Thursday, April 28, 2005

Education and liberation: What it means to be a Straussian, Part I

Pardon the length of this post, but the nature of the subject matter demands it. Please bear with me:

I received a friendly e-mail today from a reader whose understanding of Straussians is that they (we) want society to be governed by an "elite" that essentially lies to the masses to secure and sustain its rule. This reader, who seems open to be persuaded otherwise, asked me to write a post addressing this understanding and explaining in further detail what I mean by "diversity" among Straussians.

There is much to say on the topic of Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism -- far too much for a single post. For now, I will make a few points and provide links to some interesting articles on the web. Although this is not a blog specifically about Strauss, I do plan to return to this topic from time to time in the future, as it is worth further consideration and very much underpins everything I write here at The Reaction -- I am, after all, a Straussian, and I continue to wrestle with what it means to be one, not least because I tend to be on the left of what I consider a fairly diverse community. When you keep hearing that Straussianism is akin to, if not identical to, neoconservatism, and when you yourself are quite liberal, more or less, you need to ask some basic questions about what it means to be a Straussian.

In short, is it possible to be a liberal Straussian, as I claim to be?


My reader's understanding, which he himself admits is fairly "crude," is a common one that in recent years has been introduced by left-wing critics in academia and the media to discredit Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism, not least because there are a number of Straussians working in or affiliated with or who support the Bush Administration. Thus, to discredit Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism means in particular means to discredit the Bush Administration in general. As a liberal and a Democrat, I am all for discrediting the Bush Administration, not to mention the Republican Party, but I reject the notion that Strauss is the "godfather of neoconservatism," as he has been called, and that Straussians are by definition conservatives, or even neoconservatives. More, I reject the notion that Strauss and/or Straussianism are the driving intellectual forces behind the Bush Administration.

There are certainly Straussians in high places in the Bush Administration. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, took courses with Strauss at The University of Chicago, although he is not a self-defined Straussian. Similarly, there are Straussians in high places in the conservative media. For example, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, did his doctorate at Harvard with Harvey Mansfield, a leading Straussian, although his father, Irving, was actually the founder of neoconservatism, and Bill seems to be much more neoconservative and partisan Republican than Straussian. What is true is that there are more public Straussians on the right than on the left, and a number of policy-oriented Straussians have found a political home in the Republican Party, more so than in the Democratic Party. But these public Straussians, the face of Straussianism, are far outnumbered by the many academic Straussians who teach all across North America. Is it possible to generalize and to label them all as one? Did Strauss provide a single political teaching, or can a political teaching even be divined from his philosophical teaching? Do all Straussians think alike? Do we all collectively -- academics, policy wonks, political commentators, etc. -- form a monolith that admits of absolutely no dissent or internal diversity? Is there an inexorable link between Strauss and political conservatism (especially American (neo)conservatism)? To all these questions my answer is a clear one: No.

And I say this as someone who has been part of the Straussian "community" for many years. Even the word "community" doesn't work. After all, what is a Straussian? Well, someone whose academic or otherwise intellectual ancestry can be traced back, now across several generations, back to Leo Strauss. But there is no such family tree. Yes, Strauss had his students and they had their students and they had their students -- and there can be, for some Straussians, including me, a direct line back to Strauss. But this linear model doesn't always hold. First, not all Straussians think alike. Even Strauss's own students disagree with one another on certain fundamental points. For example, Harry Jaffa, a prominent "west-coast" Straussian, disagrees sharply with Harvey Mansfield, an "east-coast" Straussian, on the very meaning of America, for all Straussians one of the central questions of modern political philosophy. For more on this debate, see here. It is only one of the more public of many such disagreements among Straussians.

But even this east-west divide doesn't hold. After all, what I have seen -- and I have been on the inside, at the University of Toronto, long a bastion of Straussian political thought -- is a healthy, diverse, and fluid community of scholars dedicated to debating one another (and others) and questioning the central questions of political life. If there is anything we agree on, it is that the Socratic philosophical undertaking -- the attempt to ascend from the darkness of the cave (convention/opinion) to the light of the sun (nature/truth), a life dedicated to the proposition that the unexamined life is not worth living -- is worthy of emulation. Furthermore, the linear model implies a community closed to outsiders, which is obviously not the case. Yes, there are Straussians who have studied mostly (and almost exclusively) with other Straussians, but most Straussians (and certainly most of the best and most interesting Straussians) can point to a number of different influences, of which Strauss and Straussians may or may not be the most important. Anyone who has ever studied with a Straussian may be called a Straussian, I suppose, but, clearly, it's never as simple as that, no matter how hard our critics may try to lump as all together under a single banner.

For example, I have studied at the University of Toronto with two leading Straussians, Thomas Pangle and Clifford Orwin, but I did my undergraduate work at Tufts University, where I studied history but took a number of political theory courses with Robert Devigne, who never studied with Straussians but who introduced me to Strauss. But, more than that, is it not possible even for the most insulated Straussians to think for themselves? I have encountered a number of sycophants among the Straussians I have met, but that is true anywhere. In fact, there are likely more narrowminded sycophants among those who reject the Socratic philosophical undertaking and simply accept without question the reigning orthodoxies of postmodernism. For my part, I have encountered interesting people from diverse backgrounds who do not simply regurgitate some reductionist Straussian claptrap. That anecdotal evidence may or may not be of universal application, but it is, I think, more true than not.

On the diversity of Straussians, I recommend reading this piece by Leslie Friedman Goldstein, a professor at the University of Delaware who studied with Strauss and a number of leading Straussians, including Joseph Cropsey, Herbert Storing, Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Werner Dannhauser, as well as with such leading liberals theorists as Hannah Arendt and Richard Flathman. Goldstein rejects the notion that there is any sort of "Straussian political orthodoxy". He lists a number of liberal Straussians, including William Galston, former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, and argues that many conservatives who are called Straussians are simply not, such as neoconservative defence analyst Richard Perle and Yale History Professor Donald Kagan. Some other key passages:

"So what unifies 'Straussians'? They are unified by a belief about reading and a belief about the value of political philosophy. They share the view that reading texts closely is a wise approach, that trying to discern the view of the author as the author understood him- or herself is the best starting point for understanding a text, and that authors may have more than one message intended for more than one level of anticipated reader."

"They also share the view that the belief that social science can and should be value-free is problematic and many levels. A subspecies of this value-free social science was the approach dominant in the fifties and sixties in many philosophy departments that limited moral or political philosophy to language analysis: instead of asking, 'What is justice?', scholars of this approach reduced the horizon to their questioning to, 'What do people mean by "justice" or by "rights"?' Leo Strauss urged students to attempt to recapture the power of the original question by reading with an open mind philosophers of the past from periods in which these questions were deemed, in principle, answerable. Consequently, Straussians are at least willing to entertain seriously the possibility that there might be a human nature, and to ponder what that nature might entail."

Very well put. Instead of succumbing to, and bowing before, the reigning orthodoxies of our time, be they Marxist or postmodern or whatever, Strauss teaches us to read with an open mind, to consider the most fundamental questions of human nature and the human condition, and to pursue, as far as possible, the Socratic philosophical undertaking. This is not a political teaching, nor does it lead inexorably to some "Straussian political orthodoxy".

As Joshua Muravchik, a non-Straussian conservative, put it in an essay on neoconservatism for the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think-tank (see link, right), "reading political counsel into Strauss is altogether a misplaced exercise. He was not a politico but a philosopher whose life's work was devoted to deepening our understanding of earlier thinkers and who rarely if ever engaged in contemporary politics". (Muravchik goes on to say that "attempts to link neoconservatives to Strauss... are based on misidentification and misconstruction".)

Many Straussians have made these or similar points about the diversity of Straussians and the philosophical (and non-political in partisan terms) character of Strauss's teaching. For example, in a celebrated article about Strauss published not long after Strauss's death, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and one of the more renowned Straussians (and, notably, a lifelong Democrat), makes the invaluable point that "[Strauss's] politics were the politics of philosophy and not the politics of a particular regime". However, "[f]rom both experience and study, he knew that liberal democracy is the only decent and just alternative available to modern man". Further:

"Leo Strauss believed that the Platonic image of the cave described the essential human condition. All men begin, and most men end, as prisoners of the authoritative opinions of their time and place. Education is a liberation from those bonds, the ascent to a standpoint from which the cave can be seen for what it is."

(See also the online bibliography of Strauss's works and secondary works on Strauss at

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Strauss does not provide the philosophical basis for strictly conservative politics or political partisanship of any kind. Rather, he guides us back to Socrates -- and, from there, through the long history of political philosophy -- precisely in order to liberate us from all such conventional opinions about the good and the just, and to challenge us to pursue the truth about human nature and the human condition, a truth that transcends historical context and the conventional opinions of particular regimes. Individual Straussians may pick and choose from the complexities of Strauss's teaching in order to reconcile that teaching, or the teaching of other Straussians, with their own political preconceptions, or they may derive certain political conclusions, conservative or otherwise, from such selective picking and choosing, but the essence of what it means to be a Straussian, however understood and however broad that label, lies in living a philosophical life that is not bound by such limitations. If anything, the lesson of Socrates is precisely that there is an irreconcilable tension between philosophy and politics, or between the philosopher and the city (or any civil society), and that it is simply foolish to direct philosophy to political rule: one of the central lessons of Plato's Republic, of which Socrates is the main character, is that the rule of philosophy is good neither for the city nor for philosophy itself. It is that tension, a fundamental and seemingly unavoidable political problem, that animated much of Strauss's thinking.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Strauss liberates us from the shackles that bind us to our self-made caves. He is the ultimate liberal.

(In Part II, I will consider the accusation that Straussians advocate the rule of an elite and the use by said elite of some noble lie to control the masses. Please check back soon. I will continue to post daily on a number of different topics, and my next post on Strauss should appear tomorrow or over the weekend.)

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  • Great Post! Cleared up some stuff I had been struggling with because I'm in a similar situation. I'm also to the left on most issues yet Straussianism (as you have laid it out) has appealed to me.

    Can I be a Straussian and not support the "American century" or whatever those hawks have got cooking down in Washington? That kind of question is the product of the Straussian spin that at times I have probably been sympathetic to.

    It's like a kind of historical ego. Thinking that we are better off now because of notions of progress. I think that in some ways we have progressed in terms of things like social justice. However, if I were to ask myself whether I'm better off in any fundamental way than Socrates was well of course the answer is no.

    I would add though, that I probably have a much better T.V. than Socrates had (13" baby, woohoo!). Not sure if that would be considered "fundamental" though.

    Hey, Mr. Stickings, I don't know if you do requests or if its within the scope of this blog, but how about after you finish part II we get a short rant on the hockey strike if thats something you're following or care about. Hmmm your thoughts? Oh and no Hab-love either please!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:07 AM  

  • Of course I do requests, and I'll post something about the hockey strike -- and perhaps, too, about Bertuzzi, who will soon be reinstated -- in the near future. Do you have any comments on the matter? I'd be happy to respond to specific points.

    Thanks for reading my blog, and feel free to keep replying.

    I'll hold off on further thoughts on Strauss until I've posted part II, likely tonight or over the weekend. It would be interesting to hear what other people have to say.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:59 AM  

  • Argh, the Bertuzzi incident (sigh). Yeah that needs to be aired out for sure.

    Getting back to Straussianism, maybe you could touch on current trends/emerging fields in academia and the Straussian opinion of them. It seems there is a certain amount of scepticism there, perhaps becuase they haven't stood the test of time?

    Where is this scepticism (if any) directed? What are the negative implications of these new fields?

    I seem to remember reading something about fragmented student bodies. Like for example, only Japanese students taking Japanese studies or say only women taking women's studies? I'm not sure if those are good examples but anyways, I look forwards to part II.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:19 PM  

  • Very good blog. One comment, though. You mention Leslie F. Goldstein's review of Anne Norton's book. I was a student of Prof. Goldstein at the University of Delaware. Aside from being an excellent professor and authority on the courts, she is also a woman. Not a man.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:34 AM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:09 PM  

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