Goldwag: I Was A Teenaged Straussian

Guestblogger Arthur Goldwag is the author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more" and other books.

 Wikipedia En 2 2D Leostrauss-1 No, not really. But when I was a freshman in college in 1975, the Poli Sci 101 course that I took was Straussian and neo-conservative to its core. Kenyon College's political science department was (and still is--or at least it was three years ago, as this story in the far right wing journal Human Events confirms) an "oasis" of Straussian and conservative theory. The first text we read, as I recall, was Socrates "Apology." Most of us assumed that Socrates' persecutors were the bad guys, that freedom of thought was strictly good and the suppression of free speech categorically bad. But using Socrates' own mode of questioning, our teachers challenged our blandly liberal presuppositions. Precisely what's good about Democracy? Why shouldn't the state protect itself? Are we sure we understand what the Founders of our own country really meant when they wrote about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?"

Writing in David Horowitz's rightwing Front Page magazine in 2002, Robert Locke explains:
The key Straussian concept is the Straussian text, which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men's attachment to their societies....Strauss shockingly admits, contrary to generations of liberal professors who have taught him as a martyr to the First Amendment, that the prosecution of Socrates was not entirely without point. This honesty about the dangers of philosophy gives Straussian thought a seriousness lacking in much contemporary philosophy; it is also a sign of the conviction that philosophy, contrary to the mythology of our "practical" (though sodden with ideology and quick to take offense at ideas) age, matters.
This isn't the inherent slipperiness of language that we're talking about, Strauss's isn't the radically deconstructive spirit of Barthes, Derridas, or Paul de Man. Strauss believed, rather, that the authors had deliberately coded their texts; applying sufficient care and scholarship, they could be decoded too. We spent an entire semester working through Allen Bloom's copiously annotated translation of Plato's Republic, for example, which had a surprise on nearly every page.

Though Strauss was an atheist, he was culturally Jewish to the core. And hermeneutics is a prototypically Jewish practice. Kabbalists acknowledge that every Biblical text has four distinct levels of meaning:

Pashat (simple), its literal surface

Remez (hints), suggestions (mostly through paradoxes and double-meanings) that something lies deeper

Drash (search), allegorical, symbolic, or analogic interpretations

Sod (hidden), its deepest, most mystical level of meaning

The Masons borrowed the idea of exoteric and esoteric texts from Kabbalah; needless to say, Conspiracy Theorists are as suspicious of Masons as they are of Jews. But they have armed themselves with their enemies' methods and learned to be attentive for hidden messages and meanings themselves--thus, this anonymous poster on a conspiracist website: "Has anyone else noticed that Obama keeps saying, 'Out of many, we are one?' It's the E Pluribus Unum from the seal of the US. Is this his ritualistic mantra signaling to the world that HE will bring about the NWO?"

A number of leading conservatives in Washington turn out to be Straussians--Locke's piece identifies some of the most prominent circa 2002: "Justice Clarence Thomas; Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes; former Secretary of Education William Bennett; Weekly Standard editor and former Quayle Chief of Staff William Kristol; Allan Bloom, author of THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND; former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz; former National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman John T. Agresto; and, not meaning to class myself with this august company but in the interests of full disclosure, myself."

Some of the architects and most strident apologists of the Iraq war turned out to be students (or students of students, or protégés of students) of Leo Strauss, among them Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Douglas Feith, and Robert Kagan. Some of them (not all of them, but enough that it was noticeable) were Jewish. Leftists rightfully attacked these neo-conservatives for the disastrous consequences of their militarism, but at times there was an unsettling undertone to their rhetoric. "The anti-Semitism behind the current wave of Strauss hatred, like the anti-Semitism that drives so much talk about the neoconservative "cabal" in Washington, is barely even veiled," Adam Kirsch complained in the New York Sun. "Tim Robbins, in his recent play "Embedded," portrays characters based on Messrs. Wolfowitz and Perle shouting "Hail Leo Strauss," in an echo of the Nazi salute." Extreme rightists were even less circumspect. But how could they not be? I mean, the whole phenomenon was an antisemite's dream. Here was a real-life, flesh-and-blood cabal of influential Jews, academically trained in the art of dissimulation and coded discourse, enacting what seemed to be a well-thought-out, long-held plan to hijack American foreign policy. It could have been ripped right out of the pages of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:

The art of directing masses and individuals by means of cleverly manipulated theory and verbiage, by regulations of life in common and all sorts of other quirks, in all which the GOYIM understand nothing, belongs likewise to the specialists of our administrative brain. Reared on analysis, observation, on delicacies of fine calculation, in this species of skill we have no rivals, any more than we have either in the drawing up of plans of political actions and solidarity. In this respect the Jesuits alone might have compared with us, but we have contrived to discredit them in the eyes of the unthinking mob as an overt organization, while we ourselves all the while have kept our secret organization in the shade.
I never drank the Straussian Kool Aid, but it was offered to me, and by teachers that I respected. Maybe that's why I'm troubled by some of the kneejerk denunciations of Strauss. Writing in Free Inquiry, Shadia Drury declared that,
Strauss thought that the best way for ordinary human beings to raise themselves above the beasts is to be utterly devoted to their nation and willing to sacrifice their lives for it. He recommended a rabid nationalism and a militant society modelled on Sparta. He thought that this was the best hope for a nation to be secure against her external enemies as well as the internal threat of decadence, sloth, and pleasure. A policy of perpetual war against a threatening enemy is the best way to ward off political decay. And if the enemy cannot be found, then it must be invented.
Is that a fair summary of Strauss or a caricature of his disciples? I can't answer the question with any authority--I'm not deeply read in Strauss, as she is--most of my exposure to him was second hand, and it was more than thirty years ago, when I was eighteen and nineteen years old.

Anything that provides fodder to anti-Semites is unfortunate, but it's hardly surprising that the most politically ambitious exponents of Straussianism would have found each other in Washington and formed a clique-College Republicans, Dartmouth Review editors, born again Christians and students of Robert Bork do the same thing. There's a creepily culty quality to the ism that his name is attached to today, which never quite made it into the mainstream of American academia, suffered a major backlash in the '60s and '70s, and is experiencing another today, during the reaction against George W. Bush. Most of those guys are bad actors and some of them must have real chips on their shoulders. But do they rise to the level of a cult or a conspiracy or a secret society? I suspect not.


  1. Butbutbut… academics are all liberals!!! All colleges are run by ‘liberal professors’ that won’t tolerate any other opinions! Therefore, what you say can not be true. But then, you’re a liberal, so it figures you’d be lying.

  2. Leftists rightfully attacked these neo-conservatives for the disastrous consequences of their militarism, but at times there was an unsettling undertone to their rhetoric.

    Nonsense. Where was this “unsettling undertone [of left-wing antisemitism]”? Robbins pointing out neo-conservatives’ fascist leanings isn’t antisemitic.

  3. Strauss thought that the best way for ordinary human beings to raise themselves above the beasts is to be utterly devoted to their nation and willing to sacrifice their lives for it. He recommended a rabid nationalism and a militant society modelled on Sparta.

    Yeah, but Sparta always reminded me of an ant or termite colony, where sacrifice for the common good went to levels most of us would not tolerate. So much for “raising ourselves above the beasts.”

    And the Kabbalistic “4 levels of meaning” reminds me of people who read too much into a situation, like conspiracy theorists for example.

    1. I’m not just being coy when I say that Drury may not be doing him justice. Though she has studied him deeply, she has a strong political animus towards his followers (appropriately so). Steven B. Smith’s READING LEO STRAUSS: POLITICS, PHILOSOPHY, JUDAISM takes a very different stance–in fact he argues that Strauss was “a friend of liberal democracy-one of the best friends democracy ever had.”

      My sense is that Strauss was much too deep and too serious a thinker to capture in a sound byte; at the same time, the elitism that underlies a lot of the thinking–much of which comes from Plato of course–is disquieting. I deeply enjoyed reading political philosophy with Straussians when I was a teenager–but even at the time, I felt like it was a bit of a temptation or seduction that I had to resist.

  4. “But do [Straussians] rise to the level of a cult or a conspiracy or a secret society? I suspect not.”

    con·spir·a·cy n., An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.

    Is that how anyone else remembers the Bush administration?

    — MrJM

    1. “con·spir·a·cy n., An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.

      Is that how anyone else remembers the Bush administration?”

      I’d suggest substituting “and” for “or” to make the definition fit just a bit better.

  5. Whenever I hear someone hold up Sparta as a model society, it makes my feet itch. They’re assuming that they’ll be the Spartans, and that somebody else, probably including me, will be the healots. The Spartans were an even more psychopathic version of what we later saw in the antebellum South: if you worked for a living, you had no rights whatsoever that any judge or court would respect. You owned nothing, and could be raped, killed, maimed, or murdered at any time for any reason or even for no reason by any Spartan soldier, and the Spartans did so at a rate that would have made the worst of the old Southern plantation owners squirm.

    And no, I was not unaware of the fact that this is exactly what the philosophical and intellectual leaders of the neoconservative wings of the Republican and Conservative parties (and not a few neoliberals among the DLC Democrats and in “New Labor”) fantasize about.

  6. This post touches on some very subtle intellectual stuff — it could be expanded into a book or three. But I suppose the comment thread will devolve into a discussion of how much George W. sucks.

  7. I agree that it is a really big stretch to say people attacked the neo-cons because so many of them were Jewish, particularly since they also attacked the ones that weren’t Jewish, and didn’t attack Jewish politicians that weren’t neo-cons. I do admit that it’s interesting that so many prominent Jewish politicians are conservatives when the Jewish population as a whole tends to be more liberal.

  8. the criticism of the neo-cons was about their disastrous foreign policy ideas, and it turned out to entirely correct. how was it anti-semitic?

    oh yeah thats right, it wasnt. that was just a shameless way for those assholes to try and dodge the criticism just like they now are dodging responsibility.

  9. The neo-con idea that western liberal democracies would devolve into hedonistic navel gazing without some kind of external enemy has always seemed to me more of a justification for paternalistic elitism and an appeal for aristocratic rule than anything else. And who wouldn’t want service to the state to be the highest ideal if you and your buddies are the state?

    The idea that Strauss fathered much of neo-con ideology must create a real state of cognitive dissonance among those who both hate liberal ideals and are practicing anti-semites (and I would guess most of the latter are the former as well). Maybe their heads will explode.

    Purist idealoges may not be cultists, but they are within rock throwing distance.

  10. I think if you’re going to go throwing around a term like “Straussian,” you should just take a moment to define what you’re talking about. For example, although I consider myself fairly well read, I had no idea that listening to the polkas and waltzes of 19th century Austria could instill in one such contemptible political views.

    1. I know that you’re joking, but if this had been a formal essay and not a blog entry I might have noticed that I completely neglected to say who Strauss was. How embarrassing!

      Leo Strauss (1899-1973); born in Prussia, taught at the University of Chicago, author of 15 books including WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY? (1959) and THE REBIRTH OF CLASSICAL POLITICAL RATIONALISM (1989).

    2. You kid, but Hitler’s musical tastes were not limited to Wagner. The volk music of Strauss and others was of utmost importance to some even more contemptible political views.

  11. It wasn’t that the neo-cons were Jewish that was the problem. It was that they were neo-cons. A fair number of neo-cons and their supporters in the press used the unfortunate overlap in ideology and ethnic heritage to stifle discussion. Anyone who criticized the neo-cons was shouted down as an anti-semite, deflecting the discussion away from their outspoken agenda (nuking Iran and starting a multi-generational war in th emiddle east) to nitpicky discussions about the critic and their motive.

    Get enough people Godwining every criticism of neo-con policy and agenda and everyone eventually forgets the fact that a large number of very powerful men in the US Government hold views that are completely antithetical to Democracy and are actively abetting global war for fun and profit.

  12. Thanks for this fascinating intro to Strauss, Arthur. I knew nothing about him before reading this.

  13. jaytk — seconded. The “unsettling undertone” to criticism of neo-conservatism is simply that any group believing and acting on the principle that “democracy is too important to be left up to average citizens” is objectivly crypto-facist.

    The fact that many of the members of the neo-conservative movement are Jewish is an ironic historical accident. The fact that so many Straussian disciples deluded the nation into war in pursuit of individual wealth and political power is due to their embrace of two principles derived from his teaching: Facist propaganda techniques work, and, the end justifies the means.

    What, exactly, is the functional difference between the Straussian “noble lie” and the “big lie” of Joseph Goebbels? And how might one distinguish between the two when it comes to such canards as Saddam’s mythical WMD’s, nonexistent Nigerian yellowcake, etc. etc.?

    You ask if the Straussian circuit in DC rises to the level of a “conspiracy.” Some “conspiracies” qualify for tinfoil hats and some qualify for a RICO prosecution, and IMHO much of the conduct of W’s neocon advisers falls under the second category.

    The fact that Straussianism is dressed up in pseudo-academic language, and that many of its practitioners attempt to silence legitimate criticism by “playing the race card” of anti-semitism, should not obsure the fact that Straussian/neo-con ideology is every bit as incompatible with American principles of government, and every bit as dangerous to our national future, as the racist reactionary populism exemplified by Sarah Palin and the teabaggers.

    1. jaytk & #18 – thirded.

      Philosophy is most def dangerous. The problem is that study/understanding of philosophy leads people to assume they are superior to those who have not yet encountered such ideas.

      The problem with deciding to apply *any* philosophical theory to real-world political decision making is that there is a rarely a precedent by which to decide if it is going to work.

      Furthermore, it is easy to apply such theories to small, controlable examples – but when it comes to such theories operating for the masses, it doesn’t work so cleanly. No philosopher anticipated 6 billion people.

      Strausian philosophy: interesting, but IMO not great material on which to base a society unless everyone understands – which, as Strauss is the first to point out, will never be the case.

  14. As a former O.T.O. member, I’d be interested in what your impressions are on how Crowley’s work affects modern paganism and the self-destruction of the O.T.O. in the U.S. and worldwide.

    1. I will only be guest blogging through the end of the week; not sure if I can fit that in. Let me think about it, though. And I very much appreciate your interest.

  15. Strauss believed, rather, that the authors had deliberately coded their texts; applying sufficient care and scholarship, they could be decoded too. We spent an entire semester working through Allen Bloom’s copiously annotated translation of Plato’s Republic, for example, which had a surprise on nearly every page.

    I don’t know much about Strauss, but I think you are distorting Allan Bloom’s take on Plato. Bloom wasn’t trying to find some secret message; he was trying to strip Plato of all the intellectual barnacles of Christian Neo-Platoism. Obviously, if we want to understand what Plato meant, the opinions of medieval scholars trying to fit his philosophy into a Christian framework aren’t very helpful.

    1. I may well be–I remember very little of what was specifically Bloomian about the translation; at the same time, it almost certainly had a permanent influence on my understanding of Plato. Neoplatonism is indeed very different than Plato.

      I was the editor of the New York Review’s book club (The Readers’ Subscription) when The Closing of the American Mind came out. I was so excited to see Bloom’s name on the manuscript–and absolutely flabbergasted by how shallow and uninteresting it turned out to be. I bought it anyway and we sold truckloads of books, but it was a disillusioning experience for me. Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is a loving tribute to Bloom, the men were dear friends, but Bellow was too good a writer not to capture his snobbery and bottomless vanity too.

  16. A German student of philosophy once told me that the German translation of Joyce’s Ulysses was better than the original because the translator, unlike Joyce, knew what Joyce was trying to say. Strauss always reminds me of this.

    1. Oh God. That is so friggin German. I remember reading a while back about a growing interest in Klezmer music in Germany. One thing that stood out was the sense that the Germans believed they understood the music better than the originators. As a first-generation German Canadian I’ve come across this attitude far too many times.

  17. “Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men’s attachment to their societies […]”

    I think Strauss gave ideas too much credit. People confronted with truly new and unfamiliar ideas often don’t even realize they’ve bumped into something new. (See Thomas Kuhn, passim.)

    …or maybe that was his point. I wonder.

  18. I, too, encountered Strauss via a Straussian prof, in my case Intro Philosophy. My prof was very, very charismatic (he had acolytish students who followed him around in the halls) and while he didn’t convert me to his vision of the philosophical lifestyle, he did make me think, more than anyone else has before or since, about the assumptions with which I was walking around. It’s mostly him, really, that solidified my position as a lefty atheist.

    I also read Shadia Drury’s “Leo Strauss and the American Right” at the behest of a friend (also another prof in the department) who was worried I was falling into his trip. He pointed out that while I had been presented with this Straussian presentation as mainstream philosophy, it is in fact as far from the mainstream as you can get in this day and age.

    Now, here’s the thing: I haven’t found one instance of Strauss, Bloom or other people to whom the moniker of “Straussian” has been affixed acknowledging this idea of “secret” meanings in texts, or this supposedly Straussian paradigm of a prof giving one lesson to the masses and pulling aside the brightest students for the “true” lesson after the herd have left the room. This is not to say that it’s definitively not true, of course, only that this idea seems like mostly conjecture to me, based on what research I’ve done.

    One glaringly bad example of this assertion being made without foundation was in Drury’s book – in it, when she put this idea forth, she cited a Time Magazine article. Having had access to my school’s databases at the time, I quickly dug up that article, and it was no more than a small blurb about Strauss, with nothing mentioned about this esoterica whatsoever. I can dig up the relevant Drury quote and the related article if anyone is interested.

    1. This is from Damon Linker’s New Republic review of Smith’s book, from 2006.

      “This is Strauss’s notorious doctrine of esoteric writing, which he claimed to have single-handedly recovered from scholarly obscurity by following through on hints and suggestions in the writings of such authors as the eighteenth-century critic and dramatist Lessing, the medievals Maimonides and al-Farabi, and Plato himself, in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter. As Strauss describes it in Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), esotericism was primarily an expression of philosophical prudence. It protected society at large from the acids of skepticism and doubt unleashed by philosophical questioning, while simultaneously protecting philosophers from the righteous indignation of citizens who (rightly) suspect that such questioning undermines belief in the gods of the political community and thus corrupts the virtue of its citizens. Socrates, remember, was charged with atheism and corrupting the young, and this was never far from Strauss’s mind. In his view, Socrates’s fate stands as a paradigm of the inevitable antagonism between the claims of philosophy and of theological politics. It is an antagonism that only the subterfuges of esotericism are capable of mediating.”

      Here’s the url:

  19. An interesting article, Arthur. Particularly because the government department at my school (Claremont McKenna College) is pretty damned Straussian — understandably, because Strauss himself taught here. Even some of the “liberal” gov majors tend to come out valuing the state above individual anything.

  20. I have come to regard Strauss in much the same light as his contemporary Carl Schmitt, for all that the former fled a fascist Europe and the latter sought to become its legal theorist: both were cogent thinkers who developed trenchant critiques of liberal society, but who also consistently underestimated the strength of liberal institutions and who never succeeded in developing an alternative concept of civil society. The fact that self-proclaimed Straussians came to hold a particularly pernicious role in Washington, or that Schmitt’s monstrous philosophy of the political was matched by an equal viciousness of spirit, does not change the value of their critiques. Liberalism, alone of all philosophies, demands of its followers a robust but also an honest defense of its principles.

  21. Fellow Kenyon Alum here (Class of 2001). As I remember, the poly sci department was fairly conservative. It didn’t, however, seem as militantly conservative as the Human Events article makes it out to be. I knew several liberal poly sci majors who was quite happy with the prof’s. (But a quick google stalk of the author reveals him to be a Beta – so there’s no real surprise that he’s an idiot.)

    The kind of analysis that Strauss engages in seems like a sort of paranoid delusion. Yeah, there are “secret messages” in western civilization’s major documents that only cognoscenti can decipher. Uh-huh, that seems likely. Put Strauss in some dirty clothes and you wouldn’t be able to tell him from a crazy homeless guy. He was merely a high functioning lunatic.

  22. Or was there a secret *fifth* reading of the important texts, deeper even than the fourth, which was really a ruse to flush out and discredit the types who envy the powers and intrigues of tyrants? Well, played, Leo. A polite golf clap from a half-million dead Iraqis and 5000 dead American soldiers.

    Or maybe just a philosopher scared so badly by the Nazi regime he lost confidence in any system that couldn’t match it for sleazy ruthlessness, and thus a magnet for half-bright, “tough-minded” power-trippers who got beaten up at school or should have been. Ayn Rand for slightly smarter people. What is it about University of Chicago philosophers and economists, anyhow?

    Sorry, but I can’t see much nuance in a philosopher whose followers have been 21st-century America’s biggest bastards to a man (and the odd woman) who pretty much all belong in the Hague.

    1. I don’t want to sound like a jerk (especially as I have not yet read the article to which you linked) but isn’t that kinda like what we saw on CNN, et. al. recently, getting an opinion about Dick Cheney from his daughter Lynn?

  23. I always get Leo Strauss, Claude-Levi Strauss & Levi Stubbs confused, particularly when I’m in the middle of an exegesis of Standing In The Shadows Of Love, the greatest neo-Platonic Motown song ever.

  24. do I know you? I assume the Human Events writer was the Beta; it certainly wasn’t me!

    The thing is, as JTode noted, you don’t have to be conservative to get caught up in the teaching–it’s exciting to discover that all ideas aren’t created equal, and that some ideas are literally dangerous. I imagine a super-charismatic Marxist teacher can have the same effect. It’s also subtly flattering, because you feel like you’re being initiated into a higher form of discourse. I was no conservative but like I said, it was very alluring for me.

  25. Goldswag: “The Masons borrowed the idea of exoteric and esoteric texts from Kabbalah”

    Masons were Companies and Guilds for quite some time before any Judaic texts were being widely read in Europe, and seemed to have a deep understanding of symbolism and allegory, most obviously during the era of Cathedral building. Masons Companies were performing seasonal mystery plays in the 1300’s, which have as much to do with earlier pagan themes as with biblical ones. There are building customs that predate Christianity, and “Judaism” is as much a Alexandrian construct as Christianity is.

    Post 1600’s a few antiquarians, probably inspired by the Rosicrucian Manifestoes, and also interested in Builders traditions became “Accepted” Masons, and the Scottish Expatriates in France expanded the Accepted variety in France. It was there that most any mystical fad could be grafted upon Freemasonry, and Kabbalism enters the mix in the mid 1700’s. No particular practice of the Kabbalah is included in Symbolic 3 degree Masonry.(which was cobbled out of earlier Mason’s company traditions) Obviously, the Scottish (really French) High Grade varieties have small amounts of everything. There are Fringe Masonic groups where it figures more explicitly. It was the Theosophical Society that publicly expounded on any hairbrained speculation of what was hidden in Masonry that led to groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and few outsiders can tell the difference between them.

    1. Albert Pike’s MORALS AND DOGMA (which I understand does not speak for the whole of the Craft) attributes an enormous influence to Kabbalah. Another–perhaps a better way–to have put it would be to say that many of Masonry’s enemies perceived or implied the connection. For example, the anti-Semite and anti-Illuminist Nesta Webster, in SECRET SOCIETIES AND SUBVERSIVE MOVEMENTS: “Jewry in itself contitutes the most effectual Freemasonry in the world.”

  26. Kenyon College is a Straussian oasis? That just about blew my mind. Calvin & Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson attended that school from 1976 to 1980, and graduated with a political science degree. Is it possible to stand Calvin & Hobbes on its freedom loving head, and see it from a Straussian angle? Egads!

  27. Pike is a neat guy, but he acquired a do it yourself fraternity in a box, which is what the AASR was, via Morin, who had a charter from the “Council of the Emperors of the East and West” IOW, a comic book origin story.

    The system almost entirely created by him, bears only nominal relations to even the French degrees of the same name previously in existance. Pike was an amateur Sanskrit scholar, read a bunch of Eliphas Levi and similar Mystical literature as well as the Liberal Arts Canon. He had enough experience with the other Masonic cultures and corresponded with a few of the bright lights of the time. I have to say his grasp of Kabbalah was derivative of his sources, Like Athanasius Kircher and Antoine Joseph Pernety.

    The mistake of Conspiratologists is to assume that these are representative of Masonry as it existed before, or as a whole. AASR is a small subsection. My view is that Pike misses the mark entirely; not having a deep enough grasp of previous Masonic cultures, and relied too much on other “experts” (He even says so in the intro to M&D). Instead it falls in line with the pseudoknighthood pomp of Thomas Dunckerley and Andrew Michael Ramsay, which created a pretense of aristocracy to a craftsman’s fellowship.

  28. Ms. Clay is answering charges that weren’t really leveled at her father and isn’t answering the one that was.

    No, the Professor didn’t head a cabal. He only promulgated ideas that attract the sort of people who would like to form one: people with overheated intellectual imaginations, learning the “true” esoteric meanings of western democratic society’s founding philosophers and feeling a need to keep them from the sheeple, for their own good of course. They flatter themselves that their public intellectual dishonesty is in the service of this noble cause.

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. I also encountered a number of self-described Straussians in college. Whatever delusions of grandeur some of these professors and grad students (a phenomenon probably not unique to Straussians) might find themselves under, they don’t seem to be taken very seriously by many experts (political, philosophical, psychological, natural scientific, etc.) outside of their small circles, so I’m skeptical of claims that these folks pose a very serious, deep-seated threat to the broader public.

      I think the real substantive problems with this “school of thought” (insofar as it contains a virtually uniform take on “modernity”) follow the lines of Robert Pippin’s (UChicago) criticisms (“The Modern World of Leo Strauss”; “The Unavailability of the Ordinary”).

      There is a broad (Straussian) tendency to personify “modern” political thought (which, unlike its “ancient” counterpart, doesn’t recognize or pretend to recognize some “natural law” antecedent to the human “will”) and treat it primarily as some kind of historical accident (and/or politically-motivated error on the part of philosophers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant).

      There seems to be a contradiction between the massive (and probably disproportionate) explanatory power (vis-a-vis virtually everything that has happened on Earth since “moderns” began writing) Straussians often grant these figures, and a simultaneous interpretation of that receptivity as more or less accidental and/or mistaken.

      Also, certain possibilities–for example, that human rights and equality have a natural (or physiological) basis (supported by more recent developments in empirical psychology than Locke’s Treatises or Rousseau’s Discourses)–are often foreclosed at the outset because of “subtle hints” in older, (more) elegant texts like Plato’s Republic.

      Scholarship in any sort of philosophy naturally has a stake in the possibility of its explanatory power, but Straussians could probably be more honest about the limits of the tools with which they sometimes appear to seek to formulate theories of everything.

  29. Just received this very interesting comment on my own blog ( from Hume’s Ghost of The Daily Doubter (

    Regarding Shadia Drury, the most damning thing I’ve seen about Strauss’ personal views is the letter he wrote shortly before he emigrated out of Germany in which he described his political principles as “fascist, authoritarian, and imperial” – and that it was only upon these grounds that Hitler could be opposed.

    Scott Horton has offered some thoughtful (imo) commentary on the letter in multiple venues, but here’s one

  30. Isn’t Bloom (or is it Voegelin) basically correct about Plato though?

    That because it begins with Socrates “going down”, that when we get to the metaphor about the cave in the Republic, it means that his prescriptions of the ideal society are NOT to be taken ‘literally’ as his own views. They are shadows on the wall of the cave to lead you to something other than the surface of the text.

    Makes sense to me :)

  31. I, too, was a teenaged Straussian, student of a Straussian professor (who went on to found the think tank in Israel that issued the report people allege set Bush’s foreign policy in the direction of attacking Iraq). One day after class he asked me what I was making of Strauss and Voegelin. I said I was wary of Voegelin but Strauss seemed more straightforward (we were studying Natural Right and History at the time). The prof told me that Strauss was the one who should make me wary. I didn’t figure out until a few years later how right he was about that.

  32. I, too, had Straussian professors in college. Our class, too, started off with Plato’s ‘Apology.’ We, too, read Allan Bloom’s great translation of Plato’s ‘Republic’ (my copy is signed by Bloom). I am a cautious admirer of Leo Strauss; Straussians, not so much. Straussians’ seriousness of purpose and scholarship are worth admiring, but to the extent that they are ideological rather than philosophical, Straussians bother me (not that that bothers them). Much dislike of Straussians could be attributed to their arrogance and hauteur and thus is a matter of style rather than substance. Straussians’ choice of water-carriers certainly puts people off. Arrogant frat boy “gentlemen” do the work set out by the Straussians. The ultimate frat boy was, of course, George W. Bush. Not dumb but not thoughtful or curious, Bush was the prototypical instrument of the Straussian enterprise, to the extent it exists. But to emphasize what I passed over earlier, I do NOT equate Straussians with Leo Strauss. I know that is easy to say, something like, “Oh, Jesus was good; it is his followers who give him a bad name.” It was Willmoore Kendall, the great conservative and populist who turned me in to a fan of Leo Strauss. Kendall wrote a brilliant review of Strauss’s ‘Thoughts on Machiavelli’ and gave us some sense of the monumental “struggle” going on above our heads. Part of that struggle is the battle between Athens and Jerusalem, between reason and faith. Why are we here? What do we do while we are here? How would we know what to do while we are here? The great political philosophers are in a constant struggle to control how we decide how to live. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, etc., and now Strauss, Kendall tells us, are battling for our hearts and minds. From the last paragraph of that great, great review, Kendall writes: “Certainly [Strauss] nowhere tells us, in ‘Thoughts [on Machiavelli],’ how the mischief the Machiavellians have done can be undone. But Strauss’s silence on this point is perhaps as explicit a statement as the ‘situation’ and the ‘quality of the times’ call for, and what it says is: the mischief can be undone only by a great teacher who feels within himself a strength and vocation not less than Machiavelli’s own, who possesses a store of learning not inferior to Machiavelli’s own, who will take the best of the young, of this generation and future generations, and, leading them by the hand without arguing with them, habituate them to the denial of Machiavelli’s denials.” I think Kendall was right about Strauss’s strength, vocation, store of learning, and desire to convince this generation and future generations, but I am not as convinced (yet) that what Strauss wants is a “denial of Machiavelli’s denials.” At present, I am of the opinion that Strauss wanted (in a phrase the Straussians might mock and think sophomoric) the greatest good for the greatest number while being clear-eyed about the evils that face us–including the evil within each of us. I do NOT think Strauss wanted good only for an elite (that would not be Good) though some Straussians and their followers might not mind it as much.

  33. Bogus accusations of anti-Semitism are one of the principle weapons the neocons use to silence their critics. If there were no Jewish neocons, it would have been necessary to invent them. There is nothing anti-Semitic in pointing out the underlying fascism in neocon thought and behavior. There is no ideology within recent memory that matches neconservatism so well as fascism and indeed, its virulent Nazi strain. Many neocons, like Michael Ledeen, are open admirers of fascism and he has written books and articles praising it.

  34. None of those ideologies are mutually exclusive. For instance, you do not have to be anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, but critics of Israel are often anti-Semites. I use the ban-hammer pretty regularly on anti-Semitic commenters, not because of ideological rigidity on my part, but because I check their links and find grossly anti-Semitic propaganda. There may be bogus accusations, but there are a hell of a lot more correct ones.

  35. 4) Born again Christian is still very much in use, unfortunately. My sister and her husband (and even more unfortunately my niece and nephew) are born again and use the term.

  36. John 3:3 “Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”” If they aren’t considering themselves born again, they probably have some reading to do…

  37. 4) I haven’t heard the phrase “born again Christian” in years – it seems to be a throwback to the mid-1980s. Do people consider themselves born again anymore, or is there a more internet-friendly term these days?

    I used to use the term, when I was a young, new convert. Frankly I’m glad I grew out of that phase. It’s honestly an unhealthy position for a young person to be in where they believe morals and the will of God are on their side, and that they are somehow a different person than they were before. Arrogance and a certain sense of moral superiority becomes a very, very easy trap to fall into.

    To Mr. Goldwag:
    Thank you for sharing this, it was really stimulating and is likely to spur me to do some very rewarding research of my own on the subject.

  38. When the reaction to the neo-Cons began to pick up steam, a lot of articles started to appear denying that this conservative or that conservative was really a Straussian. Strauss wrote challenging books; I think the odds are good that a lot of so-called Straussians never read him. Allen Bloom did have a lot of students in Washington–in Ravelstein, he’s constantly bragging about who he has on the phone.

    It’s important to remember that neo-Conservatives and Straussians don’t completely overlap. The elder Kristol and Podhoretz had/have obvious points of sympathy with them, but as ex-leftists they were born-again conservatives, in a manner of speaking. As you cross generations, everything gets very incestuous and hard to sort out. Elliott Abrams, for example, married Midge Decter’s daughter (Decter is married to Norman Podhoretz). Podhoretz’s son John attended Chicago, where he almost certainly encountered Bloom.

  39. Which is why this whole set up — the interbreeding, the elitism, the anti-democratic ideals — all strike me as very Royalist. And while your hardcore Royalists sometimes have a soft spot for a dictatorial style of kingship and won’t go so far as to openly advocate for a royal line of succession, they do tend to hark back to that 17th-18th century ideal of an ordained Nobel class who engage in war as an art form and concoct twisted philosophies to rationalize them.

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