The Mediocrity Of Leo Strauss, Ctd

A reader writes:

I think your experience of "Straussianism" was fundamentally different from mine in part because you went to Harvard, and thus dealt primarily with the Harv, and not Strauss-largewith some of the less-polemical and less-politically convinced Straussians. I've found that many Straussians are indeed much like what Gottfried describes, but these are the ones who studied with Mansfield and/or Jaffa-inspired teachers. Allan Bloom, too, cast a long shadow, and was evidently interested in dipping his fingers in what Nietzsche called die grosse politikthat drama is delightfully recounted with nuance and affection in Saul Bellow's Ravelstein. In my experience, those Straussians who are really interested in reading Plato tend to be really pretty skeptical about politics in just the way you are. My own Straussian teachers spanned the political spectrum, and shared in common a concern for "fundamental questions" rather than dogmatic truths.

For what it's worth, I suspect the latter perspective is truer to Strauss.

The best work on Strauss' thought, done by two of his former students, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, suggests quite contrary to what you wrote that Strauss believed that content of the transhistorical truths that existed was closer to a series of perennial, yet basically intractable, questions. So the problem with historicism is not that it obscures capital-T Truth, but that it implicitly denies the possibility of a sincerely open-ended, skeptical, and zetetic philosophical quest in pursuit of certain perennial human questions (a quest which has been transmitted to us primarily by the great philosophers). My own experience of the "Straussian" education did not lead me to become more certain about things, but to become profoundly skeptical about conventional political dogma in general, and to want to spend my time reading and thinking about these big issues, and (now) sharing my own wonder with my students. Although it's at a considerable generational remove by now, I have Leo Strauss to thank for that more than any one else.

I can't help but think that Strauss himself would be profoundly amused by the wide variety of interpretations of his life and work (as well as the cultish nature of some, though certainly not all, of his followers). The interpretations vary so wildly–Strauss is secretly a Nazi (Altman), Strauss' belief in esoteric writing indicates psychosis (Walsh), Strauss is the leader of an anti-democratic cult (Zeno, Drury), Strauss was concerned primarily with the Athens/Jerusalem question (Pangle); Strauss was a Nietzschean philosopher of the future (Rosen); Strauss was a friendly critic, but ultimately a profound defender of, liberal democracy (Smith)–that one finds almost finds evidence for Strauss' esotericism thesis arising from his own writings–how else could so many intelligent people reading the same body of work arrive at such divergent views?

To paraphrase a classic review of Strauss, we can never know whether this Sphinx had a secret or not, but that we care is certainly provocative in itself, and the task is made more difficult by Strauss' allusive literary style, and the, in my view, intractable question of whether he himself wrote esoterically.