Thinking About Strauss

Thinking About Strauss July 28, 2004

My many thanks to Jon Rowe and Timothy Sandefur for taking the time to answer my inquiry about Leo Strauss. After seeing multiple references to Leo Strauss, the late and famous political philosopher from UChicago, I became interested in his work and those he influenced. I knew that both of them had some background with students and followers of Strauss, particularly Timothy, who was (is?) a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute, the homebase of the “Western Straussians”, so I sent an email asking them if they would take the time to give me some history and background on Strauss and his followers. They both were kind enough to do so, and they wisely turned their responses into posts on their blogs for everyone to see.

The responses are fascinating to me, as is this entire subject. I really must go back and reread Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the best selling book that I read shortly after it came out in the late 80s. Bloom was one of Strauss’ students, and the book read to me at the time like a fairly straightforward book of conservative cultural criticism about the fall of classical education and the replacement of the religious virtues with permissiveness and hedonism. I am taken aback to find out that Bloom was himself an atheist, a homosexual and a hedonist and that he died of AIDS. I also was unaware of the existence of Saul Bellow’s book Ravelstein, which is apparently a novel about Bloom and many other Straussians with the names changed, and of the fact that Bellow was Bloom’s best friend.

So why would Bloom, an atheist and a homosexual, be siding with social conservatives who advocate a return to Christian moral values? The answer, it appears, can be found in Strauss. As Mr. Rowe puts it:

Strauss held that the notion that the (capital T) Truth could NOT be ascertained by Reason or Revelation constituted a “crisis” in modern philosophy (meaning present day or “postmodern” philosophy—Nietzsche and everything after him). Now the odd thing is that Strauss and his East Coast followers are atheists/nihilists imbibed in Nietzsche. They just don’t think nihilism is a truth fit for mass consumption, only for a select philosophic “few.”…

Although Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, beats around the bush, it’s fairly certain after finishing the book, especially towards the end, that he cautiously admits to being an atheist/nihilist. But he prefaces the whole thing with the drastic implications of what all this means (“the implications of the abyss”). And reading Ravelstein—Saul Bellow’s account of Bloom (and bear in mind that Bellow was Bloom’s best friend)—Bloom was unequivocal in his assertion that not only did God not exist, but that no true philosopher could believe in God.

Likewise, this passage from Ronald Bailey, citing prominent conservative thinker Irving Kristol:

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that `the truth will make men free.'” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol’s] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”

In essence, Strauss and his Eastern followers, including Bloom, are atheists and nihilists in the Nietzschean tradition, but they believe that religion is necessary to, in essence, keep the masses in line.

I recall at the time finding many of the ideas in Bloom’s book quite compelling. I have long been dumbfounded that outspoken support for classical education can be found mostly in conservative political circles in the US. I consider myself anything but a conservative, but I wholeheartedly agree with the supposition that we have needlessly watered down classical education and that those infamous Dead White Males of classical studies should be the core of higher education (and a much larger part of secondary education as well). While I certainly do recognize the value of multicultural education and for the inclusion of other ideas in education, particularly literature and history, I think we have far too often settled for academic fads as a replacement for a serious education in the classics. I also agree with Mr. Sandefur that the great philosophers should be read critically, not merely as an exercise in the history of ideas to determine who influenced whom.

It suddenly occurs to me that I am, in a sense, Bloom’s photo negative. Bloom was a hedonist in his personal life who nonetheless advocated conservative policies and believed that government needed to promote and support traditional religious values in order to keep society stable. I, on the other hand, am a staunch opponent of social conservatism who nonetheless lives a very conservative private life (I am staunchly monogamous, I neither drink nor smoke, and I live by a strict moral code – I’ve been told by those who know me best that I’m a “difficult person to live up to” – that rejects sexual permissiveness). Straussians, it seems, advocate control of everyone else’s lives and no controls on their own (because they are part of the “initiated” aristocracy, apparently); I, on the other hand, keep fairly strict control of my own life but have no desire to impose those controls on anyone else.

I’m really quite curious to keep exploring these ideas. I am sort of thinking on my feet here as I react to the information from my two correspondents and from other sources. There has been a lot of attention in some corners of the internet that Straussians are some sort of cabal that secretly controls the US government, and it’s true that there are some prominent followers of Strauss in positions of power, including Paul Wolfowitz. Like Mr. Sandefur, I find this notion fairly silly, and that was not the point of my inquiries on the subject. I’m more interested in the ideas themselves, particularly as it intersects with history and constitutional law.

In many ways, the tension between the Eastern and Western Straussians highlights the tension in my own thoughts, as yet incomplete and probably inconsistent as well. I am an unapologetic enthusiast for Enlightenment thinking, something that Strauss and many of his followers reject – not because they think those ideas are untrue but because they think they’re unwise to say out loud. But I’m curious to engage this subject because it represents serious conservative political and philosophical thought, as opposed to people like Robert Bork, whose thinking I regard as little more than a thin veneer to conceal outright authoritarianism.

At any rate, stay tuned for more on this subject as I learn more and interact with those who have a deeper understanding of it than I do. And I strongly encourage you to read the blogs of Timothy Sandefur and Jon Rowe on a regular basis as well if you’re interested in this subject. They often engage these issues and they do so brilliantly.

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