Gottfried contra Straussians
Paul Gottfried has spent what might seem to some as an inordinate amount of his academic life quarreling with (if not outright decrying) the students of Leo Strauss (“Straussians” for short). Gottfried has, at times, blamed his (and others’) lack of career advancement on the Straussians, arguing that they thuggishly control the purse strings of conservative foundations while holding positions of power at elite universities and well-regarded liberal arts colleges. Several of Gottfried’s substantive writings take direct issue with the interpretations and methods of Straussians and his more popular political pieces frequently attack the political movement which is allegedly aligned with Straussianism: neoconservatism. Gottfried, after all, is a paleoconservative, an intellectual hangover from the seemingly defunct “Old Right” in America; he has witnessed first hand the dual assult made on his orientation in the academy: One from the Left, and the other from the (New) Right. Straussianism is a major force from the Right–one that Gottfried still feels compelled to deal with after all these years. His rancor has now been poured forth into a single work, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America (Cambridge University Press 2012), and now the counter-attack against Straussianism–this time from the (Old) Right–begins. What will it mean in the end? Probably nothing, but it’s a fun read nonetheless.
At well under 200 pages, Gottfried’s quasi-academic polemic can be cleared in a matter of hours. Its tone is often vitriolic, but the prose flows freely. Most of the book shifts back and forth from engaging in substantive critiques of Straussian hermeneutics to reminding readers what a bunch of assholes Straussians are. Gottfried also rains down indignation on the Straussians for failing to engage in serious academic debate with their critics. When they are attacked by the Left, they cry persecution; when they are assailed by the Right, they scream betrayal. These tactics, according to Gottfried, have gotten old and so it is little wonder that fewer and fewer academics are even bothering to seriously read and review Straussian works. The Straussians are content to preach to the choir, or so says Gottfried. Because they control the editoral boards at academic presses and journals, Straussian scholars needn’t worry about getting their work published. And for those Straussians who can’t hang in the academy, there is always work available in Washington.
This is, I admit, a rough sketch of a book that deals in a considerable number of generalizations loosely bolstered by anecdotes. Noting that fact is not tantamount to saying that Gottfried is substantively wrong in many of his conclusions concerning Straussianism. The problem is that he leaves too many doors open for Straussians to plausibly claim that his work is nothing more than a byproduct of spite, not reason. Gottfried has his favorite Straussians to pick on (e.g., Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield), but he ignores others who are, arguably, just as important (.e.g., Seth Benardete). He also speaks in generalities and fails to fully appreciate a reality that has been clear to the academic eye since at least Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: There is no monolithic “Straussianism”; it is school divided by geography which, in turn, points to substantive disagreements on many Straussian themes: reason and revelation; the nature of modernity; the goodness of the United States (or not); etc. While Gottfried is aware that there are some “defectors” among the Straussians (e.g., Stanley Rosen), a good deal of his book lives (or dies) by the existence of a fairly unified Straussian front that is neither at risk of being chased out of the academy with pitchforks nor likely to give up their privileged spots at various elite institutions.
Is this right? Maybe, or maybe not. One thing that Gottfried fails to highlight (though he does hint at this) is the “signal degradation” within Straussianism. Given that we’re well into the third (or fourth) generation of Straussians, it’s probably not surprising to learn that few in the newer generation(s) have come anywhere near matching the contributions and insights of the early Straussians (to say nothing of Strauss himself). Benerdate is, perhaps, the only Straussian whose output matches his teacher’s in terms of originality and complexity (though that’s a debate for another time, I suppose). Gottfried also fails to pay sufficient attention to the “European Straussians” or, simply, European scholars who happen to be interested in Strauss. Surely they cannot be part of this “Straussian coalition” Gottfried rails against, nor can they be accused of being infected by “group think,” at least to the extent that many of them came to Strauss out of their own volition and not because they were “inspired” by some fantastic Straussian professor. Many of the European Straussians are critical of not only Strauss’ work, but the work of his students. Some have advanced radically different interpretations of Strauss that conflicts directly with the “received doctrine” of the Straussian school.
Beyond this there is the matter of Gottfried’s substantive critiques of Straussian hermeneutics. According to Gottfried, the Straussians’ greatest weakness is their “a-historicism,” that is, their refusal to look at historical context as a means of informing their interpretations. Gottfried accuses Strauss (and his epigones) of holding too hard to a belief in static meanings for concepts like “justice.” But is that true? Yes, Strauss believed in something along the lines of “authorial intention” in his interpretations, but that doesn’t mean Strauss believed there was a single concept of “justice” that meant the same thing in every author through the centuries. What Strauss appeared to believe was that to understand what Plato or Machiavelli meant by “justice” meant reading their works closely, teasing out their meaning(s) of the concept, and then testing whether or not the arguments they present support such a conclusion. Strauss was also very aware of the radical conceptual shifts that took place at the advent of modernity (which he identifies with Machiavelli and, from there, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). Moreover, Strauss did look at historical context in his interpretations. After all, one of the central theses of Straussianism is that many (most?) philosophers wrote esoterically; that is, they wrote in a careful manner to conceal their more startling claims from the masses at large. To understand esotericism in a particular author means to understand the context in which he wrote. The context provides clues on what he is concealing (and how). Gottfried doesn’t seem to appreciate this aspect of Straussianism, or at least not enough.
In the end, Gottfried’s book is an interesting, though rather flawed, attempt to expose and attack Straussianism. Gottfried deserves a great deal of credit for not collpasing his argument into an outright conspiracy theory, though it must be noted that he flirts with that posture. Some of Gottfried’s “analysis” comes off like sour grapes and so he is likely to fall easy prey to Straussian counterattacks. Further, like many critiques of Straussianism, he fails to make the sort of distinctions among the “camps” that the Straussians themselves have been forced to confront over the past several decades. Still, one can hope that Gottfried’s critique might prove to be a useful launching pad for further critical engagements with Straussianism. Though Gottfried is surely right to point out Straussian hesitation to meaningfully respond to critics, perhaps an onslaught of Gottfried-esque attacks is what’s needed to awaken the Straussians from their apparent dogmatic slumber.