Leo Strauss: The Right's False Prophet (a review of Gottfried's book)

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Right's False Prophet

The American Conservative

Kenneth B. McIntyre

May 9, 2012


When writing about the work of an academic historian or philosopher—as opposed to a polemicist, a politician, or a popularizer—there is an obvious threshold question with which to begin: is the writer’s work intrinsically interesting or compelling in some way? If this question is answered in the negative, then there is usually no reason to carry on.

The strange case of Leo Strauss, however, proves that there are definite exceptions to this rule. Strauss’s work is almost universally dismissed by philosophers and historians, yet he has attracted a following amongst political theorists (hybrid creatures most often associated with political science departments) and neoconservative political activists. So, while the verdict on the intellectual importance of Strauss’s historico-philosophical work has been that, like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, there is no there there, the practical influence of Strauss, its manifestation as Straussianism, and Straussianism’s connection with neoconservatism still present themselves as intriguing problems in contemporary American intellectual history.

In Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America Paul Gottfried, the Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, offers an explanation of the Straussian phenomenon that is concise and compelling. While treating Strauss’s work with considerable respect, Gottfried concludes that the historians’ and philosophers’ rejection of Strauss is, for the most part, justified. However, unlike critics on the left who suggest that Strauss is illiberal and anti-modern, Gottfried argues that Strauss’s appeal consists largely in his creation of a mythical account of the rise of liberal democracy and its culmination in a creedal conception of the American polity.

According to Gottfried, Strauss and his followers have always been more concerned with practical questions about contemporary politics than with intellectual history or complex philosophical questions. Their primary purpose, which allies the neoconservatives with them, is to develop an abstract legend of American politics that supports a moderate welfare state domestically and a quasi-messianic internationalism in foreign policy.

Gottfried comes to these conclusions from several directions. First, he offers an engaging contextual account of Strauss’s intellectual formation. Gottfried argues that three biographical facts are central to understanding Strauss’s work: “he was born a Jew, in Germany, at the end of the nineteenth century.” Strauss’s most important early intellectual encounter was with the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, who attempted to make Kant safe for Judaism and vice versa. Strauss was also influenced by Cohen’s sharply critical reading of Spinoza as a proto-liberal intent on conceiving of political life in a secular way that would allow for the successful assimilation of the Jewish people. According to Gottfried, “a profound preoccupation with his Jewishness runs through Strauss’s life” and plays a major role in Strauss’s development into an apologist for an ideological and universalist version of liberal democracy.

Strauss was also influenced by the intellectual battles being waged in Germany at the turn of the century. The Methodenstreit that was taking place amongst economists was also occurring amongst historians and philosophers, and it resulted in a series of conceptual dichotomies that would appear throughout Strauss’s later writings. His trio of bêtes noires (positivism, relativism, and historicism) was at the heart of the conflicts about methodology in Germany, and the outcome of these debates set the terms of critique for Strauss’s youth and beyond.

Finally, there was the political situation in Germany, especially after the disastrous end of World War I. The attractions of fascism to someone like Strauss, whose early inclinations were in a more social-democratic direction, would have been obvious, given the instability of Weimar. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Strauss’s admiration for Mussolini outlasted the mid-1930s. Instead, the lesson that Strauss took from the fall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler and National Socialism was that liberalism was not capable of withstanding the onslaught of historicism, positivism, and moral relativism without solid quasi-religious and quasi-mythical foundations—and that he would be the one to provide those. Gottfried is certainly correct in arguing that for Strauss and his acolytes it is always September 1938 and we are always in Munich.

The second direction from which Gottfried approaches Strauss leads through an examination of the Straussian method and its products. Gottfried provides a critical account of the method and also notes the ahistorical, quasi-legendary, and often hagiographic character of the interpretations that the method produces. The Straussian method consists of two distinct doctrines, neither of which is particularly clear or convincing. First, Strauss asserts that understanding the work of a philosopher involves the reproduction of the author’s intention. Unfortunately, and as Gottfried argues, Strauss never explains what he means by “intention,” nor does he explain how one might reproduce an author’s intention. The second doctrine, however, renders the first irrelevant. Strauss argues that authentic philosophers hide their teaching from the casual reader and only initiates into the true philosophic art can decode the esoteric meaning of such texts. For Strauss and the Straussians, this is not an historical claim but a theoretical one, and it yields an interpretative strategy both naïve and paranoid.

The results of the Straussian method read like they were written by the intellectual offspring of Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Bergen. It may seem difficult to distinguish between the oracular pronouncements and the intellectual ventriloquism, but that’s because there is no real distinction to be made. As Gottfried notes, there is uncanny similarity between the Straussian reading of texts and the postmodern deconstruction of language. The esoteric claims provide cover for Straussian interpretive preferences and shield against criticism from anyone outside the clique. Cleanth Brooks once imagined what postmodern literary critics could have made of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and it makes just as much sense to ask what the Straussians could do with the nursery rhyme.

The two primary conclusions associated with Strauss’s esoteric reading of past texts are that all philosophers from the time of Plato onward were atheistic hyper-rationalists and that the United States emerged fully formed from the forehead of John Locke. Both of these conclusions are historically false, but it is inaccurate to call Strauss or his epigones bad historians because they are not historians at all.

Gottfried suggests correctly that Strauss and his followers are, in fact, engaged not in historical scholarship but in offering an extended civics lesson. He writes that the “celebration of the American present, as opposed to any march into the past, is a defining characteristic of the Straussians’ hermeneutics.” The Straussian professor understands himself as a prophet, a preacher, and a proselytizer, and at least in this consideration there is a significant element of commonality with the academic left. The Straussian past is composed of a collection of heroes and villains, and the story describes a teleological development of political life culminating in a highly abstract and ideologized version of the United States. This legend of American politics has proven to be the most influential of Strauss’s various tales of the mighty dead.

In his third approach to Strauss, Gottfried offers an appraisal of the influence of Straussianism on American politics generally and on American conservatism specifically. It is here that Gottfried makes what will likely be considered his most controversial arguments. He suggests that Strauss and the Straussians are best understood not as conservatives but as Cold War liberals and that their natural allies are the so-called neoconservatives. There are two Strausses and Straussianisms here. There are the West Coast Straussians (Harry Jaffa, Charles Kesler, and the Claremont crew), who read the master as a true-believing liberal democrat, and there are the East Coasters (Harvey Mansfield, Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle, et al.) who view him as liberal democrat faute de mieux . However, as Gottfried points out, the similar practical conclusions reached by the two schools make the differences between them unimportant.

Indeed, one of the implicit claims that Gottfried makes is that there is not that great of an ideological difference between the American political parties, and there is no difference between neoconservatives and Cold War liberals. Thus the influence of the Straussians derives in part because, despite their sometimes bombastic rhetoric, their politics are center or center-left and not much different from the politics of both of the mainstream warfare/welfare-state parties in America.

Gottfried notes that both the Straussians and the neoconservatives “assume a certain right-wing style without expressing a right-wing worldview.” Neoconservatives serve to popularize the Straussians’ mythical account of American politics by “drawing their rhetoric and heroic models from Straussian discourse.” Staussians, on the other hand, profit from neoconservative largesse. Gottfried writes that the Straussians “have benefited from the neoconservative ascendency by gaining access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money and by obtaining positions as government advisors.”

For Gottfried, the primary effect that both neoconservatives and Straussians have had on the American conservative movement is to suck all the air out of it and ensure that there is no one to the right of them, while their primary effect on American politics generally has been to reinforce the ideologically charged notion that America is some sort of propositional nation constituted like a vast pseudo-religion by a set of tenets needing constant promulgation. It is a story of America as armed doctrine, and Gottfried is assuredly right in arguing that there is nothing conservative about it.

Strauss was at best a mediocre scholar whose thought expressed a confused bipolarity between a very German and ahistorical Grecophilia on the one hand and a scattered, dogmatic, and unsophisticated apology for an American version of liberal universalism on the other. Amongst prominent European philosophers, Strauss was taken seriously only by Hans-Georg Gadamer, until Gadamer concluded that Strauss was a crank, and by Alexandre Kojève, whose work reads today as if it were a parody of trendy French Marxism. In Britain, neither Strauss nor the Straussians have ever been taken seriously.

Strauss’s argument about esotericism is both historically and philosophically incoherent and useless in any methodological sense. It calls to mind something that Umberto Eco called cogito interruptus :
Finally, regarding the phenomenon of Straussianism, the cult took hold here for the same reasons that cults generally succeed in the U.S.: ignorance, inexperience, and a desire to have a simple answer to complex problems.
Niccolo and Donkey
Bob Dylan Roof

I hope Bronze Age Pervert will come out of poasting retirement to comment. Gottfried wears his wounds and ressentiment on his sleeve - "access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money" - but I think he also has a point concerning the incoherent philo-Americanism and slavish regime loyalty exhibited by Straussians. This philosophy, exemplified in Bloom's remarks on the "wonderfully diverse" postwar University of Chicago classrooms, is the naive perspective of a romantic, starry-eyed immigrant transformed into a political philosophy.

Bronze Age Pervert

I will answer some below. But first consider the big picture. Why is Gottfried and now this guy so concerned with attacking Straussians? Unless you're Tim Robbins or a retard like Shadia Drury...no one believes the Straussians are all that important. In government, they were irrelevant even during the Bush years and were quickly kicked out. In academia, they basically lost most of their presence in the departments of first-tier schools, and they never had much presence there to begin with. They are universally reviled and hated by the left, especially the academic left. They are the only academic group or "school" left that promote serious study of the classics of political philosophy and that still introduce students to Plato, Rousseau, Machiavelli, etc., without smirks and condescending "we know better" attitude. So why is a conservative like Gottfried so concerned with attacking, first Bloom, and now Strauss? In Gottfried's case I can tell you that the reasons are personal. I'm not a fan of such explanations, but unfortunately in this case it's all very petty and very true: he's had a bad academic career and he blames the "neocons" for it, even down to claiming that they falsify student reviews of his classes. Another part of it is jealousy, "I'm a defender of conservatism and the German heritage and I don't want those guys to do it." Still another part of it is a legitimate disdain for many individual Straussians--there are a lot of mediocrities and shallow people; but then he takes the wrong step of pretending that these misguided people are faithful students of Bloom, or of Strauss himself, which isn't the case.

Straussians are the only people actually today--in academia or outside--who are actually trying to recover faithfully the political thought of past ages and who therefore have something fundamentally different to offer in terms of ideas. Everyone else, including Gottfried and this guy, are trapped within the liberal or democratic horizon of values, and merely arguing for somewhat earlier versions of this. This applies by the way even to some soft Straussians who may be pro-FDR liberal democrats in their view; I've never seen them, the good ones at least, try to distort the thought of the past to make a political point supporting their personal politics. The point is that they're literally the only ones who try to read e.g., Alfarabi or Machiavelli without condescension or assumptions, and to try to recover their original political visions. This is why they reject "historicism"; historicist interpretations focus on trying to place these writers "in their time" and to understand their thought as a manifestation of their time (typically in terms of class--the original Marxist historicism--or otherwise now gender, race, etc.), thereby denying these writers' own claims that they are above and beyond their time, and denying the possibility of political philosophy as such.

It's also almost universally dismissed by political "scientists." Modern academics universally dismiss a lot of things...so what? Here a "conservative" invokes otherwise discredited "academic authority" when it suits him?

Wow that long title makes me weak in the knees...let me suck your duck Horace Asperger Prof, Chair of the Master House, etc., etc. ...you see what a faggot this writer is...

I haven't read Gottfried's book, but that's totally wrong. I know of no Straussian, even "left" Straussians who are committed liberal democrats, who find Strauss appealing because of a "mythical account of the rise of liberal democracy"--which is nowhere to be found in Strauss. It's to be found in Hegel though...

It's not clear what he means by "creedal conception" (see below) but Strauss' thoughts on America, one way or the other, are not the source of his appeal to most of his students either.

This is patently false. Maybe he means interventionism but I know of literally no Straussian that supports internationalism, even leftie ones. The biggest Strauss hatiz in academia are actually the partisans of internationalism, globalism, etc.; also, more important, there is no argument for interventionism in Strauss himself (or in Bloom), messianic or not.

What is missing from this account is Strauss' famous line about how he was completely dominated by Nietzsche's thought until he was 32. Hermann Cohen's importance for Strauss doesn't come near the meaning that Nietzsche (and actually also Heidegger, who Strauss considered the only real 20th century philosopher--something else Gottfried apparently ignores) had for him. This is an inconvenient fact for Gottfried: the fact that Nietzsche and Heidegger are so important for Strauss puts him in an entirely different tradition than "Hermann Cohen" does. The "trio of betes noires (positivism, relativism, historicism)" is actually the trio of betes noires for Nietzsche as well. And they're betes noires not because they have something to do with academic conflicts about methodology in Germany (like a typical academic hack this pretentious fuck even refers to the German name of this debate, as if anyone cares today) ...but because they have everything to do with Hegel, and with what Nietzsche understood to be the beginning phase of a European (and world) nihilism. I can't get into it here, but positivism, historicism, and relativism have everything to do with this important matter of incipient nihilism and European "Buddhism" and this was Strauss' concern, like his mentor Nietzsche's.

It is also not the case that Strauss thought liberalism could stand without quasi-religious or quasi-mythical foundations, but that he thought that all regimes needed a basis in religion if they were to survive. This is an idea found explicitly in Rousseau, however, and it's nothing new. But Strauss never tried to provide this for liberalism. He was just very aware that liberalism was very weak.

In one place Strauss even makes the rather shocking (to a liberal) Heidegger-like claim that there isn't a lot of difference between the US and the Soviet Union. It's also something that Bloom repeats indirectly, more than once I think. Gottfried is full of shit.

Regarding the importance of "Nazism" for individual Straussians, this is true, but again, it's all depending on a case by case basis, and not true for Strauss' most important students. There's a lot to be said about many Straussians that's not flattering...but that's true for any group; they have their particular vices, and you'll surely find many young Straussians who are dolts; the question is why you'd focus on a small, already reviled group.
Bronze Age Pervert


Another patent falsehood. Strauss gives plenty of direct quotations regarding the historical existence of this doctrine in the book where he first argues for it ( Persecution and the Art of Writing ). Furthermore, I know someone who compiled over 100 direct quotations, from historical philosophers and theologians themselves, regarding the existence of the practice of esoteric writing. And Plato himself describes this method in the Phaedrus; Maimonides just openly says he uses it, etc.; Rousseau makes a very open reference to it, etc., etc.

Straussian reading is historical, not ahistorical. It's historical in the sense that it's a genuine attempt to read these texts as the authors themselves read them (and this is done using their own directions for how to read their own works) at the time they were written. What's ahistorical is applying 19th century German academic assumptions about the historicity of ideas to people who didn't share this opinion about their own ideas. It's ahistorical to assume that Aristotle or Machiavelli believed in History.

No, Straussians don't argue that all philosophers from the time of Plato are "atheistic hyper-rationalists," or that the US constitution has its roots exclusively in Locke (though who doubts that much of it does?) This guy is a faggot who lies as badly as any lib...

What Straussians do say about philosophers since Plato is that they--at least a few among them--had a grasp of human nature, which doesn't change. Therefore when some snot-nose like the guy who wrote this article or like Sam Harris comes along and condescendingly tries to say that Plato, Aristotle, etc., were primitives who were bound by Greek pagan notions of divinity, or were just stepping-stones in a historical progress of knowledge, a good Straussian will generally be able to come with evidence that, e.g., Plato understood the snot-nose's position better than he does himself. For example, they understood "modern" atheism or nihilism, etc., etc.

Moderns believe in history and progress and like to assume that some ideas or political situations are entirely new and not anticipated by ancient philosophers. Straussians believe that human nature doesn't change and that Plato and Aristotle and the classical political philosophy tradition explained political reality far better than moderns do, and that they therefore understood modern political reality as well. It's only that moderns often confuse secondary or dependent phenomena for fundamental ones. For example, a modern will sometimes glibly say that Aristotle didn't talk about world govt. and therefore was bound by the limitations of his time. But of course world govt. is a very dependent phenomenon...on technology. And Aristotle certainly did talk about technology, the need of the regime to control technological progress, and both he and Plato hinted at what would happen if you allowed this to get out of hand.

The problem with this writer is that he confuses the Straussian insistence on the timeless validity of classical political insights with some "teleological" understanding of evolution to liberal democracy, which is incredibly warped. It is standard Straussian "doctrine" if you will, that there is a sharp separation between "ancients" and "moderns" and that there's no "evolution," teleological or not. In fact if you don't believe in this fundamental distinction between ancients and moderns, you can't even be called a Straussian.

One way to define Straussianism would be to say that you believe in this separation between ancients and moderns, and that you also believe writers before the 19th century used a technique of writing that often hid their intentions. That's pretty much it.

Regarding the problems with Straussian interpretations, that's also a bunch of garbage...sure there is plenty of bad and worthless material, as any school is likely to produce. But there's no case that I know of where either Strauss or one of his good students ever says, "see you don't get it because this is esoteric." They usually have very good textual evidence for their claims, and it's usually the other side that puts its head in the sand...for example, when a Straussian points to a blatant and stupid contradiction that a philosopher makes, which should arouse your attention that something's off, or to certain very strange allusions that will jump out at any attentive reader, the pedant academic opponent will usually put his head in the sand and insist "there's nothing to see there."

Total nonsense, even when it comes to Gottfried's hated "opponent" Allan Bloom. In what way is Closing a "celebration of the American present"? I've also never seen any Straussian teach political philosophy as a teleology that culminates in the United States...an idea again not to be found in Strauss. This article is just full of lies, and the writer should have his tongue branded!!

I've seen many Straussians agree that the best regime is an urban patriciate (or aristocratic republic) and that modern liberal democracy is a great lowering of political life and a great danger to philosophy. This idea is even explicit in Bloom. I know of no other intellectual school or even individual who argues so openly for pre-modern political forms. Gottfried certainly doesn't.

It is true that many Straussians don't support writing for Takimag, Pat Buchanan, or any of the versions of ethnic populism that this guy or Gottfried would like to pretend is "right wing." It's also true that a good number are soft-left weenies who like FDR and the welfare state. None of this is relevant to Strauss' own project or beliefs. Much "Straussian" support for this kind of politics is not founded in a religious belief in the American project, but in a kind of teaching of "prudence" that they may have misunderstood from Strauss, and of not mucking things up when they could be much worse. To this end I've met Straussians who say far more "WN"-type sounding things than Gottfried ever would (yes, they exist) but they still "support" "liberal democracy" and "soft socialism" just because they think the alternatives could be far worse and because they have a fetish for being "prudent." It may be silly but it's not what Gottfried claims it is either.

And here it comes out by the way, about the "largesse" they supposedly receive...Straussians, for a number of reasons, mainly having to do with being kicked out of universities, have been able to form certain modest networks of support for themselves. Academic time-servers like this guy and Gottfried blame them for it. Gottfried deeply resents not being plugged into these sources of funding or "influence," meager as they are. But it has very little to do with his supposedly "right wing" views not being acceptable among Straussians.

And again, there are almost no Straussian "government advisors" now.

There are Straussians, especially younger ones, who do believe in America as a propositional nation and have such views. They're idiots, and they've had no effect on American politics. None of Strauss' real students, not to speak of Strauss himself, believe something so silly.

Another series of lies and misrepresentations. Kojeve has been very influential in Europe especially and could count with Heidegger as one of only a handful of important twentieth century thinkers. There are no thinkers of note, either academic or philosophical, to come out of Britain. One big reason why Strauss is hated there is because the academy, especially the intellectual history disciplines, have been taken over by Marxists (historicists) who want to interpret pre-modern political thought as a proxy attack on capitalism. It's using Machiavelli and Aristotle in lieu of Marx, and Strauss, with his insistence that you must actually pay attention to what's written, gets in their way.

In Germany and France, on the other hand, there's a big surge of interest in Strauss and books on this are published every year now. Of course I don't take that as evidence that Strauss is worthwhile or important, but this guy apparently would...he's just ignorant, or lying.

Another worthless lie is the claim that Strauss himself had an apology for "an Americna version of liberal universalism." You could make this argument, again for some dumbass younger Straussians now--not even ones that are professors anywhere as far as I know--but there's nothing remotely like this to be found in Strauss himself. In fact he even warned of the dangers of trying to spread democracy abroad, etc., besides the other things I've said above.

Esotericism is a historical fact supported by words of philosophers (and their accusers) themselves, and it's very useful for reading books by people who wrote with time to spare, and not beholden to petty passions.

There's no cult of Straussianism that "took hold" in the US. It's a small collection of academic weirdoes with no influence, who are despised by their colleagues, driven out of universities, who have eccentric and goofy habits and who think that Aristotle holds the key to solving modern problems. Gottfried, this guy, and a handful of "right-wing" types also hate them because they bought the whole Bush-reads-Strauss-invades-Iraq-invites-Mexico thing. Or because Straussians have had slightly better access to some paltry foundation money. But there's nothing to that.
Bronze Age Pervert
I was writing reply as you posted. I can say from personal knowledge that Gottfried's dislike for Strauss and Bloom is personal and career-based...he's a petty man.

Regarding the second point, it's both...there are Straussians who are like what you claim, though I wouldn't include Bloom among them. But there's also a principled Straussian position that you must support the regime if they leave you alone to practice philosophy, and they tend to worship "prudence" and so on. It has less to do with adoration for the American regime as such.

I believe the Bloom thing that you refer to is in jest (and in any case he didn't mean diverse in the multicult sense...)

Your replies are garbage, BAP.

Bob Dylan Roof

The Straussian justification for philosophical prudence in the United States is overstated. Philosophers aren't living under the threat of death at the hands of the mob or inquisition by the priests. At worst they're facing ouster from the academy (loss of wages) and opprobrium from their esteemed liberal colleagues.

Hubris would seem to be the order of the day for genuine "free spirits" in such an intellectually libertine milieu.

Bronze Age Pervert
They believe that loyalty to the regime is required if "philosophers" are left alone. With fairness to the few of them who approach it this way, they are indeed paranoid, and I think justifiably so, that a "universal and homogenous state," such as Strauss describes in his debate and letters with Kojeve, would mean the permanent end of philosophy, even as a possibility. I think what they fail to see is that the US is on its path to becoming this itself...

The other part isn't just self-interest for philosophy or worry about mobs like you say, but a "prudence" in general which means that "decent" regimes ought to be defended, that the status quo ought to be maintained if it is not that bad, and that changes are likely to be for the worst, particularly in modern times. Mansfield for example just openly says that you have to lower your expectations from politics in the modern world. This is quite different though from a "hagiography" of the US or a celebration of its "civil religion" or anything else this fag above alleges. Even Allan Bloom just openly says, I think in Closing, that the final aims of the US are not different from the Soviet Union's. But final aims and great ideals aside, in the meantime the US must be defended out of practical "prudence" because it remains "moderate," relatively restrained, better than alternatives for the modern world, etc.

Actually I think they're silly not to attack the US...they have a silly belief in their own power. But I do agree that any real (especially revolutionary) changes are likely to be for the worst.
Bob Dylan Roof
I'm sensitive to the philosophical anxiety about the total state, but I perceive an element of subservience in the "prudence" here. Schmitt's legal ethic also boils down to a commitment to the "normal situation", to a legal order that respects existing institutions and doesn't disrupt the core institutional identity of the nation. The Straussians attack him for being subservient and selling out to the National Socialist government, but all of Schmitt's published works from the NS era and his diary indicate that he thought he could play the role of philosopher in advising and orienting Hitler toward a more moderate path.

I found this approach attractive when I was more committed to some form of Christian traditionalism. Now I simply find it frustrating to think that people like Bloom were aware that the U.S. was attempting to impose a total state but opted for prudence rather than fully making use of the radical freedom of speech afforded to academics.