Leo Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche

One advantage of a blog is the opportunity to rebut. I recently came across the following passage in Catherine H. Zuckert, Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (2006). (Strauss, by the way, was a highly influential and interesting emigré political theorist, several of whose followers played significant roles in the Bush Administration.)

    A particularly clumsy and unpersuasive effort to treat Strauss as an esoteric writer [i.e., one who thinks the opposite of what his texts say on their surface] is Peter Levine’s Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities. He maintains that Strauss is an ‘esoteric Nietzchean.’ For evidence of Strauss’ Nietzscheanism he quotes passages from Strauss’s essay on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, an essay intended to give an account of the German’s thought. Since Strauss frequently distanced himself from Nietzsche, it is quite unacceptable to cite Strauss’ presentation of Nietzsche’s thought as if they were his own. By this method, one could identify Strauss with Thucydides, Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and a large number of others as well as Nietzsche. It really will not do to argue, in effect, that (a) Strauss is (obviously) an esoteric writer, that is, he doesn’t say openly what he believes; (b) Strauss frequently rejects Nietzsche, Heidegger, historicism, and nihilism in his texts; therefore (c) Strauss must be a Nietzschean, a Heideggerian, a historicist, or a nihilist. To prove that Strauss is a nihilist, Levine brings to bear such other ‘evidence’ as Strauss’ expressed doubts about Plato’s theory of ideas. In rejecting that theory, Strauss is trying to ‘show that Plato was a secret nihilist.’ Since Aristotle also rejected the Platonic Ideas, Levine no doubt considers him a nihilist as well.

Trying to maintain a civil tone, I will say:

1. In my book, I fully acknowledge Leo Strauss’ explicit critique of Nietzsche, Heidegger, historicism, and nihilism. That is how I begin my section on Strauss.

2. I quote Strauss’ essay on Nietzsche not to assert that Strauss was endorsing the views he attributed to Nietszche, but in order to show that Strauss considered Nietzsche a historicist. There are many other interpretations of Nietzsche, and I wanted to show that this was the Nietzsche whom Strauss had in mind.

3. My argument that Strauss actually held the views he attributed to Nietzsche is not based on the assertion that he rejected those views but was “obviously” an esoteric author. The key evidence is “his deployment of devices he finds in or attributes to the writers he identifies as esoteric.” That last sentence is quoted from Zuckert–from the paragraph in which she describes “much better attempts” than mine to read Strauss as esoteric. But the method she accepts is precisely the one I employ. I show, for example (pp. 263-4), that key nihilist quotations, ostensibly rejected by Strauss, appear in the precise centers of his own texts without rebuttal–a technique that he attributes to other authors who are esoteric. One of those authors is Nietzsche. Strauss argues–and I agree–that Nietzsche used esoteric writing techniques such as numerology. Those are the same techniques that we find in Strauss.

4. My point about Plato is not that Strauss rejected Platonic idealism. So do most authors, including myself. My point is about Straussian hermeneutics. I write, “Strauss says that Plato cannot have been serious about the doctrine of Forms, which is ‘utterly incredible, not to say … fantastic.'” Aristotle certainly disagreed with the Platonic theory of Forms, but he did not claim that “the Republic was actually a veiled warning against the tyranny of Socratic men.” That claim of irony or duplicity is Strauss’s and is hardly orthodox.

My reading of Strauss was not especially original and probably was clumsy. When I read that section now, it strikes me as poorly organized. Some of the key evidence is buried in footnotes. But there was much more to it than Zuckert noticed, understood, or was willing to acknowledge.