My Kind of Straussian

I talk a fair bit about Strauss and Straussians. I hope I don’t misrepresent them too badly — I try to be fair and accurate.

And indeed, I consider myself a Straussian. Maybe I’m not a good one — or maybe whether I’m judged to be a bad Straussian will depend on the standpoint of the judge. Certainly some Straussians will think that I’ve missed the boat, and they may very well be right about that. There are several aspects of the thought of Strauss and Straussians that are appealing to me, though, and if by emphasizing those thoughts at the expense of others I end up with a distorted picture of what it is to follow Strauss, then I’m somewhat okay with that, at least on a personal level.

If I were ever to publish anything academic and official about Strauss or a Straussian then I would labour to be as accurate and fair as possible. For my own personal reading and reflection, though, I have no compunction against focusing on what is most interesting or helpful to me and ignoring or reinterpreting anything else. (As it happens, that’s also how I read Nietzsche in my leisure, and it’s why I so enjoy Nietzsche even as a great many of my friends find him sheer frustration to deal with.)

But then that leaves us with the question of what I mean when I speak about Strauss and the Straussians. I’ll try to sketch out a bit of an answer to that question in the remainder of this post. I’m sure that my account will not only be inadequate from the standpoint of fairness to Strauss — it will even be inadequate to the task of describing my own thoughts, since these points are all listed off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ll forget some things. Still, as a rough sketch it should help to begin to give a sense of what I find attractive and intriguing in the Straussian approach to thought and philosophy.

The Straussians read old books carefully and repeatedly. That’s a huge part of what it means to be a Straussian, and I think it’s very admirable. There is a lot of wisdom contained in the great minds of the past, and far too many who could benefit from it have chosen to look elsewhere, to their detriment.

Straussians try to read old books as if, when there are things in them that make them sound similar to the old societies around them and those things are defended by clearly fallacious arguments, we should read it as merely a little fiction included by the author, as a wink to the smarter readers. This is (part of) what Straussians speak of as esotericism. Now, while I don’t tend to get as excited about numerology as Strauss and some of his followers could sometimes be, I do love this overall approach to reading philosophers. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and try not to judge them for sounding like someone who lived in the ancient world — they had to, even if they might secretly have known better! In the short term, this can lead to Straussians reinterpreting every philosopher’s teaching to represent whatever that reader might want to see represented, but if that’s the price of smoothing the way for people to be able to read old books, I think it’s worth it. In the long run, the books will likewise accomplish in us their own work of reinterpreting who we are.

Straussians are interested in questions about politics. The political aspect of a discussion is of central interest to Strauss and his followers. In some ways this focus can distort their readings, but as long as their writings are supplemented by other less distorted interpretations as well, I do find that their perspective clarifies some aspects of a book every bit as much as it might distract from other parts of it. Many things become clear that would otherwise have been missed. It’s a helpful starting point.

Straussians are interested in questions about religion. Strauss said that religious belief needs to be contended with as something that philosophy cannot disprove, as something that may well be incompatible with the philosophical life but that cannot thereby be shown untrue. Many later Straussians have ignored this, or interpreted it out of existence with the tools of esotericism that Strauss himself provided them (and as I said, if the price of convincing them to read good books is that at first they have to remake all the books in their own image, that’s okay). For my part, I have studied one or two religious traditions well enough to know that this claim of Strauss’s is quite true, and I assume it is just as true of other traditions as well. Strauss does not dismiss the religious, and he is very interested in the way that philosophers through history have spoken of religions and interacted with them.

Straussians are interested in the relationship of modern philosophical thought to the ancient philosophers. So many of the themes that are interesting to Straussians, themes like philosophically stylized writing, the relationship of philosophers to the city, and the relationship of philosophers to the gods, look radically different (generally speaking) between the way they’re treated in modern thinkers and in those who came before modernity. Something big changed, and the change itself, along with the reasons for that change, are insufficiently understood by modern historians, even historians of philosophy, according to the plausible assertion of the Straussians. Strauss and his students seek to remedy that lack of understanding, then, through careful reflection on the texts of philosophical history.

These are some of the themes of Straussian philosophy that stand out to me, and I have tried my best here to articulate them according to my understanding, and according to what I find attractive in each point. I do appreciate the perspective that the Straussians offer us, even if, as I mentioned, it might be deficient or partial in some aspects, which I don’t suppose any Straussian would bother to deny.

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