Leo Strauss and Manliness

It seems like a majority of the self-professed Straussians out there in the world are conservatives of one sort or another, whether the neocons of a previous generation, the Reaganite tea-partiers of the Obama days, or the more conspiratorial ethno-nationalist right-wingers of the present moment. There are fierce intra-Straussian divisions, no doubt, but again, the majority of them seem to take up space somewhere to the right of the ideological centre.

Perhaps it’s not unrelated that they also often seem to hold in common a conviction about the importance of retaining, or promoting, or rescuing the virtue of manliness. Mansfield’s Manliness book might typify this tendency.

I’m in the process of reading through all of Strauss’s published work and taking pretty careful notes as I go. I’d estimate that I’m currently about halfway to my goal (it turns out to be quite a substantial project!). As I’ve been reading, it occasionally strikes me how there is a strange lack of alignment between the master and the students on this subject.

The elephant in the room is that Strauss himself hardly seems to be of the type of manly specimen that Straussians often lionize. Intellectually imposing he may have been, but in other respects he doesn’t particularly come across as what you’d call a hard or manly man, when you look at pictures, listen to his lectures, or hear his acquaintances tell about him. Something similar might be said about other prominent Straussians like Bloom or even Mansfield himself (whom Strauss apparently used to call “rabbit”).

There are a few spots in Strauss’s writing that seem to bear on the question of manliness (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find more in, say, his Hobbes or Machiavelli books, which I haven’t yet read). In only one place that I can think of does he speak specifically and substantially about manliness, and in that place he has a markedly dim view of it. I refer to his chapter on Thucydides in The City and Man. He says there that manliness was exalted during the days of civil war, displacing higher virtues, and bringing about a dark season for the Greeks in question.

Two other places in Strauss, probably thematically linked, also suggest themselves to me. Strauss speaks of Plato’s treatment of thumos, and elsewhere of the supposed “nihilism” of the German youth before Hitler came to power. He is approving of Plato’s political insight into the place of spiritedness, and he shows a similar level of insight and sympathy himself in diagnosing the martial passions of his German peers and the inadequate response of their educators. I will need to go back and reread these texts at some point to refresh my memory on the subtler details, but the bottom line seems to me to have been not so much that we need to inspire people to a spirited martial manliness. Rather, we need to be able to recognize it for what it is, and channel it in ways that are productive, or at least in ways that are less destructive and unwise, which perhaps a Plato can accomplish more effectively than contemporary social scientific thinking.

The most charitable way to characterize this difference between Strauss and Straussians is to focus on the change of context. If we assume that his school has inherited Strauss’s spirit and sensibilities (an assumption that is at once probably both safe and dangerous to make), then the change of message could be explained by the political needs of a new generation. Do they feel we are now especially in need of the virtues of civil war? They might sometimes speak in this way, but I am unconvinced that this is the heart of it. Is it more that there is a disquieting conflict on the horizon between a simmering build-up of suppressed martial sentiments on the one hand, and on the other an academic and ideological incomprehension of the role of spiritedness in social and political communities? I can think of no better or more charitable explanation for the discrepancy.

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