Ross Mackenzie

Imagine awakening one morning to the gift of a new day - and to the discovery you are part of a conspiracy you never knew existed.

Really. The Straussian conspiracy.

No way, you say to yourself. I'm one of them?

Well, yes.

A student of Martin Heiddeger, Leo Strauss came to the U.S. from an inchoate Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Principally at the University of Chicago (where your correspondent spent with him a decisive two-year tutelage), Strauss re-established the centrality of political philosophy as a crucial academic enterprise. Simultaneously, he challenged the behaviorists - better, he routed them - who in less than half-a-century had taken over political-science faculties across the land.

Social "sciences" such as political science, he said, are wasting their time observing how man behaves; instead they would more productively consume themselves in the study of the good society - of man's shoulds and oughts. And never mind the near-impossibility of a fact-based science arriving at truths in a realm consisting surpassingly of human variables.

Strauss proceeded through microscopic textual analysis of what writers said - and emphatically not of what interpreters have said they said. We would spend months on a single chapter, weeks on a single paragraph, days on a single sentence. We studied, pre-eminently, persuasion. We studied Socratic speech and exoteric vs. esoteric writing. We studied tyranny and liberty - and the excesses inevitably done in their name; freedom and virtue, libertarianism and tradition - and the possibilities of their societal fusion; the fallacies of historicism and Weber's fact-value distinction.

We considered these additional concepts (you might want to sit down): the tension between reason and revelation, the perfectibility (or not) of man, the excellence inhering in classical (or ancient) liberalism and the egalitarianism - the guilt and procrustean energy - inhering in its contemporary counterpart. The relationship of philosophy to society. The nihilism and philistinism to which unqualified relativism inevitably leads. The degree to which the rhetoric of discussion and debate shapes how problems and issues are understood.

And, if you're still sitting down, these names: Aristotle and Maimonides; Xenophon and Spinoza; Grotius, Vico, and Goethe; Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The meaning of Plato - and what Plato meant - and the key 90-degree turn from it by Machiavelli.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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