Leo Strauss

Please put the word Christianity in quotes when referring to the religion of George W. Bush and the rest of his gang.

I really wish Shadia Drury was still a prof at my university, although she presented a “slanted” view of both Strauss and his followers, it sure was fun. Larry Borgia for what its worth, Cecil certainly appears to have a bias on Strauss, as his train of thought follows similarly to what I was taught/discussed with Drury. Since I don’t want to be only absorbing from secondary sources, I was wondering if you could expand upon what you were taught/learned from your Straussian professors?



Where did my thread go?

Thank you, Katsu, Larry and blork.


You argued that a bad process cannot bring forth good results, regardless of what the goals were.

If the war in Iraq was not engaged what would the results be?
Leaving in a cruel dictator (is anyone arguing that Saddam was not), more Iraqi civllians would have been killed than were killed in the war.

According to a report run by the Guardian at

up to 4,300 civilians were killed by during the war and the first few days of occupation.

  1. That’s a pretty sterile bombing campaign to have killed fewer than 5,000 civilians, particularly when others were predicting civilian casulties in excess of 100,000.
  2. Saddam was killing his own people at a pretty healthy rate. According to a recent poll by Gallup, 6.6% of Baghdad residents had a family member or friend killed by Saddam. A Zogby poll for four major cities in Iraq showed 1/2 of respondents having a family member, friend or neighbor killed during Saddam’s reign.
    Now, I am aware of the extrapolation problems with these polls (more so the 2nd than the 1st). Regardless, a legitimate argument can be made that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been safer for Iraqis than Saddam’s rule has been, particularly for political dissidents.

And many apologies to Humble Servant.

I also found Cecil’s portrait of Strauss to be cartoonish.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspct to me is the derision of the “esoteric vs exoteric” method of reading.

I might seem difficult ot obscure but it is not. I does take a bit of thinking, and can indeed be profoundly disturbing when you realize that familiar ‘classic’ works often don’t directly say what they mean, but hide their message under a more popularly acceptable veneer.

However, it is not mystical imagining, as Cecil would see if he read the original works -the works Strauss translated and Strauss’ own essays- rather than books about Strauss by labeled proponents/opponents. Given Cecil’s prominence, this failure is very disappointing.

The Introduction to Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, for example, explicitly states that it is written esoterically, and lists the basic techniques used. Maimonides goes on to say that most people won’t ‘get it’, even though he’s spelled it out. I hate to admit that he’s right. I myself thought I understood what he was saying in the Introduction, but despite months of discussion in a graduate course, it still hit me like a ton of bricks when I started doing the analysis myself, and saw how plainly yet pervasively this method of ‘deeper [hidden] meaning’ was used in The Guide and many other major works. Aquinas, for example, isn’t as bold as Maimonides in spelling out his methods at the front of the Summa Theologica but he does state fairly clearly that he uses this method. Huge swathes of the Bible (Old and New Testament) that had always puzzled me suddenly became not only clear, but common sense, and in perfect accord with the world we see around us.

The ancients were not fools - they had eyes; but they felt, arguably quite rightly, that man’s relation to man is in many ways more important to him than his relation to the natural universe. Yes, we have the H-bomb -aren’t we clever?- but in the end what matters is how we use it. “Politics”, in the Greek sense, on the macro-scale (laws, factions, nations, etc.) and micro scale (the authority structure of families, schools, workplaces, neighbohoods, social circles, etc.) molds not just our lives but our thoughts and the very basis of our thinking to a degree we can scarcely grasp

Jesus, for example, is famed for speaking in parables -why? Well, he explains it himself, in many places, but many people are taught to be too “literal” in reading even the passages where he’s explicitly says he is speaking in parable – and then, on ket passages, thoroughly indoctrinated in fanciful interpretations that are barely hinted at by the words. It’s really rather shocking.

If I may be forgiven an example that may offend some (but which I feel is particularly clear), in the Parable of the Importunate Widow and the Unjust Judge, Jesus tells people to pray to support their spirits, but notes that it would be quite unjust for God to be swayed from his Will and Plan by the wailing entreaties in those prayers. Yet most churches persist in teaching that “prayers are answered” and exhort their congregations to unceasing nagging. Many believers take every minute coincidence as evidence of the power of prayer, while overlooking the far more numerous or larger evils that remain unswayed and unanswered as ‘God’s Will’. Who is the mystic, the reader who sees the “Straussian” esoteric interpretation, that accords with our daily experience, or the literalist who picks and chooses?

That, IMHO, is why the judge in the parable is said to be unjust. Are we to believe God is so unjust? Of course not. But this message is too bitter for some.

The esoteric style of writing lives on equally strongly in our own time, in every setting where an unpopular message must be delivers. Strauss cites one example that really resonated with my own experience in his Persecution and the Art of Writing [alas, the ‘free look’ excerpts , which change over time, seem to always stop short of the killer passages - isn’t that always the way?]

If you read Pravda in the late 1970s/early 80s, the ten years before the fall of the USSR, you’d see numerous citizen-written editorials along the lines of "Thirty years ago, all consumer goods, from food to razor blades to automobiles were in short supply, and citizens had to scrounge the stores and trade with each other for the basic necessities. However, After thirty years of Five Year plans, the economic inefficiencies, corruption, and other factors which reduced our vast and resource-rich nation to effective poverty are ended. If we were still scrounging for razor blades, and leaping into any store line we passed, without even knowing what the line was for, in the hopes of buying something we might be able to trade for the things we need, then Communism would truly be a failure!"

This passed the usually privileged Party censors, because it seemed to praise the USSR, but the common man who still carried a folding shopping bag with him all day, on the chance that he might encounter a line in front of a store (signalling the arrival of some hard-to-obtain commodity) would immediately draw the obvious conclusion: “We are still poor compared to the riches of the West. Why? Perhaps Communism has indeed failed.”

Such biting ‘flawed’ editorials were obvious to any thoughtful Western reader - and history has shown us that they were not lost on the Soviet citizenry, either. Strauss points out that there are many cases -arguably most matters of import- where we may not wish to be savaged for saying what we wish to say, but change our phrasing, leaving our true meaning available to those who can hear.

blork, I should point out that the professors I mentioned weren’t Straussians in the sense that they believed some immutable cult-like doctrine passed down from the master. Rather they were conservative political thinkers who admired Strauss for being one of the few intellectual conservatives of his time. They agreed with alot of what he had to say, but they had their own opinions. Also I think they were second generation Straussians, in that they studied at U of C under people who had studied under Strauss.

The class I took was a “great books” type seminar. The main thing they stressed was that we should pay close attention to the books themselves, and try to read them without any preconceptions. Ideally we should be in a conversation with the books, treating them as living sources of inspiration, rather than a fixed set of doctrines which could just as easily be learned through outlines and other secondary sources. A striking example was when we read Marx. As I said the profs were fairly conservative. But they insisted we read Marx as sympathetically as possible, and spend time analyzing his insights, rather than engaging in easy, facile denunciations. Inevitably a student would bring up the Gulag or Pol Pot or something, and the profs would immediately draw attention back to the book. If you didn’t know them and just wandered into the class, you might have taken them for marxist radicals rather than the conservatives they were. (One was either a Cuban exile, or–more likely–the son of Cuban exiles.)

That being said they definitely did have opinions. I got to know the Cuban guy outside of class and learned most of what I know about Strauss through one on one conversations. But again it is hard to separate Strauss’s thought from my Professors. Also, this was more than 10 yrs ago, and I drank alot in college.

Anyway Cecil’s general outline, the bit he calls “unobjectionable” is not that far off. Basically (the thinking goes) the enlightenment was a good thing in that it liberated us from superstition, enabled the growth of constitutional democracy, and provided the social framework for modern science. But there were unintended side effects. By subjecting everything to the cold light of reason the enlightenment destroyed many of the cherished myths of the populace. It destroyed the traditions that keep society cohesive, mainly by showing how silly and irrational those traditions are. But people need those traditions. And not just the masses, but the elite too. In fact the elite need them even more than the masses, who have their religions to comfort them. The enlightenment left the west in a sort of vertigo, grasping for meaning. Out of this vertigo rose romanticism, nihilism, existentialism, fascism, communism, post-modernism, and (I would add) certain kinds of religious fanaticism. All the bad isms, in other words.

The Answer for this? Greek philosophy. Basically Straussians seem to feel that the answer lies in a return to the study of Plato and Aristotle as the core of a liberal education. P&A venerate the exercise of reason, but also hold for the concept of an objective good. A grounding in the classics will keep the intellectual youth from falling for disastrous social and philosophic doctrines.

As far as esoteric reading goes, I’m not sure if “esoteric” isn’t a buzzword anti-Straussians use to mean “close.” At any rate Straussians love of close reading seems to stem from the study of Plato, for reasons good and bad. First, as I said above, Plato cries out for close, attentive reading, and the search for hidden meanings. Remember, Plato wrote dialogs, not treatises. The dialogs are moved by characters, who are developed literary figures (taken from real life), not simply mouthpieces for position X or Y. As I mentioned above, the development of the fictional city in the Republic is motivated by the demands of Glaucon, not Socrates, and this has to be taken into account when we read some of Socrates more Bizarre ideas for his Utopia.

However, another, less reputable, reason for these types of readings is that Plato says a lot of things that make a freedom loving American ill. In the Republic Socrates argues for radical censorship and a caste system based on a “noble lie.” As mentioned above there are good reasons for taking all this with a grain of salt, but Straussians refusal to confront the more outrageous proposals of their idol can be a bit disturbing. Especially since Plato also wrote the Laws, which is more straightforward than the republic, and still pretty fascist (though not as weird.) (In Plato’s defense, Athenian democracy was not the system of laws and Checks and balances we know and love but something pretty close to mob rule.)

Obivously, there are plenty of criticisms one can make about this approach. It vastly overestimates the roles of intellectuals in history, and ignores context for example. But to claim it is the thought of someone “with a shaky grip on reality,” or that it springs from the same impulse that leads people to believe in Tarot cards, is just stupid. And what this has to do with the war in Iraq–Other than the fact that conservative presidents will hire intellectual advisers who admire conservative thinkers–is beyond me.

<< familiar ‘classic’ works often don’t directly say what they mean, but hide their message under a more popularly acceptable veneer >>

… like the WIZARD OF OZ being a metaphor for coming off the gold standard, like HAMLET being a political denunciation of King James I, and like Euclid’s Geometry being a satire on the political shenanigans in the court of Ramaases IV?

All the guy wanted to do was talk about Plato, and now he’s a political hot potato because a couple of his former students hit the political big-time. I think it is a dubious “search for hidden knowledge” to try to find a secret political agenda from this slender link. (I’m imagining my college professors trying to answer for my political actions.)

Dex, I agree with you that Strauss’ positing of a “popularly acceptable veneer” is borderline kook, especially if one tries to make it apply to every work, even the most straightforward. (Formulating the idea as: “people use metaphor, voices, sarcasm and other literary devices that sometimes require very careful reading,” obviously makes the idea more palatable.) You don’t have to waste time trying to find a sympathetic way to read the esoteric idea if you don’t want to; nonetheless, maybe you could support your accusation of kook using some of the examples Strauss actually talks about instead of bringing in Wizard of Oz type kooks. I’d be interested to know which you find particularly offensive.

Isn’t there a striking similarity to what Strauss and Bloom taught and what Adler and Hutchins taught? It seem that the whole point of Blooms book was to get people to read the great books and reform education which was also what Adler had been up to. I also find it odd that I’ve never seen the two groups mentioned together in the same place. I mean they even taught at the same university, yet it appears that they operated in complete isolation of each other.

I’ve heard about the Strauss’s idea of esoteric reading of texts before, but I wonder what the source was. I mean how exactly are people coming up with this as Strauss’s doctine, and if Strauss himself left anything to explain his views. I remember reading where Irving Kristol described it, but I didn’t real get it. It seems to me it might be just another spin on exegetical reading vs. higher criticism.

For those who aren’t familiar, the exegetical reading assumes a work contains truth or something of value, and then reading carefully and intensely to understand it. That is asking what is this work telling that is true. The other way is to read a work is not to identify what is being said as true or false, but to understand the how the work was written. Asking what was going on in the mind of the person who wrote it, or what was going on in the author’s environment.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradualy
Or every man be blind–
-----Emily Dickinson

damn those straussians. they’re everywhere.

“Esoteric reading” of texts seems to have arisen historically when classical pagan intellectuals began to be embarrassed by the sheer silliness of their religion. (Note how Plato blames it all on “poets”.) It was given tremendous impetus by the invention of literary allegory in the 4th century. During the Middle Ages, it became an accustomed habit of European thought, but has been on the decline since, just as has been allegory.