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Wednesday, December 17, 2003


My friend, H., sent me an article about Leo Strauss and urged me to write a post about it for LI. Unfortunately, I know very little about Leo Strauss, and H. knows so much more that I feel a little ridiculous taking the pontifical chair.

For what it is worth: whenever his adherents quote Mr. Strauss, the words always seem disturbingly shallow – either platitudinous encomiums of Plato and Aristotle, one of the habits of German philosophers that the analytics had the good taste to do away with, or else exhortations that are the starting points for arguments that aren’t, in the event, ever made. I am simply giving you my impression of Strauss – but I admit, I’ve never really seriously read him.

However, I – and everybody else – has read a lot about Straussians. And I do think that there is one strain among the Straussians that exerts an improbable influence on American foreign policy today. Strauss had a great reverence for the American Constitution. He was a man, too, who felt that reading certain canonical texts was identical with thinking – with the discovery of truth itself. It all depended on the density of the reading, the concentration one brought to it. There is an obvious analogy, here, with the way a Judge, ideally, makes a judgment about the application of a law. For the Judge, too, the Constitution is a sort of set of truths – or a set of norms to which the formation of laws and regulations, and their applications, must conform. Perhaps it is this analogy that drew Strauss’s attention to the Constitution. In any case, he was hog wild for the thing, and his followers are, accordingly, also hog wild for the thing. His followers have extended this reverence, in fact, to the very idea of a constitution, in which they have invested a mystical and mystifying enthusiasm that distinguishes them, as a group, from the usual Burkean conservative. Burke was no enthusiast for theorists of Republics. He thought the craze for writing constitutions in his time was symptomatic of the way late Enlightenment thinkers had misunderstood the ‘science of government:” a science that he believed must mirror the natural adaptations of the relations of power and property in a given society. For Burke, the idea of a founding document – some text that exerts an ultimate shaping force upon those relations in a society, creating them, so to speak – is pernicious, mistaking the subservient document for the spirit of the laws. The American constitution did not, in this view, create America. It has, rather, exerted the local influence that such a document could exert upon a society that was organizing itself according to laws that are not meant to be boiled up and listed in a text, like so many items on a menu. America, for the Burkean, made the Constitution.

However, as we can see from the recent mania, among Americans, for writing a constitution in Iraq – a mania that must be puzzling to Iraqis, who have experienced many constitutions, and seen that all of them mysteriously permitted dictators or factions or tribes to do exactly what they wanted in the way of murdering their opponents – Leo Strauss’ enthusiasm is now a semi-official cause of at least one department of the Executive Branch.

To please H., then, we will write about, not Strauss, but Straussians. And, in particular, about a conflict that has sprung up between two noted Straussians, Harvey Mansfeld and Harry Jaffa, over the issue of the Declaration of Independence vs. the Constitution. There’s an essay about the controversy on the Claremont College website, written by Thomas G. West, apparently a student of Jaffa’s.

West’s essay makes the orthodox Straussian moves. First and foremost, the tics are assembled. The tics concern the embattled state of the real thinkers in a world in which the liberal establishment lays down the orthodoxy. This is always good – instead of being a humble thinker, one is an embattled remnant. Myself, I appreciate the dramatic value of this rhetorical penchant. It is just that I have a hard time conceiving of a bunch of tenured profs as the heirs of the Trojan warriors.

If you have an embattled remnant, surely you have a conquering army of evil. For the Straussians, this is the current orthodoxy of liberalism. Which is another way of saying, relativism. Relativism is the enemy.

To be continued

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