Review of Paul Gottfried’s “Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America,” Part 2

Greg Johnson


Part 1.

2. The “Lockean Founding” of the United States

Gottfried is apparently attracted to the anti-rationalist Burkean tradition of conservatism, which in effect claims that history is smarter than reason, therefore, we should take our guidance from historically evolved institutions and conventions rather than rational constructs. This form of conservatism is, of course, dismissed by the Straussians as “historicism.” Gottfried counters that the Straussians

seek to ignore . . . the ethnic and cultural preconditions for the creation of political orders. Straussians focus on those who invent regimes because they wish to present the construction of government as an open-ended, rationalist process. All children of the Enlightenment, once properly instructed, should be able to carry out this constructivist task, given enough support from the American government or American military. (pp. 3–4)

In the American context, historicist conservatism stresses the Anglo-Protestant identity of American culture and institutions. This leads to skepticism about the ability of American institutions to assimilate immigrants from around the globe and the possibility of exporting American institutions to the rest of the world.

Moreover, a historicist Anglo-Protestant American conservatism, no matter how “Judaizing” its fixation on the Old Testament, would still regard Jews as outsiders. Thus Straussians, like other Jewish intellectual movements, have promoted an abstract, “propositional” conception of American identity. Of course, Gottfried himself is a Jew, but perhaps he has the intellectual integrity to base his philosophy on his arguments rather than his ethnic interests

(Catholic Straussians are equally hostile to an Anglo-Protestant conception of America, but while Jewish Straussians have changed American politics to suit their interests, Catholic Straussians have gotten nothing for their services but an opportunity to vent spleen against modernity.)

The Straussians’ preferred “Right-wing” form of propositional American identity is the idea that America was founded on Lockean “natural rights” liberalism. If America was founded on universal natural rights, then obviously it cannot exclude Jews, or refuse to grant freedom and equality to blacks, etc. The liberal, Lockean conception of the American founding is far older than Strauss and is defended primarily by Strauss’s followers Thomas L. Pangle in The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) and Michael Zuckert Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton University Press, 1994). Moreover, the Straussians argue that Locke was a religious skeptic, thus on the Straussian account, “The ‘American regime’ was a distinctly modernist and implicitly post-Christian project . . . whose Lockean founders considered religious concerns to be less important than individual material ones” (p. 39).

Lockean bourgeois liberalism is so dominant in America today that it is easy to think that it must have been that way at the founding as well. But this is false. Aside from the opening words of the Declaration of Independence—which were highly controversial among the signatories—and the marginal writings of Thomas Paine, Lockean natural rights talk played almost no role in the American founding, which was influenced predominantly by classical republicanism as reformulated by Machiavelli, Harrington, and Montesquieu (the thesis of J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975]) and Calvinist Christianity (the thesis of Barry Allan Shain’s The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994]).

There is nothing distinctly Lockean about the American Constitution, and nothing particularly Constitutional about modern Lockean America. Liberals effectively refounded America by replacing the Constitution with Jefferson’s Lockean Declaration of Independence (which is not even a legal document of the United States). Daniel Webster (1782–1852) is the first figure I know of to promote this project, but surely he was not alone. The refounding is summed up perfectly by the opening of Straussian hero Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago [i.e., 1776] our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The United States, of course, was founded by the US Constitution, which was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788 and which says nothing about universal human equality, but does treat Negroes as 3/5 of a person and Indians as foreign and hostile nations. But Lincoln was in the process of founding a new nation on the ruins of the Constitution as well as the Confederacy.

Straussians, of course, oppose both the classical republican and Anglo-Calvinist origins of the United States because both sources are tainted with particularist identities that exclude Jews. Gottfried doubts that the “organic communitarian democracy” defended by Carl Schmitt—and also by classical republicans and New England Calvinists, although Gottfried does not mention them in this context—would appeal to Strauss: “Outside of Israel, that is not a regime that Strauss would likely have welcomed” (p. 128). Jews can have an ethnostate in the Middle East, but they insist we live under inclusive, universal liberal democracies.

Incidentally, the North American New Right does not aim at a restoration of the Anglo-Protestant past, which has been pretty much liquidated by the universal solvents of capitalism and liberal democracy. The Anglo-American has been replaced by a blended European-American, although the core of our language, laws, and status system remains English. American “conservatism” has managed to conserve so little of the original American culture and stock that by the time New Rightist regimes might attain power, we will in effect be handed a blank slate for constructivist projects of our own design.

3. The “Return” to the Ancients

The Straussians are reputed by friend and foe alike to be advocates of a return to classical political philosophy, and perhaps even to classical political forms like the polis. Strauss and his students certainly have produced many studies of ancient philosophy, primarily Plato and Aristotle. The Straussians, moreover, have a definite pattern of praising the ancients and denigrating modernity.

Gottfried, however, demolishes this picture quite handily. We have already seen his argument that the Straussians are advocates of universalistic modern liberal democracy, not classical Republicanism or any other form of political particularism—except, of course, for Israel.

Beyond that, Gottfried argues that Straussians merely project Strauss’s own modern philosophical prejudices on the ancients. The method that licenses such wholesale interpretive projection and distortion is Strauss’s famous rediscovery of “esoteric” writing and reading. Strauss claims that under social conditions of intolerance, philosophers create texts with two teachings. The “exoteric” teaching, which is accommodated to socially dominant religious and moral opinions, discloses itself to casual reading. The “esoteric” teaching, which departs from religious and moral orthodoxy, can be grasped only through a much more careful reading. Philosophers adopt this form of writing to communicate heterodox ideas while protecting themselves from persecution.

Ultimately, Strauss’s claim that classical political philosophy is superior to the modern variety boils down to praising of esotericism over frankness. But esoteric writers can exist in any historical era, including our own. Indeed, for the Straussians at least, the “ancients” have already returned.

In my opinion, Strauss’s greatest contribution is the rediscovery of esotericism. In particular, his approach to reading the Platonic dialogues as dramas in which Plato’s message is conveyed by “deeds” as well as “speeches” has revolutionized Plato scholarship and is now accepted well beyond Straussian circles.

That said, Strauss’s own esoteric readings are deformed by his philosophical and religious prejudices. Strauss was an atheist, so he thought that no serious philosopher could be religious. All religious-sounding teachings must, therefore, be exoteric. Strauss was apparently some sort of Epicurean materialist, so he dismissed all forms of transcendent metaphysics from Plato’s theory of forms to Aristotle’s metaphysics to Maimonides’ argument for the existence of God as somehow exoteric, or as mere speculative exercises rather than earnest attempts to know transcendent truths. Strauss was apparently something of an amoralist, so he regarded any ethical teachings he encountered to be exoteric as well.

In short, Strauss projected his own Nietzschean nihilism, as well as his radical intellectual alienation from ordinary people onto the history of philosophy as the template of what one will discover when one decodes the “esoteric” teachings of the philosophers. These prejudices have been taken over by the Straussian school and applied, in more or less cookie cutter fashion, to the history of thought. As Gottfried puts it:

He [Strauss] and his disciples typically find the esoteric meaning of texts to entail beliefs they themselves consider rational and even beneficent. . . . If this cannot be determined at first glance, then we must look deeper, until we arrive at the desired coincidence of views. . . . Needless to say, the “hidden” views never turn out to be Christian heresies or any beliefs that would not accord with the prescribed rationalist worldview. A frequently heard joke about this “foreshortening” hermeneutic is that a properly read text for a Straussian would reveal that its author is probably a Jewish intellectual who resides in New York or Chicago. Being a person of moderation, the author, like his interpreter, would have attended synagogue services twice a year, on the High Holy Days—and then probably not in an Orthodox synagogue. (p. 99)

This is not to deny that there are genuine Straussian contributions to scholarship, but the best of them employ Strauss’s methods while rejecting his philosophical prejudices.

Throughout his book, Gottfried emphasizes the importance of Strauss’s Jewish identity, specifically the identity of a Jew in exile. And I have long thought that the radical alienation of the Straussian image of the philosopher goes well beyond ordinary intellectual detachment. It is the alienation of the exiled Jew from his host population. Strauss’s philosophers reject the “gods of the city,” constitute a community with strong bonds of solidarity, and engage in crypsis to protect themselves from persecution from the masses. But Strauss’s philosophers are no ordinary Jews in exile, for they seek to influence society by educating its leaders. The template of the Straussian philosopher is thus the “court Jew” who advises the rulers of his host society, phrasing his advice in terms of universal values and the common good, but working always to secure the interests of his tribe. Thus it is no aberration that the Straussians have spawned a whole series of neoconservative “court Jews,” like William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, who do not just have ink on their fingers but blood up to their elbows.

Straussians make a great show of “piety” toward the great books. They have the face to claim that they understand texts exactly as the authors’ did, rejecting as “historicist” arrogance the idea of understanding an author better than he understood himself. In practice, however, Straussians turn the great philosophers of the past into sockpuppets spouting Strauss’s own views. As Gottfried remarks, “In the hands of his disciples, Strauss’s hermeneutic has become a means of demystifying the past, by turning ‘political philosophers’ into forerunners of the present age. One encounters in this less an affirmation of a permanent human nature than a graphic example of Herbert Butterfield’s ‘Whig theory of history’” (p. 10).

Surely part of these Straussian misreadings is simple hermeneutic naïveté: they reject reflection on their own prejudices as “historicism,” thus they remain completely in their grip. But that is not the whole story. When a school of thought makes a trademark of praising dishonesty over frankness, one would be a fool to assume that “they know not what they do.”

Straussian interpretations have often been called “Talmudic” because of certain stylistic peculiarities, including their use of counting. But the similarity is not just stylistic. Talmudism, like Straussianism, affects a great show of piety and intellectual rigor. But its aim is to reconcile human selfishness with divine law, to impose the interpreter’s agenda on the text, which is the height of impiety, intellectual dishonesty, and moral squalor. And if Talmudists are willing to do it to the Torah, Straussians are willing to do it to Plato as well. Beyond that, both Talmudism and Straussianism have elements of farce—as texts are bent to support preconceived conclusions—and of perversity, since the practitioners of the art applaud one another for their dialectical subtleties and their creation of complex arguments where simple ones will do.

Straussians like to posture as critics of postmodernism and political correctness, but in practice there is little difference. They merely sacrifice objective scholarship and intellectual freedom to a different political agenda. As with other academic movements, the pursuit of truth runs a distant third to individual advancement within the clique and the collective advancement of its political agenda.

* * *

Throughout Gottfried’s book, I found myself saying “Yes, but . . .” Yes, Gottfried makes a powerful case against Straussianism. Yes, it functions as an intellectual cult corrupting higher education and national politics. Yes, the Straussian graduate students I encountered were smug, pompous, and clubbish. Yes, some of the Straussian professors I encountered really were engaged in cult-like indoctrination. But in all fairness, I have had a number of Straussian and quasi-Straussian teachers whom I greatly admire as scholars and human beings.

And, in the end, Strauss towers above his epigones. Over the last 25+ years, I have read all of Strauss’s published writings, many of them repeatedly. He has had an enormously positive influence on my intellectual life. More than any other writer, he has opened the books of both ancients and moderns to me, even though in the end I read them rather differently. (See my “Strauss on Persecution and the Art of Writing.”)

There are three areas in which I do not think Gottfried does Strauss justice.

First, Gottfried is correct to stress the abuses of Strauss’s hermeneutics. But these abuses to not invalidate the method. Gottfried shows no appreciation of the power of esotericism to reveal long-hidden dimensions of many ancient and modern thinkers.

Second, Gottfried is dismissive of the idea that Strauss’s engagement with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt—and his evident knowledge of the broader Conservative Revolutionary milieu—indicates a real sympathy with far-Right identitarian politics. Simply repeating Strauss’s praise of liberal democracy cannot settle this question. The fact that Gottfried has written a fine book on Carl Schmitt proves that he is certainly competent to inquire further. (See my ongoing series on “Leo Strauss, the Conservative Revolution, and National Socialism,” Part 1, Part 2.)

Third, Gottfried is a historicist, Strauss an anti-historicist. Until the question of historicism is settled, a lot of Gottried’s criticisms are question-begging. Yet a serious engagement with historicism falls outside the scope of Gottfried’s book.

But all that is merely to say: Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America is that rarest of achievements: an academic book that one wishes were longer.

End of Part 2 of 2.

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