Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, has a fascinating article in the Weekly Standard called I am Not a Straussian. Jon Rowe cited it at Positive Liberty and I had to read it. It’s quite amusing to read, but I think he has a serious point to make about how much of what passes for learned academic criticism of the neo-conservative movement relies upon shallow analysis and guilt by association. I’ve read a thousand articles, or so it seems, that equate neo-conservatism with Straussianism and Kagan is correct to point out that the two terms are not synonomous. I particularly like this passage:
But that’s not the reason I never became a Straussian. It was because my father explained to me, as well as to Bloom, of course, that Bloom did not understand Plato. This may seem a bit outrageous to many people today, given Bloom’s reputation. But I still think my father was right, and at the time I had no doubt that he was right. My father was and is a great arguer, and as a boy I was inclined to believe that he was right about practically everything. So to me, the Kagan-Bloom debates always looked like a complete wipe-out.
As best I can recall, their biggest point of contention was whether Plato was just kidding in The Republic. Bloom said he was just kidding. I later learned that this idea – that the greatest thinkers in history never mean what they say and are always kidding – is a core principle of Straussianism. My friend, the late Al Bernstein, also taught history at Cornell. He used to tell the story about how one day some students of his, coming directly from one of Bloom’s classes, reported that Bloom insisted Plato did not mean what he said in The Republic. To which Bernstein replied: “Ah, Professor Bloom wants you to think that’s what he believes. What he really believes is that Plato did mean what he said.”
I’m fascinated by the Straussians, at least partially because I’m not entirely certain that they’re wrong about some things. I think their historical analysis and reading of the great thinkers is pure balderdash; I’m not so sure their prescription that society needs religion and simple moral precepts in order to function is entirely false. I’m not really convinced by it either. I should declare myself agnostic on the question. But I do think that it’s important to not use the term too broadly, as it is for the term “neo-con”, which has become little more than a vague epithet used by the pedestrian left in the same way that the pedestrian right uses the word “liberal” – it doesn’t mean anything other than “them”.