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One Take on Strauss's Craziness

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If you think Rothbard was harsh on Hayek in Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, here's what he has to say about Leo Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli:
First, something should be said about the manner, the texture, the methodology of this book, which is really so absurd as to be almost incredible.  It is based on the assumption, explicitly made at some points, that Machiavelli was a true Devil-figure, i.e., that he was evil, and that within this framework, he was all-wise, all-seeing, omniscient, etc... Taking his two books The Prince and The Discourses together, the result is that whenever Machiavelli contradicts himself in any way or omits something of note or puts in a particularly weak (to Strauss) argument or makes an error, Strauss immediately and persistently assumes that this simply couldn't be and that there must be some deep, twisted, hidden meaning to all this.
Rothbard then savages the famed Straussian method of interpretation:
Now, it is true, as Strauss points out, that in those days, radical thinkers (i.e. thinkers against the usual stream) were wont to be circumspect, because they were in considerably more danger than they are today.  But it is one thing to look for circumspection and quite another to construct a veritable architectonic or myth and conjecture based on Machiavelli as an omniscient Devil, writing on a dozen different layers of "hidden meaning."
He elaborates:
If this seems extreme, I shall give a couple of examples of the almost excruciatingly crackpot nature of Strauss's scholarship...

First, Strauss's flight into numerology.  On page 48, he remarks on what is to him the strange and wondrous fact that Machiavelli's Discourses have 142 chapters, the same number of chapters of Livy's History.  To me, this is not at all surprising, since the Discourses are proclaimed to be a commentary on Livy's History.  But this is enough for Strauss.  This "strange fact" he says, "makes one wonder whether the number of chapters in The Prince is not also significant."... On and on we go, until finally, on page 52, Strauss makes his crazy numerology explicit: "This is not the place to give further examples of Machiavelli's use of the number 26, or more precisely, of 13 and multiples of 13..."  And off we go further expecting at any moment to be introduced solemnly to the Mysteries of the Great Pyramid and the manacle of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Even though I've never read Strauss, I often speak of "Straussian readings."  It's a catchy meme.  Yet the Straussians I've met have been so dogmatic and unforthcoming that I suspect that Rothbard is basically right.  Does anyone care to rise to the defense of Leo Strauss?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Greg Ransom writes:

My conclusion is that Rothbard had a personal problem with Hayek -- because Hayek agreed to step in when Rothbard submitted what the editors judged to be a completely unscholarly entry for an international encyclopedia of social science they were editing.

I don't think Rothbard every forgave Hayek for it, no matter how diplomatic Hayek might have been.

chris writes:

Well, I go to school with and study under a number of Straussians, and in some sense I consider myself one of them. (I go to Claremont Graduate School).

I don't want to drag my professors into a slugfest on a blog comment, but I can tell you that none of them are more or less dogmatic than the libertarians at George Mason (and I don't mean that as an insult--I learn a lot from you guys, and I know several of my professors are at least not so dogmatic as to ignore Masonomics).

And pardon me for saying so, but for Murray Rothbard to be invoked as a barometer of dogmatism is a little odd. There are a lot of things in Rothbard's work that reasonable people could find to be even weirder and more twisted and "crackpot" than what he thought he saw in Thoughts on Machiavelli (rightly or wrongly). Ernest van den Haag (no Straussian), for instance, certainly thought Rothbard was certifiable.

But that's tit-for-tat stuff.

On the second charge, about "unforthcomingness," I'm not quite sure what you mean, but I'm sure some Straussians qualify regardless of what you mean. I've met a lot of professors who are unforthcoming, Straussians or no. I'd be interested to know which Straussians you met who were so dogmatic and unforthcoming as to be worth remarking about. Maybe I'll agree, maybe not. But I'm a Straussian--I don't object to the label, in any case--and I don't consider myself unforthcoming. For what it's worth.

I know that's not the defense of Strauss that you asked for, but it's rather typical of criticisms of Strauss to be prefixed with ad hominems of various sorts, and so I thought I'd just throw in my to cents there. A pretty good book to read, if you're interested in a spirited defense, is Peter Minowitz's recently published "Straussophobia."

I'll try and briefly say something about Strauss's manner of interpretation. Strauss was informed by two traditions of interpretation--the Greek and the Talmudic. If he sometimes went overboard in his detective work (and I won't deny he did), it is well to remember that he viewed himself as restoring to our historical and philosophical memory a "forgotten kind of writing" that had been forgotten because modern assumptions (or presumptions) had themselves been taken overboard. "How so?" you might reasonably ask, but that's a longer discussion for another time. I only want to point out that libertarians are often eager to save such luminaries as Rothbard and Rand while admitting that they were sometimes, perhaps frequently, dogmatic, intemperate, and even crackpot. That's fair enough--they were defending unpopular ideas against almost insuperable odds. In his own way, Strauss was doing the same thing.

This is already too lengthy for my taste. If anyone else from Claremont or St. John's or anywhere else reads this (fantastic, marvelous, wonderful, brilliant, ingenious) blog, please feel free to jump in a lend me a helping hand.

Cheers Econlog readers!

Great stuff, Chris. Funny that Hayek couldn't receive a defense of such enthusiastic elegance and enigmatic elusiveness a few posts back. This chap Strauss must really be worth reading! And Claremont must be a good school. Then again, I find it perplexing that Rothbard is mentioned in the same breath as great scholars. Rothbard strikes me as a propagandist. Nothing wrong with that -- but few people are able to combine good scholarship with good ideology. I know Hayek did. Did Strauss?

mdc writes:

To be fair, for all that his post his was long and written in good English, Chris doesn't really explain anything at all. Is Strauss elusive? Well, he's a Straussian and he isnt (or so he claims)! So that settles the matter, right?

Although, maybe Chris is more elusive than he thinks, since in the very next paragraph he (at last) sort-of-but-not-really defends Strauss:

"Strauss was informed by two traditions of interpretation--the Greek and the Talmudic. If he sometimes went overboard in his detective work (and I won't deny he did), it is well to remember that he viewed himself as restoring to our historical and philosophical memory a "forgotten kind of writing" that had been forgotten because modern assumptions (or presumptions) had themselves been taken overboard. "How so?" you might reasonably ask, but that's a longer discussion for another time."

Ah, ok, he sometimes went overboard, but possibly it was justified, but I won't justify it here or even explain the strange jargon terms I use.

Not elusive at all.

Vangel writes:

While I consider the numerology bit as going too far most of the time there is clearly something appealing about using the Straussian approach to look at some of the texts.

A perfect example is Machiavelli's infamous work, The Prince. The Prince is a very short book so obvious errors and contradictions would be quite easy to correct. Yet, there are many obvious examples where changes that would have been made by a conscientious author were not made. While many readers skip over the issue, Strauss asks why the changes were not made.

Let us look at one simple example. Machiavelli begins the book with a one paragraph opening chapter in which he claims that a Prince can come to power by fortune or virtue. But a mere twenty pages or so later we find Machiavelli stating that there is another way to come to power; by a criminal act. (A short diversion is in order. Strauss would throw out any translation in which the word virtue was substituted for by a translator who felt more comfortable with the word 'ability,' 'skill,' etc. The meaning of the word 'virtu' in the Italian of Machiavelli's time is clear. The fact that a translator notes the contradictions and tries to paper them over by changing the language does not help a reader trying to determine what the author really wanted to say. Straussian's are sticklers for literal translations as much as possible.)

Strauss would teach us that if Machiavelli really wanted to say that there were three ways to acquire a principality he would have gone back and changed the last sentence of the first chapter. Given the fact that chapter one was all of one paragraph long it is clear that the change would not have been difficult. So why would Machiavelli not make the change?

Rothbard is the one person who should have bought the Straussian interpretation because Machiavelli seems to have held the same opinion of the state as Rothbard did; Machiavelli sees very little difference between a criminal enterprise and a state. According to Strauss, Machiavelli believes that if the goal is power, the criminal acts taken to acquire that power are covered by his original statement that the way to power is by fortune or virtue. For Machiavelli, the Prince who does what he must (rather than what he 'should') is virtuous. After all, the cemeteries are full of losers who tried to do what was 'right' and failed because they did not have the onions to do what had to be done.

Strauss would say that our own system of government is a perfect example of how Machiavelli was right. If we look to the people in the Senate and Congress we find mostly unethical and immoral charlatans who got to where they did because they lied, cheated and stole better than their opponents. While we all understand Machiavelli's description to be valid the rules of polite society demand that we pretend that his descriptions were horrid and would not really apply to our own time.

While I do not know enough about the intricacies of Strauss' teachings I know enough not dismiss him. The most important course I ever sat through in university was the political science course taught by Thomas Pangle. While I disagreed with much that was said Pangle allowed me to understand the reality of the political sphere just as Rothbard and Mises allowed me to understand economics.

The problem with Strauss is not his analysis of ancient texts, which makes more sense than most alternatives, but his preference for a political system that includes a Platonic ruling class of philosophers and a Lincoln/Hamilton view of federalism and the state.

Strauss would prefer a world of liberty and voluntary transactions that Rothbard supports. But like Machiavellin and Rothbard, Strauss sees the state as a criminal enterprise in which the goal of power is too great to resist. Strauss is not under any illusion that the criminals will prevail and that liberty will be limited by a growing state. What he teaches is that rather than fight the inevitable the prudent approach is to position the logical and wise to be advisers to the princes as a way to keep them in check and to protect the people from them as much as possible. Straussians expect the masses to be sitting in the darkness of the cave and seeing reality as shadows that are cast by the propaganda machine that the state controls. They expect the people to be happy with material comforts and to gladly exchange their liberty for those comforts.

The problem with this view is that the society that Straussians want is not stable, particularly when you have something like the internet destroying the mythology that is expected to keep control of the masses. Sadly, Strauss fails by making the same error that those that he critiques keep making. He oversimplified what it means to be human and thought that he could overcome thymos. But the fact that Strauss made his fatal error does not negate his great analysis of many of the great works in philosophy and he deserves much more positive attention than he is getting.

Eric Rasmusen writes:

Applying numerology to Machiavelli sounds wrong,but that he writes in units of 13 is an interesting point. What is his motive? Maybe just clarity (i.e., 13 is the optimal number of sections for any book), but that's interesting too, and a sign that he was very careful about his writing.

I like the earlier commentor's point about Strauss noting that there is an older way of writing that we have forgotten. After all, a lot of people *did* believe in numerology. Thus, with medieval Christian and Jewish writers, we ought to pay attention to their chapter numbers, something I otherwise would ignore. If a scholar says something is important in document A (the mystical signfiicance of numbers, the importance of stretching the truth to persuade the public about global warming, the subjective nature of all knowledge), we should use that in thinking about what he writes in document B.

bjk writes:

I'm not going to defend Strauss, except to say that many of his essay begin with "how to," which suggests that he was trying to help us learn how to read unfamiliar texts, and not simply to display his own perverse lucubrations.

These two "how to" essays are interesting and sensible, I think.

Steve Sailer writes:

The social sciences and humanities are particularly prone to cults that form around charismatic scholars who promise the key to hidden knowledge: Freud, Marx, Rand, Strauss, etc.

chris writes:

Re: mdc

This is the ad hominem element I'm talking about. Why the heightened suspicion of me? Again, I'll try to be as brief as possible in addressing your points.

1) Is it weird that someone may have gone overboard and that it may have been justified? Look, it's a really complicated discussion, and I was trying to be short without being completely vapid. I wasn't trying to be elusive.

You may have noticed that I rather frankly admitted that I wasn't articulating an intellectual, substantive defense of Strauss. I was addressing the prior point about his supposed dogmatism, unforthcomingness, and "crackpot" ideas--a sort of tu quoque point. I did forthrightly recommend a book that might satisfy Mr. Kling's standard for "distillation."

2) I never said I was a Straussian and I wasn't. I don't object to being labeled a Straussian because I try to be as careful as he was when reading certain philosophers, although I don't (most Straussians don't) go as far as numerology. I've learned a lot from Strauss, more than from any other teacher of political philosophy, so there's another reason.

On the other hand, I have lots of other people who I respect as much as Strauss and have learned as much from in other areas--Raymond Aron, Aurel Kolnai, Milton Friedman, and so on. Perhaps it would have been better if I'd said I was a qualified Straussian or something like that, but anyway, I wasn't trying to be evasive. Once more, there are a lot of libertarians who would not object to being called Rothbardians or Randians but would not say they agreed with everything they wrote. Is that strange?

3) On a lighter note, you say perhaps I'm more elusive than I think, which might be another way of saying I'm muddled or confused. Maybe I am, but that kind of cuts against the consciously cunning thing doesn't it?

4) What "strange jargon terms" did I use? I hate to keep beating this drum, but if you want to have a look at strange jargon terms, look no further than the discussions that go on daily between economists--go and read Mr. Robin Hanson's provocative blog (if you already don't). The way he speaks of human beings is incomprehensible to most people. Though I suppose we're now into how one defines strange and jargon-y.

And just to be sure, let me be clear: I'm not going for some subtle rudeness when I point such things out. I'm only attempting to highlight the lack of symmetry in charity when certain people discuss Strauss/Straussians and everyone else. However strange Strauss's work was, it's well too remember that most academic work is strange, economics included. It's o.k. for Rothbard to call Strauss crazy, I guess, but that doesn't mean Rothbard wasn't crazy himself. I for one think he was, and I still learn a lot from him.

One more point here: Economists, as Mr. Caplan is well aware, have not done a very good job, for reasons some of which are their fault and some of which are not, communicating their ideas to the public at large. I am deeply sympathetic to his common sense approach, and believe it or not, I learned to take common sense seriously from studying Strauss (which, if anything, was the essence of his teaching, not numerology or even esotericism).

4) The claim Strauss was making about esotericism in pre-modern writing is actually a factual claim. He was attempting to substantiate it. When you go back and read Plato carefully (to take one example), especially in the original Greek, it is difficult to doubt that he did write esoterically. Many scholars, from Lessing to Schleiermacher to Nietzsche, have concluded that, and they certainly were not Straussians. At any rate, if the claim is self-evidently absurd, then it should be easy to demonstrate.

Please do. I will be happy to change my mind if I'm wrong.

Kurt Schuler writes:

Strauss was important because he directed attention back to issues that had become neglected when political science succeeded political philosophy. In particular, he identified how changes in the idea of natural right affected political thinking and practice. If you are curious enough to read something by him, rather than just lazily quoting Rothbard, you might start with Natural Right and History.

As with Hayek, one must allow for English not being Strauss's first language and maybe not even his second. Write your next book in German and see how well the style turns out. Also, thinking novel thoughts--right or wrong--and expressing them clearly are different skills. That is why there is a role for what Hayek called the second-hand dealers in ideas, such as bloggers.

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