U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Leo Strauss, Common Sense, and American Conservatism

In his fascinating post last week on common sense, Tim quoted (via an earlier post of mine) the Ford administration’s intellectual-in-residence and Leo Strauss student Robert Goldwin on why Goldwin hated being called an “intellectual”:

There is something fishy about the word ‘intellectual.’ …I think of ‘intellectuals’ as people who have a real distaste, sometimes even contempt, for the common sense approach, which is fundamentally the political approach.

Reencountering this quotation in the context of Tim’s post, I immediately thought that I ought to write something for the blog about the Straussians and the idea of common sense.   This is, for reasons that I hope to make clear below, a complicated, interesting, and important topic, which sheds valuable light on the relationship of Strauss’s thought to the larger world of American conservatism, as well as on the place of a kind of intellectual populism in an essentially aristocratic brand of political philosophy.

As luck would have it, yesterday the New York Times Book Review published a review by Harry Jaffa of Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins new translation of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics which provides the perfect starting point for this discussion.*

As most readers of this blog probably know, Harry Jaffa is one of Leo Strauss’s first–and most famous–students.  Having studied with Strauss at the New School in the 1940s (before Strauss left for the University of Chicago at the end of that decade), Jaffa went on to write extensively about American political thought, especially Lincoln, and to work for the ’64 Goldwater campaign (for which he penned Goldwater’s famous convention speech).  Jaffa, whose academic home was long Claremont Men’s College and the Claremont Graduate School (and more recently the nearby conservative thinktank, the Claremont Institute, which he helped to create), is the founder of the so-called West Coast Straussians, who have a distinctive take on the Straussian legacy, which is evident in this review.**

However distinctive Jaffa and the West Coasters’ take on Strauss’s views can be, Jaffa’s statement in his review of the role of common sense in political philosophy is pretty typical of Strauss and his followers’ stated views:

In his great essay “On Classical Political Philosophy,” Strauss emphasizes the continuity between pre- philosophic political speech and its refinement by classical political philosophy. It is part of the order of nature (and of nature’s God) that pre- philosophic speech supply the matter, and philosophic speech the form, of perfected political speech, much as the chisel of the sculptor uncovers the form of the statue within the block of marble. Before the “Ethics” men knew that courage was a virtue, and that it meant overcoming fear in the face of danger. Aristotle says nothing different from this, but he also distinguishes true virtue from its specious simulacra. The false appearance of courage may result, for instance, from overconfidence in one’s skill or strength, or from one’s failure to recognize the skill or strength of his opponents. The accurate assessment of one’s own superiority of strength or skill, which means one really has no reason to fear an approaching conflict, is another false appearance of courage. A false courage may also result from a passion that blinds someone to the reality of the danger he faces. In short, the appearance of courage may be mistaken for actual courage whenever the rational component of virtue is lacking.

The existence of politics before political philosophy is what makes political philosophy possible. Politics is inherently controversial because human beings are passionately attached to their opinions by interests that have nothing to do with the truth. But because philosophers — properly so called — have no interest other than the truth, they alone can bring to bear the canon of reason that will transform the conflict of opinion that otherwise dominates the political world.

In many ways, this vision is hardly unique to the Straussians. Indeed, it very closely resembles the relationship of philosophy to common sense that Max Weismann, co-founder with Mortimer Adler of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas, attributed to both George Santayana and Adler himself in the comment thread on Tim’s common sense post:

Philosophy thus conceived is a development of the insights already possessed by the man of common sense in the light of common experience; it is a development that adds clarifying analytical distinctions, the precise definition of terms, the reinforcement of systematic reasoning, and the critical exploration of problems to which no satisfactory solution is yet available. The philosophical knowledge achieved by these additions confirms, even as it elaborates, the commonsense wisdom one need not be a philosopher to possess.

If you read these two accounts carefully, you may notice the most important difference between them (and in many ways the source of Adler’s deep disagreement with, and apparently strong dislike of, Strauss): while Weismann (describing Santayana and Adler’s views) refers to philosophy as a method, Jaffa refers to philosophers.  From what I know of Adler (and Tim can correct me if I’m wrong), he would have thought that anyone might learn the techniques of “systematic reasoning” that make philosophical knowledge out of the raw materials of common sense.  But Strauss and his students fundamentally believe that only a very few people are fit to be philosophers.

Indeed, Strauss has a fundamentally hierarchical view of humanity that deeply marks his metaphilosophical and metapolitical ideas–though at various times a more democratic message appears on the surface of his works.

But Strauss’s view of political philosophy as the refinement of common-sense opinions forms the foundation of a populist (or at least pseudo-populist) strain in Straussian thought. It’s most prominent in Strauss and his students’ blistering critique of quantitative political science, which received its most thorough airing in Herbert Storing (ed.), Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962).  In his epilogue to this volume, Strauss constantly contrasts the “old political science” (i.e. classical political philosophy), which used as its basis “common sense” (and, to be clear, Strauss repeatedly deploys this term) understandings of things political, with the “new political science,” which attempts to substitute quantifiable data for these common sense understandings.***

The results of this substitution, according to Strauss, are intellectually and politically disastrous.  The new political science leads academics to understand politics less well than the common man.  The relative and particular aspects of political life are absolutized, while the enduring and absolute are ignored.   The new political philosophy is “vulgarian” and relativistic in its refusal to consider the noble and the good.  Despite its claims to openness, it is entirely dogmatic.  And, what’s worst of all, in the midst of the Cold War, its refusal to take seriously the primary task of the old political science–distinguishing the different regimes from each other–makes the new political science represent a grave and present danger to the Republic.  “Only a great fool,” Strauss concludes,

would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes particular to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful.  Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless, one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.

Strauss’s thought is deeply undemocratic in many ways that reflect its origins in strains of Weimar conservative thought that, at first blush, might seem very foreign to American political discourse. But in claiming that common sense understandings of politics should lie at the foundation of political science and that, by dogmatically rejecting common sense, the dominant academic figures in political science threatened not only the American way of life, but also Western civilization in toto, Strauss created a whole set of elective affinities between his ideas and broader strains of American conservatism.

Strauss and his students’ ideas about the common-sense basis of proper political thought and the supposed abandonment of common sense by American academics resonated with both populist anti-intellectualism and the more sophisticated critique of the New Class that were roiling on the right in the 1960s and beyond.

* I should mention two other interesting posts that have gone up at other sites about this review: 1) Brian Leiter, one of the major gatekeepers in the world of academic philosophy and a passionate anti-Straussian, is appalled that the Times didn’t ask an Aristotle specialist rather than “a card-carrying member of the Strauss cult” to review the book, and quotes a philosophy grad student who adds that Jaffa (dishonestly, in this student’s view) never mentions that this is a translation by Straussians and primarily aimed at Straussians.  (As a student of the controversies over Strauss, I’m fascinated by what Jaffa does and doesn’t mention in this review. Leo Strauss, whose name for decades was virtually unmentioned by his students, is highlighted in this review by name from the start…though his connection to the book in question remains, as Leiter’s grad student notes, entirely unspecified.); 2) The political theorist Alan Gilbert, one of the most intellectually sophisticated anti-Straussians, sees the review–for good reason IMO–as an only-slightly-veiled attack on New York’s recent law instituting marriage equality.  (Though they approvingly link to each other, Leiter and Gilbert are two very different sorts of academic anti-Straussians.  Leiter, following Myles Burnyeat, believes that Strauss and his followers are intellectually empty ideologues and charlatans, who completely misunderstand the great works of political philosophy.  Gilbert, on the other hand, sees Strauss as intellectually brilliant but dangerous, a literal fascist–who would have been a Nazi if he weren’t Jewish–who hoped to transplant fascism to these shores. Moreover, Gilbert essentially thinks that Strauss got Plato right and that Plato, like Strauss, promoted a tyrannical political vision.)

** Depending on whom you ask, Jaffa and his West Coast followers arrived at their views either by choosing a reasonable, if controversial, method of resolving a fundamental tension in Strauss’s work (the view of Catherine and Michael Zuckert), by utterly misunderstanding Strauss (Alan Gilbert), or by being systematically and intentionally misled by Strauss himself (Shadia Drury).  The distinctly West Coast aspect of the review is Jaffa’s notion that Strauss endorses the nearly total consilience of philosophical reason and Biblical revelation, of Athens and Jerusalem:

But what is the West? And what is its crisis? According to Strauss (and many others), the West is the civilization constituted at its core by the coming together of classical philosophy and biblical revelation. The vitality of Western civilization results from the interplay of these alternative principles, though each contains within itself what claims to be exclusive and irrefutable authority. Symbolic of this authority are Athens and Jerusalem. In “The Second World War,” Churchill remarks that everything valuable in modern life and thought is an inheritance from these ancient cities. The debunking both of Socratic skepticism (“the unexamined life is not worth living”) and of biblical faith (“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) has led to the crisis of the West, a chaos of moral relativism and philosophic nihilism in which every lifestyle, no matter how corrupt or degenerate, can be said to be as good as any other.

In their brilliant and highly readable “Interpretive Essay” Bartlett and Collins suggest, without positively asserting, that Aristotle offers a solution to the problem, or crisis, of human well-being. But they seem to doubt whether it can meet the challenge of the God of Abraham. But these two principles are not adversarial in all respects. Indeed, much of Strauss’s work is a radical attack — made with the greatest intellectual competence — against the latter- day enemies of both the Bible and a Socratic Aristotle. Strauss maintained that Athens and Jerusalem, while disagreeing on the ultimate good, disagree very little, if at all, on what constitutes a morality both good in itself and the pathway to a higher good.

Aristotle’s greatness of soul (magnanimity) may seem to resemble pride, the greatest of sins described in the biblical canon. But Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the “Ethics” offers proof against theological negativism. And in the “Summa Contra Gentiles,”Thomas made the case for sacred doctrine on the basis of Aristotelian premises. It is an assumption of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature that the highest good of each species is accessible to all, or nearly all, its members. For man the highest good is wisdom. But since few if any human beings attain it, Aristotle’s nature requires a supernatural correlate: the afterlife. Whatever one thinks of this argument, it points to a dialectical friendship between Athens and Jerusalem.  

Strauss certainly appears to attack the “latter-day enemies” of both the Bible and classical philosophy. But he repeatedly insists that the two, while mutually irrefutable, essentially contradict each other. Either human reason is sufficient or revelation trumps reason.  Insisting, as the Thomistic tradition and Jaffa do, that the two can be reconciled is a project doomed to failure according to Strauss.  Here’s perhaps Strauss’s most famous statement of this view in Natural Right and History (pp. 74-75):

For both philosophy and the Bible proclaim something as the one thing needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite of that proclaimed by philosophy: a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight.  In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis, however impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed, more or less subtly but in any event surely, to the other: philosophy, which means to be the queen, must be made the handmaid of revelation or vice versa.

(This passage, incidentally, suggests that Strauss is being ironic when he suggests on the opening page of the introduction to The City and Man that political philosophy might be “the indispensible handmaid of theology.”)

Strauss is, as Michael and Catherine Zuckert put it, a thinker of polarities. And the West Coast Straussians tend to resolve these polarities in ways that Strauss (and others of his students) are much more loath to do.

*** Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics is long out of print, but those interested can find Strauss’s “An Epilogue” reproduced in two collections of Strauss essays, Liberalism Ancient & Modern and Introduction to Political Philosophy.

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. An excellent post, particularly on how Strauss annexed himself, not being a conservative, to American conservatives who are often very different. Just a few points: 1) Strauss relies on Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. Both are reactionary German authoritarians and not remotely conservative in the American sense of a belief in the rule of law, habaes corpus, opposition to torture and even opposition to imperial crusades abroad. 2) I have changed my view on Plato (as of a year ago) and think that he, along with Socrates, proposed “going down” to defend democracy against tyranny. Heidegger is one of the great Plato scholars, but his interpretation, the height of his Nazism in his 1943 The Essence of Truth (expurgated in post World War II versions) – is false. 3) Heidegger’s work on the Greeks is the core of Strauss’s Platonism, 4) Strauss could not join the Nazi party but was amazingly deeply pro-Nazi late into the 1930s and long after he emigrated to the United States, 5) Strauss is a wonderful, subtle and determined scholar, often of works that others don’t study, but terrible at argument (not remotely a philosopher). He is good, however, at discerning some of the hidden meanings or “art of writing” in others and following and in this regard, articulating or spelling out an understanding of Heidegger’s – and Heidegger’s approach to his own work – makes in this regard, as he claimed, a serious intellectual contribution.

  2. Ben,

    A hearty thanks(!) to you for helping me understand a bit better the Straussian version of “common sense.” You anticipated a question I would have probably brought to you in private and answered it publicly. And I loved the conclusion to the main text of your post. Excellent.

    Because Adler’s *Time of Our Lives* (TOL) is centered on a neo-Aristotelian update of the *Nicomachean Ethics*, I had planned on addressing that Jaffa review of the new NE and my upcoming posts—but you and Gilbert have done that for me. I had neither looked for nor seen the anti-gay marriage subtext. I’ll have to reread it with that in mind. [Aside: Did anyone else think the references to Churchill were a bit strange? That clearly had a point, but I’m not yet sure what that point was.]

    One of the important things you addressed for me, in relation to the review, is the attempted reconciliation of Athens and Jerusalem. I’ve seen that elsewhere (Matthew Arnold’s *Culture and Anarchy*, I think), but never expected it in Straussian discourse. I had thought of Strauss as either irreligious (agnostic) or anti-religious. What’s your take on this? Are non-West Coast rappers–err Straussians—all Deist types and the West Coasters are Christians?

    You wrote: From what I know of Adler (and Tim can correct me if I’m wrong), he would have thought that anyone might learn the techniques of “systematic reasoning” that make philosophical knowledge out of the raw materials of common sense.

    Adler repeats that Santayana formulation both in TOL and his 1992 autobiography. As such, your impression is mostly correct: common sense is the starting point for further philosophical work, work meant to be helpful to those see and believe in some degree of a commonly sensible world. I will only nuance your point from here on out.

    On his best days, which were fairly consistent in this particular area of his life, Adler saw philosophy as a democratic endeavor—accessible to everyone with the will and necessary persistence. It’s not that Adler believed that everyone would be the _best_ philosopher, but rather that to some degree everyone could understand it, do it, or both. To Adler philosophy was not meant to be the specialist’s preserve, tackling esoteric problems communicated in a special, private language (e.g. symbolic logic). And all types of philosophy—especially the kinds that contained needed truths—were meant for all people to consider, and not through the filter of an elite interpreter.

    There is some irony here because “early Adler” was an enthusiast of logic and the esoteric work of Thomas Aquinas. After a philosophical conversion to neo-Aristotelianism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he maintained his enthusiasm for logic only as a check rather than an end unto itself (a view Adler would also apply to language theories and the philosophies of language—they were “second order” philosophical work, important, ind you, but only concerned with method rather than the important topics (i.e. truths) everyone cared about).

    But back to Adler’s conversion: Instead of irritating Thomists with his writing on democracy and the problems with Aquinas’s “five ways” arguments, Adler instead began to irritate the pseudo-gnostic classicist philosophers like Strauss with his promotion of Aristotle as a philosopher would could help the world deal with the problems of modernity and postmodernity.

    – TL

  3. Churchill was a subject of religion for Strauss -a great statesman and despotic war-ruler (Churchill himself wished to restore parliament as soon as possible, whereas Strauss had no interest in it) and a grotequely racist colonialist. Strauss approved in the voice of a young nihilist (one of his ways of expressing his affection for Nazism, sometimes offered as if it were what other “decent” young people believed – murdering millions of innocents is, for Leo Strauss, if for no one else, a “moral” view – demented and evil would be more apt), of Churchill’s appreciation of struggle and loss…

    Neo-cons genuflect at the altar of Churchill, sometimes praising English colonialism. Straussians do so particularly, holding a celebration in Washington once a year during the Bush administation, on Churchill’s birthday. Look at the columns of Bill Kristol, particularly in the New York Times, and the mantras about Churchill and Leo, drained of intellectual substance, will leap out at you.

    That the editor printed this religious and reactionary drivel ostensibly on a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of the many remarkable things about this case. Except for a parti pris, it is hard to understand how so thoroughly irrelevant and cliched a review can have found its way into the Times. Editors, after all, have the possibility, not to say, responsibility of rejecting, though commissioned, a bad review. This one is a paradigm.

  4. Am I the only one who finds it at least a little ironic that Prof. Gilbert relies on one of the most controversial aspects of Straussian analysis to assert that Jaffa’s review is a thinly-disguised attack on New York’s legalisation of gay marriage, namely, esotericism?

    A hallmark of Straussian interpretations of texts is that their authors often hid their real opinions in code and doublespeak, and that, consequently, in order to decipher what was really meant, one has to read between, through, over, and under the lines of what is actually written. Now, I saw nothing in Jaffa’s review that had anything to do with gay marriage. That is not to say, however, that it in fact had nothing to do with gay marriage. Being a Straussian, Jaffa would certainly know how to hide his true meaning within its ostensible one, there to be discovered by the faithful. But if this is so, the only way to reveal the hidden import would be to apply a Straussian key to the text, which Gilbert seems to do. Of course, doing this relieves Gilbert of providing anything more concrete to support his claim, for example evidence that the review was at least written after gay marriage was approved in New York, even if perhaps it had been commissioned prior to that. (If the review was both commissioned and written beforehand, however, the hole becomes a lot deeper). Thus he may remain safely at the level of conjecture without rising even to that of the circumstantial.

    In other words, though there are plenty of grounds to object to Straussianism in general (esotericism being one) and the review in particular, a suppositious opposition to gay marriage in New York is not a credible one.

    “Brian Leiter, one of the major gatekeepers in the world of academic philosophy . . .”

    It always amazes (and appalls, maybe) me that a discipline as boundless as philosophy ostensibly is in reality is so insular and narrow that it not only can have someone function as its gatekeeper, but that this figure’s pretentions are encouraged by those over whom he would exercise such sway. I like to imagine that Leiter appointed himself to this dominion in a manner not unlike how Rousseau in the Second Discourse envisioned the foundation of civil society. In the discharge of his duties, though, he’s always struck me as bearing a far greater resemblance to those truculent, musclebound goons one finds enforcing the dress code outside a trendy nightclub than he does to St. Peter.

  5. Well, there is this line from the review:

    “The debunking both of Socratic skepticism (“the unexamined life is not worth living”) and of biblical faith (“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) has led to the crisis of the West, a chaos of moral relativism and philosophic nihilism in which every lifestyle, no matter how corrupt or degenerate, can be said to be as good as any other.”

    The tendency on the right to refer to “the homosexual lifestyle” and the connection of lifestyle to “degeneracy” in this passage seem to provide some basis for such a reading, especially at a moment when NY State has proclaimed equality in the realm of marriage. Of course, we might think that nobody had a “lifestyle” at all until Alfred Adler invented the concept. That Jaffa would use a concept like “lifestyle,” perhaps, shows how corrupted defenders of the faith have become!

  6. Perhaps, but then conservatives of various stripes (including but not only Straussians) have been complaining about degeneracy and relativism for God knows how long. Maybe gay marriage is what degeneracy means now, but the nature of such a catch-all charge is that it catches all. It carries about as much specificity as charges of “socialism” leveled at liberals do. Maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Surely that is a state of affairs Straussians would revolt against!

  7. It is ironic on Varad Mehta’s part to attack esotericism and then be unkind to Brian Leiter whose view roughly is that Straussianism is just handwaving…

    It is also peculiar to take someone’s one sentence description of a thinker in a blog post as “the truth” about the matter.

    In Jaffa’s review, the reference to nature and nature’s God which I emphasized and the reference to lifestyles, as Dick Wickberg points out, are pretty plain (barely coded if one knows the standard rhetoric of Catholic homophobia).

    Whether Jaffa engages, generally speaking, in esoteric meanings is, I think, doubtful. But about homosexuality, his fulminations here were probably visible enough to the editor, no mystery around New York. The political parti pris is the only reason to have published so empty a review ostensibly about the Nicomachean Ethics. That the review is homophobic in bent would have been true in the controversy before the state legalized gay marriage last week, but is also plainly the case in the editor’s having decided to publish the review in this week’s issue.

    Jaffa is also well known for his animus against Allan Bloom for being gay…

    On the deeper intellectual issue, Plato’s Phaedrus offers a description of what a dialogue is. For most readers, writings are, Socrates says, like statues. If you ask them a question, they have no “father” to defend them. But a person who knows how to read attentively will be able to find a happiness which unfolds to eternity. For a detailed argument on how this works for historicity and advocacy of National Socialism in Heidegger’s Being and Time, see my blog: democratic-individuality.blogspot.com for June 20, 2011. The web address is: http://democratic-individuality.blogspot.com/2011/06/for-repetition-of-world-war-and-against.html

    Strauss’s point that there is an “art of writing” in some major philosophers, viz. Plato is not justifiably controversial (many contemporary philosophers and classiciasts, inter alia, deny it without much thought, but only because they were educated to expect that Plato’s arguments must be “like ours.” That Strauss is right about what such messages are or entail is much more doubtful.

  8. “Leiter, following Myles Burnyeat, believes that Strauss and his followers are intellectually empty ideologues…”

    Indeed, Brian Leiter has in the past referenced Burnyeat’s scurrilous review of Strauss in the NYRB as THE vindication for his Strauss-hatred. It ought to be pointed out that one of Burnyeat’s finest students, G.R.F Ferrari* has become something of a Strauss admirer based on his being impressed with the caliber of the students of prominent Straussian Seth Benardete. Funny, that.

    Alan Gilbert’s statement: “Jaffa is also well known for his animus against Allan Bloom for being gay…”

    This is a contemptible slander. Jaffa’s whole beef with Bloom is that Bloom reads the Founding as Hobbesian – i.e., nothing more complicated than Bloom following the standard Eastern Straussian line that Locke was indeed a Hobbesian a-la Strauss’s reading of Locke in _Natural Right and History_.


    * Cf. Ferrari’s positive statement about Strauss, appearing on the dustjacket of Strauss’s posthumously published _On Plato’s Symposium_). Also Tom Pangle’s demolition of Burnyeat on pp. 139-140 of _Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy_ here: http://bit.ly/nYqvgq (only 139 on view).

  9. “Strauss could not join the Nazi party but was amazingly deeply pro-Nazi late into the 1930s and long after he emigrated to the United States,”

    Another person at a different discussion site made a response to this and gets it basically right:

    As far as I can tell, Gilbert bases his case, in part, on a letter Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith in 1933, a letter in which Strauss endorsed fascist authoritarianism and derided liberalism’s “droits imprescriptibles de l’homme.” I know Jaffa might make a big deal of the fact that Strauss wrote those lines in French rather than English, but I am not certain that Strauss was making any esoteric claim.

    If you look up the letter, it seems relatively clear that Strauss argues for fighting fire with fire, as liberal arguments have no real purchase on German minds. I don’t see any bullet-proof endorsement of Nazism, but rather a prudential case for a spirit of Roman greatness as able to conquer what he calls, pointedly, a “shabby abomination.”

    The next point follows – Gilbert argues that Strauss relied upon Heidegger and Schmitt. I am sure someone among our mutual friends knows better the actual intellectual pedigree than I do, but it seems certain that Strauss admired the thought of Heidegger without relying on it. It is also the case that Heidegger convinced Strauss to turn to the Greeks. To claim in conclusion, as Gilbert does, that their reading of Plato is therefore identical and furthermore equally ‘Nazi’ is beyond credible.

    And, insofar as Gilbert claims to have retooled his understanding of Plato’s Republic as a comment against tyranny – isn’t that precisely Strauss’s line as well? Isn’t that what [Stanley] Rosen claims to be Strauss’s primary misstep in his exegesis of that work?”

  10. Question for the distinguished observers of, and commenters on, this post:

    Since my research subject (M.J. Adler) opposed Straussians (generally) and used Aristotle (in part) to do it, I’d be interested in an summaries or opinions of Carnes Lord’s piece on Aristotle that appeared in History of Political Philosophy (ed. by Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, published 1962, 1973, 1987). I assume the Lord essay appears in all three editions (it looks to be about 35 pages long). Do any commentaries or legit summaries of the essay exist? I ask because I’m not sure I need to read the original. – TL

  11. Thanks, all, for your lively and interesting comments, about which I’ll have more substantive things to say to when I have the time to give them the attention they deserve in the next day or so.

    But I wanted to quickly correct a simple factual error: the Carnes Lord essay on Aristotle appeared for the first time in the 3rd edition of the Strauss/Cropsey History of Political Philsophy. It replaced the essay on Aristotle by Harry Jaffa that was featured in the first and second editions.

  12. Thanks for the correction, Ben. That explains for me (somewhat) why Jaffa was seen as qualified (at least?) to write a review of a new N.E. – TL

  13. To anonymous,

    I was part of the translation of the 1933 letter to Loewith, providing the German to Scott Horton and discussing his translation with him. Horton translates the obscure phrase meskine Unwesen as shabby abomination, Eugene Sheppherd as mean nonentity, both referring to Hitler, which they and I took Strauss to be opposing from an authoritarian or fascist or imperial or ancient Roman stance. That this phrase refers to Hitler was always somewhat odd. Michael Zank at Brandeis (his work was brought to my attention by Will Altman) discovered that the Italian meskine standardly refers to Jews like Shylock and Fagin, and was a reference to the grubby Jewish nonentity of the last men. Strauss’s “principles of the Right” sadly counted toward Hitler, not against him.

    Further, I found other letters, for example, an exchange of Jacob Klein with Strauss in 1934 (published on my blog with commentary) in which Klein, also a right-wing Jewish Nietzschean, apologizes to Strauss. He had thought, he says, that the National Revolution meant the overcoming of the last men. But he now realizes the Nazism is anti-semitism tricked up with reactionary Russian helmets and Italian insignia; it is “perverted Judaism.” Strauss responds: I agree with you only if the whole modern world is perverted Judaism. Don’t be a defeatist.

    This was in 1934, when what Nazism was and what it meant, had long become unmistakable.

    In the United States, Strauss opposed separation of powers, and particularly, separation of church and state or religious toleration. He was for an imperial, executive or in Bush speak commander in chief power regime, appealing to religion among the masses. His political followers unite around the core idea of authoritarianism. To Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, soon to be a contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, he wrote memos, recommending that the US take out Cuba just as the Soviets suppressed the Hungarian rebellion. I found these memos as the first non-Straussian admitted to the Regenstein archive at the University of Chicago by the new administrator Nathan Tarcov in 2008. Joseph Cropsey, the first administrator, refused Steve Holmes’s request to see the papers when he was a junior professor at Chicago (see Holmes, The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism) because “some of the letters might be misunderstood.” Sadly, Cropsey meant “understood…” The publication of these letters in volume 3 of Strauss’s works in German provides broad evidence that he was a fan of Nazism, and the posthumous essay on Heidegger – the great philosopher of our time, the one whom underlaborer scholars like Strauss on his apt self-characterization, cannot get beyond, drives this point home.

    Strauss posed as an anti-tyrannical person in the United States, just as he posed as a defender of moral objectivity against value-free political science (the latter arguments were what I sympathized with in Strauss once upon a time, his best intellectual effort, and I was saddened to discover that he was a Heideggerian and didn’t believe a bit of it. “Natural right” in Natural Right and History refers not to natural rights which he despises, but to the right of the stronger to dominate domestically and in great power politics (about Jefferson, he mocks the Declaration of Independence to praise the Louisiana Purchase as an expression of power politics). He speaks of classical natural right (p. 117) as inequality.

    Continued in the next post…

  14. The anti-tyranny material was all directed against the Soviet Union. As early as On Tyranny (1948, his first book in the United States, pp. 27, 75), he makes clear that the domination of technology in the US is just as bad as Soviet tyranny (an odd view since there were fewer murders in the United States; Strauss actually opposed Brown v. Board of Education and supported segregation, as I also discovered and put up on my blog in the Regenstein archive) and one must look for an alternative. He praises the rule of a tyrant who listens to a wise man, and this is the point of Xenophon’s Simonides in the Hiero, pace Strauss’s surface claim to be opposing Soviet (and US technological) tyranny.

    The understanding of Plato I moved away from was Strauss’s (you can find this in my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?,” Constellations, 2009). It comes from a hidden message in the Republic. There, regimes decline from philosopher-king to tyrant. But the Greek idea is a circle (kuklos). And Plato’s Socrates insists that extremes are nearest one another. I found in Aristotle’s Politics, book 5, the criticism that this account would be perfect and a circle if a tyrant became a philosopher-king which suggested to me that that might have been what Plato taught his students in the Academy (Aristotle studied with Plato for 20 years…). I then got from Nathan Tarcov the transcript of Strauss’s 1966 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics in which he emphasizes this point. So I thought that I had discovered something (I was sad about it) and that Strauss had seen the same. Stanley Rosen (a smart and eccentric Straussian) corrects Bloom’s misinterpretation along broadly similar lines in his recent book on the Republic.

    But I have now reconsidered the Republic and think that its point is to convince Glaucon not to become a tyrant. In any case, Strauss does not remotely see Socrates (mostly Xenophon’s, on his view) or Plato as a defender of democracy…

    Nothing much rests on the point about Jaffa’s vehemence toward Bloom. My friend Peter Minowitz suggested it might stem from Bloom’s flamboyance, and you might be right that there is an intellectual difference about Hobbes and Locke. But both things seem to go together. In any case, my core point was that the Jaffa’s review in the Times was, in the context of the debates in New York, homophobic, and that it was very likely published for this reason; about this, you say nothing.

    On Heidegger, look at the discussion of the cave-metaphor, a central theme of the 1943 The Essence of Truth: the Cave-metaphor and the Theaetetus and think about the connections with Strauss. Heidegger admired Nazism as the triumph of the rural over the urban (liberalism and Marxism). Read Strauss’s posthumous essay – nearing death he says enables a philosopher to speak more plainly – on “Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism” and you will find the same point: hostility to and pessimism about modern urban life. I have detailed arguments on this on my blog, particularly the last post for June, 2010 – the one I cite the web address for above and that you couldn’t be bothered to look at it before sniping. But put minor matters aside.

    These are deep issues and if you would like to take them up point by point, here or on my blog (becoming perhaps less anonymous), I would be happy to do it with you.

  15. Thanks to Alan Gilbert for his extensive reply to Anonymous re: Strauss and Nazism. Since I was going to refer Anon (and others) to Alan’s blog (where what you see above is elaborated in much more detail), he’s largely stolen my thunder. Another place to turn on these issues is Will Altman’s work, especially his recent book The German Stranger.

    I continue to think that the question of Strauss’s actual political commitments, especially from the 1940s on, is a complicated one (not least because I think his interest in politics was largely related to the defense of his vision of philosophy). But the indictments offered by Gilbert and Altman are serious and based on more than just a single smoking gun letter (though that now infamous letter cannot be easily dismissed). I think it’s telling that the Straussians themselves take Alan Gilbert and Will Altman seriously. Gilbert gets on well intellectually with a number of Straussians and Altman’s work has been praised by Peter Minowitz, author of Straussophobia, a book that is intended as a defense of Strauss against many of his most vociferous critics.

  16. On Jaffa, Bloom, homosexuality, and Hobbes, I’d urge Anonymous (and anyone else interested) to take a look at Jaffa’s long screed against The Closing of the American Mind, “Humanizing Certitudes and Impoverishing Doubts,” which appeared in the Fall 1988 issue of the journal Interpretation, the leading Straussian journal of political philosophy. I’m happy to say that the entire run of Interpretation is now available online for free –very much flying in the face of Straussians’ not unjustified reputation for secrecy; it’s a great resource. You’ll find the .pdf of the issue including the Bloom piece here (it also features reviews of Closing by William Galston, Roger Masters, Will Morrisey, and Harry Neumann).

    Some things to note about Jaffa’s review. First, homosexuality is virtually the first thing he mentions in it. Calling it the “one surprising omission in Bloom’s catalogue of the evils of relativism,” Jaffa goes on for two pages about the evils of “sodomy,” including such tidbits as “the chronology of the AIDS epidemic corresponds precisely with this public movement to establish sodomy and lesbianism as a recommended lifestyle.”

    Second, even when he eventually turns to Hobbes, Jaffa continues to toss homophobic analysis into his review:

    But Bloom writes about the thought underlying the Founding. And what he says can refer only to the thought of Thomas Hobbes. For it was only that old bachelor for whom self-preservation meant individual self-preservation, and who divorced preservation from procreation, the family and civil society. What is true of the political thought of Thomas Hobbes is not however true of the American Founding. It is not even true of Locke.

    Of course the implication is that it is true of Bloom, whose own homosexuality and HIV-status were still open secrets in 1988 and which go unmentioned, at least on the surface of Jaffa’s review.

    But Jaffa’s review, while complicated and interesting in many ways, keeps winding its way back to Bloom’s sexual orientation, even as Jaffa is as silent about it as Bloom is about homosexuality itself.

    Bloom, Jaffa says, consistently prefers European writers to American ones, and is a follower of Nietzsche Rousseaa. He is, moreover, a “quintessential liberal” who “does not admit within his own soul–nor does he teach–any idea of freedom that is conditional upon anything higher than man as man.”

    After invoking Heidegger and The Triumph of the Will, Jaffa concludes his review with the following lines:

    Here then is the core of modern nihilism, and of the belief that there is no ground for the existence of God, or of the noble and good things, except as useful fictions or pleasing illusions. These must be willed by man, although they are believed by hoi polloi only if their origin is concealed. For the true Thinker–who replaces the Philosopher–there is neither myth nor reality. The Thinker–having triumphed over the terror of the abyss–alone lives without illusions, without either hope or fear, but in unprecedented freedom. Bloom lives with considerable discomfort in this freedom, but he has not yet figured out anything for which he would give it up.

  17. Oops…that sentence should read:

    “Bloom, Jaffa says, consistently prefers European writers to American ones, and is a follower of Nietzsche and Rousseau.”

  18. I did also want to quickly thank Anonymous for mentioning G.R.F. Ferrari, who has indeed written thoughtfully and sympathetically about Strauss. If someone from far outside the fold were to ask me to explain why people were attracted to Strauss’s work, Ferrari’s essay on “Strauss’s Plato” from the Fall 1997 issue of Arion would be one of the places I’d send him or her.

  19. My anonymous compatriot’s protestation to the contrary, Jaffa’s review of Bloom’s book makes perfectly clear that homosexuality was the major issue. Much of that review is in much worse taste than what Alpers actually quotes. Jaffa’s various statements about homosexuality in many places are the only contemptible slander involved here, and are so idiotic and extreme that George Anastaplo – one of Jaffa’s few defenders among Strauss’s original generation of students (and a long-time critic of Bloom) – was compelled wrote a whole long article criticizing Jaffa on this subject:


    All of which raises the interesting question: why is Jaffa so excised about homosexuality? The Zuckert’s persuasively argue that Jaffa’s latter-day fulminations in general are partly meant to express a crypto-critique of Strauss, whom Jaffa had come to see as a corrupter of youth and whose ideas were subversive of the American republic. But of course Jaffa could not admit this, and so instead he took to attacking other students of Strauss as a kind of proxy war. My guess is that a similar dynamic is at work vis-a-vis homosexuality: at some point later in his career Jaffa probably realized that Strauss’s writings and his circle were rife with homosexuality and homoeroticism.

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