Book Review Essay by Steven B. Smith, New York Times Sunday Book Review
August 23, 2013
CRISIS OF THE STRAUSS DIVIDED: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West, By Harry V. Jaffa with Thomas L. Pangle, John A. Wettergreen, Robert P. Kraynak, Michael P. Zuckert and Leo Strauss, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013
THE ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF LEO STRAUSS, By Laurence Lampert, University of Chicago Press, 2013
When Leo Strauss died in 1973 he was virtually unknown outside the tiny academic circle that he inhabited. Forty years later his name and influence are known almost everywhere. His books and articles have been translated into nearly every European language and several Asian ones. Web sites — both pro and con — are devoted to him. International conferences debate his thought and legacy.
Like all serious teachers, Strauss developed followers, and like all disciples these have split over the meaning of their teacher’s work. Was Strauss on the side of the ancients or the moderns? Was he a defender of biblical revelation or philosophical rationality? Was he, as he often said, a “friend of liberal democracy” or its most severe critic? What we are experiencing, to cite Harry V. Jaffa’s witty paraphrase of Lincoln, is nothing less than a “crisis of the Strauss divided.”
Jaffa is almost single-handedly the creator of what has become known as West Coast Straussianism, so called because its epicenter is Claremont McKenna College in California. At the core of the West Coast doctrine is the study of the American regime, a topic to which Strauss devoted little explicit attention, but to which Jaffa and his followers have given primacy. The West Coasters have created a synthesis of Strauss’s defense of the classical doctrine of natural right — the view that there is a single immutable standard of justice — with the wisdom of the American founding fathers, supplemented by Lincoln and Churchill (recently names like Calvin Coolidge and Clarence Thomas have been added to the list). Contra Strauss, the West Coasters have developed their own theory of American exceptionalism, arguing that the framers uniquely combined features of classical prudence with biblical morality.
“Crisis of the Strauss Divided” consists of 19 essays, the most revealing of which is the semi-autobiographical “Straussian Geography.” Here Jaffa describes his early education as an English major at Yale, where, he says, he “read nothing but good books,” but adds that his real education began only after meeting Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré, at the New School for Social Research in the years around World War II. Jaffa describes this meeting as a conversion experience. “Saul on the road to Damascus was not more stunned, nor more transformed than I,” he writes. Almost 70 years after their first encounter, Jaffa is still able to speak about it with a combination of boyish enthusiasm and a convert’s zeal.
Jaffa’s peculiar genius — and I use that word advisedly — was to apply Strauss’s understanding of political philosophy as the study of high statesmanship to the theory and practice of American politics. Before Jaffa, the dominant approach in political science had been set by the “progressive” school that treated political ideas in quasi-Marxist terms as rationalizations for economic interests. Jaffa’s masterwork, “Crisis of the House Divided” (1959),was an in-depth reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that showed what was at stake was nothing less than the highest principles of justice. The two antagonists were carrying on in an American setting the same debates that animated the great philosophical tradition, with Lincoln upholding the case of ancient natural right. For Jaffa, there could be no clearer evidence of continuity between the ancients and the moderns.
West Coast Straussianism can be dated approximately to Jaffa’s role in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign of 1964. He was the author of Goldwater’s famous tagline: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Yet Jaffa was no orthodox conservative. He attacked right-wingers like the political philosopher Willmoore Kendall and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Far more than most conservatives, he insisted that the principle of equality is the cornerstone of the American republic.
But family quarrels are often the worst. William F. Buckley once quipped of Jaffa that if you think disagreeing with him is difficult, agreeing with him is more so. This comes out in his unbecoming polemics with fellow Straussians Thomas Pangle and Walter Berns. These articles display a streak of meanness and vanity that do no credit to their author and far exceed the issues at stake.
East Coast Straussianism, by contrast, lacks a geographical center or a single dominating presence, but Laurence Lampert’s book, “The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss,” provides an extreme illustration of the tendency. East Coasters have often emphasized the German philosophical roots of Strauss’s thought. In Lampert’s account, the “enduring importance” of Strauss must be completely severed from politics. Strauss’s major discovery was the particular “art of writing” by which the great ancient and medieval philosophers sought to communicate their teachings to posterity.
Like Jaffa, Lampert believes Strauss overstated the difference between the ancients and the moderns. He, too, argues that in their quest for truth, thinkers from Plato onward have more in common than the apparent differences among them would seem to suggest. But while Jaffa’s Strauss synthesized the thought of pre-Enlightenment Jerusalem and Athens, Lampert’s Strauss is a Nietzschean for whom the modern Enlightenment is not only irreversible but desirable. “Far from being a tool for the restoration of pre-Enlightenment practices or beliefs,” Lampert writes, Strauss’s writings serve “the advancement of learning that Nietzsche advocated.”
Lampert insists on continuity between ancient and modern philosophy. He also closes Strauss’s gap between philosophy and poetry. The most provocative chapter of the book is devoted to Seth Benardete, who was often said to be Strauss’s greatest protégé. He was a brilliant, original and deeply obscure classicist who published a string of translations and commentaries on Homer, Herodotus, Plato and the Greek tragedians.
In one of his last books, “The Bow and the Lyre,” Benardete developed the thesis, only vaguely intimated by Strauss, that the philosophical tradition begins not with Plato but with Homer. Lampert uses Benardete’s insight to argue that philosophy and poetry are not really in opposition, as Strauss had maintained, but that philosophy is itself a form of poetry, whose task is to shape new gods and new worlds.
What to make of these books and the Strauss wars they express? Both authors pay elaborate obeisance to Strauss while taking enormous liberties with his texts. I am not exactly a neutral in this debate, having once described myself as inhabiting “the far East Coast” world of Straussian geography. I meant by that to endorse Strauss’s special combination of philosophical radicalism and political moderation.
Strauss described himself as a skeptic for whom all alleged answers to philosophical problems were fundamentally contestable. From this perspective, Jaffa and Lampert are rival dogmatists. If Jaffa’s Strauss often sounds like a political zealot who sanctifies Jaffa’s own reading of America, Lampert’s sounds disarmingly like Nietzsche’s self-description as “the last unpolitical German.” Both could stand being reminded of Strauss’s statement: “Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.” This still seems like good advice for those who will listen.
Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles professor of political science at Yale and the author of the forthcoming book “Modernity and Its Discontents.”
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