LEO STRAUSS FOR LOSERS
by Chris R. Morgan
Jeet Heer is on the warpath again. As ever his target is Leo Strauss, a man who has been dead since the Nixon administration and is barely heard of by most Americans but whose ideas supposedly permeate our waking lives. Indeed, what started out as a curious intellectual lark, kicking into high gear around 2014, has grown into a full-blown mission from God, so to speak. This is not without bad reason. Though Straussians of one stripe or another have been dotting around public life with varying degrees of influence, Straussianism itself seems to have taken center stage in our national melodrama. It comes in the form of Donald Trump, or so a particular strain of Straussianism hopes to in light of his election:
The West Coast Straussians are nationalists who believe the U.S. needs some mythical sense of its own greatness, which explains why they were so quick to jump on the Trump bandwagon. The East Coat Straussians are more cosmopolitan thinkers who believe that such myths are not necessary (or perhaps that more elegant myths are needed), and that politics is more a matter of cultivating wise elites; this is why they have remained wary of Trump.
Of course for Heer, this is not a simple case of Heidegger syndrome run amok in the American experiment. His tack reads like a Frankenstein’s monster of Freudian psychology with Star Wars Manichaeism. “The West Coast/East Coast Straussian divisions cuts along lines of sexuality and politics. The Incel/Volcel distinction is relevant,” Heer tweeted. “Key disagreement is should that homoerotic education led to sex? Sure, if you want, say East Straussians. No, says West Straussians. West Coast Straussians are the ultimate volcel cult. They think Western civilization depends on them remaining volcel.”
If you, dear reader, are already confused I don’t blame you. Leo Strauss’s ideas have been propagating in the United States for almost a century since the Jewish thinker fled Germany in the 1930s. It seems odd that a seemingly shy man who relegated his public presence to gallantry no higher than academic conferences should inspire so contorted, confused, and downright gossipy permutations in the academic salt flats. Chalk it up, I suppose, to compelling lines of scholarly inquiry with quirk that teeters just on the precipice of crankishness, pursued with an almost strident moral assurance, and not a little introverted charm. There is a certain air of sorcery to it inherent in all the great idea cults, whether of Karl Marx, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Ian MacKaye. Jeet Heer and I are of the same mind in finding Straussianism fascinating even if we don’t see it in the same light.
I have written on my journey with Leo Strauss before. This piece was written to hopefully build off of that dumber excursion. Certain things have changed in the last three and a half years. I have written and read more widely, and I have also encountered one or two Straussians and several others with at least a deep and considered understanding of Strauss. I am also, steadily and with inconsistent humility, becoming a better writer. Even so, the main view remains unchanged.
There is much to dislike in Straussianism, particularly the west coast variety. And one need not have to wade into carnal sewage to tease it out. Harry V. Jaffa was a compelling and forceful writer. As one of the earliest American students of Strauss, he had direct knowledge of his teaching and personality that pretty much everyone else, save Harvey Mansfield, Jr. perhaps, lacks. Still, Jaffa had carved out a niche for his own interests that has taken on a form of its own, and which go beyond mere locus of study. In his memorial essay of Jaffa, Edward J. Erler writes: “Strauss wrote in the context of the ‘crisis of the West.’ Jaffa extended his teacher’s analysis to the ‘crisis of America.’”:
Indeed, it was his contention that “the crisis of American constitutionalism” is “the crisis of the West.” This view, which he vigorously defended in the 1990s, seems particularly relevant today as America enters what some scholars have called the “post-constitutional era” and the West lapses into paralysis, seemingly uncertain of its purpose and unable or unwilling to defend itself against its enemies.
Since Jaffa’s death in 2015 at the age of 96, Heer and others have focused on Jaffa’s prolific missives on that crisis’s enabling via homosexuality. These are indeed ugly and obsessive, but my favorite Jaffa writing is “The Declaration and the Draft,” (collected in American Conservatism and the American Founding) in which he used the principles of the Declaration of Independence to effectively trash Vietnam-era conscientious objectors as enemies of freedom. But even if Harry Jaffa’s views were more empathetic or dovish, I’d still be prone to avoiding him. Jaffaism is as much a temperament as it is an interpretation. It is one of certainty, rigidity, devotion, and at times ad hominem. It is the intellectual case for unending culture war. Its ascendency in the Trump era, however aligned it may or may not be with Trumpism, is well timed.
That said, I could see myself living in an alternate timeline Earth as a mediocre east coast Straussian; they of the more nuanced, skeptical, and aloof bent. Straussians of this stripe like Thomas Pangle, Werner Dannhauser, Walter Bern, and Stanley Rosen especially, are not particularly uniform in how they apply what they learned from Strauss. Nor do they or their followers on the whole seem altogether convinced of the efficacy of Claremont’s highbrow #MAGA project. Or at least they take issue with the Jaffa-esque tendency of picking and choosing what they see as key founding American principles. Heer cites this passage from Pangle:
Here we find the American tradition portrayed as the direct heir to classical political philosophy and in particular to the Aristotelian tradition. Dominating the epic is a Lincoln painted in such a way as to obfuscate the historical Lincoln’s clear-sighted commitment to a specifically modern, egalitarian, and individualistic conception of the Rights of Man.
Not that this strain is altogether perfect. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published 30 years ago and became a surprise bestseller. Bloom’s fame remains unmatched among Straussians of any generation. Camille Paglia called it “the first shot in the culture wars.” It is at least the return fire. Anyway I could not finish it. Bloom’s book was born of his experiences of teaching at Cornell in the late-1960s, in which it had undergone a major student uprising. Bloom did not handle that well and as a result, Closing reads both as ambitious and petulant, as if to tell the entire reading public how they didn’t understand what he was going through. “Marxists certainly do see that rock music dissolves the beliefs and morals necessary for liberal society and would approve of it for that alone.” Elsewhere, though a bit more substantially: “The [educational] reforms [of the 1960s] were without content, made for the ‘inner-directed’ person. They were an acquiescence of the leveling off of the peaks, and were the source of the entire collapse of the educational structure.” At times the difference between Straussianisms west and east is that of society breaking down and society completely demolished.
Still, this being what now seems to be the shittier timeline Earth, I work with what I have, and as far as I’m concerned that is Strauss himself.
As I’ve written in the lesser piece, Strauss came into my life at the right time, in which I had developed an interest in intellectual plains beyond the collegiate playpen. And again, I don’t pretend to get Strauss in a way that is just as deep but more unique than those who’ve spent time formally studying Strauss. Strauss was an elegant writer, but he wasn’t Thomas Paine. He rightly spurned the pyrotechnic lyricism of Jaffaism. “To gain some clarity, let us return once more to the surface, to the beginning of the beginning,” seems a signature Strauss sentence. He was at once elevated and weighty—and subtle. I will be punched in the face for this but reading Strauss is actually a lot like listening to Sunn O))) or Deafheaven for the first time, wherein one is first overwhelmed by the surface volume and the spectacle and later attuned to the intricacies beneath the surface. Strauss—along with his colleague Willmoore Kendall—was among the last master of the lost art of the page-long paragraph, each to be read slowly. Few works are less amenable to binge culture than Strauss’s.
My favorite of his writings, however, remains “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” For many it is the centerpiece of one of his key projects of uncovering the esoteric meanings beneath works of philosophy. Esoteric writing, the Straussian line goes, was how the eternal truths of philosophy were passed through into historical realities wherein they were unfashionable, even dangerous. There is debate as to precisely how true Strauss’s findings were with his own examples. Even Murray Rothbard, no slouch in crackpot theories, thought he was something of a crank. Still, history and the good are not always copacetic. Okay, says Strauss, problem solved:
We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion … He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.
Strauss’s words wash over like a cold shower for those touting the need for “resistance” in today’s political milieu. Not unfair. Even before Donald Trump’s rhetoric turned political language up to 11, Americans were never well suited to subtlety as an aid in fighting social toxicity. And with events moving quickly to ends of ever elusive certainty, it doesn’t seem rightly practicable. But Strauss’s careful unpacking of the power still to be found in writing is at least worth some credence. For people geared less toward resistance and more toward subversion, “Persecution and the Art of Writing” reads like an intellectual Anarchist Cookbook.
But, as before, Straussians are welcome to take issue with this if they happen to read it, assuming they deem it worthy of response at all. For my part, I don’t seek to claim Strauss for my particular politics. Strauss doesn’t seem altogether applicable to any one form of politics. If certain lines of his thinking enflame extremism, certain other lines just as easily appeal to its abatement. His work speaks to the primacy of morality in public life while not overlooking its messiness when it comes into conflict or is corrupted. Leo Strauss spent the whole of his career studying the flight patterns of ideas through the erratic winds of human progress. Some read his work as cartography for utopia. I would prefer to read it as a guide for survival.
1 Though as Heer has reminded me, Mansfield never studied directly under Strauss.
2 This piece by Matt Feeney suggests to me that the problem with the book might be one of structure. Though whether the book’s red meat front-padding is derived from editorial instruction or Straussian misdirection I have no idea.
3 There were notable lapses, to be sure. Such as this passage from an essay titled “An Epilogue,” which does in four sentences what took Bloom an entire book: “Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.”