to classic natural theology, which Strauss studiously ignores.

… One strenuous critic of Strauss [Myles Burnyeat — D.M.] has attacked him as being a “sphinx without a secret.” I think that this is a limited and unsatisfactory response to Strauss and to Straussianism. In general, the secret of Strauss’s teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its sight?

… [O]ne searches Strauss’s corpus and that of leading Straussians in vain for any serious encounter with Christian theologians, or for that matter with the real theologians of Islam like al-Ghazali. Straussians express their partiality for the ancients over the moderns as a preference for the high over the low. When confronted with the very highest, however–the claims of Christianity–they turn back on the road to Athens without any serious argument to justify their turn.

Of course, as Sherlock himself argues earlier, even that “road to Athens” is only followed as a rhetorical strategy.

There are several pro-Strauss books by Straussians out recently, by the way, including Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy by Thomas Pangle and Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. The latter appears to cover Strauss’s leading students and proponents particularly well. I’m looking forward to reading both one of these days when I have a bit of time on my hands. In the fullness of time, I’ll write up something at length about them and about Strauss generally.

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9 thoughts on “Strauss the Skeptic

  1. scriblerus August 23, 2006 / 6:23 pm

    Thanks for the reference; I look forward to reading it. Sherlock puts his finger on something that’s crossed my mind as well: the very small pay-off from patiently plodding through Strauss’ work. For all the huffing and puffing about historicism in NRH and Strauss generally, he seems to think human beings can’t know anything and we’d best act moderately. Sherlock’s also right to point out Strauss’ really, really shallow understanding of Christian thinkers (e.g., his ridiculous comments on Aquinas in NRH).

    Also well worth a read is Steven B. Smith’s recent “Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism.” The book is well-written and reasonably accessible. Damon Linker (of Neuhaus fame) has a good review of the book as well in a “New Republic” from the last month or so.

  2. Stephen W. Carson August 23, 2006 / 9:15 pm

    Very interesting stuff. Thanks!

    What this leaves unanswered though is what fundamentally motivates the Straussians? At least the neocon Struassians clearly seem strongly motivated by some kind of worldview. Are they importing their real values from somewhere else and just tossing Struassian rhetoric on top. What deep down motivated Strauss? What, in short, was Strauss’s philosophy?

  3. Daniel McCarthy August 24, 2006 / 7:06 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll second Scriblerus’s rcommendation of the Steven Smith book. (I’ve been meaning to read Linker’s review, which came out while I was on vacation. I”ll have to go back and do so.)

    I don’t know if I can intelligently comment on the motives of Straussians generally, but I can see some reasons why Straussianism might be appealing. For one thing, in the academy Strauss’s disciples are among the relatively few scholars who at least appear to be interested in political philosophy rather than positivistic political science — Straussianism thus can attract people methodologically for much the same reason that Austrian economics does. It’s not just numbers-juggling and procedure-parsing. The political science classes I took at Wash U, for example, were completely unphilosophical. If you wanted to read Burke or Marx or even the Federalist, you had to take courses in the history department, which is why I became a history major rather than a political science one.

    The Sherlock piece in Modern Age conveys other methodological benefits of Straussianism: Sherlock is careful to point out that close reading is not the same as esoteric reading, and even if one tends to reject the latter (though there are cases where an esoteric reading may be justified) the close, careful consideration of the language and full text (as opposed to the textual excerpts preferred by many professors) can pay off and quite likely appeal to an intelligent person more than a cursory reading does. One needn’t be a Straussian to practice close reading or to tret political philosophy as something other than a branch of statistics, but the Straussians are an organized and widespread school of thought that speaks to those concerns. They’re an alternative to leftism and positivism, and they don’t have much organized competition on the right within the field of political science / philosophy.

    As far as the statist and elitist qualities of many Straussians are concerned (I don’t have a problem with elitism, though I don’t think that anyone who has a high opinion of state power is part of the natural elite), Strauss and Bloom especially are critical of a certain kind of democratic / bourgeois personality. There are a great many people who think that freedom is inherently defective, breeding complacency and mediocrity and that free people are too tolerant of things, or who are just appalled by contemporary “democratic” culture. Straussianism may seem to such people to offer some “stiffening” and an emphasis on (quasi-)classical excellence that compensates for the failings of democracy and / or bourgeois liberalism.

    I don’t know how much that kind of thinking was part of Strauss’s own motives — I suspect not to a very great extent; at the risk of reductionism, it seems to me what Strauss was looking for was how a Jew could live in a hostile, even anti-Semitic, environment and how a philosopher persevere in seeking truths that may be detrimental both to society and — once society finds out what he’s up to — to his own health. My impression is that latter-day, younger Straussians, much more than Struass himself, simply hate the world they live in and look to the secret world of esotericism and excellence as an alternative.

    That line of thinking increasingly leads me to believe that maybe the problem with Straussian neoconservatives is not their Straussianism so much as their conservatism: I can easily imagine Straussian neocons coming to exaclty the same positions they hold now without Struass.

  4. The King of Newport August 25, 2006 / 8:04 am

    “I don’t know if I can intelligently comment on the motives of Straussians generally, but I can see some reasons why Straussianism might be appealing. For one thing, in the academy Strauss’s disciples are among the relatively few scholars who at least appear to be interested in political philosophy rather than positivistic political science — Straussianism thus can attract people methodologically for much the same reason that Austrian economics does”

    Absolutely right. A few years at a certain grad school in So Cal will teach you this, as a small group of Straussians — by some strange twist of reality — have been mixed with a (for the most part) positivistic poli sci faculty. The Straussian Youth generally endure much ridicule and derision from students and faculty, but they’re actually a breath of fresh air, especially in methodology classes, where their critiques of modern poli sci probably should be embraced by Austrians. Someone should write an article on that, since graduate political science is probably even more ridiculous than graduate economics.

  5. R J Stove August 25, 2006 / 9:11 am

    One thing that always surprises me is the failure of Straussianism to get much or any traction, to the best of my knowledge, outside America. Steve Sailer and I were recently having an E-mail discussion about this. Normally an American guru (from John Dewey via Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling to Allan Bloom and, latterly, Christopher Hitchens) will attract an Australian following as vociferous as it is uncritical; but for some reason Strauss hasn’t done so. This is despite the fact that his loathing of historicism would seem a godsend to Australian intellectuals, of whom as a species it can be said that even on the rare occasions when they try to be historians, philosophizing always keeps breaking in.

    So far as I can tell (I’d be happy to stand corrected on this score), Straussians seem equally rare in Europe. I wonder why this is. Do Europeans simply have too many other magi competing for a slice of the esotericism market?

  6. scriblerus August 25, 2006 / 10:03 pm

    I’m not sure what exactly the appeal of Straussianism is. The Straussian critique of positivistic social science and their attention to important books, rather than the latest trends, is definitely refreshing. They generally also tend to have a good representation on the right (compared to disciples of folks like Voegelin).

    Yet, there is definitely a personal, non-rational element to it as well. A friend of mine at the University of Dallas once said he didn’t know of anyone who became a Straussian after his/her sophomore year of college. Damon Linker suggests that there is a division of labor within Straussianism; some train philosophers who are “beyond good and evil” and others train gentlemen who can stick up for the truth of their nation (rather than indulge in imprudent post-modern scepticism). The latter would certainly describe Claremont types–who seem obssessed with the Founding, manliness, and generally pound their fists on the table and go on about “principles” a lot. At U.D., this sort of thing generally appealled to a certain kind of tall, awkward, poofy-haired, tight pants wearing guy. The fascination with Straussianism seems to be as much an attitude as much as an anything else.

  7. David Gordon August 25, 2006 / 11:53 pm

    There are some European Straussians, e.g., Heinrich Meier in Germany and Pierre Manent and Remi Brague in France. Meier is the author of Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which I hope to review in The Mises Review.

  8. Kevin S April 9, 2008 / 9:13 pm

    I think the most intriguing thing about Sherlock’s piece is the way he subtly “witnesses” to the Straussians by pointing to Weill as a counter example to Strauss. Strauss was dedicated to a kind of ethnic chauvinism which, I feel, painfully limited him and continues to hobble his successors. Overcoming that would require them to accept certain kinds of transcendence they are unwilling to look for. They can’t go beyond a kind of furtive corporate worship.

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