Jon Rowe has an interesting post up about an article by Thomas DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo's article was about a book called Intellectual Morons, by Daniel Flynn. Flynn's book, at least in part, was about the philosophy of Leo Strauss and his followers, the Straussians. The Straussians have been a subject of much discussion and posting between myself, Rowe, and Timothy Sandefur (who was a scholar at the Claremont Institute, home of the West Coast Straussians, but is not a Straussian himself). Flynn is himself a conservative, and so are the various followers of Strauss, but there are some major disagreements among them on key issues. Flynn's book is primarily an attack upon a series of left-wing intellectuals - Paul Ehrlich, Herbert Marcuse, Betty Friedan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, etc - but he also apparently goes after Strauss, even grouping him in with the deconstructionists as intellectual sophists (I have not read Flynn's book, so I am gleaning this much from the two articles referenced above). And it seems to me that he is right to do so.
The Straussians, as we have noted here before, believe that all of the great philosophers had two different meanings within their writings, one obvious and one more esoteric, the latter being only knowable by a small group of initiates (meaning themselves, of course). The connection with deconstructionism, which argues that logical arguments have no real meaning that can be separated from the economic and political interests of the person making the argument, is fairly obvious:
Straussianism is form of "deconstructionism," as practiced by such left-wing luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Michael Focault. With these deconstructionists, as with the Straussians, "What matters is not so much what the author says but what the reader wants the author to say," notes Daniel Flynn. The left-wing deconstructionist "produce[s] his own meaning . . . by an activity of semantic 'freeplay.'" As with the Straussians, deconstructionism "seeks to institutionalize dishonesty as a legitimate school of thought." They both "exalt dishonesty in the service of supposedly noble causes . . ."
This seems good as far as it goes. Just as the deconstructionists read their own subjective meaning into written texts (since they deny that there is an objective meaning), Strauss reads his own preferred meaning into written texts. But the fascinating part of this is the basis upon which Strauss "discovers" the esoteric meaning:
And they use the dark art of numerology (!) to create their fabrications. According to Strauss, a book's first and last words have some sort of special meaning. "Some numbers, such as seven and thirteen, alert Strauss to a text's hidden meaning." "The Prince consists of 26 chapters," writes Strauss about Machiavelli. "Twenty-six is the numerical value of the letters of the sacred name of God in Hebrew, of the Tetragrammaton. But did Machiavelli know this? I do not know. Twenty-six equals 2 times 13. Thirteen is now and for quite sometime has been considered an unlucky number, but in former times it was also and even primarily considered a lucky number. So 'twice 13' might mean both good luck and bad luck, and hence altogether; luck fortuna." Was this man insane?
Now, I'm sure that doesn't exhaust the entire method by which Strauss divined the esoteric meaning of a text, but the mere fact that he would have used such an absurd method certainly casts doubt upon the notion that this man was anything but a mediocre thinker. Numerology is a relentlessly idiotic idea, and for any serious intellectual to appeal to it to establish the meaning of a written text should pretty much surrender any right he had to be taken seriously.
I think however, that we must read what DiLorenzo writes about the Straussians with a grain of salt as well. He will give the furthest thing from a "balanced" point of view.
You are right that the weakest aspect of Straussianism is the whole "code" thing. There really is no way to accurately decipher the hidden meanings.
Although, we do know that THEY -- the Straussians -- wrote in code, and did a lot of beating around the bush. So it can be fun to read the work of say Bloom, or even Strauss himself to attempt to decipher what they were really thinking.
Despite the controversy, one of the reason why the Straussians are and were so influential is that they are very learned and erudite folks. You might be getting "their spin" on what Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, etc., really thought. But they do, at the very least, have strong knowledge of the "surface teachings" as well.
Let me put the whole "code" thing into context: I think that certain philosophers' "lines of thought" (i.e., "Aristotealism," "Lockeanism," "Marxism," etc.) may have evolved in certain directions that the thinkers themselves might not have planned on. And looking back in hindsight, the Straussians might argue that perhaps the thinkers all along intended for their thoughts to be taken in that direction -- that THAT (the effect that their thought ended up having) is the hidden subtext.
For instance, Locke's ideas led to Voltaire's and Jefferson's. But Locke was a Christian and claimed (orthodox) Christianity to be "reasonable." The Straussians argue that Locke planned to secretly subvert the whole system of orthodox Christianity with his writing, even while claiming Christianity to be "reasonable." Well maybe he didn't plan on doing so. But his thoughts did indeed usher in an age of Enlightenment which most certainly did knock Christianity off of it's pearch of power and otherwise led to a "rationalism" that would hold revealed religion in doubt.
Rowe is awfully charitable to DiLorenzo. I think he's nothing more than a crackpot, so I refuse to discuss him.
However, I am really suspicious of the claim that Strauss has any connection whatsoever to the likes of Foucault or Derrida. Strauss, it is true, was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, and therefore perhaps resembles Foucault and Derrida in that Nietzsche's work is seminal to post-modernism generally. But this is rather like the similarity that, say, John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln have, because both were heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson. Sure, Strauss "deconstructs," but his endeavor is otherwise completely different, and just about everyone "deconstructs" in some manner.
I think the esoteric/exoteric notion in Strauss--which reaches its nadir with numerology--is truly worthless. Perhaps in some cases there are writers who wrote in these secret ways, but even if so, a reader is as likely as not to read into something what he wants, as he is to find an author's secret meaning, so even if Strauss' interpretive method is right, it is useless.
But to say that "What matters [for Strauss] is not so much what the author says but what the reader wants the author to say" is at least uncharitable. The Straussians do not believe that objective meanings are nonexistent, or that a work means whatever a reader wants it to mean or whatever society declares it to mean. Quite the opposite--they believe there is an objective meaning to a text which may have been overlooked, and they try to find what that objective meaning is by cleaning off the patina, as it were. Although I think their methods is ultimately worthless, their goal is an objective one. That is competely different, I think, than Foucault or Derrida, arguing that a work has no inherent meaning, and that attaining an objective understanding freed from the infection of social "power" structures is ultimately impossible or unattainable. For them, there is no one right way to understand something--we're led to believe that as a tool of exploitation. I don't think Strauss would share that notion at all. But I admit I am quite an amateur when it comes to Strauss, and I might be completely wrong about this.
From Rowe's comment
"For instance, Locke's ideas led to Voltaire's and Jefferson's. But Locke was a Christian and claimed (orthodox) Christianity to be "reasonable." The Straussians argue that Locke planned to secretly subvert the whole system of orthodox Christianity with his writing, even while claiming Christianity to be "reasonable." Well maybe he didn't plan on doing so. But his thoughts did indeed usher in an age of Enlightenment which most certainly did knock Christianity off of it's pearch of power and otherwise led to a "rationalism" that would hold revealed religion in doubt." (emphasis added)
I'm not sure I would give Locke as much credit as Rowe apparently does for inspiring the Age of Enlightenment. There is something to be said for Zeitgeist and it is highly likely that the Age of Enlightenment would have occurred with or without Locke. The Age of Enlightenment was clearly a reaction to the excesses of clericism that were evident in the various religious wars in Europe that preceded it, so it would likely have occurred regardless of Locke's bloviations.
That said, DiLorenzo's piece made no sense whatsoever. Quite frankly, neither does much of what passes for modern "philosophy." Maybe I should strike the word "modern." I hate to tell you, but much of philosophical writing strikes us as being little more than mental masturbation. A nice gig if one can get it--and get paid for it. And I am very serious about that.
That's a really good point, Timothy. The similarity between the Straussians and the deconstructionists is rather superficial, since they look for what they perceive is an objective meaning while the deconstructionists look to inject a purely subjective meaning into a text. They may both be silly, but they're silly in different ways.
Somewhat tangential, but Foucault wasn't intodeconstuction. His writings are somewhat difficult, but on the whole perspicuous, and he has things to say about the real world, unlike Derrida (or Strauss). He has an understandable methodology, and some really interesting things to say about the organization of discourse in later capitalist societies, whether or not one agrees with him. Sorry, but it just irks me when I see philosophers like Foucault, Nietzsche, and the early Heidegger lumped in with Derrida. It should be noted that Derrida was not the superstar in France that he was here, and that amongst actual American philosophers, Derrida was held in rather low esteem. Not so for Foucault. Maybe I've just read too many bad obituaries for Derrida lately.