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Defending Strauss

I read with great interest Kenneth McIntyre’s review of Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America in the print magazine. Some aspects of the analysis seemed to me correct, especially the emphasis on Strauss’ engagement with Hermann Cohen and Jewish questions. I found others exaggerated. Three areas in particular stand out as needing complication, if not outright correction. Before offering a defense of Strauss on these points, I should state explicitly that I have not read Gottfried’s book. These thoughts refer only to McIntyre’s review.

1) Reception. According to McIntyre, “Strauss’s work is almost universally dismissed by philosophers and historians, yet he has attracted a following amongst political theorists (hybrid creatures most often associated with political science departments)…” That’s true. But this dismissal has to be understood in the context of the disciplinary structure of the Anglo-American academy.

The interpretation of old books has traditionally held a fairly central role in the German philosophical tradition. The underlying thought, which derives from Hegel, is that studying the history of ideas is not simply a matter of accessing what has been thought in the past. It is also regarded as part of the enterprise of discovering truth in the present. This is not a “hybrid” of activities that are naturally distinct. It is a fundamentally different view of how philosophy should be conducted.

For various reasons, this perspective has never been widely accepted in the English-speaking world. One result, especially after Frege and Russell’s foundation of “analytic” philosophy, was the fairly sharp division of labor between philosophers and historians that continues to define the Anglo-American university.

Political theory developed as a field after the Second World War partly to accommodate emigré intellectuals who rejected this division of labor. It continues to play that role, (although there’s been a major revival of interest in history by “real” philosophers in the last 20 years). So Strauss is much less of a “strange case” than McIntyre suggests. Hannah Arendt, to choose a figure popular on the Left, has a similar status.

And why the judgments of the British academy should be authoritative escapes me. It’s true that Strauss has never had any influence in the U.K. But he has been favorably received in France, particularly by the school of democratic theory associated with Claude Lefort. In addition to Gadamer, he was also taken seriously by important German intellectuals including Karl Löwith, Gershom Scholem, and Hans Blumenberg. In any case—and here I quite agree with Strauss—we should never take for that the expert consensus is correct. Meaningful critical judgments require careful study for oneself.

2. Method.  Yet McIntyre describes Strauss’s hermeneutics as incoherent. He highlights out the goal of understanding a thinker “as he understood himself”, and the principle that it may be necessary to read between the lines to do so. I share McIntyre’s judgment that Strauss’s canons of interpretation don’t make much sense. But not for the same reasons, and not to the same extent.

First, the goal of understanding an author’s intention is not unique to Strauss. It’s shared, by the eminently respectable British historian Quentin Skinner, the founder of the so-called Cambridge School. In other words, the issue is not really intentionalism. It’s Strauss’ refusal to identify explicit criteria by which an author’s intention can be identified.

The problem is complicated by Strauss’ claim that philosophers have often concealed their true opinions from casual readers. Again, this observation is not in itself controversial. Most intellectual historians now accept that many pre-Enlightenment thinkers used oblique tactics of communication to avoid controversy, censorship, and sometimes outright persecution, particularly when dealing with religious topics. But the concept of esotericism is accepted largely because Strauss and Straussians have defended for so vigorously and for so long. That’s a real scholarly accomplishment.

What’s distinctively Straussian is the claim that all philosophers in all historical contexts wrote esoterically. Combined with the lack of criteria for identifying a writers’ intention, this claim does tend to become a license for reading whatever one likes into a text. The proper response to this danger, it seems to me, is not return to the rather naïve assumption—inherited from the analytic school—that good philosophical writing necessarily strives for maximum clarity. It’s to continue research into what kinds of concealment might have been practiced at particular times—and what clues their practitioners provided that their statements are not to be taken at face value.

But a bad method may nevertheless lead to valuable insights. Strauss deserves credit for insisting that the history of political thought, particularly ancient political thought, is not simply a series of errors but a treasury of concepts that may be superior to those developed in and through empirical social science. To mention one example, Strauss is responsible for recovering from Plato and Aristotle the concept of the regime as the comprehensive way of life that defines a particular political community. It’s notable, for me at least, that Strauss’ articulation of this concept doesn’t require any heavy-duty esotericism.

3. America. It’s as a defender of the American “regime” that Strauss is most controversial. It’s remarkable, however, how little he actually writes on the subject. When Strauss does compare modern political forms, he actually seems most favorable to Britain, at least when it was governed by “gentlemen”. Strauss does encourage the West (his term) to take a hard line against Communism. But he says nothing, so far as I know, about the welfare state or other economic issues.

It’s true that some of Strauss’ students have appointed themselves guardians of what they regard as America’s founding principles. And Strauss may have given them personal encouragement to do so. Even if that’s the case, it’s a mistake to dismiss what is interesting in Strauss because he exaggerated creedal over historical aspects of America

But this is only a modest defense of Strauss. Does he have anything to say that justifies the labor of studying him? In my view, Strauss will be remembered in fifty years primarily as a Jewish thinker, specifically as a theorist of what he called the “theologico-political problem”. That’s a less elevated status than some Straussians have claimed for their teacher. But it hardly makes him a false prophet.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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