Leo Strauss, Meet John Stuart Mill


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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75 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    “Like many other drugs, doing philosophy — even bad philosophy — makes you feel like you’re the king of the world.”

    I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel like the best model for doing philosophy in life is the narrator in Proust. And he does sort of make a hash of his own life, but you’ll also notice that he doesn’t actually do a heck of a lot.Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    As I putter away in a desultory and halting way on my own essay on Alexandre Kojève and Leo Strauss, trying to focus on their views of the polis, (for Kojève was the godfather of the European Union) I find myself baffled by Leo Strauss.

    Part of me wants to jump up and beat him with a stick, but I’m stoutly resisting the urge, mostly because it looks so sophomoric to beat up on a dead man I disagree with on the basis of a few weeks of study.

    It’s a relief to see you, of all people, wearing the Cato label, give Strauss the well-deserved beating I as a Liberal just couldn’t hand out.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

      “It’s a relief to see you, of all people, wearing the Cato label, give Strauss the well-deserved beating I as a Liberal just couldn’t hand out.”

      Of all people? To the extent that Cato has conservative ties — and it does have some — those ties are paleo, and emphatically not neo. An old-style conservative would have wanted a modest foreign policy, as I think do most at Cato.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Heh. Well-put. Still, you have to admit, a beating from thee carries more weight than one from me, the grizzled old lapsed Republican. I remember the heyday of Irving Kristol, who I always considered to be Pinko swine, along with the rest of those Ramparts reprobates, most of whom would become the tools of Satan over the years, none more buns-up abjectly than Kristol at AEI.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I should mention that one of my reading advisors was a great intellectual historian from roughly the same generation who spent a summer in the Paris Bibliotheque reading room doing research at the same time as Leo Strauss, and so they chatted during lunch every day. I asked him what he made of Strauss and he said, “He was very pleasant, but he struck me as deeply unhappy. I think he would have much rather lived in classical Athens.”Report

  4. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    Excellent piece.
    Let me suggest Voegelin’s essay, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol” (CW, Vol.12, Published Essays: 1966-1985, Univ. of Missouri Press). Here, Voegelin examines the symbols inherent in the mode of nonexistent reality as it pertains to ‘a truth experienced.’ He explicates that while the ‘symbols’ exist in the world, “..their truth belongs to the nonexistent experience which by their means articulates itself.”
    The problem is that history will have its way upon the truth symbols and Voegelin tells us that these symbols seem to move over time from an open and wonderful revelatory irruption to “..a piece of information and its subject matter.” But, because this symbol is required to achieve right order in man/the polis and must be retained, Voegelin speaks of a ‘pressure’ to articulate the symbol exegetically so that it can be communicated, or reduced to doctrinal propositions, so that it can be passed along generationally. The final mode then, of the symbol is a skepticism that soon permeates society.
    Interestingly, Voegelin identified this sequence that moves the ordering force of the nonexistent truth symbol through history as having occurred twice in the history of philosophy. It appears that we are well into the skeptical mode of the second sequence which reveals a certain madness (nosos) “..a pneumopathological state, a loss of personal and social order through the loss of contact with a nonexistent reality.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      This reads to me like some of the stuff my not-Communist-but-Marxist friends explained to me in college about how “false consciousness” can enter into even the minds of the intelligent and enlightened and self-reflective.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        It reads to me like the stuff Mary Baker Eddy wrote that Mark Twain used to make fun of.

        Eddy: “His spiritual noumenon and phenomenon silenced portraiture.”

        Twain: “You cannot silence portraiture with a noumenon; if portraiture should make a noise, a way could be found to silence it, but even then it could not be done with a noumenon. Not even with a brick, some authorities think.”Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      Jeez, all that work I did on semiotics, undone in a flash by Voegelin. His work seems strangely like those patent medicines of yore, capable of curing everything from mange to mumps to menstrual cramps.

      Now listen here. A symbol is what folks make of it, that much is true. The Stars and Bars was the battle flag of Virginia. It became a symbol of intransigent resistance to integration, added in spite to the heraldry of a good many state flags, a doctrinal proposition of the most exquisite clarity.

      But Society itself is a big nothing. It might hope to erect symbols of its power, teaching little kids to say the Pledge of Allegiance to it, but if Voegelin is to whine about loss of contact with a nonexistent reality, there was never anything there to touch in the first place, having already stipulated to its nonexistence. The only point of contact was that symbol and its heraldry was only powerful while it represented power. One might as well pledge allegiance to the flag of Minas Tirith or Narnia. I believe in liberty and justice for all though I am not sure this nation does. As for the truth statement of One Nation Under God, I wish my atheist brethren were not compelled to say so, for it is a patent lie. Though I believe in God Almighty, I see this nation very far from God.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Dude, you really are consumed with that “Southern-White-Hate” thing. Come over to my side of the Lord and be a uniter not a divider!
        I wish Miss Flannery had known you as a kid. I’d bet you’d get two stories. BTW, were you raised up anywhere near Andulasia?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          I was born in Columbia SC. I have a few memories of Lexington SC where my grandparents, aunts and uncles lived, Gamecock fans all, but they are gone. The old family plot was sold upon my grandmother’s death and it has become a trailer park, the house a collapsed ruin, the abode of snakes and I cannot bear to see it again.

          Most of my father’s relatives are from near Chattanooga TN, though the clan originally came as Dutch settlers to Williamsburg VA in 1609 and are spread out across the Shenandoahs. Another bunch went to Indiana. I know my lineage back into the city of Maastricht in Holland, back into the 1400s.Report

          • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Huh! On my father’s side my family line goes back to a Dutchman who came to New York a few generations before the Revolutionary War; 13 of his descendants fought for the winning side in that war. But most recently, my father grew up in Columbia, SC, and his younger brother was born there and there still lives.

            On my mother’s side, they are from deep Appalachia, the Smoky Mountains and thereabouts, and I grew up in those Foothills. The family farm had to be sold a few years ago to keep the Government’s filthy hands off it. I sincerely hope it doesn’t become a trailer park, but it very well could. The grandmother who lived there the vast majority of my life died last Monday and on Saturday we buried her in Caldwell County, NC next to her husband and grandson.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          You forgot: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

          Also, it’s spelled Andalusia.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    On one foot: Plato for me; Machiavelli for thee.

    On the other, Hume for me, Jerry Falwell for thee, because I can handle agnosticism, but the unwashed need a God to keep them in line.Report

  6. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Strauss believed that all the great philosophers, like Jason Kuznicki hisself, are brought to atheism by the force of reason.

    However, to strip society of the ties-that-bind, like religion, is irresponsible and destructive to the philosopher’s host society.

    Cynical perhaps, but far more responsible than those who wish to strip a functional society of its necessary underpinnings.

    I’m glad Mr. Kuznicki is reading Strauss for himself, but the connection to the neo-cons and cynicism is not warranted. When one reads all the anti-neo-cons on Strauss first, one then reads the man with an already-jaundiced eye.

    For the record, Strauss had a long and nourishing corresponsence with the theist Eric Voegelin, and it provides a better window into the man than just skimming a book or two. [And with a jaundiced eye, at that.]

    Google Books preview here. You can read a lot of it for free.

    Having spent considerable time on Strauss, I can only say that a “nuanced” discussion is likely impossible in this forum. I can say only, don’t believe everything you read about him, esp if it’s tainted by the culture wars. And to approach any thinker negatively instead of openly is to waste one’s time from the git-go. Cheers.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

      Strauss believed that all the great philosophers, like Jason Kuznicki hisself, are brought to atheism by the force of reason.

      However, to strip society of the ties-that-bind, like religion, is irresponsible and destructive to the philosopher’s host society.

      In 1640, you’d be a Habsburgite saying that cannibalism might be unfortunate, but it’s better than letting Lutheran heresy destroy civilization. It wasn’t true then either.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        No, I wouldn’t, Mr. Schilling. Don’t be silly.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to tom van dyke says:

          Care to explain the difference?

          Societies obviously can and do change. Not all change is for the worse, and change in itself is no indication of decay. A static society isn’t even one I’d want to live in. That’s where Plato completely loses me, and as I recall, it’s fairly early in the Republic.

          Those who would ascribe all social change to the scribblings of philosophers have too high an opinion, not of the common man, but of themselves.Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Jason, Strauss is quite aware of the irony that “conservatives” end up defending what used to be considered radical. What Strauss believes is that man’s problems are perennial, and although societies may progess—some are clearly better than others—human nature does not.

            He is descriptive, nor prescriptive, more Socratean than Rawlsian. To approach him with hostility or in the light of contemporary partisanship is to waste one’s own time.

            In fact, I don’t even understand why Cato has Strauss in the docket; it should be Rawls, who is at the heart of the current crisis.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to tom van dyke says:

              Rawls? We discussed social democracy back in December. I recommend you read it.

              As to Strauss, it seems as though you would dismiss out of hand anything other than unstinting praise for him. Surely you see that this stacks the deck, don’t you?

              Also, if comparing Strauss to John Stuart Mill counts as examining him “in the light of contemporary partisanship,” well… what year are you living in?Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Jason, they come to bury Strauss, not to praise him.

                They are idiots.

                It’s too painful to attempt principled discussion under such conditions. Strauss’ value is in the clarity of his questions, not his personal conclusions, which he only hints at. That’s why near the end of his teaching career, “his classroom was full of priests,” although Strauss could never successfully be accused of theism.

                One need not agree with a thinker to find him of the highest value. I for one have a fundamental disagreement with Strauss on natural law, which he reduces to natural theology and indeed to biblical revelation. This is inaccurate, in my view. I speak up for him here for clarity’s sake, not in explicit defense.

                But I see the discussion has been passed over to the kiddie table, where summary dismissals of superior thinkers is considered reasonable. Mr. Kuznicki, the readers of this blog follow the lead of the mainpage.

                Which is too bad. There was an adult discussion to be had here. Buried under the usual pile of horseshit.

                Best regards.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Look, I’m trying to come to terms with Leo Strauss on my own terms. A good many instructive things have been said here and this is not the Kiddie Table.

                Now maybe you can write me up a little treatise here, on the subject of Leo Strauss’ division of religion and politics, because I’m having a whole lot of trouble coming to grips with it. It seems to me Strauss doesn’t dare advocate a return to a theocratic state, instead issuing a lot of mealymouthed bullshit conflating the necessary amorality of politics with the immorality of politicians.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                And here’s another problem I’ve been having with Strauss, we of the Kiddie Table are anxious to have explained to us:

                I studied Maimonides at length. That was my first real encounter with Strauss. Leaving aside all the cheap shots about Strauss and esoterica, Strauss seems to keep pointing back to limits to reason itself, a point Maimonides made over and over. But Maimonides didn’t cut corners and point to some irreconcilable differences between faith and reason and keep re-introducing the Ancients: he said the intellect could keep advancing, that observation and data could produce certainty.

                So why does Strauss seem to keep jumping off the bandwagon of reason with all this bafflegap about revelation? Maybe I’m missing the point here, but I don’t see how the Ancients have much to teach us today. Sure, philosophy is like mathematics, it’s taught historically, each semester takes you through about 500 years of math until you get into advanced studies were you advance about 40 years in a semester. But this worship of the Ancients is just hagiography. The Ancients produced philosophy for their time, where slavery was a given, women were property and every sane man was also a pious man.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Mr. Cheeks, the Voegelin-Strauss correspondence; Mr. Blaise, yr thoughts on Kojeve-Strauss, which you’ve been threatening to publish on this blog for awhile now.

                Gentlemen, these are the prisms through which you do, can and should view Leo Strauss. Bob the theist, Blaise the modern man, Voegelin quite the theist, Alexandre Kojeve the philosophical godfather of the European Union.

                I’m more interested in your thoughts at this time rather than me pontificating and frankly doing all the work in bed. [And in such a menage a trois, doubling my chances of a bad review for my performance.]

                Perhaps we could find some common ground, perhaps even a lingua franca, to proceed to adult discussion.

                For if we’re all to get along, the three if not 4 of us [Jason Kuznicki included], as Strauss once put it about the Important Things, we shouldn’t dicuss them with the temperament of Thrasymachus.

                Hey, we’re putting some very large and handsome snapper on the grill at this very moment. I was thinking about youse guys while I was reeling them in.

                No, really, I was.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                I’m terribly unhappy with this Kojève – Strauss essay. It’s getting more exasperating every time I go back to it.

                Here’s my problem: Kojève was a seriously deranged human being. The more I read the less I like, especially what he wrote about Kant and Hegel.

                My take on Kant and Hegel: we’ve all puzzled over Kant in our turn, learned in time Kant did the best he could with the moral underpinnings of his times and gave us the Categorical Imperative. Kant gave us an entire toolbox full of incredibly useful devices for paring away at our own conclusions. Hegel extended the axioms of Kant and told us those moral underpinnings weren’t static, (I don’t think Kant implied they were) but the boiler of Hegel’s steam engine goes kablooie when he gets to this Spirit business, which is why nobody read him for a century. In fairness to Hegel, he did take Kant very seriously and only wanted to point out the obviousness of the Moral Underpinnings problem.

                Then along comes Kojève and the Marxists to completely reinterpret Kant and Hegel. I find myself pulling my head up and to the left, snarling “What?! Hegel never implied any of that!” Kojève also goes on about Heidegger at length, and the truth is I know about as much about Heidegger as I could fit in my left shoe with plenty of room for my foot, so now I have to go off and get clued into Heidegger, because if Kojève is this wrong about Hegel, he’s probably even wronger about Heidegger, that’s my bet.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

                I was thinking about youse guys while I was reeling them in.

                Is that a roundabout way of telling us to fish off? 🙂Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                oh my, Mr. Bp, oh my! You’ve gone and hypostatized the immanent, or is it the transcedent. In either case it just won’t do..if you want to get it right, get in the metaxy.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Mr. van Dyke, I just happen to have a copy of the EV correspondence in two volumes from U. of M. press. I thought I’d reveiwed it, but perhaps not. I’ll go over it and get back.
                Do be patient with Bp and I. I’m purposefully annoying to the progressivists and Bp has possibilities; he’s so derailed he’s fascinating.Report

              • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                I agree Mr.Bob, Blaise does indeed have hope. I’m not giving up on him either. I don’t think he’s an atheist, though. He’s too smart to believe in nothingness and wormholes that lead to more nothingness. I figure in one month, he’ll declare, on this sight, that he’s a passionate Conservative until his last dying breath. And the next month he’ll be giving speeches at Tea Party rallies–a Conservative with his brains, man we are going to really be smoking those Dems/Libs/Progressives/freaks/flakes/Hippies/Yippies/Diggers/Commies– when they hear the Great Blaise wax rhapsodically about the Glory of God and the United States, while at the same time cannibalistic (metaphorically) devouring their microscopic little brains–they’ll all be running around like scared, timid little bunny rabbits and trust me, it’s going to one of the funniest sights you’ll EVER see! I can just see Blazin Barney Frank, going completely nuts, running around like Humpty Dumpty and squealing like a stuck pig. Okay, to review Blaise—our Blaise, we’re are not going to let any cretinous, Liberal, numskull any where near our guy. He’s to be quarantined for his own safety, and for the future of our great country. So hear we have Blaise’s path–first a declaration of being a Conservative. A passionate spokesman for the Tea Party folks, then President (I’m filing papers tomorrow) and finally, a visit to the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict. An extraordinary happens though. Blaise becomes illuminated with the Holy Ghost and soon a slight trickle of blood comes from both his hands. He then starts to drip blood from his feet, and then his side and then the Pope just completely loses it, crying joyfully he rises up from his chair and walks down to Blaise, respectfully prostrating himself in front of him and with tears of ecstasy falling down his cheeks, declares, the Son of God has returned!!

                Fellow Leaguers, you must listen to this music when reading this. And please don’t ridicule visi0ns and apparitions of the Divine. Blaise received the highest message of God available to man, the Stigmata of Christ, our Lord. Go in peace, beloved brethren!


              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Heh. I shall do no such thing. I did, at one point, try to work with the constructs of Buddhism, just to see if it might be of any use. Nature abhors a void and a mathematician abhors an infinity, so that phase didn’t last long.

                My Conservative days are over. I don’t perceive Societies anymore… I used to see them, like great mirages. The American society, so great and good, e pluribus unum, the French society, the Japanese society… all bunk. Fantasies. I don’t believe the concept of society has any validity beyond what each Individual ascribes to it. There’s a lot of peer pressure out there to conform, but I’ve lived long enough to see bell bottom jeans and platform shoes come around again twice. The concept of Society is so much herd mentality, a concept fit only for the weak-willed and the lazy thinker.

                As for Ratzinger, I am sure, in time, he will become the patron saint of pedophiles. He’s protected enough of them over time while he was alive.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

              Well, I do think Socrates is prescriptive- he just does it in a very roundabout way.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Yes, RufusF, Socrates is roundabout. Prescriptive? It would be the Strauss reading of The Republic that Plato is illustrating the impossibilty and absurdity of creating “The Guardians,” raised apart from their families as a selfless and incorruptable ruling class.

                This is where Strauss’ critics go wrong, and in his view, Plato’s. It’s all about the irony.

                Strauss is accused of being the godfather of the neocons, but in his magnum opus, “Natural Right and History,” which Jason is reading or skimming, he openly mocks the Wilsonian “making the world safe for democracy.” Strauss is quite the fatalist about the possibility of human progress, for he is in complete opposition to “historicism.” Societies and regimes may rise and fall for better or worse, but human nature itself is not perfectable.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Tom, I would be interested in your observations of Strauss.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to tom van dyke says:

                My criticism has virtually nothing to do with current events, and everything to do with the following:

                1. The terrible secret that Strauss feared the common folk learning was very old and well-known by the time he began writing, and the world hadn’t actually collapsed.

                2. John Stuart Mill, a thinker at least of Strauss’s caliber, if not greater, judged it not much of a problem, and he provided examples of why this was so.

                3. Strauss really ought to have known those examples.

                But to you, all of this is kids’ stuff, and I’m biased, and the entire conversation isn’t worth having. Not with a person like me, anyway!

                A better example of well poisoning could hardly be invented.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Everyone is biased but Tom (and those who think like him). Tom has told us so in comment thread after comment thread. Plus, Tom’s winning, duh!Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Mr. Kuznicki, who told you Strauss wrote esoterically? His critics, of course. But he did not, and so to read him that way is a bias going in. Strauss hides everything in plain sight.

                Now, it’s true he didn’t have an egalitarian bone in his body. But in our modern age, that is seen as a sign of moral failing, but of course that’s a moral judgment and therefore patently unphilosophical—to impose moral closure on what should be a free and open inquiry.

                To BlaiseP—and this is germane—the core point of the Kojeve-Strauss correspondence is in Kojeve’s egalitarianism, that every man will become a philosopher, the near-perfect society established therewith. As we know from history, the more perfect society will require a better man to populate it.

                Strauss objects: a) that many or most will be incapable or disinterested in philosophy and b) to pretend that they are capable and interested will be an establishment [in Kojeve’s “Universal and Homogeneous State”] not of excellence but of mediocrity.

                The average—the low, the mean, the easily achievable—will become the new standard by which we measure, not the best or the ideal.

                This, of course, is becoming reality.

                To return to the moral judgments against Strauss, such mores can be and are also applied to the American Founders, who feared mobocracy and instituted a republic, esp the senate, which Madison saw as a necessary bulwark against the sway of every passion of the day.

                On the utility of religion, Strauss is no different than George Washington:

                “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

                Now it so happens that I’m not a Straussian and part ways on natural law, which includes a fundamental egalitarianism, that all men are created equal. But I do not condemn him for not concluding it’s self-evident, and especially against Kojeve’s fantasy of the UHS.

                Neither Strauss nor I deny that the UHS may come to be; we doubt whether establishing mediocrity as man’ new standard is a good thing, or homogeneity.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to tom van dyke says:

                I do appreciate your explications of Strauss, your civil discourse, and your patience in dealing with certain people who merely want to ‘win’ the discussion.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                All men are created equal but they don’t stay that way for long. Kojève and the Marxists never grasped that fundamental concept: Madison and Jefferson did. When you consider the composition of the US Senate, we see Jefferson’s thumb on the scales, giving the rural states a huge advantage: they knew what would happen if too much power was vested in the polis. Power must be distributed and mobs form in cities.

                Strauss was no egalitarian and his disciples were worse. Kojève just plain old disturbs me and his disciples, notably Fukuyama are if anything more deluded than the disciples of Strauss. The farther he gets from the Master, the more heretical becomes the Disciple, substituting Dogma for Discourse.

                I’m now waist-deep in Heidegger: trying to work out what Kojève was trying to say and I’m coming to the conclusion you’ve reached: homogeneity might be a fine thing for milk but a wretched thing in politics.Report

              • Avatar Heidegger in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Tom, my friend, always a pleasure to read your comments. (an excellent Washington quote). Especially when imagining the apoplectic convulsions it must cause some of the more “centrist” sensibilities in this locale. Centrist is one of those silly words Liberals always love to bandy about as it almost always, invariably, means capitulating to the Left/Liberal’s version of reality which in itself is a source of side-splitting humor. I particularly love it when the media says something to the effect, “in a show of bipartisanship today, members of the House crossed the aisle and voted for…” Well, we all know what”crossing the aisle” means–it means the Repubs got snookered and crossed the aisle to vote for God know’s what bag of Liberal ruses and tricks. Crossing the aisle=RINOS sell out, again…

                In my own, unbiased opinion, my scorecard reads: Tom Van Dyke 589-Libs, Nuts, The Certifiably Insane, 1. That’s right, 589–1. Hey, I don’t even know where their one victory came from but if I put down zero, they might think I’m offering a biased opinion.
                In any case, keep fighting the good fight. I’m happy to see Chris has done a turn-around–I just saw him on YouTube–a fascinating story–he’s joined one of those Southern sects that worships snakes, serpents (snake handler?)–in an incredible display of faith, he let a cobra bite him over a hundred times! Didn’t even bat an eyelash. Yo bro, now THAT is faith. Good luck to ya.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Mr. H, Strauss had long correspondences with Voegelin and Kojeve, even though to us, they were polar opposites. But Strauss believed legitimate philosophers have more in common—clarity for one thing—than they had differences.

                If Strauss could have civil, nourishing, and even warm [“My Dear Mr. Kochevnikoff”] discourse with the theist and the lefty, surely this is the ideal we should shoot for hereabouts.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Yeah, I read the Republic the same way. I’m thinking of all the dialogues though. He has a program. Sure it’s not a social program and probably can’t be. That’s why I don’t take the Republic at face value. But there’s a mode of living there. Maybe prescriptive is too strong a word. How about preceptive? He is trying to lead at least a few of us towards something.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

                “Preceptive?” I like it, RF. Very natural law, and a fine reply to Strauss’ objection that natural law is no more than warmed-over biblical morality.Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            the republic constructed in Plato’s dialogue is specifically stated to be a thought experiment in hopes of figuring out what it means for the individual to act justly and is not, at least according to the text, suppose to be taken as an actual attempt at engineering the “best” social arrangement.

            Glaucon and the rest entreated me by all means not to let the question drop, but to proceed in the investigation. They wanted to arrive at the truth, first, about the nature of justice and injustice, and secondly, about their relative advantages. I told them, what I really thought, that the inquiry would be of a serious nature, and would require very good eyes. Seeing then, I said, that we are no great wits, I think that we had better adopt a method which I may illustrate thus; suppose that a shortsighted person had been asked by someone to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to someone else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger — if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser — this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune.
            Very true, said Adeimantus; but how does the illustration apply to our inquiry?
            I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our inquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.
            True, he replied.
            And is not a State larger than an individual?
            It is.
            Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.

  7. Avatar Kevin Carson says:

    Re hubris, I’m surprised the lessons of Athens’ imperial ambitions and her downfall are lost on the PNAC folks. Especially given the popularity of Thucydides with neocons like Victor Davis Hanson. You’d think, in particular, that Thucydides’ account (in many ways anticipating Orwell’s analysis in “Politics and the English Language”) of the moral relativism and degradation of language during the Peloponnesian war would suggest that the Aristotelian-Thomist idea of natural right doesn’t fare so well in periods of Empire and total war.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kevin Carson says:

      Quite so.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Kevin Carson says:

      That’s my favorite section in Thucydides. I think I quoted it here when I wrote about him… Yes, I did:
      “The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society was divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow… In this contest the blunter wits were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and of the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate and to be surprised by the combinations of their more versatile opponents, and so at once boldly had recourse to action: while their adversaries, arrogantly thinking that they should know in time, and that it was unnecessary to secure by action what policy afforded, often fell victims to their want of precaution”.

      The Orwell connection is a great point. To be honest, I don’t think Hanson is that great on Thucydides. Others might differ, but I found his recent book a bit glib. It’s probably best to just go to the source and cut out the middleman.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F. says:

        That pretty well sums up VD Hanson. He really doesn’t understand ancient warfare as well as he thinks he does. Case in point: his ideas about Alexander the Great fighting irregular warfare are complete nonsense. VDH is a collage artiste, his homiletics are bad and his history worse.

        VDH’s problem is common to every bad historian: he wants to draw some immediate parallel from the past to some situation today, looking through the lenses of modern times at the distant past. I’m sick of his constant harangues about everyone else’s scholarship, as if his were the only possible interpretation. I’ll tell you Who Lost Homer, the Stoics, who kept trying to read allegory into everything, just like that little pedant VDH is doing right now, trying to extract some feeble homily from the greatest adventure story ever written.Report

        • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

          VDH is dissed hereabouts and Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein are quoted approvingly?

          I was just fishing all day and checked back here with The Twilight Zone for a laugh. Rock on. [Beautiful day on the Gulf of Mex, many tasty fish, thx for asking.]

          BTW, Leo Strauss does a very interesting job on Thucydides in “On Tyranny.” But that would be sticking to the original topic. Nevermind.

          To Mr. Carson: Leo Strauss is neither an Aristotelian nor a Thomist, and Strauss’ account of “Classic Natural Right” hits Aquinas at the midway pint of his seminal “Natural Right and History.”

          But you do illustrate the current confusion, that of poisoning the Leo Strauss well with the denizens’ antipathy toward neoconservatism/Wilsonianism and now, per Libya, Obamaism.

          Just sayin’. This is a complete mess.

          To RufusF: I accept your reading of VDH on Thucydides as glib. But compared to Sullivan and Klein, mere glibness is only a venial sin. You might enjoy the Strauss. 😉Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

            I did try to put forward why I think VDH is the Problem Child of ancient history, especially of ancient warfare. Sitting around and bemoaning the extinction of the Classics, well that’s just a fine sentiment. I sure wish more kids would learn Homeric Greek, too, but guess what, every generation of pedants and cranks has been saying the same thing since the Romans, which puts VDH in fine company but does not add anything new to the debate.

            I also wish the old Much Mozart trouts down at Symphony Hall would quit demanding the music of the 1700s and give a few modern composers a hearing, too. The reason classical music and classical literature has become so ossified is these stuffed shirts and Miniver Cheevys insist on deifying the authors and that is the whole and entire corpus of Victor Davis Hanson. Though he bows down before Thucydides, Hanson embodies as a bad example the lesson of that worthy Ancient: Ignorance is bold.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

            VDH is dissed hereabouts and Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein are quoted approvingly?

            I have never seen an ad hominem go recursive before. Not only do opinions about facts get judged by who holds them, but people get judged by whether their opinions match the ad hominem-based ones.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to tom van dyke says:

            Hey, I might enjoy Strauss- I haven’t said I wouldn’t. Right now, I’m reading Plotinus, but I’m sure I’ll get to Strauss eventually.

            Tom, I know you have this argument about the liberal bias of this site, but it’s a really weird gripe to point out that I’m saying that VDH can be a bit glib, while Ezra Klein and Andrew Sullivan are quoted here approvingly. I’ve never read Ezra Klein, so I’d imagine I didn’t quote him at all here, and the last time I cited Andrew Sullivan was in a post last week where I poked fun at him for glibness!Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Strauss, like Marx, (and Jesus for that matter) is far better than what has been said and done in their respective names.

              The best thing about Strauss, and nobody seems to get this, is his insistence on studying the history of philosophy. He’s seems more akin to Diogenes saying I do not know whether there are gods, but there ought to be. .

              Here’s a nice bite sized chunk of HTML I’m using as source for this hideous paper I’m writing on Strauss and Kojève. It’s about Xenophon’s Hiero.Report

            • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

              RufusF: Again, my observation that VDH is dissed hereabouts yet nothings like ASullivan and EKlein are quoted approvingly was not sent in your direction. In fact, I was taking your word that VDH was glib on the Thucydides as possible or probable truth, you having read him and established your bona fides on the classics.

              I find VDH no oracle, just a guy who has more on the ball than the aforementioned asswipes. Like Tim Rutten of the LATimes, even when I disagree thoroughly, the guy has read a book or a 1000, and I learn something whenever reading him.

              And why you might like Leo Strauss. That he was surrounded by people who disagree with him [did—he’s fucking dead as of 1973, but we speak of philosophers in the present tense] speaks the best of him, I think.Report

            • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Rufus F. says:

              Rufus, Plotinus? PLOTINUS???? You’ve made my day! I do hereby declare Plotinus is the greatest philosopher to have ever walked this earth! With all due deference to a notable, finished carpenter from Nazarene. And also to the cosmic traffic cop, Demiurge. The Emanation of the One is the most beautiful concept in the history of philosophy. It’s not being nor not being; nor beginning nor end; nor life or death; it is the eternal potentiality and possibility of existence and the inexhaustible source of a generative power that spins this cosmos into such an ecstatic dance–it is the manifestation of this dynamic and the contemplation of this dynamic that gives this universe its shape and beauty. The One, like that oil spill, gushes forth an excess of its Being but it must always be Being that is other than itself. I’m quite floored by this Master–even more than Heidegger! I’m sure most of you are very much of aware of this incredible mental giant, Plotinus, but I have a feeling he’s way, way too esoteric for your liking. As far as I’m concerned, he has no equal. My earthbound Trinity would be Plotinus, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart. I’d also say the greatest collection of human minds at one event, would have the be the Last Supper followed by the meeting of Mozart and Beethoven–astronomers have said the earth deviated from its axis by a foot–and Beethoven’s walk with Goethe.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Case in point: his ideas about Alexander the Great fighting irregular warfare are complete nonsense.

          Wait, what? Macedon dominated because they used longer spears than the Greeks, and in hoplite warfare it basically comes down to the longest spear winning. Irregular troops would be pretty much useless against hoplite formations, you can’t destroy a cohesive body of heavy infantry with skirmishers unless the skirmishers have assault rifles.

          Its surprising that someone claiming to be a historian would make a mistake like that.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James K says:

            In such cases, it really does help to know what’s being complained about before offering Helpful Factoids about the length of the Macedonian spear.

            Victor Davis Hansen observes though Alexander the Great did fight decisive battles, he spent most of his time putting down irregular forces in the Balkans and the periphery of his empires in places like the Hindu Kush.

            The lesson VDH draws is that America, too, must be arrayed to fight against irregular forces. However wise this may be tactically, it is madness at a strategic level. I ascribe this to VDH never actually wearing a combat boot: he suffers from Diorama Disease.

            There is only one defense against irregular warfare: the co-opting of the enemy and the removal of obstacles. It is police work, bureaucratic work, turning enemies into allies, obtaining the consent of the governed, understanding that politics is local, that the invader, however well-intentioned and powerful, will either Go Home or Go Native.

            Empires are not merely constructed, they require governing, the forming and re-forming of alliances, visiting and re-visiting the concerns of the governed. The reason democracy works so well is because grievances spring up anew like the dandelions in spring. Governing is a continuous thing, requiring insight, not another half-meter of spear.Report

  8. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    Not much effort at all. (Although, when I pointed this out to my husband, he replied: “All the way to page six? You have a pretty high opinion of the common man, don’t you?”)

    I didn’t say this exactly. What I said was more like “You think the common man would ever pick up that book at all? If I weren’t married to you, I would probably never have heard of Leo Strauss.”

    I make the correction only to point out that I don’t think expecting the common person to read Strauss, or any of a number of other philosophers, is equivalent to “having a high opinion” of that person. It’s more like expecting Einstein to have been really good at baseball.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Okay, I picked up Natural Right and History at the library. I’ll let you know what I find in there.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Cheers, Brother Rufus, and it warms me cockles. Read Leo Strauss as someone who [Platonically, even Socrates-like] sought the correct questions rather than the “right answers,” and you can’t go wrong.

      I suppose I’m a “Straussian” of some sort, but I got serious problems with him on most every level. His Locke may be the “true” Locke, but it’s not Locke as the American Founders understood him. His Aquinas—that “natural law” is inextricable from Biblical revelation—as well.

      But for a “conservative,” Strauss sure likes Rousseau a lot, and thinks not much of Burke.

      [Any more would be giving away the game. Cheers.]Report