The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 23, 2014

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Straussianism
Mark C. Henrie - 05/05/11

Straussianism is the term used to denote the research methods, common concepts, theoretical presuppositions, central questions, and pedagogic style characteristic of the large number of conservatives who have been influenced by the thought and teaching of Leo Strauss (1899–1973). Straussianism is particularly influential among university professors of historical political theory, but it also sometimes serves as a common intellectual framework more generally among conservative activists, think tank professionals, and public intellectuals. Currently, Straussianism is associated in the public mind with neoconservatism, but the precise nature of this relationship is controversial.

Least controversially, Straussianism is defined by its method within the academic discipline of political theory. Straussians engage in a “close reading” of the “Great Books” of political thought; they strive to understand a thinker “as he understood himself”; they are unconcerned with questions about the historical context of, or historical influences on, a given author; they seek to be open to the possibility that in any given Great Book from the past, one may come across something that is the truth, simply. Two things may at once be said about this approach, which resembles in important ways the old New Criticism in literary studies. First, the method is powerful, and the effort of intellectual discipline that it requires cultivates a particularly focused kind of discursive intelligence: Straussians, like the old New Critics, are often among the most penetrating readers of texts. Second, like the New Criticism, the Straussian method may be reproduced with relative facility. It does not require field research, extensive contextual historical investigations, technical skills such as paleography, or the acquisition of multiple foreign languages. All that is necessary is a properly trained mind and a Great Book. These two facts may help explain, on the one hand, the intellectual prestige of Straussians, and on the other hand, the widespread success of Straussianism as an academic “school.”

There is a more controversial dimension to the Straussian method. Straussians make a strong distinction between works of political thought that rise to the level of Great Books and those that do not. Great Books are those written by authors—philosophers—of such sovereign critical self-knowledge and intellectual power that they can in no way be reduced to the general thought of their time and place. In fact, the great minds who write such books create the general thought of later times: books by lesser writers, no matter how important, are understood as epiphenomenal to the original insights of a thinker of the first rank. With respect to writers of the first rank, this premise leads to an intensity of hermeneutic engagement that is often described as Talmudic. Talmudic skills were, of course, developed in relationship to a divine text, one that could not err. In effect, the Straussian method encourages a like respect for the writings of true philosophers.

It is here that the possibility of “esoteric” writing is invoked. Given the example of Socrates’ conviction and execution by Athens for the crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth, later philosophers, Straussians maintain, learned to write at two levels for two sorts of readers. On the surface, their teaching would strive to be unobjectionable to the authorities of their regime; their deepest insights—or their real opinions—would lie hidden, accessible only to those few with the intellectual penetration and patience to navigate the apparent lapses in argument, mistakes in citation, or peculiarities of presentation that had been made deliberately to draw the adept to the philosophical core of a work. While some Straussian writings can be marvels of hermeneutic display, the value of the resulting payoff is ambiguous. Thus, Machiavelli is shown by Straussians to be an immoralist: well, was that not the received interpretation of the readers of his time?

While there are students of Strauss who are not political conservatives, Straussianism is rightly recognized as an authentic form of conservatism. Strauss’s approach to the Great Books was meant, in part, as a response to the historicist presuppositions of the mid-twentieth century, which read the history of political thought in a progressivist way, with past philosophies forever cut off from us in a superseded past. To be open to the possibility that Plato has hold of the truth—and that more recent thinkers are therefore wrong—is to reject the progressivist narrative radically. Moreover, one of Strauss’s major themes concerned specifically the problem of modernity, and this has remained a perennial theme for his disciples. Modern political philosophers have been, Strauss argued, from the beginning engaged in a project to change the world rather than to understand it. Compared with the ancients (and the medievals), their project entails a “lowering of the sights” of political life—from the high end of virtue to the low end of commodious self-preservation. Something genuinely human is thereby in danger of being lost.

Modernity, moreover, progresses for Straussians in “waves” of deepening difficulty, each new crisis the handiwork of a philosopher-founder: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. While these waves may be distinguished, they are also logically connected. Thus, the central political problem of the twentieth century—totalitarianism, whether national socialist or international communist—may be understood as a radicalized form of a more deep-rooted political and intellectual problematic within modernity as such. This analysis of the crisis of the twentieth century comported well with the spiritual stance of many other conservatives during the Cold War years—perhaps particularly with that of conservative Roman Catholics, who soon recognized in Strauss someone from outside their own faith community who nonetheless seemed to advance something very like a traditional Catholic critique of modern philosophy and the modern world.

From the beginning, Straussianism has been controversial. Being conservatives, and being devoted to the Great Books, they met with often fierce opposition within complacently progressive and scientistic political science departments and had difficulties finding academic positions. But the Straussians have been a subject of controversy among otherwise well-disposed conservatives as well. To make matters still more complex, some Straussians have turned against other Straussians. These changing attitudes are the result of the changing nature of Straussianism itself—or at least of its emphases and modes of presentation.

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