Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On Not Reading Leo Strauss

This essay (and letter translation) (via) is a very interesting riposte to recent attempts to argue that Leo Strauss was just a misunderstood promoter of democracy. I haven't read Strauss, so I don't really have an opinion on the interpretive issue. But I will note that there is a basic underlying epistemological issue here, namely, that the interpretation of Strauss put forward by his critics (or at least by Shadia Drury, the one whom I've read most carefully, although I've also read Stephen Holmes) predicts that his defenders will try to paint a picture of him as harmless, since lying about his true views (to the masses, not the elite) is a fundamental part of his philosophy (under this interpretation). Thus one would expect to see such attempted rehabilitations whichever view of Strauss is, in fact, true.

As I understand it, Strauss (according to his critics) believed (roughly, oversimplifying) as follows: there are three types of people, philosophers, gentlemen and the masses. The masses won't read Strauss or other philosophers anyway, and are hardly worth bothering with. But philosophers (according to Strauss, on this interpretation), and Strauss himself, write so as be open to two levels of interpretation. Gentlemen will read Strauss as supporting all sorts of noble goals -- religion, democracy, and all that -- a benign misinterpretation deliberately planted by Strauss to fool those who are not Wise enough to handle the real truth. Philosophers, in contrast, will read Strauss, and other philosophers, and will see past this lie to see the Truth: that these noble goals are lies, but that they are necessary lies, that Gentlemen (and, on a different level, the masses) need to believe. Thus, unless they are talking to other philosophers (which is usually done in code, by writing esoterically, so only the wise will really understand), philosophers will profess that the interpretations of the Gentlemen are correct, since it is what the lower orders ought to believe.

What does it mean, then, that people are writing books saying, no-no-no, Strauss is really just a harmless interpreter of philosophical texts who would never stand up for nasty anti-democratic ideas? Does it mean that this is, in fact, what Strauss thought? Or that the critics are correct, but the defenders, as good Straussians, are putting forth a noble lie in denying it? Or that the critics are correct, and the defenders are (basically) stupid Straussians who are swallowing the lies only fit for the lower orders, rather than cracking the code? Are they putting forward their true views, or the lies they want you to believe, or their genuine but misguided views which are, in fact, just the lies that Strauss wanted them to believe?

Of course one could decide by going and reading Strauss for oneself... but even that wouldn't necessarily decide the issue, since if one read Strauss and decided he was harmless, one might simply be falling for the deliberately-designed misinterpretation -- indeed, Strauss's current defenders might be sincere (having fallen for the same well-laid misinterpretation) rather than deliberately lying (as, according to this interpretation, they would do if they properly understood him). It's an epistemological vortex with no obvious way out.

Except, perhaps, this: in two different ways, it doesn't matter.

First, the views of Strauss as presented by Shadia Drury (and, it appears, his other critics) form an interesting philosophical view well worth considering (and, I would say, combating as ultimately deeply immoral), whether or not they actually accurately represent Strauss's views. When I was a philosophy major in college, one of my professors told me that the interpretation of Wittgenstein by Kripke was generally agreed to be a misinterpretation -- but was also widely held to be an interesting view worth considering (and refuting) in its own right, a view commonly referred to as "Kripkenstein". Similarly, whether or not Strauss held the views ascribed to him by his critics -- which is (possibly) an unanswerable question -- the coherent view, call it Drury-Strauss -- is one worth considering, and rebutting.

(I haven't read his defenders, but from reviews of their books they make him sound utterly dull -- that is, rather than an interesting, evil point of view, they ascribe to him a mundane, harmless, dull one. Rather than making him sound worth reading and refuting, they make him sound palatable at the price of making him sound not worth tasting in the first place. Perhaps if I read them, I'd find them putting forward a view which makes Strauss out to be interesting as well as beneficent... but ars longa, vita brevis and all that.)

The second way in which the truth about Strauss might not matter is that, given the sophisticated arguments of Drury and others, it is clearly a plausible misreading, even if it is, in fact a misreading. Thus it is perfectly possible that it is a misreading that the current crop of neocons adopted this interpretation -- and thus set out to rule America according to its lights. In this sense, it doesn't matter whether or not this interpretation of Strauss is correct or not, only whether or not those students of his (and their students) who latter attained power and prominence in the U.S. believed it was -- and what effect that belief had.

As someone more engaged, currently, with American political ideology than with the history of philosophy or abstract political philosophy, it is this latter point which interests me. And on the final (and, really, central) question -- to what degree this view of Strauss affected key people and thus underlay the current Neocon view running our government -- I'm so far agnostic. It's my field, but it ain't the row I'm currently hoeing, so I haven't studied it enough to see if I think that the strand of Drury-Strauss that fed their thinking (since it does seem to have done so at least to some degree) was a minor or major element in its construction. But if I did want to go figure it out, reading Strauss doesn't seem to be too relevant, since the issue is not whether Drury-Strauss is an accurate representation of Strauss's views, but who thought it was, and what those thoughts meant.

For if there's one thing that Straussians of all kinds, and anti-Straussians for that matter, can all agree on, surely it's that misinterpretations can be just as powerful a force in intellectual history (and, therefore in history of all sorts) as interpretations can. Whether the misinterpretations were sincere or not ultimately matters less than that they were out there in the world, having an effect. It's roughly parallel to the fact that whether the neocons believed their own bullshit about Iraq or not is ultimately less important than the fact that enough people bought it to go start a war over it. Intellectual and ideological structures can do great harm, whatever their foundation.

(P.S.: I sort of started this whole thing to recommend Scott Horton's blog post -- the one I linked to right at the beginning -- but it got out of hand. So to return to that, and hopefully peak your interest, let me quote the bit from the letter of Strauss's that's translated in that post, the same part which has been highlighted by several others:
...the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme [“inalienable rights of man”] to protest against the shabby abomination. (Leo Strauss, 1933)
It's a fascinating post. If you haven't read it yet, and are at all interested in this sort of thing, go read it.)

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