Thoughts on Strauss

While looking through my backups from my old Movable Type website, seeing if there was anything worth salvaging, I came across this post written in 2004 about Strauss’ book Thoughts on Machiavelli. I think it holds up, so I’m republishing here. The final paragraph refers to the Bush administration, of course, and it’s an interesting time capsule.

Thoughts on Machiavelli cover

I doubt many in the press have actually read Strauss, although they like to hint darkly about “Straussians” in the government. Strauss’ main contribution to philosophical discussion is that historical writings need to be understood in the context of the times in which they are written. Karl Jahn states it succinctly:

“The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are ‘outmoded’ and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch — usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than ‘outmoded’ ones.”

Hardly the sort of thing to send shivers up the spine. In fact, it sounds quite reasonable. The aspect of Strauss’ philosophy, however, that is most pertinent to the current political situation is his ideal of esotericism. Strauss believed that the truth was best known only to the few. His writing is deliberately subtle and difficult, to the point where it is often hard to discern precisely what he is arguing.

In Thoughts on Machiavelli, he projects his own ideals onto Niccolò, parsing The Prince and the Discourses searching for hidden, secret meanings in the books. He makes some good observations, but in his quest for the obfuscated meanings that he believes Niccolò must have hidden for his initiates, he comes to some rather absurd conclusions. One is sometimes reminded of numerologists imposing invented meaning on texts with their own peculiar methodology. For an excellent send-up of Strauss’ Kabbalistic tendencies, read Brad DeLong’s piece “Thoughts on Leo Strauss, or, a Product of a Procrastinatory Monday Morning.”

The fact is that Niccolò wrote in a very plain and straightforward manner, eschewing the flowery prose popular at the time, because he wished to be understood clearly. A close reading will, however, reveal some opinions that were too volatile to be written at the time. For example, in The Prince he gives examples of rulers who have killed the nobles in a region in order that they not rise up against him. Combined with his exhortation that some prince unite Italy to free it from the constant incursions of foreign powers, it seems Niccolò is advocating that someone conquer Italy and kill all the bickering nobility that would surely screw things up. I’m positive he would have preferred an Italian Republic, but anything is better than having Frenchmen marching through your city.

Machiavelli strove to be as clear as possible because he either wished to instill his republican ideals in a new generation (The Discourses) or he wished to sound a call to action to those in power to expel the barbarians from Italy (The Prince.) Neither goal is compatible with a hidden agenda that is difficult, if not impossible to decipher. He’s not writing philosophy for the sake of philosophers. He’s seeking to enlighten, to convince, and hopefully, to convert. The idea that he would hide his “true” meaning so deeply in the text that it would take 400 years to decipher it is not really credible.

However, the way Strauss’ esotericism relates to the current administration is somewhat tangential. I believe that those in the government, the so called “neoconservatives” also subscribe to this theory of esotericism. John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, writes that they “have created the most secretive presidency of my lifetime … far worse than during Watergate.” Opacity, secrecy, and knowledge only available to a very select few are hallmarks of Straussian thought. The administration has engaged in vicious personal attacks on those who have broken ranks and told what they knew, people such as Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill. As John Dean says, “this is a presidency that does not like the truth told about their activities.”

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