Scott Horton writes at Balkinization about the recent attempts by the “liberal” New York Times to rehabilitate the image of neo-con progenitor Leo Strauss:
In the last several months, the New York Times has run four pieces defending Leo Strauss from his critics. By comparison, the Times has run no pieces in which Strauss is actually criticized, which suggests an odd editorial posture. Indeed, the Times seems to have mounted a veritable campaign for the defense of the beleaguered Leo Strauss, which seems strange considering that he has been dead for over thirty years.
One thing consistent among these defenses of Strauss is either a remarkable ignorance of Strauss, the intellectual milieu from which he came, his life and his thinking, or conscious dissembling about them. Strauss is a fascinating figure, well worth reading today.
Horton translates a 1933 letter from Strauss that is especially illuminating. After being driven out of Nazi Germany, Strauss insisted that the “fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles” of the Right were preferable to the Left’s “ludicrous and despicable appeal” to the Enlightenment principle of "the inalienable rights of man."
Despite this stance, I still agree with Horton that Strauss is “well worth reading.”
(Thanks to Matthew Yglesias at American Prospect for the tip.)
Of the “four pieces” mentioned by Horton, I have located the following:
• Robert Alter’s “Neocon or Not?” (a review of Steven Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss, an excerpt from which is here),
• Edward Rothstein’s “Democracy's Best Friend or Antidemocratic Elitist?”, and
• Harold Bloom’s review of Betraying Spinoza, which only mentioned Strauss in passing.
There is also Adam Kirsch’s “The Demonization of Leo Strauss” in the New York Sun.
Alter doesn’t get much beyond declaring that Smith’s book “sets the record straight on Strauss’s political views.” Smith himself labors to dissociate Strauss from the Bushevik Straussians: “The last few years have witnessed a virtual hostile takeover of Strauss by the political Right,” and calls it “a gross distortion to retrofit Strauss’s teachings to conform to the agenda of the political Right.” He also observes that:
Strauss did not bequeath a system, doctrine, or an "ism," despite what may be attributed to him. Rather, he presented a distinctive way of asking questions or posing problems that may have been loosely related but that scarcely derived from a single Archimedean point of view.
Rothstein lists his connections to the Bush administration, and opines that Strauss “has been called a cynical teacher who encouraged his students to believe in their right to rule humanity, a patron saint of neoconservatives, a believer in the use of "noble lies" to manipulate the masses.” He writes that “Strauss’s difficult and subtle arguments…bear little resemblance to the caricatures created by critics.”
This elides the oft-parodied absurd aspects of the “careful reading” that Strauss proposed, such as deriving significance from words not written, using frequency to resolve deliberately contradictory theses, and searching for esoteric meaning discernable only by the “wise.”
Kirsch’s piece alleges “ignorance and malice” on the part of Strauss’s critics, who look for “some secret message at the heart of Strauss's own work.” It is not surprising, though, that such a search has taken place; the means of Straussian textual interrogation should be applied to his own works. Kirsch may not like what they reveal, but does that indicate a flaw in the method or in the reader?