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Leo Strauss Redivivus: On the Esoteric and the Exoteric in his Philosophy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-05-17 09:09:45
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Recently, in a cyber-forum to which I participate, a controversy has been raging on whether or not the philosopher Leo Strauss, a former student of Martin Heidegger who taught at the University of Chicago in the fifties and influenced a whole generation of neo-conservatives politicians, was a secret atheist; that is to say one who believed in the god of Aristotle (an idol or a product of one’s mind; the perfect ratio) rather than in the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It should be prefaced here that Strauss was a Jew.  To clarify the matter I conducted some research (see below for references and links), and discovered that indeed some of Strauss’ most prominent students or experts, among which Stanley Rosen, Robert Locke, Jeet Heer, Damhouser, Leora Batnitzky, Heinrich Meier, John McCormick, Michael Doliner, all acknowledge Strauss’s hidden atheism. Rosen, for instance, writes that “He was an atheist…They all are [the Straussians]. They are epicureans and atheists.” I mention these authors to preempt the charge leveled in the above mentioned forum by a Strauss sympathizer that any critique of the beloved guru is tantamount to gossip and slander, a mere unsubstantiated fabrication.

In the process of this research I also came across a few other intriguing characteristics of Leo Strauss’s philosophy which were not mentioned in a previous article on Strauss written a year or so ago in Ovi and titled “The Politics of Philosophy within Neo-Conservatism in the US” (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/3187). I’d like to share them with the Ovi readership. I discovered that when Strauss was a student of Heidegger in Germany he was of the opinion that that Martin Heidegger possessed the greatest mind of the 20th century. But unlike those Heidegger admirers who excused the philosopher's flirtation with Nazism as a mere personal failing, Strauss believed it showed that modern philosophy had gone deeply astray. In a way that flirtation deeply disappointed him and confused him, for as some students remember Strauss's almost obsessive question in his philosophy classes was What was it about modern thought that could have led Heidegger to make these disastrous practical misjudgments? Levinas, a less obscure philosopher who was also a student of Heidegger, also put that crucial question to himself arriving at radically different conclusions and modes of doing philosophy.  Levinas, we should notice, was not an atheist.

In any case, Strauss at that point of crisis and confusion in his life turns to ancient philosophy. In his mature work, he would argue that Plato and Aristotle were wiser by far than modern thinkers like Machiavelli and Heidegger. This exultation of ancient thought wasn't merely a nostalgic celebration of the good old Greek days. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes observes, Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped a still-vital truth: Inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition. The moderns were naïve in their belief in equality, especially about things of the mind. The elites of philosophy are not not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from the ignorant masses, the oi polloi for whom religion and superstition is more appropriate.

For Strauss, the modern liberal utilitarian project of using the fruits of science and the institutions of the state to spread happiness to all is intrinsically futile, self-defeating, and likely to end in tyranny. The best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind in Plato’s academy or the Ivory Tower of the modern university at the case may be.

But there is more. This philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption. For example, it may find that its city's prosperity derives ultimately from "force and fraud," or that the gods do not exist. Aware that Socrates was executed for blasphemy, ancient thinkers, Strauss theorizes, realized that philosophy was dangerous: It had to be kept for the intelligent few rather than the ignorant many. Therefore ancient philosophers (and their medieval followers) wrote in code. Using metaphors and cryptic language, they communicated one message, an "esoteric" one, for an elite of wise readers and another, "exoteric" one, for the unsophisticated general population. For Strauss, the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity. This is strange for it was Plato who in his myth of the cave suggests that philosophy of the highest order does not reside in the cave of concealment and secrecy but is to be found outside the cave in the light of the sun for everybody to see and contemplate.

Although Strauss's ideas had been developing for years, they really coalesced when he moved to London in 1934, and then to the United States later in the decade. Like many European emigres, he found refuge at New York's New School of Social Research, where he taught from 1938 to 1948, and then at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in the late `60s.  While his teachings and books bewildered mainstream American social scientists and drew many hostile comments, students flocked to this odd and beguiling refugee scholar.
Many would go on to become important academics in their own right, including the philosopher Stanley Rosen (a leading light at Boston University), the historian Harry Jaffa (who later wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater), and Allan Bloom, whose 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind would-paradoxically-bring Strauss's thought to a mass audience.

Mindful of the collapse of Weimar Germany's fragile democracy, Strauss was distrustful of American liberals; he believed they were too weak-minded and naïve to fight communism. In fact, Strauss believed that the United States shared certain ills with Soviet communism: both societies put the material well-being of the masses ahead of the cultivation of virtues among an elite. But there is a certain intellectual schizophrenia involved here, for Strauss also saw America's constitutional government as the last, best hope for excellence in a modern world besotted with egalitarianism. Which is the genuine Strauss? Hard to tell. The fact is that many of his students would go on to champion the US Constitution-with its separation of powers and its provision for a strong executive branch-as a political masterpiece that put limits on popular rule. The academic elitism, however, remains consistent in both exoteric and esoteric followers.

Stanley Rosen observes that Strauss's earliest students were often indifferent to politics and interested mainly in philosophy. Robert Goldwin became one of the first Straussians to work in practical politics when he joined the campaign of Charles Percy, a Republican candidate for the governorship of Illinois, in 1964. As it turned out, this migration of Straussians into the world of politics helped fill a vacuum in the Republican party, which, aside from free-market economists like Milton Friedman, had few well-educated intellectuals to fill policy-making positions. Once in Washington, Straussian conservatives could carry on their war against modern liberalism's moral relativism at home and naive pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union abroad.

The Straussian milieu was and indeed remains a closely knit one, where professors and pundits cultivate their favorite disciples with devotion. With his teachings about philosophers who write in code and secret doctrines for the elect, Leo Strauss can seem like a conspiracy buff. In fact, some of Strauss's followers like Allan Bloom and Willmoore Kendall do use the word "conspiracy" to describe the history of Western thought. Not surprisingly, conspiracies have flourished around Strauss himself. LaRouche, the fringe presidential candidate who believes that the world is being governed by Jewish bankers inspired by a Babylonian cult and that the Queen of England is a drug dealer, argue that Strauss is the evil genius behind the Republican Party. More sensible folk, like the New York Times writer Brent Staples, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Chicago in the 1980s, have also decried the "sinister vogue" of Strauss.

Certainly, Strauss's embrace of obscurity is part of his appeal. When it comes to religion and his belief in God, the obscurity can get especially thick. Strauss, who wrote on Jewish issues all his life, held that atheism was not a viable public philosophy. That was in public, since religion is needed to promise the pie in the sky to the oi polloi who make the life of the mind possible for the elites; to keep them docile so to speak. What gives this intellectual stratagem away is that he often interpreted religious figures in an impious way. He suggested once that the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides secretly believed that reason and revelation were incompatible while only pretending to reconcile the Bible with philosophy; that is to say, the pretention is useful to better hide the real esoteric message of the master.  In his book "The Anatomy of Antiliberalism," Stephen Holmes maintains that, in Strauss's view, only philosophers can handle the truth: that nature is indifferent to human values and needs. On the other hand the natural law is proposed as the guide of human kind. There is obviously something devious going on here.

While some Straussians dispute the idea that the master was a godless cynic, it does seem that Strauss wanted a regime where the elite lived by a code of stoic fortitude while governing over a population that subscribes to superstitious religious beliefs. "He agreed with Marx that religion was the opium of the masses," says Shadia Drury. "But he believed that the masses need their opium." Sociologically, Strauss's approach would seem to work well for the Republican Party, which has a grass-roots base of born-again Christians and a much more secular elite leadership-at least in its foreign-policy wing.

Some traditional and religious conservatives have become deeply wary of Straussians. "They certainly believe that religion may be a useful thing to take in the suckers with," notes Thomas Fleming, editor of the right-wing journal Chronicles. "Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don't appear to hold to. One of Allan Bloom's students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is of course absurd, for Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe."

But the question persists: just how "sinister" was Leo Strauss himself? The answer depends on how a reader approaches his books. If one reads Strauss with a well-disposed mind, in an exoteric mode so to speak, he can be interpreted as a genuine friend of American liberal democracy. One can see him as somebody that worked to create an elite that was strong, sober, and sufficiently free of illusions about the goodness of man (paradoxically this is also what Machiavelli believed) to fight the totalitarian enemies of liberal democracy-be they fascists, communists, or Islamic fundamentalists.
On the other hand, if one reads Strauss with a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers, a more disturbing picture will emerge. Strauss, by this view, emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers (those to whom the esoteric message is handed on) to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity and double entendre. Here the end justifies the means, albeit in all fairness to Machiavelli one has to also take notice that Machiavelli was no esoteric philosopher; he plainly uncovered the harsh reality of power governing human history and how to hold on to it; and if anything it is that exoteric mode that is condemned by Strauss and his followers. Be that as it may, the paradox seems to be this: that when you read Leo Strauss’s books with Straussian eyes, so to speak, in an esoteric mode, Strauss does not come off as such a nice fellow, supportive and friendly to liberal democracy. His followers and devotees, of course insist that he is in fact a nice fellow, that in fact he is to be venerated together with secret manuscripts of the master making the round as a sort of saint’s relic “for your eyes only.” It is a sort of both and attitude: Strauss is to be read exoterically and esoterically, as circumstances may dictate; but of course that destroys the absolutism and absolute certitudes of which Straussians are so proud. In more prosaic terms, one cannot have the cake and eat it too.

Batnitzky, Leora.  Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Doliner, Michael. “Killing Democracy, the Straussian Way.” In Swans Commentary. Swans.com
Drury, Shadia. Leo Strauss and the American Right. Palgrave McMillan. 1999.
Hibbs, Thomas. “Leo Strauss and the Second Cave.” In First Things. April 8, 2010.
Meier, Heirich. Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem. Cambridge University Press, 2006
McCormick, John. “Leo Strauss’s Disenchantment with Secular Society” In New German Critique, 2005.

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Emanuel Paparella2010-05-17 16:00:51
P.S. It would be surprising if the above referenced findings with statements by acknowledged Straussians were not promptly attacked by some devoted disciple of Leo Strauss as showing disrespect toward the venerable guru. It is a predictable knee-jerk reaction to which I am by now accustomed; but it invariably leads to some further perplexing questions about the above described bizarre academic phenomenon that is Straussianism; namely this: why the arrogant and almost obsessive and fanatical insistence on hiding Strauss’s atheism behind a Straussian esoteric reading? Could it be part of the noble lie for the common good, to protect society (and especially the Straussians) from the ignorant masses unable to contemplate the truth (usually spelled with a capital t by Straussian absolutists?

For after all, it is quite respectful to be a declared atheist and write philosophy books and teach the subject. One of those is Robert Paul Wolff’s who wrote About Philosophy in which the author’s biographical note openly declares his atheism. Such a book is utilized at Barry University, a Catholic school where I teach Problems of Philosophy. That is honest. What the esoteric Straussians do is not.

I do hope that whomever mounts the predictable attack on the above article alleging misrepresentation, and gossip also attempts to answer those questions beyond the usual “they are all lies and fabrications by people who have never read Strauss.” I am willing to wager that all the scholars mentioned above have read the primary sources. So the question persists: why the insistence by some Straussians who read Strauss esoterically, on hiding his atheism? Could that confirm the arrogant elitism also mentioned above? A hint of that is provided by the current attempt to change the dictionary word for atheist to “brilliant” as if to imply that those who are not atheists are not so brilliant and discerning and in fact live in Plato’s dark cave. It is indeed a bizarre and disconcerting philosophical phenomenon and I am afraid we have not seen the last of it yet.

Jack2010-05-18 23:36:41

Brilliantly done Emanuel. You headed off the resistance at the pass apparently. LOL. Great analysis and article.

Emanuel Paparella2010-05-19 07:06:05
Thanks for the kind words Jack. Either that or everybody is bored stiff with Leo Strauss by now.

A-Gonzaga2010-05-23 20:44:35
Thanks for your truthful “Sundry Reflections on the Immigrant Experience in the EU and the US” and “Berlusconi's Ego-Land”, Prof. Both of them are really sensational and eye-opening.

Andreacchio2010-08-13 23:16:05

Andreacchio2010-08-14 19:21:39
Dr. Paparella,

Two questions in passing:

(1) In your online article you argue (by association) that Aristotle was an atheist. Are you aware that in arguing thus you set yourself up against the judgment of Saint Thomas Aquinas?

(2) By claiming that Strauss rejects the God of his ancestors' civil Religion, you are in effect claiming that Strauss believed that civil authority is groundless, so that we should cover up its groundlessness with poetic fabrications. But is this not in effect precisely what all exponents of postmodernism claim? And have you not systematically defended the cause of postmodernism on this very website?

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