The Straussian Conspiracy: Something those deeply involved never knew existed

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Feb 01, 2007 10:14 AM

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.

The mugging of Leo Strauss began at least 20 years ago - somewhere around the time of Newsweek's article terming him "an obscure philosopher" exercising uncommon power from the grave (he died in 1973) through his "Washington disciples" constituting a "brotherhood," a "club," a "cult." Media, academic, and Hollywood luminaries then, and since, have worried deeply about the influence of a philosopher who wrote, for instance, these four brief samples from a vast oeuvre:

"(How often we are bewildered that Machiavelli, who is) more responsible than any other man for the break with the Great Tradition, should in the very act of breaking prove to be the heir, the by no means unworthy heir, to that supreme art of writing which that tradition manifested at its peaks."

"Confronted by the appalling alternative that man, or human thought, must be collectivized either by one stroke and without mercy or else by slow and gentle processes, we are forced to wonder how we could escape from this dilemma."

"(Let us consider the need in free society for) an unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution."

"A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are."

From such thinking and rhetoric about the immutable principles of natural right do conspiracies flow. "Leo Strauss" produces 2.1 million hits on Google; the same words produce 886 hits from the past five years on Nexis, the immense database for newspapers and magazines. Particularly now, during the Bush administration, Strauss' enemies regard him as the godfather of neoconservatives who lamentably have led us into the war against terror and its personifications: Saddam, Arafat, Osama, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, Nasrallah, et al.

So evil is Strauss now deemed to have been, notes The New York Times' Edward Rothstein, that "in 2004 Strauss' face demonically loomed over Tim Robbins' agitprop antiwar play 'Embedded,' at the Public Theater in New York, as he was hailed with brutish chants. Books like "Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire" (Yale) by Anne Norton have relished telling of his baleful influence."

Anyone drawing the attention of the Big Media and triple-threat Robbins (a writer, producer and actor), anyone roiling the waters in political science departments nationwide and inspiring his legions to self-preserving war against jihadists, must be a conspirator of the First Order.

Has to be - even if it's a conspiracy (hey, could it be part of Hillary's "vast right-wing conspiracy"?) he didn't know he was in.