Straussed Out


Leo Strauss and the American Right, by Shadia B. Drury, New York: St. Martin's Press, 239 pages, $35.00

Ask 10 Americans what they take to be the importance of Leo Strauss to American culture, and nine will respond with a blank look and a shrug. The 10th will point with pride to his double-riveted jeans.

Close, but no cigar. This Strauss, like his namesake Levi, was a German-Jewish emigré who brought to his adopted country tools and techniques to tailor the frayed fabrics of American garb. The vestments with which Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was concerned, however, were intellectual rather than mall-type paraphernalia. Specifically, he may have been this century's most profound critic of the adornments of modernity. There is, he argued, a fatal flaw concealed in the rationalistic optimism of the Enlightenment project, and its ramifications have been made manifest by the twin scourges of National Socialism and Leninism. Diagnosis of the malady was his life's work--diagnosis and intimations concerning appropriate therapy. But although politics was Strauss's passion, his pursuit of the political was indirect and abstruse. He had no time for party pronouncements or the policy scuffles of the day. Rather, his method was to offer exceedingly close readings of classic philosophical and theological texts and to attempt to elicit from them the political prerequisites necessary for human beings to live well together.

Strauss is best known--indeed, notorious in various academic circles--for claiming that the great philosophers of antiquity and the medieval world wrote in a sort of code so as to disguise their real meaning. They did so, he argued, for two reasons. First, they might thereby hope to escape persecution for views deemed harmful or heretical by those possessing a power to impose penalties (think of Socrates' cup of hemlock). Second and more fundamental, these evasive prose maneuvers were designed to transmit truths to those capable of advantageously knowing them without simultaneously planting in the less able ideas which would bear pernicious fruit. The classical thinkers, said Strauss, deemed the philosophical task to be not merely the construction of ever more refined chains of syllogistic reasoning but rather the doctoring of souls. Complicating this task, though, is the fact that people are a disparate lot. The wise and the good are few, the unwise and morally mediocre many. As with a physic for the body, a potion restorative to one sort of patient can prove deadly to another.

The dilemma thereby posed is not so acute within the realm of oral transmission of knowledge; the master can impose a selective student admissions policy. Even there, however, it is impossible to control completely who might be eavesdropping and to whom secondhand reports of one's remarks might be transmitted. (Recall again the case of Socrates, who, though not publishing, nevertheless perished.) But when doctrines are reduced to writing, access is virtually impossible to control. The solution, argued Strauss, was to write in a way that would allow entry into the heart of the argument only to those who possess virtues of intellect and character adequate to the gravity of the issues broached therein. On the Straussian account, classical philosophical writing is a sword in the stone, a child-proof medicine bottle cap designed to keep out the unworthy.

In Strauss's view the laudable discretion of this tradition began to erode during the Renaissance. With Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and the great tsunami of Enlightenment liberalism, it broke down altogether. Now plain speaking rather than cautious concealment became the favored philosophical style. And why should it not be? Hadn't the presumptions of the natural aristocracy of the ancients been shattered by the realization that all men are created equal? Could it any longer reasonably be maintained that there exists some justifiable basis for structuring civil society other than the consent of the governed? An intellectual paternalism that withheld enlightenment from the many so that it could remain the preserve of the fortunate few was seen to be morally bankrupt. The watchword of modernity was universal education, whereby first the intelligentsia but then wider and wider circles of the populace would be unshackled from superstitions of religion, ideology, and morality.

The problem with this Enlightenment project, Strauss suggested, is not that it was vain but that it succeeded all too well. It stripped from ordinary folk the Noble Lies that had afforded them security and a sense of purpose within which decent lives could be constructed. It did not, could not, substitute in their place yet nobler truths. Instead, the resulting moral vacuum was filled by peddlers of nostrums and illusions far more toxic than the myths the modern thinkers had undermined. It was no accident that the great obituarist of modernity's pretensions, Martin Heidegger, declared that the vitality that two millennia of philosophy had sucked out of the human spirit was to be restored to the Volk through immersion in the death-dealing and thus life-affirming will of the Fuhrer.

Strauss garnered a remarkable popularity among the best and brightest students passing through the University of Chicago, his refuge after fleeing tempest-tossed Europe. As Shadia B. Drury reports in Leo Strauss and the American Right, he supervised over 100 doctoral dissertations of students attracted by his rejection of the democratic, leveling tendencies of the age and his affirmation that the ideas of the intellectuals matter tremendously--indeed, that nothing else matters as much. Such pandering to young people's taste for elitism is one of the counts of the indictment handed down in Drury's book. There is some justice to the charge--like the philosophers about whom he lectured, Strauss too was an adept handler of students' souls--but Drury's is a rendition of the siren's song that leaves out the music.

Unlike so many contemporary undergraduates, those who found their way to Strauss's classrooms were nominally literate, but what he taught them was to read. It was not so much the doctrines extracted from the classical texts that appealed to students. Rather, it was the dazzling process of identifying nuances of word and structure that could enable one to pry open previously locked intellectual doors, indeed that allowed one to see them as doors rather than as one continuously impermeable wall. Strauss was an interpretive virtuoso, and it was the virtuosity that drew students to him, not merely some vulgar confirmation of their self-serving prejudices. Unlike most academic stars, Strauss rarely pronounced in his own name; instead he allowed the texts to be heard in their own voice. Nowhere else did they sing so sweetly, with such eloquent purity. One can legitimately argue that the Strauss-orchestrated songs were more seductive than sensible, but that is not Drury's tack. Rather, what she puts forth to validate her critical credentials is earnest tone deafness.

In other respects too this book is misleading. Both its title and a dust jacket that pairs photos of Clarence Thomas and Newt Gingrich with one of Strauss suggest a preoccupation with the Straussian roots of the Republican Party's radical right. That, though, is a relatively minor component of the critique. Thomas and Gingrich receive only passing mention in the text. Strauss's seminal contributions to the thought of Harry Jaffa, Allan Bloom, and Willmoore Kendall are instructively spelled out in some detail, but these are at best peripheral players in any debates currently roiling Capitol Hill. With her discussion of Irving Kristol and neoconservatism Drury is on surer ground, but nowhere does she acknowledge that, for better or worse, the neocons are significantly outnumbered on the American right by traditional conservatives and even by classical liberals.

This rather sensationalistic slant is, I suspect, less a strategy for selling more copies than an attempt to differentiate this volume from Drury's 1988 book, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. In that earlier volume she deconstructs Strauss's claim to be a champion of tradition against modernity, finding him instead a somewhat coarse Nietzschean. That attack is continued here, as Drury accuses Strauss of equating contemporary America's plight with the degeneracy of Weimar Germany, points to manifold affinities between Strauss and existentialist-cum-Nazi-apologist Heidegger, argues that Strauss's seemingly reverential treatment of Jewish theological texts in actuality is meant to undermine the foundations of religious belief, and charges that the so-called secret of the philosophers is: Everything is permitted.

In each case there is something to the allegation, but none is made to stick. It is true that Strauss on occasion was gloomy concerning America's prospects for ultimately avoiding the descent into barbarism that enveloped Germany and Stalin's empire, but this was a pessimism shared by many emigré intellectuals (including F.A. Hayek) and homegrown anti-communists (such as Whitaker Chambers). As for the Heideggerian connection, points of alleged agreement are less evidence that the two men were co-conspirators than they are expressions of Strauss's conviction that Heideggerian nihilism is not some inferential slip along the way but represents instead the ineluctable slide from Enlightenment optimism to postmodern despair. In this, as with his pessimistic streak, he may have been mistaken, but neither can reasonably be construed as an episode of bad faith.

Nor should that tag be pinned on his alleged subversion of traditional Jewish motifs. Drury hauls out at some length Strauss's remarks on the Jewish predicament past and present, focusing especially on his interpretation of the great medieval Talmudist and philosopher Moses Maimonides. She triumphantly brings to a head her indictment of Strauss's scholarly impiety with the observation that "according to Strauss, Maimonides does not even think that philosophy can prove the creation as opposed to the eternity of the world." But this proposition about creation's unprovability, rather than being some far-fetched interpretive invention by Strauss, is the explicit central thesis of Maimonides's Guide to the Perplexed. Attributing it to Maimonides is every bit as controversial as ascribing to Thomas Jefferson a belief in the existence of certain inalienable rights. And as with Jefferson's pronouncement, it is integral to a sort of declaration of independence.

The argument that a temporal creation of the world cannot be logically demonstrated is by way of declaring the autonomy of natural reason from dogmas of revealed religion. Maimonides is deeply scornful of the ayatollahs and rabbis who have twisted and bent logical reasoning in supposed service to the articles of faith. If science cannot demonstrate what faith affirms, then so be it, concludes Maimonides. Neither is properly subsidiary to the other. They are not antagonists locked together in a fight to the death but rather are the twin pillars on which any decent and stable society must rest. The Maimonidean argument amounts to a rejection of both fundamentalism and supercilious secularism. No wonder Strauss is so taken by this aspect of the great rabbi-philosopher's thought. Drury's attempted exposé betrays a serious misunderstanding of both thinkers.

One confusion generates another. The autonomy of philosophy is not, pace Drury, an assertion that "anything goes." The pursuit of wisdom may free one from intellectual subservience to the half-truths, patriotic myths, and Noble Lies on which civil society and conventional morality rest, but that does not release one from obligations to one's fellow citizens. Rather, it affords to those obligations a deeper grounding. Most incumbent of all is the duty not to undermine promiscuously the moral pilings which one may no longer lean on oneself but which others do. Philosophy, for Strauss (and Maimonides), is a permissible activity, it is an activity splendidly rewarding to its practitioners, but it is also socially therapeutic and hedged with duties every bit as solemn as those ascribed to medical practice by the code of Hippocrates. The first of these is: Do no harm.

Strauss is avowedly not a liberal; he may well be this century's most acute critic of liberalism. Although there is much that contemporary liberals would do well to learn from Strauss, his theoretical fortress remains open to storming by the inheritors of Locke and Mill. It is from the perspective of liberalism, albeit one more democratic-egalitarian than libertarian, that Drury launches her assaults against Strauss. Although she lands some accurate shots, the ratio of hits to misses is conspicuously smaller than should be expected from an obviously intelligent and sophisticated critic intimately familiar with her quarry. Why the failure to aim better?

I believe that Drury is undone by the intense animus she holds toward Strauss and all that is associated with him. She is outraged by what he says, what he intimates, and what he disclaims but is really nonetheless thinking. She dislikes his influence on students and their subsequent influence on the body politic. All this she wishes to root out. By comparison, Kenneth Starr is almost cozy in his regard for President Clinton. The result is a marksmanship that is too much that of the cheap shot.

Such anti-Straussian resentment is by no means uncommon in the political science community. It invites a comparison. The only other 20th-century American social thinker similarly effective in gathering a string of devoted disciples and disciples-of-disciples while acquiring an equivalent but opposed bloc of despisers is that other notorious emigré, Ayn Rand. In many respects, of course, the two could not have been more different. Strauss was a scholar of the arcane, Rand a producer of blockbusters; Strauss lived all his life in the academy, Rand was more at home in Hollywood than Harvard; Strauss almost always spoke as the interpretive mouthpiece of other men's texts, while Rand's pronouncements were, without exception, offered as her own authoritative dicta. Perhaps the most important difference is that Strauss's disciples were scholastics-in-training, while Rand was most effective in capturing the allegiances of adolescents who found the world outside of her works impossibly small and tedious for them to reside in. I do not believe that Strauss and Rand ever met, but had they been acquainted each would, I am sure, have held the other in contempt.

Despite that gulf of differences, the one abiding similarity matters more. Like Strauss, Rand could win over not only the rational faculties but also the spiritedness of devotees. Each thinker purveyed a worldview in which emotion as well as intellect was permitted to soar. Philosophy became, for Straussians and Randians alike, a profoundly erotic activity. It is, I believe, this eros rather than the doctrines per se that most alarms critics. Few things are more unnerving than zeal matched to a comprehensive and unsettling view of the way the world works. Christianity in its early, subversive phase generated an ample quantity both of adherents whom only death could separate from their faith and antagonists notably keen to bring about just that separation. Opponents of Strauss and Rand employ means less sanguinary than the cross and Coliseum lions but are no less keen to expunge the intolerable.

The critics' zeal is itself excessive. Yet they have a point. Eros is a jealous passion, pushing away the unlike as ardently as it cleaves to the like. Straussians and Randians are both notorious for their cabals, for scornful rejection of the possibility of actually learning something from those who affirm opposite views, for endlessly repeating mantras that satisfy those within the circle but sound like so much gobbledygook to those outside. And both periodically break off into sub-cults anathematizing and waging internecine war against wayward brethren. (Again, the comparison to early Christianity is revealing.)

Drury is surely correct in this regard: Strauss and the Straussians can be infuriating. Nonetheless, they may have latched onto important insights that are completely invisible to intemperate critics. The same, mutatis mutandis, can be said for Rand and the Randians. Extremes of partisanship one way or the other explain why treatments of either rarely strike the mean between slavish devotion and hectoring denunciation. Leo Strauss and the American Right is, unfortunately, no exception.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky (llomask@opie.bgsu.edu) teaches philosophy at Bowling Green State University and is the author of Persons, Rights, and Moral Community (Oxford).