Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mike Rappaport

As Tom mentioned, I recommended to him the book by Michael (and Catherine) Zuckert about Strauss and the Straussians.  I recently attended a conference with Michael Zuckert and finally decided, after years of ignorance about Strauss, to read his book, The Truth about Leo Strauss.  His discussion really opened up a new world to me.  I was finally able to understand why the different Straussians I read from time to time were making the moves they were.  Sudden understanding where bafflement previously prevailed.

For me, the best part of the book was the discussion of the Straussians and in particular the division between East Coast, West Coast, and Midwestern Straussians.  The Zuckerts explain Strauss as believing three propositions that are in tension with one another:

  1. American is good;
  2. Modernity is bad; and 
  3. American is modern.

The different Straussians schools each modify one of these propositions.

The West Coast Straussians, who seem to worship Harry Jaffa for some reason, believe that America is not modern.  The founding was really based on Aristotle, not Locke. 

The East Coast Straussians do not believe America is good.  Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind is the best known example.  Let me say that Zuckert's summary of Bloom's book (which I have not really read) made me detest Bloom. 

Finally, the Midwestern Straussians believe that America modernity is good.  It is this group, who were led by Martin Diamond until his untimely death, that I like.  In this group you can find Darwinian Conservative Larry Arnhart, the folks at Powerline, and Michael Zuckert himself.

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Mike Rappaport


Some scattered thoughts.

Strauss is like Keynes or Nietzsche. He wrote unclearly, but was very stimulating, so people have fun interpreting him. Like Nietzsche, if not, perhaps, Keynes, he had an Attitude, not a System.

Strauss was like economist Frank Knight at Chicago, someone whose teaching was hugely influential but whose writing was less important--- perhaps even mediocre.

What have been the good Straussian writings? "Persecution and the Art of Writing" by Strauss himself. The Strauss and Cropsey political philosophy survey. Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and his translation of The Republic with its essay by far the best things. The wonderfully derogatory review of Rawls---was it by Cropsey, or by Bloom? Bloom and Jaffa on Shakespeare. Paul Rahe's books. Jaffa on Lincoln is supposed to be very good, tho I haven't read it. Rhoads on regulation is first-rate-- up there with Bloom--- though I don't know that it's particularly Straussian. I don't recall anything else right now that should be on the list, though I've read other things by Strauss, Pangle, Fukuyama, and Mansfield that didn't impress me so much.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Dec 31, 2009 9:57:43 AM

Comparing Strauss, who was a poseur and unreliable scholar and academic cult leader, with Nietzsche, who was a brilliant writer and moral psychologist, is pretty outrageous! The relevant comparison is with Heidegger, who also cultivated obscurity as a way of maintaining an intellectual cult following. The only good news is all the Straussians but one have finally been purged from Chicago--indeed, the cult has migrated to Austin!

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Jan 1, 2010 5:59:19 PM

I'm no expert, but that is a pretty good (and funny) three-point synopsis of Strauss. You might add Francis Fukuyama to the list: in his case, the "Modernity is Bad" proposition has been modified if not abandoned.

No doubt Prof. Leiter is more in tune with academic fashions than I. (I don't mean that to be derogatory, just a factual statement about the concerns of lawprofs versus those of practicing lawyers). However, there was certainly a Straussian contingent at Yale when I was there. I wonder if it is still there?

Posted by: y81 | Jan 1, 2010 6:08:12 PM

Brian -- Are you saying Heidegger is not worth reading? If so, I wish you would say, because I was about to try reading something about Heidegger.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Jan 2, 2010 5:53:28 PM

I'm no Prof. Leiter but after slogging through much of his corpus I regretfully concluded I'd wasted a lot of time. With our limited time on this earth there are more profitable things to read. The intentional obfuscation is entirely unnecessary. To be fair if said clearly everything in Being and Time could be laid out in a few dozen pages or less but then there wouldn't have been a book which was really helpful to his career. As well, much of it is either trivially true or just wrong. I'm not sure it's worth wading through the Heideggerian lingo--dasein, being unto death and all that--just to get a few scraps of something that fell from the table. What's worse is that most of his interpreters see his obfuscation and raise him on it making the secondary literature even more impenetrable.

Unlike Heidegger Nietzsche's sentences are remarkably and delightfully clear. It's putting them together into a coherent whole that's difficult. I suppose that's not surprising given what he said about the will to system.

Posted by: john knox | Jan 3, 2010 5:55:23 AM

Mike, you write that each Straussian school "modifies" one of the three core proposoitions, and then write that the "Midwestern school believes that America is good." But that just repeats the first proposition without modification. Did you intend to say that "the Midwestern school believes that modernity is good"?

Anyway, interesting stuff.

Posted by: DJF | Jan 3, 2010 10:35:22 PM

DJF: Good point. I corrected the post.

Posted by: Michael Rappaport | Jan 4, 2010 2:07:53 PM

"Comparing Strauss, who was a poseur and unreliable scholar and academic cult leader,"

Quite ironic coming from the likes of you, Professor Leiter.

Posted by: Perseus | Jan 4, 2010 2:29:35 PM

Regarding these divisions: it's most interesting that Strauss himself was pretty clearly none of the above.

Re: Strauss being a "poseur" ... takes one to know one I would say.

Posted by: Engineer | Jan 4, 2010 2:34:07 PM

It would be interesting to hear a little more about why Bloom is detestable.

I retain a soft spot for Closing, as it led me to major in philosophy, though I'm not quite sure that my fondness for Nietzsche was quite the effect that Bloom had hoped for.

Posted by: Anderson | Jan 4, 2010 3:28:12 PM

Zuckert's book is on my reading list. I knew in great detail the differences between West and East Coast Straussians and always considered my views somewhere between them. I also love Zuckert's work on Locke (despite some disagreements).

I guess that makes me a sorta midwestern Straussian (even though I don't consider myself Straussian, but Straussian influenced).

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 4, 2010 4:23:37 PM

"The founding was really based on Aristotle, not Locke."

There is also an important Straussian critique by scholars ranging from Brian Tierney (of Cornell) to Jeremy Waldron (of Columbia) that sees Locke as more authentically Christian and in line with the Aristotelian-Thomastic "Christian natural law" thought.

No doubt some/many of Locke's ideas do seem to break with the traditional Christian (A-T) natural law. But, exoterically, this was the tradition in which he purported to operate (but he was trying to be "respectable" after all).

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 4, 2010 4:31:04 PM

I think it's safe to say that the orthodox Straussian position on Locke, i.e. Hobbes in disguise, is so unsupported that even Straussians are finding it difficult give an esoteric reading in its support. Locke may have not understood where his epistemology would lead but everything indicates that he thought of himself as some sort of Christian. Perhaps he was committed to a heresy like Socinianism but when someone says in his dying words that he was passing in "sincere communion with the whole Church of Christ, by whatever names Christ's followers call themselves" he would appear to be taking the joke a bit far. Certainly his political philosophy didn't seem to raise alarms with say puritans who seemed to regard it as political Calvinism.

Posted by: john knox | Jan 4, 2010 6:08:04 PM

Oh and while I certainly have significant disagreements with Prof. Leiter's philosophical commitments, his work, particularly on Nietzsche, is a welcome note of lucidity unlike what is found among most party line continentalists. I would toss much of what Strauss wrote into the unintelligible camp as well. I don't think it's a mark of distinction that even his closest students couldn't agree on what he said, or rather meant, with all sides being able to marshall evidence for their position. Whatever the demos is today Strauss wasn't going to be sentenced to death by an Athenian jury so there was really no need for esotericism in his own writing. I don't think anyone has trouble understanding Prof. Leiter's position or reasons for it whatever the topic.

Posted by: john knox | Jan 4, 2010 6:20:33 PM

Certainly his political philosophy didn't seem to raise alarms with say puritans who seemed to regard it as political Calvinism.

Actually Locke's political philosophy did INDEED raise alarms with Locke's contemporary "orthodox" critics who accused him of being a secret Socinian. I think you are right that the esoteric Locke -- the Locke that "beat around the bush" and wrote in code -- was not a secret atheist but a secret unitarian heretic as his critics so accused him of being.

Eventually Puritans in America (and elsewhere) did embrace Locke and his doctrines. But it's debatable just how authentically "Christian" the result was. Flags may not have been raised, but Locke's doctrines preached in American "Christian" pulpits definitely had a "newness" to it, not unlike contemporary psychology (i.e., "self esteem") being preached from today's Christian pulpits.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 4, 2010 7:29:31 PM

Another irony about Locke perhaps being Hobbes in disguise. Though Locke was probably, personally, closer to conventional Christianity than was Hobbes (Hobbes too claimed to have been a "Christian") Hobbes' dark view of reality ("nasty, brutish, and short") is far closer to Calvinism or orthodox notions of human nature than Locke's seemingly cheery or at least neutral ("tabla rasa") view.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 4, 2010 7:37:03 PM

I read Bloom's _Closing_ when I was young and it was new, and found myself unable to see an argument in it. For several chapters, as far as I could follow, the conclusions alleged had no comprehensible connection with the actual points made. But then, I have the same problem with Plato, so perhaps the fault is on my part.

Posted by: PQuincy | Jan 5, 2010 7:30:35 AM

"Whatever the demos is today Strauss wasn't going to be sentenced to death by an Athenian jury so there was really no need for esotericism in his own writing."

I think you missed Strauss' conviction for his esotericism. The cat had been let of the bag: God doesn't exist, rights aren't grounded in nature and the natural law is a fiction. Strauss was a nihilist but didn't think it was a truth fit for popular consumption.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 5, 2010 10:43:23 AM

"I think you missed Strauss' conviction for his esotericism." Lots of Straussians don't seem to think this is what he believed. That's my point. I think it's plausible or even likely that this was his teaching but I can't be sure because of his often maddening writing. Plus coming out and saying none of this stuff is true but it's a useful fiction would hardly have been controversial. Lots of people say things like, "you know marriage actually isn't a God given institution but it's better if, particularly lower classes, pretend like it is."

Posted by: john knox | Jan 5, 2010 1:18:45 PM

Well Bloom came out and said it. But it was not until the middle of "Closing." One reason why I think this was Strauss's teaching is because -- as Leiter notes, though in a pejorative sense that I don't share -- there was a "cult" like following of Strauss' Word. Bellow names him Davarr in Ravelstein, which is Hebrew for Word.
In short, if Bloom said it, he's parroting Strauss.

(I don't think the description "cult" is necessarily pejorative like Leiter does because being devoted to a great thinker such that they follow his "Word" is hardly unique to the Straussians.)

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 5, 2010 2:37:04 PM

But that assumes that Strauss didn't tell other students other things which he appeared to do. I also agree that it has cult like attributes but in the sense that Scientology is a cult. The closer you get to the master--or the higher you get in the organization--the more that is revealed to you. But in Strauss's case he seemed to reveal different things to students equally close to him.

Posted by: john knox | Jan 5, 2010 6:33:46 PM

Well I know the Jaffaites balk at the interpretation I gave. However, they concede that they break with Strauss himself more so than the East Coasters do. Are there any prominent East Coasters (Mansfield, Berns, Pangle, Kristol, Dannhauser) who disagree with Bloom on the essentials? All of the ones I named gave an unequivocal imprimatur to "Closing."

Re why the "truth" had to remain in the closet. That's almost the entire subthesis of Closing. It's not that the nihilistic post Heidegger were right (they were insofar as Nietzsche and Heidegger taught the Truth of nihilism) and were casting pearls to the swine as Drury interprets. But rather the dominant left-wing version of philosophic nihilism as half digested. And nihilism itself, properly understood, was more horrific than it was liberating.

Since Hitler is everyone's favorite reductio: Nihilism in politics just as easily leads to Hitler as it does liberal democracy (and they used Heidegger the Nazi political philosopher to illustrate this). It doesn't make nihilism "wrong" (because it is not) but rather exposes its dangerous nature. Believing that objective moral TRUTH can be found through reason and revelation -- even though a noble lie -- serves as a corrective against the dangerous fire of nihilism.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 6, 2010 8:41:53 AM

Other than being self-contradictory there's of course nothing wrong with nihilism. And an opinion poll of which camp confesses disagreement with the high priest gives any indication of what the high priest actually thought. That's also my problem Straussian esotericism. Going down that garden path can allow you to make any preposterous interpretation you want like the east coasters do on the nature of the American founding i.e. there's no difference between the French and American Revolutions, the founders were part of a secular Machiavellian cabal etc. Ultimately we can't say what Strauss thought because his own esotericism allows anyone to assign opinions to him based on the slightest esoteric evidence.

Posted by: john knox | Jan 6, 2010 10:15:04 AM

The three propositions put forward by the Zuckerts are a good starting point. They aren't contradictory, but are in tension as was said. The question is in what sense do we use the words 'good' and 'bad' here. The propositions are not modified by the different camps - rather, each camp has its own reading on the sense in which we say "modernity is bad" or "America is good" or "America is modern."

An example: it is entirely possible that America is good in a relative sense - i.e., it's the best regime among all the possible modern regimes. Modernity is still bad - meaning, perhaps, it's wrong about human nature, or it's hostile to the development of the best human qualities (philosophy, moral virtue). But non-modernity is not a practical option, so we must at least embrace America as the best of a bad lot.

As Aristotle said, men aim at the good. Strauss recognizes that in politics this means that men are far more likely to embrace their country when they regard it as good in a more or less unqualified sense. "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty..." - most of us aren't singing that song if we think our country is just the best current option among a lot of shitty ones. Therefore he and his followers tend to obscure those details which lead to the conclusion that America in its modernity is less than good.

Other possibilities include modifying the sense in which we say that modernity is bad. Is it entirely bad or bad on balance? Is it bad but also true? (Nietzsche's question)

Regarding John Knox's last point: Strauss actually addresses your objection and offers some principles to prevent the problematic conclusions you list. However, he also conceded that if you accept his view about estoteric/exoteric knowledge you had to accept that whatever you found would not be perfectly and absolutely demonstrable. Of course, did he actually believe that? Using his own principles to check, I would say - yes he did, but I can't prove it.

Posted by: Thucydides | Jan 6, 2010 11:19:58 AM

"Going down that garden path can allow you to make any preposterous interpretation you want like the east coasters do on the nature of the American founding i.e. there's no difference between the French and American Revolutions, the founders were part of a secular Machiavellian cabal etc."

Well it's certainly a disagreeable interpretation -- and yours by the way, is an overstatement of their thesis -- but not preposterous. The East Coasters, as you intimated, don't view the American FOUNDING and French REVOLUTION as having "no difference"; but they do view the American and French REVOLUTIONS as strongly related. And that's because they are. And that's why the East Coasters embrace the Constitution unmoored from the natural rights principles of the DOI.

Likewise, the "Christian America" interpretation that the American revolution followed "Christianity," the French, "the Enlightenment" likewise could be termed "preposterous." But I am not given to overstatement.

Both the American and French Revolutions were originally announced according to a very similar set of principles said to be compatible with Christianity. For a variety of complicated reasons, the French ended up overthrowing its Christian institutions and the American didn't.

I am not an East Coast Straussian, but strongly influenced by "the Straussians." So take my previous paragraph as what I have independently verified about the American Founding on my own by reading the primary sources. And I didn't need any esoteric method in order to do so. But then again, I don't agree with the East Coasters that Locke was a secret atheist, rather that he was a secret "unitarian Christian" as his original orthodox critics accused him of so being.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jan 6, 2010 1:21:53 PM