Reviewing the Claremont Reviewers

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