The Mediocracy vs. Leo Strauss

One starts where one happens to find oneself, not anywhere else, and working through internet resistance to Leo Strauss may be something anyone writing today has to do before actually getting to Strauss’s thought. Nor would such an effort be entirely contrary to the spirit of Strauss’s project. Even if it is difficult to imagine Strauss scrolling through multi-part reader-driven blog posts on “The Psychology of Pooping” to get to peremptory 600-word dismissals of his life’s work, he did devote significant attention to the defense of philosophy before the suspicious and uncomprehending “city” – the lawful democratic murder of the philosopher being the emblematic historical moment; the larger problem being the threat posed by philosophy or science or the search for truth to mere opinion.

Here’s the “money quote” from Andrew Sullivan’s “recent keeper” on “The Mediocrity of Leo Strauss”:

Strauss was at best a mediocre scholar whose thought expressed a confused bipolarity between a very German and ahistorical Grecophilia on the one hand and a scattered, dogmatic, and unsophisticated apology for an American version of liberal universalism on the other. Amongst prominent European philosophers, Strauss was taken seriously only by Hans-Georg Gadamer, until Gadamer concluded that Strauss was a crank, and by Alexandre Kojève, whose work reads today as if it were a parody of trendy French Marxism. In Britain, neither Strauss nor the Straussians have ever been taken seriously

The lines are taken from a piece by Kenneth B. McIntyre (“The Right’s False Prophet,” reviewing a new book on Strauss) at The American Conservative. Commenters, many of them obviously very highly conversant with Straussoversies familiar and obscure, responded for the most part quite harshly.  Yet they could not more than touch on the phenomenon of Straussophobia, a collective manufacture of conspiracists (Larouche-ites), spoonfed journalists, gullible netizens, and a very few reasonably well-informed though eminently criticizable critics. (The Truth about Leo Strauss by Zuckert and Zuckert offers a systematic defense that also serves as an accessible survey of wider philosophical-historical questions.)

One claim that McIntyre’s commenters did not address, at least as of this writing, was the one regarding Strauss’s contemporary and fellow philosopher-classicist Hans-Georg Gadamer. The example is instructive. While McIntyre writes that Gadamer came to see Strauss as a “crank,” it seems Gadamer was still speaking highly of Strauss as late as 1981, some seven or eight years after Strauss’s death, in an interview with Ernest L Fortin (published in 1984). Though Gadamer’s views on Strauss may have changed between 1981 and his own death in 2001, a fair assessment of such a stark reversal would present difficulties, since it might reflect at least as poorly on the man said to have undergone it. I suspect, however, that McIntyre was merely building on the book under review in regard to Gadamer’s and Strauss’s differences, which were real, but philosophical. Regardless of what Gadamer may or may not ever have come to say, it is his intellectual generosity to Strauss that shines through in the Fortin interview. Tributes of a similar type, by Strauss to opponent-collaborators living and dead for having produced thoughts worth criticizing at all, can be found throughout Strauss’s published works.

The underlying attitude, so alien to the most typically mediocre impulse – to demean – is rarely if ever reciprocated by Strauss’s critics. Like the noble gesture on its own terms, philosophy as the love of knowledge is all but invisible to the spirit of mediocrity. The critic facing uncertainties or differences may therefore turn to some other mode of explanation than philosophical. Sullivan’s blog post decorates McIntyre’s money shot with school-day reminiscences and cursory judgments: Strauss was “inscrutable” yet “dogmatic” yet “full of insight” and by the way somehow responsible for the present-day GOP in all of its in-glory. There are themes worth pursuing in Sullivan’s presentation, but no opportunity to do them justice. For instance, the philosophical consideration of democracy and religion may prepare us for and in another sense simply prepare the willful use of religious demagogy.  Yet, if democracy is vulnerable to some hand-me-down version of Straussianism, is that fact more an indictment of Strauss or of democracy? If at all the latter, then that fact would offer further support for the classical thesis and its relevance, and then again for Strauss’s own stance regarding liberal democracy in the modern age: firmly in favor, with eyes wide open. Any essential political differences between Strauss and Sullivan are on this level undetectable, and no amount of name-dropping and slogan-banging will likely draw them out.

True Straussophobia, however, goes well beyond un-generous and anti-philosophical gestures into something much more bizarre. In addition to familiar forms of conspiracism concerning the supposed influence of “Straussian neo-conservatives,” Straussophobes utilize a methodology pioneered by the notorious anti-Strauss academic Shadia Drury, taking Strauss’s famous teaching on the “forgotten” esoteric content and surface dissimulation of classic texts as a license to submit Strauss’s own work to a “reading between the lines.”  Any attempt by Strauss to re-construct an ideology, philosophy, or belief system as the exponent, philosopher, or believer understood it – an effort central to Strauss’s method – can be utilized by turn to portray Strauss himself as a culpable sympathizer with Nietzsche, or Schmitt, or Kojève, or whomever else… Any too clear and sensible utterance of Strauss’s – e.g., that destruction of all humanity under a global tyranny would be a bad thing – can come under suspicion of half-concealing in plain sight an esoteric, contradictory, and more authentic message to philosophico-criminal accomplices. It matters little to the Straussophobes that as far as anyone can tell these truly true messages are never detected except by the Straussophobes themselves.

The results often resemble a parody of psychoanalysis: “I love my mother.” “Let’s discuss why you hate your mother.” “No, I mean it, I love my mother.” “Interesting that you feel the need to repeat yourself…” Nor do the Straussoterics often or ever consider what we might conclude about their merely superficial, suspiciously dramatic, rather obviously contrived disapproval of Strauss. “I despise Strauss.” “Let’s discuss why you revere Strauss.” Maybe, when philosophy professor and blogger Alan Gilbert insists repeatedly (and, it must be said, laughably) that Strauss is “not good at argument,” what he really means is that Strauss has fully persuaded him… Maybe Gilbert’s digressions on Strauss’s crypto-Nazi affinities and “core fascist viewpoint” signal Gilbert’s own actual and alarming affinities of the same type… Maybe Gilbert’s notably affectionate references to Strauss by his first name are the key clue…

Could be – and, as a matter of fact, I mean that.  (Or do I?)

It ought to go without saying that some imputations of hidden or half-hidden higher or deeper meanings may be much more defensible than others, and Strauss did embrace a difficult, intellectually risky teaching on the esoteric/exoteric problem. He also entertained doubts regarding liberal democracy – like almost all liberal democrats of any intellectual depth at all. Noble and ignoble un-sayable truths may well be implied by Strauss’s philosophy or by his personal history, in ways that Strauss himself may or may not have grasped, yet entirely because of who he was, significantly because of what he “really” believed, indictably because of what he “really” “intended” to be “understood.” Yet, don’t we all – however aristo or medio – hold certain truths to be unspeakable?

Expressed as mere opinion, as mediocritism strongly asserted, what Strauss or any honest human being has to say about certain not-possibly-true possible truths may become effectively indistinguishable from the views of cranks, lunatics, provocateurs, and traitors. To approach such not-possibly-true possible truths at all may mean asking to be counted a Nazi, for example – or even, if not worse than as a clearer and more nearly present danger, a “neo-conservative.”


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20 comments on “The Mediocracy vs. Leo Strauss

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  1. No, I would dub it, malice v. Strauss, Sullivan’s rage virus, has gotten the worst of him again,

    • Having been born in Vienna – or at least so I’ve been told and the certificate says – I’ll take “pious viennasausage” for the observation on mediocrity vs. the noble gesture as a compliment, though I’m not sure that I deserve it.

  2. Who told you Strauss was into numerology? Sometimes how he works is referred to as “arithmological,” meaning that he interprets the use of arithmetical compositional or structural devices in the works of other authors – for instance, the possible importance to Machiavelli of the number “13” or the way that the central or middle argument in any series of arguments may be used by another author for some particularly significant utterance. He also will simply count the number of mentions of a particular word in order to evidence an argument that an author was not, contrary to somebody else’s statements, particularly interested in an argument: So, a reviewer says that author X was obsessed with “blue,” but it turns out that in the work under question the word blue appears only once, in some trivial context, and that other variations don’t appear at all.

    That’s not the same thing as being “into numerology” in some occult way. So, you can go back to h8ing him, I guess.

  3. I think maybe there’s still something for me to like in there somewhere. I’ll read what you wrote again and see. And in answer to your question, it was in the link, The Mediocrity of LS

    Yes, there’s also a lot of nonsense (numerology and the like).

    • I think that would be a typical sub-mediocre observation in an overall mediocre blog post. It’s not completely clear to me whether Sullivan is referring there to Strauss or to the Straussians. If it’s meant to refer to Strauss, then it’s sloppy and misleading for the noted reasons. If it’s meant to refer to the Straussians, it may be misleading or they may have been poor representatives of Strauss. My guess is that it’s a little of both, but probably more of the former.

      One concept or image of Strauss’s, more of the early or immature Strauss but something he occasionally invoked later in life, that you might like, is “the Second Cave.” The reference is to the Allegory of the Cave from The Republic. The young Strauss’s idea was that between the classical philosophers and ourselves, 2,500 years of further civilization and especially modernity had opened a new cave beneath the first cave making it even more difficult for those of us within it to see the truth/nature. We no longer even have access to the shadows, but now have to make do with the shadows of the people observing the shadows unless we’re willing to make the effort to climb up out. I don’t think that would exclude the possibility of leaping straight from Cave #2 to truth/nature (satori?), but it’s similar to what you write about when you’re into your A-perspective.

      • I don’t know from Strauss, but it interests me to skim the mediocre blog posts on him. LIke this one… target=”_blank”>http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2003_archives/001589.html
        I think what the author explains there in respect to Strauss’ text on Machiaveli relates to what you were saying regarding Strauss’ numbers usage. Not really numerology. It’s more like code. But the mediogers do connect Strauss with the Kabbala and you know where that leads. A numerological yellow brick road. Love it. I like the whole thing about people thinking Strauss is an elitist. I like the way he warns his readers “to be careful.” The inscrutibilia is not only inscrutable but dangerous. You have to understand that the exoteric nature of true knowledge filled writing opposes its esoteric meaning. “Opposes.” Love that. Maybe Miggs is on to something after all.

        • Kabbala can lead in a number of directions, but being aware of Kabbala and other mainly medieval traditions doesn’t make you a practitioner.

          As for the DeLong piece, I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. Obviously, there’s no point in trusting anything he says, since he tells us, somewhat gratuitously that it’s a satire (or is it? – nyuk, nyuk, nyuk).

          I’m not convinced that Strauss himself wrote “esoterically” as his main objective, or that whatever “between the lines” content of his writing is more significant (or more difficult and challenging, or subversive, or dangerous) than what’s right there in the lines themselves.

          It’s interesting how threatened people act when he’s brought up… 40 years after his death… a guy who wrote about all those guys in the Harvard Classics that “no one” reads anymore.

  4. The Second Cave, the first one is plenty spaceous, Oppression is Freedom, as Loki would put it, mass murdering terrorists
    are misunderstood idealists, vast byzantine rentier schemes are for our own good, Israel, the mosr democratic regime, is the most evil, and denounced in every arena, whereas Iran with a Thanatos fixation among it’s ruling elite, must be excused, rationalized,

    • I’m going to have a numerologist work out the numbers rundown expressed in this Miggs statement. I think it might help us identify the RHP as the Neopagans, or Ceremonial Magicians.

  5. I didn’t speak of numbers, but principles, which are disposable in this semantic game, apparently,

  6. Machiavelli was properly stated amoral, not immoral, perhaps a distinction without a difference, concerned about tactics, and
    less overall strategy, Now there was little that the Medicis, much less the Borgias, needed that reminder,

    • Strauss attributed great importance to Machiavelli in the history of political philosophy. It’s not so much that M is “amoral” as that his morality is intentionally set much lower than the classics, on the level of the actualizable, rather than on the best and most just. Heidegger at one point, isolate Descartes as the key figure ushering in or thinking the modern as relevance, empiricism, manipulation of nature and things, etc. It’s also popular to credit Francis Bacon. Not sure it’s important who wins the Mr. Modernity competition, but unlike Descartes and Bacon, Machiavelli (and Hobbes) spoke directly to the political.

      I may turn to the book on Machiavelli soon. Haven’t really decided.

          • Imperative means imperative. The implications of remaining or claiming to remain indifferent to or uncomprehending of the imperative is handled differently in different faiths or moral systems, but in one way or another it leads to some kind of disqualification… which can be quite uncomfortable, often quite harmful to one’s political, social, professional, and biological prospects.

    • interesting… Haven’t finished the piece yet, but it makes me want to pick up the Machiavelli book even more, though I’m not sure I have six months to devote to it. Interesting that Strauss early on treated Hobbes as the founder of modern political philosophy but later put Machiavelli in his place. In his scheme, I think that means that Machiavelli was an originator of an “evil,” but an evil that still permitted access to prior influences and better possibilities – thus his somewhat complicated view of America, which the Zuckerts sum up as “modernity is bad, America is modern, America is good.”

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