A Note on Leo Strauss
I fully agree with Samuel Goldman on two points. He is correct in his conclusion that Strauss’s greatest contribution to scholarship may be his early (German) writings, more specifically his work on the relation between politics and religion in Spinoza. Moreover, I would add to this early achievement Strauss’s brilliant remarks on Carl Schmitt’s 1932 edition of Begriff des Politischen, which may have been the young Strauss’s most insightful work.
I also think Goldman is correct to assign more significance to Strauss as a scholar than my reviewer suggests. In my book I underline the extent of Strauss’s linguistic training and his prodigious reading in political thought. Although I share McIntyre’s skepticism about Strauss’s way of reading texts and although I find Strauss’s interpretive quirks magnified in his disciples, I would not deny that there is immense erudition in everything he wrote. His disciples impress me far less than the master, as Goldman would learn from reading my book. Finally I don’t think Goldman, who has written splendidly on classical conservatism, would dispute my conclusion and that of Kenneth McIntyre that neither Strauss nor his leading followers would qualify as “conservatives.” One can describe them more properly as Cold War liberals or fervent “liberal democrats,” to use their own phrase. Nor does the intensity of their desire to protect Israel from its enemies or their eagerness to spread America’s democratic creed if necessary by force add up to what Goldman, McIntyre, and I would consider to be true conservatism.
There are a few mistakes in Goldman’s otherwise informative response to McIntyre. Contrary to what Goldman states, Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner did not share Strauss’s views about reading texts, as McIntyre documents in a relevant essay in the Journal of the Philosophy of History (2010). Skinner was appalled by how little historical sense Strauss and his disciples displayed in their hermeneutic work, and he mocked the kind of “Einfluss studies” in which Straussians assumed that certain thinkers were decisively influenced by other ones although they could not prove the connections drawn. In my book I cite the preposterous attempt by Walter Berns to attribute the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia to the influence exercised by Hobbes on early American political thought. Because of Berns’s Straussian reading of the U.S. as a secular democracy, he failed to notice that Baptists had taken the lead in the disestablishment of the Anglicans in Virginia, for theological reasons that Berns would have no interest in exploring.
I am also far less impressed than Goldman by the extent of Strauss’s illustrious German connections. In my book I show that Strauss had few such admirers in his youth, and even his vaunted relation to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who was born a few miles apart from him in Brunswick, was far more tenuous than Straussians have been willing to recognize. Strauss came to America as a virtually unknown researcher, and it was entirely in the U.S. that he established himself as a political as well as academic presence. Most of his bridge-building with European intellectual luminaries came toward the end of his life, and Strauss had no serious influence on Hans Blumenberg or Gadamer, at least none that I can detect. And though he attended the lectures of Heidegger as an obscure student without any professional prospects, I can’t find evidence of a personal relation between the two men. Sholem and Löwith were long-term acquaintances, going back to Strauss’s youth.
Pace Goldman, there are indeed signs of Strauss’s liberal democratic boosterism in his writings. His Walgreen Lectures, published as Natural Right and History (1951), and his published attack on the American Political Association in the 1960s for its insufficient enthusiasm for the democratic West during the Cold War, abound in praise of American liberal democracy. And similar ideological remarks came up in Strauss’s lectures, conversation, and correspondence. One has to doubt that his students’ obsession with the universal applicability of the American liberal-democratic model did not come from an idolized teacher whose legacy they claimed to be carrying forward. In my book I try to show that his disciples picked Strauss at least partly because of ideological and ethnic considerations.
Goldman is right that Strauss was not the only reader of political texts who focused on esotericism or who was aware of the operation of censorship in the past as a factor contributing to “hidden writing.” But what distinguishes the Straussian approach are two characteristics: the far-fetched, numerologically arcane character of the reading and the tendency of the Straussian interpreter to discover his own contemporary views reflected in the thinker whose secret thoughts are supposedly being uncovered. A critic of this hermeneutic, David Gordon, has asked: “Are all producers of secret writings, as Straussians would have us believe, secularists and liberals? Aren’t any of them Christian dissenters, that is, Catholics in Protestant lands or Protestants in Catholic countries expressing what are at bottom Christian thoughts?” In an attempt at humor in my book, I notice that a Straussian reading of secret writing indicates the author in question was a Jewish agnostic living in New York or Chicago in the late 20th century.
Finally I must challenge Goldman’s statements about how the Straussians have made their concept of esotericism generally acceptable “because Strauss and the Straussians have defended so vigorously and for so long.” My book argues exactly the opposite, that Straussians have formed a self-insulated cult that avoids serious combat with incisive critics. It has survived because of networking and because it has been able to use neoconservative publications to advance a particular hermeneutics as well as Straussian politics. McIntyre is spot on when he cites multiple scholars in political theory, including Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, who find Straussian hermeneutics to be risible. Until I began my research, I assumed that the only methodological critics whom the Straussians scorned were Old Right intellectuals like me. As it turned out, they have avoided dealing with the same type of criticism when it comes from widely respected, mainstream academics. I wrote my book because I hoped to force Straussians out of their comfort zone, but considering the silence my work has met, outside of a few tolerant journals and websites, my strategy has clearly not worked.
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