A Few Comments on Straussianism

Over the past year I have written very little on Leo Strauss, “Straussianism,” and related matters. That’s quite a departure from the way things “used to be.” I was once accused of never writing about anything other than Strauss, with an occasional interruption to discuss Eric Voegelin, Carl Schmitt, or the latest article I had read on Russian Orthodox “Old Believers.” Times have changed and so has my thinking. Though I would not cast my distancing from Strauss in as dramatic or stark terms as my distancing from libertarianism, I have started to realize how seldom I think in what might be called “Straussian Categories” these days. For instance, the so-called “historical sense” bothers me very little, and I am neither suspicious of, nor hostile toward, attempts to examine the genealogy of ideas and texts as interpretive aides. And while I was never a strong adherent to Strauss’s rightly controversial “exoteric/esoteric” thesis, I am now deeply incredulous toward the notion that the history of philosophy is really just the history of an ambiguous conversation about the existence of God (or gods) that was carried out across the Western world by a half-dozen intellectual giants. Sure, there is a lot more to Straussianism than all of that, but not as much as some people seem to think.

It is worth recalling that Strauss died over 40 years ago. Since that time, his students, and their students, and their students’ students (and so forth) have worked diligently to disseminate his teachings, albeit to markedly less and less talented learners than those Strauss cultivated originally back in the 1940s and 50s. This reality has produced two consequences which do not bode well for the future of Straussianism. The first is factionalism; the second is signal degradation.

The factionalism issue is already well documented. In their accessible book on their inaccessible teacher, The Truth About Leo Strauss, Catherine and Michael Zuckert divide Straussinaism into three regions: East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast. All three, so they claim, believe they are faithfully carrying on Strauss’s legacy while holding fast to contradictory “truths” about the master. For instance, East Coast Straussians, as perhaps best represented by the late Allan Bloom, interpret Strauss as overcoming revelation in the name of reason while promoting the philosophical, not the political, life as right. The West Coast Straussians, as exemplified by Harry Jaffa, give God a greater hearing in their writings—many of which are artfully constructed apologetics for the American regime and its ostensible classical moorings. Midwest Straussians—which include the Zuckerts—are, of course, evenhanded and accurate when it comes to their interpretations of the man from Kirchhain.

The Zuckert’s “regionalism” isn’t as neat as their book asserts. People don’t stay put. It is now possible to find Straussians of various stripes all over North America. In fact, a contingent of Straussians has emerged in both Europe and Asia, and none have any direct connection to Strauss himself (or, as best as I can tell, his first generation of students). Some of these foreign Straussians, like Heinrich Meier, are dismissive of the idea that Strauss’s students are in any sense true torch bearers of their teacher’s thought; they are, it seems, too infatuated with Strauss the classroom lecturer to take a hard and necessary look at Strauss the political philosopher. Additionally, several European Straussians have advanced the idea that the “true Strauss” emerged out of the interwar period and that there is no sense in interpreting him without the background of the intellectual, moral, and political upheavals that shook the Continent in the 1920s and 30s. How much of an effect this European Straussianism will have on the trajectory of the various iterations of American Straussianism remains to be seen. In a decade, though, none of Strauss’s original students are likely to still be teaching, and even many of their students will have shifted to emeritus status.

With respect to the signal degradation issue, let me start by saying that no one seriously doubts that Strauss had an impressive array of students, many of whom went on to teach at elite colleges and universities across the United States. The problem, however, is that these first-generation Straussians, with the exception of one or two, never attracted equally bright followers. Now, according to some, there are Straussians everywhere, even if they don’t always self-identify as such. But has this impacted in any appreciable way our understanding of Strauss (or, for that matter, Strauss’s understanding of the history of philosophy)? It appears not. All it has done is expanded the size (but not necessarily the scope) of the “Strauss Wars” while also contributing to more and more books and articles which say even less that is interesting or defensible about Strauss, philosophy, and politics. At some point—and maybe we’re reaching it right now—Straussianism will suffer a severe credibility collapse as adjunct professors at community colleges go on about the “esoteric teaching” of Aristotle’s De Insomniis despite not knowing a lick of Greek.

None of this is to say that Strauss’s own work deserves to be tossed on the rubbish heap of intellectual history. As problematic—if not wrongheaded—as some of Strauss’s thinking and interpreting are, a number of his books and essays contain genuinely powerful insights on the perils of historicism and positivism in the academy. Moreover, several of Strauss’s loosely autobiographical writings, particularly his English-language “Preface” to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion provide an arresting look at the stakes which were involved in European (specifically German) thought during the early decades of the 20th C. As for Strauss’s heirs, that’s another matter entirely. While it is likely that thinkers such as Seth Benardete will still be read and debated a century from now, most will be lucky to still be read by the next election cycle.