Strauss in the Frontier

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Misperception
makes for strange bedfellows.

While
speaking with Ryan McMaken about his important essay on anti-bourgeois
and anti-liberal themes in Westerns
, it occurred to me that
his libertarian critics display an ironic interpretive error. As
Ryan commented:

In response
to my piece on Westerns, I had more than one reader write that
the portrayal of railroads and banks in Westerns as bad guys is
really a commentary on corporatism and not on capitalism. Since
government was so much involved with banks and railroads in real
life, they say, the anti-business sentiment is really anti-government…I'm
sympathetic to this point of view since it's the one I started
with when I began working on this project. The problem with this
theory though is that it is not reflected in the films and is
nothing more than libertarian wishful thinking.

"That's
Strauss!" I said.

In
Persecution
and the Art of Writing
, the political philosopher Leo Strauss
— whose students at the University of Chicago included
Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz
— claims certain texts have exoteric
(public) messages that conceal esoteric teachings, "hidden
treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never
easy, but always pleasant work." The political contexts for
esoteric writings are tyrannical:

Exoteric
literature presupposes that there are basic truths which would
not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they would
do harm to many people who, having been hurt, would naturally
be inclined to hurt in turn him who pronounces the unpleasant
truths. It presupposes, in other words, that freedom of inquiry,
and of publication of all results of inquiry, is not guaranteed
as a basic right. This literature is then essentially related
to a society that is not liberal.

Thus,
"The exoteric teaching was needed for protecting philosophy.
It was the armor in which philosophy had to appear." Strauss
examines exoteric armor in thinkers such as Plato, Maimonides, and
Machiavelli.

The
exoteric-esoteric distinction isn't an intellectual fiction. As
Shadia Drury (no Strauss enthusiast) notes about Maimonides in Leo
Strauss and the American Right:

Strauss is
quite right to point to the esoteric nature of Maimonides's writing.
Maimonides himself calls attention to the secretive nature of
his work. In the introduction to The
Guide of the Perplexed
, he warns his readers that his
book is filled with hints, equivocations, and even contradictions;
he insists that nothing in it is haphazard, and all of his diction
is chosen with "great exactness and exceeding precision."

In
a modern context, a journalist in East Germany or Iran today might
exoterically denounce certain Western music and movies with the
esoteric intention of making their countrymen aware of and interested
in this art.

Inherently
unobjectionable, esotericism becomes nonsense when applied without
evidence or credible inference. Consider this photo of Ryan and
I at this year's Austrian Scholars Conference.

"Note
McMaken's black jacket and Kantor's blue shirt," says the eager
esotericist. "Exoterically they're reflecting clothing preferences,
but esoterically they're promoting the 1976 Rolling Stones album
Black
and Blue
!" (I was ignorant of the album at the time,
so this quite creative claim wouldn't be persuasive.)

In
his discussion
of Strauss and esotericism
, David Gordon quotes Murray Rothbard
on Strauss's Thoughts
on Machiavelli
, which claims great significance in "Machiavelli's
use of the number 26 or, more precisely, of 13 and multiples of
13":

…it is one
thing to look for circumspection, and quite another to construct
a veritable architectonic of myth and conjecture based on the
assumption of Machiavelli as an omniscient Devil, writing on a
dozen different levels of "hidden meaning." The Straussian
ratiocination is generally so absurd as to be a kind of scholar's
version of the Great Pyramid crackpots.

A
related absurd conjecture is that the Westerns Ryan examines contain
exoteric anti-business messages and esoteric anti-state messages.
As he observes regarding the depiction of railroad companies:

Very rarely
do the movies that feature greedy railroads ever contain anything
about the government’s historical control of the venture…There’s
nothing there with a libertarian, pro-business message. We’d just
like to believe it’s there. Let's face it, both the text and subtext
say that big businesses can't be trusted and they'll steal from
you and ruin your life.

It's
unpleasant to acknowledge that a dearly regarded work of art has
lousy themes; the mind wants the text to accommodate its outlook.
What entertains us, however, should not erode intellectual honesty.

November
1, 2005

Myles
Kantor [send him mail]
Myles Kantor writes from south Florida.

Myles
Kantor Archives

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