Sometimes I read Front Porch Republic with interest. At other times, I roll my eyes at it. Take, for instance, its recent “What You Need to Know…” series where the blog attempts to package a select number of thinkers (and artists) into a tiny post which contains less information than your average Wikipedia article. Without discounting the possibility that there may be bits n’ pieces of information in these posts which are generally unavailable (though I haven’t come across any yet), I believe it is safe to say these entries are tilted in favor of their authors’ biases rather than objective (or semi-objective) accounts of their subjects. A good example is the recent entry on Paul Gottfried, an intellectual darling of paleoconservatives who, as he will never cease to tell you, has been burned, screwed over, conspired against, etc. by that evil cabal known as “Straussians.” As the FPR post on Gottfried points out, he has “dedicated…more ink [in response to neoconservatism's growth] to the links between neoconservatism, Leo Strauss and the Straussians, and anti-historical conservatism” than, I guess, anybody. The problem is that “more” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”
Earlier this year I reviewed Gottfried’s book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America (Cambridge University Press 2012), and found it wanting. Not only does Gottfried fall into the error of misreading Strauss (and his students), but he lets his own personal animosity toward their alleged control over university/college departments and publishing houses cloud his judgment on their academic importance. Moreover, Gottfried has never been able to go any further than Strauss’ liberal critics and conspiracy theorists in proving the existence of an unbroken intellectual link between any of Strauss’ writings and neoconservative politics. The most he has ever accomplished is issuing misdirected charges of guilt by association. Irving Kristol took classes with Strauss; Kristol became one of the intellectual progenitors of neoconservatism; ergo Kristol learned neoconservatism — or, at least, its primary tenets — from Strauss. Ok, sure. But if that’s true, why did other students of Strauss, many of whom were more engaged with the man and his works than Kristol ever was, fail to go that route? George Anastaplo is an old-fashioned American liberal; Harry Jaffa, though certainly not a paleocon, is hardly a neocon, either; and Seth Benardete never wrote a word about contemporary politics (or even modern political thinkers). As I pointed out in my aforementioned review, Gottfried’s potshots at the Straussians in large part depends on that “group” operating as a unified front. Anyone aware of the knife-fighting which has gone on in recent years concerning Strauss’ legacy would have to laugh at such a notion.
None of this is to say that Gottfried hasn’t made genuine scholarly contributions to the history of ideas, but he has never proven himself to be an original thinker of any stature. People seem to remember him more for the controversies he interjected himself into (or started up) rather than for penning some “must-read work.” Had he shown more care in his critique of Strauss and Straussianism, perhaps he could have compelled those who associate with that label to refine their approach or, at least, be more open to engaging his criticisms. (I will admit that I agree with Gottfried that too many Straussians avoid serious academic debate concerning their methods and findings.) At the end of the day or, I should say, at the close of Gottfried’s career, I am skeptical there will be much for future minds to build on. The Straussians, much to his chagrin, will continue on and a new generation of scholars, from Europe to China, will ensure the continuing importance of Gottfried’s intellectual arch-nemesis.