Hey! a column on Leo Strauss! Back when I discussed Cecil’s column on “The most influential philosopher of the century” at a dinner party which included some UofC academics, everyone agreed wth the choice of Heidegger, except for the most senior and distinguished guy there–he held out for Leo Strauss. And since then, as noted in the column, mainstream media (the column cites Newsweek but the real firestorm was in the NYTimes and included letters to the editor and op ed pieces, including one from Strauss’ daughter) have figured out that he existed.
Of course, it jazzes up the column to talk about conspiracy theories and secret knowledge, and the “read below the surface” directive does lend itself to an accusation of kookiness.
NONETHELESS, it is perfectly possible to find Strauss to be a very provactive thinker (quite admittedly of the Chicago School/Great Books scholarly tradition), and even to agree with some things he says while disagreeing with others, or “not going all the way” (as we used to say about other sorts of seductions) on the “esoteric” bit.
If you want to read Strauss on this point sympathetically, you would say that he encourages people to read the original materials (not commentaries thereon) with an open mind–reject the hoary, encrusted with tradition theories of what classic books mean and respond to the work from a blank slate.
Here are two well-known examples Strauss uses (and, Cecil, if you would like a column suggestion, either one of these may be of interest):
In Oedipus, we get the riddle of the sphynx–what goes on 4 legs in the morning, 2 at noon and 3 at night. The answer is “man,” crawling, walking and using a cane. Strauss looked with fresh eyes at this and noted that Oedipus himself was lame and that this riddle was therefore paradoxical when applied to Oedipus, making the play more interesting.
Did Machiavelli mean it? In The Prince, we get the famous blood-drenched purely pragmatic amoral tyrant handbook describing conduct we today call Machiavellian. Consider: Machiavelli was himself imprisoned and tortured before writing this work. He was also a well-read Renaissance guy, seemingly appreciative of art/literature and culture. Would this type of guy have written The Prince? Maybe he intended The Prince as a critique (written in dead pan style) of the very types of acts that The Prince is now viewed as championing. I read The Prince after hearing this idea and I’m a convert: Machiavelli didn’t mean it.
Here are a couple addiitional catchphrases for anyone who wants to know about Strauss: Reason v. Revelation, Jerusalem v. Athens, Ancients v. Moderns. These are pithy ways of quickly stating a few of the ideas discussed in the column.
Which was a good, interesting column, even if it did focus on the political/kooky side of things.