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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

a note on strauss and esotericism 1

A note on strauss 1
The key Leo Strauss’s scholarly work is based on his recovery of esotericism, which he fully developed in the late 1930s, and which he took to be the key to understanding the ancients as well as understanding how the ancients were misunderstood by the moderns – how in fact modernity defines itself through that misunderstanding. Among the deepest pre-modern writers stretching back to the ancients, all writing had two sides: one is a surface of exoteric writing, in which meaning, theme and style is subordinate to the norms of the masses, while the other, deeper side esoteric, presenting truths in a suitably obscure manner that are not meant for the vulgar. In the golden liberal era of the 19th century (about which Strauss, like Hayek, had the most romantic notions), the urgency of the threat of persecution vanished, and made it harder for researchers to understand this two faced structure in older texts.
Although Straussians like to paint Strauss as an intellectual hero struggling against the positivism and behaviorism of the time, in actuality, esotericism was not so far out of line with many of the intellectual currents of the post war era. In literary criticism, for instance, Northrop Frye was not alone in turning to medieval rhetoric to create an ontology of reading within which there was a hierarchy of levels, from the literal to the anagogic. Psychoanalysis had spread a general cultural feeling for codes in everyday behavior, seeing surface and ostensive behaviors as the results of complicated and unconscious developments, in which, most grandly, thanatos wrestled with eros, and most trivially, Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother. This kind of psychology was bundled up with the whole set of “strategic” sciences, from game theory to anthropology, which provided the paradigm for defense policy wonks in the fifties.
It was in the early forties that Strauss gave the lecture which became the first chapter of Persecutiona and the Art of Writing. The book begins with a plea for understanding the idea of “writing between the lines.” To make this plausible to a contemporary American audience, he imagines the following scenario:
“We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view. He would of course have to state
the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement
in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many'quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of
mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the work, would consist of virulent expansions of the worst virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party. The intelligent young man who, being young, had until then been somehow attracted by those• immoderate utterances,
would now be merely disgusted and, after having tasted the forbidden fruit, even bored by them. Reading the book for the second and third time, he would detect in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions
to those few terse statements which occur in the center of the rather short first part.”
Although I’d like to separate out and analyze three moments in this scenario, it is necessary to pause for a moment and observe its type. Philosopher’s often pretend that their examples come out of a moment of chair bound thought, but in fact they are not immune to the types and tones current in the world of stories. What is this one, after all, but a sort of thriller in the high, between the war style of the Tory adventurer? The threat to the British empire is, in writers like John Buchan, warded off by intelligent ‘gentlemen’ – the cool type who do not make too much heavy weather out of the evilness of the villains they face, but know it is evil nonetheless, and that everything depends on getting the message through the screens they throw up. Headquarters must know the name of the spy, or they must change the placement of the troops – the show must be saved. It is in moments like these that one hears the dogwhistle of the cultist, where the sense is given that one is not simply decoding a way of writing from the past, but that one is in the center of an imperial thriller. Even sensible students of Strauss are liable to go off the tracks when this theme is near. Stanley Rosen, who seems have his feet on the ground as far as applying Strauss’s hermeneutic principles to philosophical texts, compared Strauss, in one essay, to Churchill. Churchill? He was making a political point that Strauss, like Churchill, was really a defender of “western style liberalism.” Not, mind you, Roosevelt, who was president of the country in which Strauss actually resided in World War II. Rosen even feels entitled to make a jab, here, at Nietzsche, whose image of a hero was more “Attila the Hun.” Of course, this is absurd – Nietzsche admired Napoleon, not Atilla the Hun. Even so, Rosen doesn’t even pause to ponder who ordered the massacre of more lives, and decimated more cities, in the “West”: Attila the Hun or Churchill?
Such, then, is the tone and style of Strauss’s scenario. One notices that it is a scenario about delivering a message. The message is one of the components of the esoteric writing scene. The threat of persecution is the context in which the message is encrypted in a larger, more harmless text. The transmitter, in this case, is a historian, and is more commonly a thinker. And the receiver of the message? Intelligent young men. The intelligent young men, or gentlemen, are the boyscouts of Strauss’s philosophical world. Always male, always from the class of “gentlemen”

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