Reviewing the Claremont Reviewers

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One
of the more intriguing publications that I receive is Claremont
Review of Books
. Since it comes to me from Southern California,
I always get pleasant images of bygone Californian polities whenever
I read it, of the sort depicted in Chinatown,
or whose passing is lamented in the songs of Michael
Penn
. (Penn is a Christian songwriter and, somewhat oddly, the
brother of Sean Penn. He is most famous for the late 80's u2018No Myth,'
which has that line wondering u2018Should I be Romeo in black jeans?
What if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth.' But we also get the wonderful
u2018Half
Harvest
,' with

u2018This paradise
is slowly crumbling
from
here to Wilshire Boulevard
but
the rubble over which you are stumbling
just
isn’t that hard
What
did you do with all that grace, now?
what
did you do with all my wine?
what
makes you think that just ’cause you dress bright
it
means that you shine?')

Although
the CRB comes out of greater Los Angeles, its central theme
is Union-ology. The Claremont Institute is the prime font of Lincoln-worship
in our times. However, what the conjunction of LA and Lincoln could
mean, I have no idea.

In
any case, it's sort of annoying. And there are also many very strange
references to Strauss and Straussian – you might say this is
the u2018Lincoln and Strauss' publication – and lots of u2018log-rolling
in our time' praise that I often find a mite confusing.

But
all this aside, CRB is an interesting read. First of all,
it comes in an ultra large-size format, with a glossy cover. Actually,
the format is the largest I remember seeing outside the art-magazine
market. Man, the size really helps: if you ever want to start a
print publication, model its technical realization on CRB.

Second
of all, CRB assembles a not-too-shabby group of political
scientists and historians to write the book reviews – and these
reviews are pleasant in that they very often are only marginally
about the book that is meant to be discussed. There are not much
in the way of false pretensions to objectivity on display at CRB.
If the reviewer finds the book under consideration to be boring,
then we are likely to get a lecture on some only-vaguely related
topic. Of course, now and again we get simply skewerings, of the
sort found in the current issue (Vol. IV, Number 3, Summer 2004),
where Barry Cooper offers us some fun chopping on the fantasies
of Canadian greatness offered by one u2018Lloyd Axworthy.'

Most
fascinating in the current issue was u2018Leo Strauss and American Foreign
Policy,' which is one of four u2018Essays.' The essay is also available
online
(but – and I am not joking – it is more pleasant in the
big floppy format while reclining away from the computer). In this
piece, Thomas G. West points out that it is odd to see neoconservatives
as tied to Strauss, given that some of the things that Strauss said
suggest that his views on foreign policy were rather tamer than
the William Kristol approach of u2018national greatness' through military
subjugation of threats to u2018global democracy.' And West takes us
through some claims from the Republic worth giving a good
deal of thought, particularly in light of Strauss' ever insightful
hermeneutics. Moreover, West, like some other writers in the issue,
gives the impression of looking to Aristotle for guidance, where
West wants to clearly separate Aristotle from Plato and Strauss.

u2018Would
Aristotle agree with this Strauss-endorsed Platonic approach to
foreign policy? One of Aristotle’s arguments against domination
of other nations is that it is “not even lawful” for one city to
“rule and exercise mastery over” other cities “whether they wish
it or not.” That is, Aristotle, who is always closer to “common
sense” than Plato, speaks as if there is after all such a thing
as justice and injustice among nations. Strauss seems to take Plato’s
view, not Aristotle’s, as the genuine expression of the classical
approach.'

West's
prime quote from Strauss is the following: u2018[the] end of the city
is peaceful activity in accordance with the dignity of man, and
not war and conquest.' Here West takes Strauss' interpretation of
Plato's view of the end of the city to be correct not merely as
regards Plato, but as regards reality.

How
does this Straussian view differ from Aristotle's? The allegedly
Straussian view allows that conquest is necessary to secure the
goods needed for the moderate city wherein proper desires can be
satisfied – but not for the city wherein only basic needs are
met, and not for the feverish city which aims to allow fulfillment
of all desires, good or bad. In addition – and this is where
we see a real break from Aristotle – the imputed Platonic/Straussian
view hold that justice is only measured by whether the city stays
moderate, and not as a relation between its status and that of attacked
cities.

This
is all quite interesting because one typically associates Plato
with dreams of a universal standard that trumps the aspirations
of mere localities, while at the same time associating Aristotle,
given his concern for proper human scale, with defense of u2018Athens
first' policies. Of course, since Aristotle is still presented as
a kind of u2018isolationist,' West does not end up highlighting a full
reversal of roles. Rather, we get a glimmer of such a possibility,
that then resolves itself into Strauss, Plato, and Aristotle all
being placed into the moderate camp, with Kristol and Kagan cast
as the gung-ho imperialists. It is just that Aristotle is implied
to be slightly more favorably disposed toward self-sacrifice in
the name of justice: again, a disposition that strikes me as more
typically associated with Socrates and Plato than with the peripatetic
school.

So
that was a nice turnaround. I also found it curious to think about
what it is to mention that someone is tied to the Straussians, vis-à-vis
their politics. What are the standards here? It is a perplexing
question, because Strauss is perhaps most famous for his particular
distinction between esoteric and exoteric teaching in Plato. Thus
we find Straussians arguing that the Republic's arguments
for inclusion of female philosophers as rulers constitutes an exoteric
teaching, while the real meaning lay hidden in Plato's esoteric
and presumably oral discussions. The idea here would be that the
Greeks would simply find it implausible that Plato's feminist points
– which include some mention of the idea that Guardians of
both sexes were to train together in the nude – were to be
taken seriously, and so would look for some hidden meaning.

This
is a very good line of argument, in general, even as I think Plato's
point about female philosophers is hidden more in its literalness
– Plato was happy to have women who were philosophers rule,
he probably just didn't expect that there would be any such women.
But sometimes, as with the training example, things do get hidden
less in the literalness than in the metaphor. It is hard to believe
that Plato was serious about everything he said. And Plato did indeed
offer attacks on writing and similar deviations from his ideal of
the u2018living logos,' which was for him an ideal better attained
in oral dialectics. Plato clearly focuses on the possibility that
he can't get his true ideas across in writing. So Strauss is quite
right to focus on the possibility of an esoteric teaching.

This
brings us back to the Straussians and the Strauss-influenced. In
virtue of Plato's view of teaching and Strauss' particular estimations
of Plato, we apparently have quite a bit of leeway to see Strauss
as having a causative role in the beliefs of the Strauss-influenced,
even when these beliefs that aren't too obviously contained in Strauss'
writings. How then do we set limits on use of the u2018Straussian' label?
It's a difficult problem. All I can say is that certain kinds of
usages definitely have to be posited as existing within the proper
limits. For example, while Strauss did not share in Heidegger's
championing of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, the fact remains that
Straussian themes link his thought to the possibility of generating
interest in a pre-Socratic ethics of competition, fame, and struggle
for glory. This gives some legitimacy to positing Straussian origins
for the valorization of this ethics among the highly-Strauss influenced.

The
themes that run strong in Strauss are the Nietzschean
ones: the Apollonian mask of order as set over the Dionysian struggle
to create. We find these themes in Strauss' vision of philosophers
as forced to maintain the order and traditions of the city in order
to pursue their proper goals. These goals are ones that even Aristotle
suggests have nothing in themselves to do with treating other humans
well (except perhaps insofar as sharing philosophy is a way of treating
others well). And with a philosophy centered in Plato, but that
allows that much of what Plato appears to argue is really just a
way to draw the soul toward the occluded wisdom…. Well, one might
wonder if such a philosophy always keeps to Aristotle's requirement
for the development of moral virtue as a support for the virtue
of contemplation…. Or whether such a philosophy even understands
the good of contemplation in anything like the way Aristotle did.
Perhaps thinking with Strauss might eventually get one to understand
theoria more in terms of u2018dueling poets,' or other favored
Nietzschean themes? – Where we might keep in mind that Nietzsche
appears to have hoped that the statesmen of the future would be
artists who used, for their canvases, wars, nations, states, etc.,
and not only more traditional materials.

In
other words, we probably ought to distinguish carefully between
the qualities of the Strauss-influenced and the qualities of Strauss-the-writer.

Strauss
is a wonderful thinker, and was, from what I have heard from some
pleasant Straussian-types (pleasant being the norm for this breed),
actually quite a decent human being. But this doesn't mean that
his teachings might not have ended up having an influence far removed
from their written form: isn't this, after all, precisely what Plato
feared?

July
31, 2004

Marcus
Verhaegh [send him
mail
] will receive his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Emory University
next month. Here is his homepage.

Marcus
Verhaegh Archives

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