I am not surprised that Professor Gottfried remains convinced that Leo Strauss and his followers speak with one voice on all matters of importance. After all, Gottfried has contended for many years that neither Strauss nor his movement of supporters was ever conservative, given what he takes to be the typical "Straussian" enthusiasm for liberal democracy and its related disdain for conservative tradition.
Yet I am surprised that Gottfried ignores some important elements of my essay which attempt to clarify the relation between Strauss and American conservatism. Gottfried believes, for example, that my purpose was to portray Strauss as a consistent conservative. That is simply not the case. While I argued that Strauss took reliably conservative positions on liberal democracy and tradition, I also emphasized in the latter half of my paper that Strauss was not conservative in his approach to revealed religion, and would not have shared American conservativesí enthusiasm for synthesizing biblical symbolism with politics. This argument was the whole point of my comparison of Straussís ideas with those of his admirer Willmoore Kendall, a prominent postwar American conservative who was somewhat more confident than Strauss about the usage of Scripture in politics. Gottfried omits discussion of this section altogether, claiming that "it is hard to see how a defense of his [Kendallís] thinking contributes appreciably to a vindication of Strauss." Yet the truth is that I was sharply contrasting the ideas of Kendall and Strauss, not using the one to "vindicate" the other!
Gottfried also faults my essay for ignoring his own writings on Strauss, other than an essay which he contributed to The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right (edited by Joseph Scotchie, 1999). Yet I also made two references to his insightful study The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (1986) in order to elaborate upon his view that Strauss and his students do not fit into traditional conservatism.
Speaking of his study of Hegelís influence on the Right, I find it curious that Gottfried in this work (as I noted in my essay) actually makes a distinction between what Strauss thought and what his students thought he thought. On pages 132133 of this work, Gottfried admits that Strauss himself "might well have deplored" the antitraditional conservatism (that celebrates "Lockean materialism") which some of his students have extracted from his writings on natural right. This admission is astounding for a scholar who otherwise has insisted that Strauss and his students always sing from the same hymnbook. Granted, a scholar can change his mind over the years, but this is quite a sea-change.
Gottfried also doubts my claim that the failure of the Weimar Republic influenced Straussís ideas on democracy, noting that Strauss only developed a "passion" for democracy decades after the end of World War 2. Yet I never claim that Strauss had a passion for democracy, before or after Weimar. It is true, nonetheless, that Weimar was on Straussís mind late into his academic life. As I observed in my essay, Strauss in 1962 (in his new preface to his study of Spinoza) expressed concern that Weimarís version of liberal democracy was far too tolerant of the enemies (e.g., Nazis and Communists) of this regime. This should put to rest once and for all any suggestion that Strauss was an unabashed cheerleader for liberal democracy (or had only a passing interest in Weimar).
Generally, I still believe it is unfair to blame Strauss for the arguments which some of his students have attributed to him, especially on the subject of American democracy. (Strauss even occasionally sympathized with the Heideggerian-Kojèvian view that America, like the Soviet Union, was a product of modern techne.) While Gottfried admits that "would-be disciples twist particular thinkers, and radically divergent followers have laid claim to the same master," he insists that in Straussís case "the paternity seems to fit more than it does for other figures." Really? Is the Straussian movement such a clear echo of the master? Personally, I find the so-called "Straussian" literature to be remarkably divergent in its teachings. On the issue of the US founding alone, the differences are quite dramatic. While some supporters portray the American regime as based on majority-rule democracy (e.g., Martin Diamond, Willmoore Kendall), others portray it as a polity deeply committed to individual rights and liberties (e.g., Harry Jaffa, Thomas Pangle). While some students celebrate the US as the best regime (Jaffa again), others despair over the moral drift of the republic and its influence on the world (e.g., Allan Bloom). Some students even claim that Strauss would have refused to support any regime categorically (e.g., Heinrich Meier). As Ernest Fortin once quipped, there are Sunday and week-day Straussians too!
Gottfried clearly has a personal axe to grind. Apparently, Strauss and his students (who behave "thuggishly" in academia) have contributed nothing of value to political philosophy in America or anywhere else, and are on the same intellectual level as "the party officials assigned to German universities under the Third Reich"! Hyperbole aside, Straussís hermeneutic of reading classical texts with an eye to their secret meaning is particularly obnoxious to Gottfried. Yet he contends that this hermeneutic owes much to eighteenth-century rationalism (Strauss, by the way, admitted this in Persecution and the Art of Writing). Is this not a tradition which continues to have great value for the humanities? Or is eighteenth-century rationalism on the same level as the party officials of the Third Reich?!
On a larger scale of guilt-by-association, Gottfried (like so many others) claims that Strauss and his followers are "neoconservatives" who unconditionally support an aggressive democracy-building role for America (and protection of Israel), although they are apparently unclear about what "liberal democracy" stands for (despite their extensive studies of the American republic). Yet "neoconservative" itself is another term crying out for qualification. (Divergent personalities from Tony Blair to William F. Buckley Jr. have all been branded as neos.) As incredible as it may sound, neoconservatives may even differ from students of Strauss and his supporters on pivotal issues. For example, a prominent neoconservative, Michael Novak, has faulted students of Strauss for downplaying the Judeo-Christian foundations of the American regime (see his On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, 2002).
It is true that many neoconservatives and students of Strauss support Israel, since it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. It is also true that Strauss was respectful of his ancestral faith. Yet Straussís own views on Judaism are complex. Strauss never claimed to be a believer in revelation (his understanding of philosophy as unbelief precludes a commitment to faith) and even dared to call Judaism a "noble illusion" in a public lecture. Like Freud, Strauss lived the paradox of being a secular thinker who hoped for the survival of his ancestral faith but did not believe in its tenets. The nuance of this tension is usually lost on Straussís critics.
I share Gottfriedís view that Straussians can be "agenda-driven political intellectuals" (is there any other kind?), but I do reject his choice of the particular agenda in question. As if associating Strauss with neoconservatism is not enough, Gottfried blames his students (and thus Strauss) for subjecting "the morally impoverished American right" to the "warmed-over rhetoric of Saint-Juste and Trotsky," which then explains the Straussian objective to transform the world in a violent "neo-Jacobin" manner (this is the argument of Professor Claes Ryn, whose views I also critiqued in my essay). In short, the Straussians are left-wing versions of a pseudo-Right. Yet it is simply mind-boggling that Strauss, whose lifeís work systematically critiqued the foundations of the historicism which shaped the various schools of Marxism in the 20th century, could ever be associated with these historicist revolutionaries. (In a 1950 letter to Eric Voegelin, Strauss denounced the Marxist mantra of "Interpreting the world or changing it" as "the root of the evil" of modernity.) How does a commitment to the truth of natural right flip into its opposite, radical historicism? Or, despite Gottfriedís earlier claims, is Strauss now a historicist reborn?
Strauss is simply too complex a thinker to fit neatly into any ideological box, "Straussian" or not, although I still believe that he can be read with profit by conservatives (and even the few open-minded liberals left). Still, I suspect that both the left and right will continue to see in Strauss a useful scapegoat for the problems of our time.
June 17, 2006
Dr. Grant Havers [send him mail] teaches philosophy and politics at Trinity Western University (Canada).
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