Last week, author and educator Earl Shorris passed away at the age of 75 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His New York Times obituary rightly focuses on his creation of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, the program he created in 1995 to bring a broad, liberal arts curriculum to the economically disadvantaged, which earned him a National Humanities Medal in 2000.
But the first thing I thought of when I heard of Shorris’s passing was a piece that he wrote for Harper’s, published in June, 2004, entitled “Ignoble Liars: Leo Strauss, George Bush, and the Philosophy of Mass Deception” (.pdf available here). Shorris’s piece was one of a series of popular works from the middle of the last decade that sought to blame Leo Strauss and his acolytes for all that had gone wrong during the Bush years. In May, 2003, Seymour Hersh had argued in The New Yorker that a Straussian cabal was responsible for cooking U.S. intelligence on Iraq to bring about war, a charge echoed that same month by James Atlas in a New York Times op-ed. This flurry of articles, in turn, inspired the actor Tim Robbins to write Embedded, a play that premiered in L.A. in July, 2003, which dramatized the notion that Leo Strauss was pulling the strings of the Iraq War from beyond the grave. Shortly after Shorris’s article appeared, in the fall of 2004, the documentarian Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares premiered on BBC television, arguing that Leo Strauss had not only been the intellectual font of neoconservatism, but had also inspired American policymakers to invent Al Qaeda.
How do these attempts to argue that Leo Strauss was the power behind the Bush throne hold up almost a decade later? How does Shorris’s piece fare among them?
My provisional answer is to the first question is that these articles, plays, and documentaries explained both too little and too much. On the one hand, they were part of a much larger tendency to see the Bush Administration–especially post-9/11–as representing a much more radical break with the past than it in fact did. The too-little-acknowledged continuities have become clearer now that we have had three years during which a Democratic administration has not, in fact, reversed many of the policies that critics found so appalling during the Bush years. Discovering a previously obscure, foreign, reactionary thinker as the secret cause of an administration’s actions nicely fit the view of the Bush administration as a radical break from the past. The focus on Strauss and his followers as the secret power behind the Bush administration tended to produce elaborate explanations for fairly historically common phenomena, like administrations’ lying to the public about wars, while providing far too shallow critiques of other phenomena, such as long-standing problems with the national security state that had developed during the Cold War and lived on long after its end. Stories of the trahison des Straussians also uncomfortably resembled a long tradition of anti-intellectual counter-subversive narratives, the most famous modern examples of which involved Communists during the Cold War.
All that being said, Straussians have played a smaller, but nonetheless important, role in modern American conservatism. The fact that some false conspiracy theories have been constructed about them no more makes them unimportant on the right than the falsity of most anti-Communist conspiracy theories means that Communists weren’t important in the Old Left.
In the context of the popular anti-Straussian writings of the Bush years, Shorris’s piece is measured and interesting, if nonetheless off-base in many typical ways. Shorris makes his share of sloppy mistakes, some of them understandable and basically unimportant (e.g. identifying Strauss’s hometown as “Kirchheim” rather than “Kirchhain”) some of them significant and less defensible (e.g. identifying Grover Norquist as a Straussian).
To his credit, Shorris sets his critique in a world in which Leo Strauss did not invent public dishonesty:
It is safe to say that neither Ronald Reagan nor the Bushes have read Leo Strauss, and certainly no politician needs to be taught how to lie by a professor of philosophy.
Nevertheless, as Shorris notes in a footnote to this statement,
we need not be concerned with proving direct lines of influence. A brief summary of Straussian doctrine suffices to demonstrate its affinity with what one might call the “mind of the regime,” whether any particular member of the Bush Administration has read Strauss or not.
But Shorris is sensibly uncomfortable at leaving the matter at merely identifying similarities between the behavior of the administration and (his understanding of) Strauss, so he continues in the main text of his article:
Perhaps William Kristol, while serving as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, tutored the vice president in the finer points of Platonic politics. But it is unlikely. The step from philosophy to action is almost always circuitous, Machiavelli being one of the rare exceptions. Strauss’s ideas about ideas took the usual path, picked and poked and punched, mutating here, understood selectively there. At one time, Strauss wrote a sentence in which he opposed preventive war. How disappointed his followers in the Department of Defense would be to read it now in light of the wreckage they have made!
The career of Strauss’s teachings is one of the wonders and the dangers of the book, as the master himself might have said, knowing that the long life of books, unlike newspapers or television, is bound up with history in a process of indirection. The ideas in books somehow manage to wiggle through the morass of individuals and information in large modern societies and become effective. The way is not clear, but the fact of it often gives surcease to the pains of laboring in obscurity.
Two things are notable about this passage. First, it shows a much subtler understanding of the actual ways that ideas affect society than the sometimes Dan Brownish intellectual conspiracy theories that have been written about the Straussians. Secondly, there’s some suggestion that Shorris sees Strauss himself as similar to Prof. Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, whose Nietzschean ideas are transformed by a student into an act of murder. In fact, around the time Shorris wrote his Harper’s piece, a number of critics of the Straussians, including both Anne Norton and Mark Lilla, began to suggest that Strauss was not a Straussian and that the master should not be blamed for the sins of his acolytes.
Shorris himself, however, is not clear on this point. One of the striking things about his article is the poignancy of his (essentially negative) portrait of Leo Strauss. Shorris has virtually nothing good to say about Strauss’s writings (which he sees as intentionally impossible to decipher and largely dedicated to bad writing for bad writing’s sake) or about his political commitments (which he sees as reactionary, hierarchical, and anti-democratic). Yet he also sees Strauss as an essentially tragic figure, whose politics were almost entirely determined by his intellectual hero Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism, and who seemed (somewhat like Stewart’s Prof. Cadell) to have had little desire for the powers sought by his followers:
Without question he was a brilliant professor, a frightened man whose ideas, having been battered into hiding by historic events, were eccentric. He had produced some journal articles, delivered the Walgreen Lectures, never to my knowledge appeared in the “public press,” made no radio or television appearances, and during his lifetime found but a small group of readers for his books. He died obscure and far from home.
Ultimately, Shorris’s take on Strauss’s life and ideas is overly reductive, though much of the blame no doubt lies with the format–a seven page magazine article–as well as the unavailability of decent secondary sources about Strauss: although the situation would change drastically over the next five years, at the time Shorris wrote, not a single scholarly biography of Strauss had been published in English, and there were still very few scholarly monographs dedicated to explicating his thought.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Shorris’s article on Strauss is something that goes unstated in it. Early in the piece, Shorris notes that Strauss
had but one core idea: read old books carefully. It was a stroke of genius, and nothing more invigorating or enlightening could be said about education, but it was not news on a campus run by Robert Maynard Hutchins, one of the inventors of the Great Books curriculum.
What Shorris doesn’t mention is that he himself was very much a product of that curriculum. Shorris attended U of C in the late ’40s and early ’50s, arriving there as a thirteen year-old (Chicago was known for accepting very young undergraduates) within a year or two of Leo Strauss himself. Though he left before receiving his degree, Shorris was deeply influenced by his university’s commitment to the Great Books, as his creating of the Clemente Course some four decades later attests. As Tim Lacy has written on this blog, there were many flavors of commitment to the Great Books at Chicago. And Shorris, like Mortimer Adler, was deeply attached to great books liberalism. As the Clemente Course suggests, Shorris saw the Great Books as documents of democratic empowerment. But he saw Strauss as attempting to wed these books to a doctrine of elitism and obscurantism.
Shorris’s piece ends with a call to resist the “Nietzschean dreams of power” that he saw as regnant, thanks to Strauss, in the Bush administration. He’s largely silent–other than those passing words of praise in that last blockquote, which could incorrectly be read as ironic–on his own abiding commitment to the Great Books. What is clear is that Shorris saw ideas as mattering and feared not so much a conspiratorial cabal (though his article is not entirely free of loose accusations about who were Straussians in the halls of power) as the potentially catastrophic effects of bad philosophy. And this, too, was something he shared with Leo Strauss.