So I keep hearing about this Strauss guy. Usually in the same phrase as “
Jewish neocon cabal.” Who the heck is Strauss?
He even showed up in the weekly humor page I used to look at until it became a cri de coeur against our current government. So, it’s time for a little research, and you readers are to benefit. I think.
I first read this Public Interest article from folks who work at the Weekly Standard.
The controversy turns on a legitimate question: “What was Strauss up to?” – or, more precisely, “What was Strauss’s intention?” But it would be misleading to attempt to understand Strauss by ascribing to him an influence, whether beneficial or nefarious, on current policy debates, and then inferring from the alleged influence what his aims really were. It makes far more sense to turn first to Strauss himself – that is, to his writings – in order to understand his political teaching. Then one might evaluate his intentional as well as inadvertent influence on today’s policy debates.
Strauss was born in Germany in 1899 and settled in the United States in the late 1930s. He taught at several schools, most notably the University of Chicago. By the time of his death in 1973, he had written 15 books, most of which comment on the great texts of political philosophy, including the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Locke. But Strauss did not restrict himself to the narrow road of a single discipline: His works include interpretations of Thucydides’ history, Aristophanes’ comedies, and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Successful as Strauss was as a teacher, it is above all his books—works such as Natural Right and History (1953), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), and Socrates and Aristophanes (1966) – that constitute his legacy. His extraordinary body of work makes Strauss more than just one learned voice among many in scholarly debates, worthy of respect perhaps, but not serious engagement. Indeed, it is no doubt some vague sense of Strauss’s status as a thinker that has aroused so much passion both in and out of the academy. His thought is of such a character that it defies indifference.
The link should come with a “heavy philosophy” alert, because it’s slow going. I think I would have to read it about twice more to really understand what they are talking about. This is apparently also true of Strauss’s work–and this is the reason I don’t read any philosophy, as “cool” as it would be to walk around with a Wittgenstein book on the ship. (Riiiight.)
This radio program is interesting: calm, adult, good information, totally opposite conclusion to the one I would make, smug worldview completely different from my own smug worldview. From the description of the radio program:
Leo Strauss was a conservative German Jewish political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago during the 1950′s and 1960′s. He died in obscurity in 1973.
Over the last year or so the name Leo Strauss has come up time and again in some of the most influential newspapers and magazines in America – from The Weekly Standard, to The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Boston Globe and on the publications page of the American Enterprise Institute’s website.
Okay, so far, so good…
Because it seems the influence of Strauss’s political theories on contemporary politics in the U.S. can no longer be ignored.
Well, if that’s because you keep bringing it up, yeah…
And some go as far as to say that the use of manipulation and deception in current U.S. policy flow directly from the doctrines of Professor Strauss.
Now I get it. Turns out the author of the article who is discussing Strauss on the radio program is a guy named Earl Shorris, who works for Harper’s magazine. I know about Harper’s because their Index is one of the Things That Must Be Printed In Every Alternative Weekly In The World–and I stopped reading it shortly after 2001 because I finally got tired of it.
Shorris’s article is of interest (not on line for free, though), because it takes some good facts, some good ideas, and then shoehorns those to fit a worldview that doesn’t work to my view. It might have resonance to someone who unquestioningly nods in agreement with Harper’s Index lists. (By the way, the link above is about Shorris’s work with humanities education; it’s a great idea. I’m not so comfortable, though, with the implicit elitism that can be read into calling folks who are disadvantaged “them” and not “us”.)
Okay, conclusion time. Strauss was a teacher to a lot of folks currently in government. Like many of those (Victor Hanson, for instance), he spent a lot of time using classical Western works to get understanding. And he’s sufficiently dead enough to be a whipping boy to those who don’t like the administration.
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