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Response to Gottfried

Response To Gottfried

Diversity on the Right

Paul Gottfried has noticed a “gaping hole” in my recent piece on Leo Strauss. This “gaping hole” consists of an insufficiently detailed account of the eddies and currents of right-of-center thought with which Gottfried is intimate. In his own work Gottfried takes great care to survey the critical observations of other scholars who challenge the signature interpretations of the Straussians. “(I)n offering correctives to the treatment of the origin of the Declaration of Independence among prominent Straussians” for example, he is sure to present “the critical views of Barry Shain, M.E. Bradford, George Carey and Forrest McDonald.” My abbreviated treatment of the right-side discussion may well not have done full justice to the complexity of Gottfried’s and others’ views. Nevertheless my purpose was to acknowledge their presence and bring them to the table as contributing to the “enlightenment” of those who might go so far as to claim Strauss for the “liberal” camp.

Gottfried wishes to make clear that there is no single “right-wing” interpretation of Strauss and his school. He distinguishes his own angle of approach from that of Grant Havers who in turn has his own take on Strauss easily distinguishable from that of Claes Ryn and so forth. Thus it is not possible to reduce the right-wing critique of Strauss to a simple accusation of “neo-Jacobinism.” Quite so. But my point is that if Strauss appears to some serious commentators even if only for a moment as nothing short of a red-ragging, barricade-storming devotee of the spirit of Robespierre, how is it possible then that for others he comes to sight as a reactionary, authoritarian, proto-fascist, conspirator? They both can’t be right.        

Gottfried and his friend Stanley Rosen are amongst those who have been greatly “annoyed” by what they take to be “the symbiotic relation between Straussian hermeneutics and neoconservative politics.” Certainly Strauss himself has indeed been distinguished by his pioneering esoteric work. But no matter what some maybe prepared to claim, at the very same time he managed to remain innocent of the charge of “neo-conservatism” if by that term is meant the liberalism, progressivism or “anti-reactionism” which emerged out of the New Deal and went on to produce the New Left, “The Sixties,” and the more recent postmodern identitarian Left etc.

Gottfried takes the view that Strauss’s disciples tend to “minimize” the stated theological convictions of those whom they regard as “political philosophers.” The suggestion here is that the Straussian theorists have been shaped by their existence in the “cave” of “secular modernity” into which cave they then naturally force their subjects. “Dead philosophers are of course in no position to argue back.” Gottfried will none of Strauss’s trope of a “cave beneath the cave” which is intended to make us see that “secular modernity” is infinitely darker than “common sense” or the general take on things of the “man in the street” in all ages. But the “Cave Question” is but an emblem of the historicism/political philosophy conundrum.

History and Subjectivity

Gottfried explains that his fundamental concern is with “the hermeneutic problem” which he defines as the Straussians’ tendency to “read their own worldview back into past thinkers.” This tendency colors their interpretation of texts, which interpretation rests on the assumption that long-gone authors were forced to express their views “esoterically.”  Hence Gottfried hopes to prove “that absent certain political positions, a reader would have trouble embracing these esoteric readings that invariably reflect the religious skepticism of the interpreter.”

As part of his wrestling with the interpretation problem Gottfried decides to plump for the thinking of the German hemeneuticist and sometime Strauss correspondent Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gottfried is attracted to Gadamer because while he emphasized that “the reader should critically examine his own subjectivity and remove unfounded bias in trying to understand past thinkers” he also insisted on the careful recognition of “the role of subjective circumstances and one’s historical position in influencing how one studies philosophical and political thinkers.” Gadamer accepted the phenomenon of “prejudice” or the frame of reference which is necessarily generated by location in time and place as indefeasible and as ineradicable from the human mind. Thus it must be that no reading of any text can be entirely “value-free.”

From the Straussian point of view then Gadamer is a card-carrying “relativist.” This is the case “because he takes into account the historical and biographical situation in which he reads texts” and so avoids the tendency to “a pretentious, presentist interpretation that pretends to be authoritative” of which Gottfried convicts the Straussians. So when all is said and done Gottfried is a relativist-historicist “Gadamerian” critic of Straussian “objectivism” and “absolutism” or perhaps “naturalism.” Gottfried is perfectly within his rights here in opting for “Gadamerianism” in the light of the profound differences between this approach and that of Strauss. But for all that it is not unreasonable to suggest that what unites Gadamer and Strauss is more substantive than what unites either with Gottfried.

The Will to Power

Gottfried contends that my “thinness” in regard to coverage of right-wing commentators on Strauss, “who seem to be at least as interesting as other critics,” is traceable to what he calls “an obvious PR problem.” This problem consists in the fact that “(His) guys have much less access than Pearce’s subjects to the national press and the conservative establishment.” In fact the Leftist critics of Strauss “enjoy far more journalistic and academic presence than (Gottfried’s) preferred critics.”  Thus Gottfried’s purpose of familiarizing his readers with criticism of Strauss associated with the intellectual Right” has been frustrated by the “deadening silence” with which it has been received in the broader world of ideas (with a few some notable exceptions here and there). Whatever the merits of his tome on Strauss it was denied its rightful opportunity to be a “game changer.”[1]

Gottfried is sure that it is his “emphatic denial” that Straussians “are teaching and writing against the grain” that causes their indifference towards him and his work. As compared with the “go with the flow” Straussians no intellectual salmons swimming upstream could hope to have their presence in the leading universities and their privileged access to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the mainstream conservative publications. Straussians then are in no danger of the garrote, the gallows or the hemlock no matter how intense their interest in “The Problem of Socrates” may be.

We are forced to the conclusion from the above of his assertions that at bottom Gottfried interprets the “Straussianism Situation” (if we might call it that) as a question of the “Will to Power.” He finds himself in accord with one of his right-of-center colleagues – Claes Ryn – who avows that “one should always look for political agendas when these people (Straussians) speak about ‘political philosophy.’” Gottfried is more than prepared to “fully accept the charge that high-placed Straussians network in such a way as to advance their group interests while relentlessly working to keep out competitors.” When the influence of the neoconservatives grew and in due course pulled the conservative movement over to the Left the Straussians could then assume the role of the honored representatives of the “moderate” conservative opposition with all the accompanying respect, recognition and accoutrements. In a word, Gottfried is prepared to suggest that “political positioning maybe far more critical for understanding (the Straussians’) professional success than their Averroistic reading of Plato’s Phaedrus or Strauss’s discovery of a skeptical strain in Maimonides.”

Behind Gottfried’s suspicions here there lurk the profoundest of questions and the most intimidating of problems in the field of philosophical thought and human psychology. Thus in response I can do no more really than avail myself of the statement below and commit myself to thinking about it as much as I can. In doing so I hope I am responding adequately to the intent of Professor Gottfried’s remarks.

It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown. Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: “What morality do they (or does he) aim at?”

Accordingly, I do not believe that an “impulse to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but that another impulse, here as elsewhere, has only made use of knowledge (and mistaken knowledge!) as an instrument. But whoever considers the fundamental impulses of man with a view to determining how far they may have here acted as inspiring genii (or as demons and cobolds), will find that they have all practiced philosophy at one time or another, and that each one of them would have been only too glad to look upon itself as the ultimate end of existence and the legitimate lord over all the other impulses. For every impulse is imperious, and as such, attempts to philosophize.

To be sure, in the case of scholars, in the case of really scientific men, it may be otherwise – “better,” if you will; there there may really be such a thing as an “impulse to knowledge,” some kind of small, independent clock-work, which, when well wound up, works away industriously to that end, without the rest of the scholarly impulses taking any material part therein. The actual “interests” of the scholar, therefore, are generally in quite another direction – in the family, perhaps, or in money-making, or in politics; it is, in fact, almost indifferent at what point of research his little machine is placed, and whether the hopeful young worker becomes a good philologist, a mushroom specialist, or a chemist; he is not characterized by becoming this or that. In the philosopher, on the contrary, there is absolutely nothing impersonal; and above all, his morality furnishes a decided and decisive testimony as to who he is -, that is to say, in what order the deepest impulses of his nature stand to each other.”[2]

Zionism and Conservatism

Gottfried insists that the Straussians have dealt with three key contemporary issues in an “utterly conventional” and establishment-minded manner and these are “liberal internationalism, the slow expansion of the American welfare state and Zionism.” Let me conclude here by taking up the latter of the three.

Eric Cohen and Ayala Meisel take us back to the time in the 1950s, when many American conservatives looked upon Israel and the Jews with “skepticism and even hostility.” And it was at this moment, they explain, that Leo Strauss chose to enter the debate out of annoyance at this “conservative animus.” In other words, Strauss did not like to see conservatives, which in this context meant readers of the National Review harboring anti-Israeli sentiments

For Cohen and Meisel Strauss’s defense of Israel is particularly salient in an era when “conservatism in general is trying to reinvigorate the moral case for nations.” The “Straussian” approach at its best would be to try to convince “all true friends of the democratic West” to view Israel “as a model to emulate.”[3]

This question of a conservative change of heart on the question of Israel is the subject of Jeet Heer’s observations on the essence of American conservatism.[4] For Heer the whole debate about Strauss’s political orientation is a waste of ink.  He simply includes Strauss in the constellation of conservative thinkers as a matter of course somewhat in the manner of Corey Robin and Sam Tanenhaus. According to Heer “Strauss wasn’t directly connected with National Review but he was much admired by the magazine and his students certainly wrote for it.” If one simply takes a look at the mid-century conservative intellectuals who congregated around National Review and Modern Age one sees Strauss in the company of William F. Buckley, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport.[5]

Unlike Cohen and Meisel who see the conservative migration away from sympathy with the Palestinians towards a more pro-Israeli view as a wonderful revolution of opinion, Heer sees it as proof positive that American conservatism is a maleficent factor in politics drawing on reserves of fascism, racism neo-colonialism and totalitarianism in order to undermine the liberal order.

Heer wants to remind us that from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s “the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.”  In fact “the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance” [6] was a champion of Arab culture and the Palestinian voice.  In David Frum’s words  the publisher “showed a curious partiality, throughout his long career, for anti-interventionist, anti-British, and anti-Israeli books.” But in more recent years, Heer has seen the Regnery press totally abandon this “pro-Arab tradition.”[7]

Heer’s account meets that of Cohen and Meisel by referring to Strauss’s National Review letter.[8] Strauss was particularly irritated by an article that had run in the National Review on November 17th, 1956 issue that had stated that: “Even the Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in modern history.”[9]

Heer suggests that the question which “historians should take up” because of its “rich, unexplored dimensions” is “Why were conservatives so hostile to Israel?”  or more specifically, “Why did conservatives turn against Arabs starting in the late 1960s?” But wherever such research might take one the phenomenon of Old Right Anti-Semitism such as it was, did not in any way inhibit Strauss writing to the National Review and agreeing with the general grounds of its politics.[10]  If there had been derogatory terms used for Jews in National Review circles either Strauss hadn’t heard about it or it didn’t appear significant enough in his eyes to indicate a “boycott” of the young magazine. [11]



[1] The “PR problem” to which Gottfried alludes may be real enough but then on the other hand it might have the effect of “purifying” Gottfried’s readership. By this I mean that on his own showing only the most serious and intrepid readers will find their way to the riches of right-wing anti-Straussianism.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of the Prejudices of the Philosophers” Beyond Good and Evil Ch.1, s.6

[3] Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel,  “Jewish Conservatism Manifesto”  April 7, 2017

[4] Jeet Heer, “When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians”

February 25, 2008

[5] Jeet Heer, “When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians”

[6] Jeet Heer, “When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians”  These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”

[7]  Jeet Heer, “When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians.” According to Heer, Regnery now publishes books which are diametrically opposed to the perspective of the Middle East that the founder of the press upheld. These books paint Arabs and Muslims as the tireless, fast-breeding enemies of Western Civilization e.g. Mark Steyn’s America Alone and Robert Spencer’s Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t and can go along with “partisan political pornography” such as (David Limbaugh’s Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today’s Democratic Party or Bay Buchanan’s The Extreme Makeover of Hillary [Rodham] Clinton).

[8] “Leo Strauss, “Letter to the National Review”:

[9]  At this point Heer promptly adds: “Apparently National Review didn’t believe that Jim Crow America, not to say Hitler’s Germany, constituted a racist state.”

[10] “For some time I have been receiving NATIONAL REVIEW, and I agree with many articles appearing in the journal.”  Leo Strauss, Letter to the National Review.  For a “neo-conservative” interpretation of Strauss’s letter see Steven B. Smith, “Leo Strauss’s Forgotten Letter” Commentary September 13, 2016

[11] Heer argues that when Strauss wrote his letter on Israel in 1956 the incentive to placate the Arabs and Palestinians was strong as part of the strategy to compete with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Given the world-wide threat of Communism the conservatives “thought that Arabs and Muslims would be reliable allies against Moscow and feared the Palestinian refugee crisis could radicalize the Middle Eastern masses, making them anti-American.”  Thus with the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world and the corresponding collapse of communism, it no longer seemed possible (or necessary) to “placate Arab and Islamic public opinion.” Strauss makes no mention in his National Review letter of the early anti-communist case for a pro-Palestinian stance even as he is known for his staunch anti-communist feelings.


Also available is Paul Gottfried’s response here, with Colin D. Pearce’s article here.

Colin D. PearceColin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He has published in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Political Science, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Studies in Literary Imagination, The Kipling Journal, The Simms Review, South Carolina Review, Perspectives on Politics, Interpretation, Humanitas, Clio, Appraisal, and The Explicator, Quadrant.

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