“Chicago Days,” by Stanley Rosen. Chapter One in Essays in Philosophy: Ancient, edited by Martin Black, St. Augustine’s Press, 2013. Reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.
I first met Leo Strauss as a nineteen year old student in the College of the University of Chicago in the Spring of 1949. This was the epoch of the presidency of Robert Maynard Hutchins, and the University was at the height of its glory. The College was at that time famous for the eccentricity and precociousness of many of its students, as well as because of an idiosyncratic program that permitted entering students to take examinations on the basis of which they were assigned course requirements. It was therefore possible to graduate in less than a month of residence. Apparently this was accomplished by the graduate of a Swiss private lycée some years after my departure. In 1949, the record was one year, and this was matched by eighteen members of my class, including Seth Benardete and myself. Another peculiarity of the College was that one could enter at any age, and there were a number of virtual children among my class-mates, in at least one case as young as thirteen. I should add that I arrived in 1948, relatively speaking an old man. I had been admitted to the College following graduation from High School in 1947, but chose to live in New York for a semester under the mistaken impression that I was a burgeoning novelist.
By the time I arrived in Chicago, my vocation had shifted from fiction to poetry. If I am not mistaken, I am the only one of Strauss’s long-term students who came to him from poetry. I was also virtually uninterested in politics, unlike the majority of Strauss’s students. In addition, I was an avowed metaphysician, who had elaborated a philosophical position, partly influenced by T. S. Eliot, one of whose main tenets was that philosophy and poetry are two different languages about the same world. There was for me no quarrel between philosophy and poetry, as there was (albeit in a subtle form) for Strauss, who followed Plato. In addition to these intellectual deficiencies, I was undisciplined in the academic sense, and spent most of my time writing poetry, with some professional success and with reasonable hopes for future progress as a poet. High on my list of things that I had no intention of doing was to become a professor of philosophy. To my adolescent vision, being a philosopher and a professor were incompatible, and besides, I regarded myself as already a philosopher.
I had a number of unusual class-mates during my year in the College. Perhaps the most interesting of my closest friends was the aforementioned Seth Benardete. Benardete went on to become Strauss’s favorite student, and he stands out in my memory as a spirit of genuine distinction and, even at that early age, of rare scholarship. At the time my friends and I assumed that Benardete would go on to a distinguished career as a classical philologist, as in a sense he did. But his books are written in so oblique and discontinuous a style that he was widely reviled by the orthodox classical establishment as a madman or charlatan. I began by regarding him as a formidable exotic; today I would suggest that he was in his youth a character, in the best sense of the term, out of an academic novel by Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. I remember vividly to this day a long conversation we had one night in his dormitory rooms during which Benardete informed me that he regarded it as immoral to love a human being. As a youth with a certain proclivity to this form of immorality, I was incredulous and asked him what we should love. He replied in a magisterial tone: “Greek vases.” This struck me as the most sophisticated view I had ever heard, but a view with one flaw: it was nonsensical.
I do not at all wish to say that this anecdote captures the peculiarity of the mature Benardete’s publications, but it prepares the way for understanding him. One has to be in the right mood to read Benardete, and if one is in this mood, the texts will yield countless pleasures and illuminations. But the illuminations are, to repeat a word, discontinuous. I once described in a review Benardete’s prose style as like a man rowing into the sunshine with muffled oars. Perhaps this simile has been infected by Benardete’s own style, but I know from his students that he very much appreciated the expression. I would like to think of him as a friend, despite the peripeties in our long acquaintance, but I am not certain that “friend” is the right word. We were bound together despite all incompatibilities by the Chicago experience, at the center of which was Leo Strauss. But we were also separated by our differing temperaments. One last anecdote. Benardete once told a mutual friend, someone he had known in high school and who was with us at Chicago, that “you and Mr. Rosen have the two most powerful minds I have ever met; but you are barbarians.” Benardete clearly fancied himself as a philosopher of the aristocratic Greek mold who possessed a certain Heiterkeit which enabled him to regard the comedy and the tragedy of the modern epoch with amused disdain. I believe that he changed considerably, and for the better, in the second half of his life.
I have permitted myself this deviation in my account of my first meeting with Leo Strauss because for me my friendship with Benardete, whom I saw virtually every day during that first year in Chicago, is a kind of preparation for that meeting. I was a poet, a romantic, and a metaphysician, who had somehow wandered into the lair of the philosopher, the classicist, and the philologist. The atmosphere was redolent of Socratic irony, whereas I represented something quite different. One of the entering examinations in the College required us to write an essay describing our philosophical position. I was told afterwards by a member of the philosophy department that my views were Fichtean, something of which I had never heard. A poet of Fichtean leanings is not in the best position to meet either the young Benardete or the middle-aged Strauss, to say nothing of my distinct deviation from the gentlemanly pretensions of the upper middle class.
I should say at once that Strauss was not at all a snob, and that his conception of decorum was quite reasonable. He was quite right to note in the margin of a first draft of my doctoral dissertation that I liked to épater le bourgeois. His astringent follow-up – “I could wish that the entire dissertation had been written in the style of paragraph 2 on page 153” – taught me more about scholarly writing than a dozen texts on hermeneutics. Strauss’s own style at its best comes very close to the appropriate blend of the daring of thought veiled by the web of prudence. He was nevertheless capable of flexibility in the selection of his students, who included myself and Allan Bloom. Many years after I had left Chicago, I encountered an old professor and former colleague of Strauss’s who was noted for his elegance and aristocratic tastes. This colleague, a minor Latvian baron, told me that he used to complain to Strauss about my youthful uncouthness, to which Strauss would reply each time: “he’s getting better.” I owe my education to this willingness to overlook baronial standards.
But I am getting ahead of myself. To come back to the beginning, Strauss had recently arrived in Chicago from New York, and was at that time unknown to the Chicago student community. This may help to explain his charitable reception of so unpromising a potential student. The meeting was arranged by Strauss’s step-son, who was also a student in the College. I was at that time preparing an honors paper on a Yiddish writer named Achad Ha’am. Strauss’s son told me that his father was an expert on matters of that sort, and asked if I would like to consult him on my paper. I agreed, and set out with the warning that Strauss would probably give me 20 or 30 minutes of his time.
It was a warm Spring evening, and mosquitos filled the humid air. Strauss received me in shirt-sleeves, gesturing with a cigarette holder as if it were a baton. He was a rather short man with a thin, high-pitched voice. His initial demeanor was polite but understandably reserved. He opened the conversation by asking me what I did. I replied “I am a poet.” Strauss immediately inquired whether I knew what Plato says about poets. To this I answered something like “I don’t care what Plato says about poetry. I am a poet and I understand it better than he does.” This drove Strauss like an uncoiled spring from the easy chair in which he had been sitting, and he paced up and down the room, gesticulating with his cigarette holder, as if trying desperately to bring an unruly orchestra back to orderly response. I will not attempt to duplicate the entire conversation, which lasted for at least two hours, at the end of which he invited me to become his student. I respectfully declined, as I was planning on returning to New York for another go at the literary life. When I told Strauss that I intended to study at the New School for Social Research, he suggested that I mention his name, which I did, and I was promptly awarded a scholarship. So great was Strauss’s reputation at the New School. The experience, however, proved unsatisfactory, and I decided to return to Chicago in 1950 in order to study with Strauss.
In the intervening year, Strauss had attracted the attention of a number of very gifted students, among them Seth Benardete, Hilail Gildin, Victor Gourevitch, Muhsin Mahdi, and Allan Bloom. At or shortly after this time, Richard Rorty began to attend Strauss’s lectures, but left to take his doctorate at Yale. Despite his subsequent adventures with analytical philosophy and post-modernism, Rorty had great respect for Strauss and the best members of his circle. I will not attempt to give a complete list of my contemporaries. Let me say only that the students were divided into two main groups: the political scientists and members of the Committee on Social Thought. There were a few members of the philosophy department, including myself (until 1952, when I transferred to the Committee), as well as a steadily increasing selection of visitors from a variety of faculties, both at Chicago and elsewhere, who had been attracted by news of the pied piper of the Midway. Eventually Strauss’s audience included several priests, of whom perhaps the most interesting was Ernest Fortin. One could also divide the students in a very general way into those who were primarily interested in American politics and those who were students of classics or one of the major periods in the history of political philosophy. This is of course not a rigid classification, but it is not entirely nebulous. Whereas all of us, I suspect, regarded ourselves as engaged somehow in the pursuit of wisdom, there is a difference between constitutional law, the Federalist papers, or the fact-value distinction in contemporary political science on the one hand, and Plato’s analysis of the soul, Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history, or Rousseau’s anthropology on the other.
It is a tribute to Strauss’s brilliance as a scholar and a teacher that he could serve to unify a band of investigations as diverse as these, not to mention many others. There were also private reading groups led by Strauss and devoted to topics that he could not conveniently teach in the political science department, such as Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed or Hegel’s Logic. For obvious bureaucratic reasons, none of Strauss’s students was writing a dissertation on “pure” philosophy in the academic sense of that term. We were officially political scientists, not specialists on causality, ontology, or German Idealism, and of course not in the philosophy of science, epistemology, or the foundations of mathematics, which lay outside Strauss’s (and most of our) competence.
Strauss, the great enemy of historicism, was at first sight training historians of political thought and political scientists who were prepared to use that history as a foundation for rethinking the cardinal tenets of their discipline. From this standpoint, he was engaged in a radically re-conceived version of the Heideggerian “destruction” of Western philosophy, with two massive qualifications. First, Strauss was primarily concerned with politics rather than ontology, and second, his archaeological excavations were designed to return us to the thoughts of the heroes of the western tradition, that is, to the thoughts as these heroes had thought them, and not, as in Heidegger’s case, to the ostensibly deeper and unthought thoughts that constituted the authentic Seinsgeschichte of Western metaphysics. Both thinkers were engaged in the enterprise of “uncovering” a concealed truth. In the case of Strauss, however, the origin and the paradigm for that truth was Plato, whereas for Heidegger, Plato was the initiator of the radical concealment of truth. Nevertheless, it is true that Strauss was deeply impressed by Heidegger, especially by the Heidegger of the early and middle period. I am certain that Strauss learned much about how to read a Greek text from Heidegger, not to mention what he assimilated of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity and nihilism.
Let me add a word about the major difference between Strauss and Heidegger. Heidegger radicalized Nietzsche’s critique of Enlightenment by extending it to Plato; his intention was to go behind or above Platonism to another way, a way entirely free of the presumably reified and subjectivist thinking of Western Platonist metaphysics. From this exalted standpoint, the Enlightenment was itself a version of Platonism, and something to be overcome. Strauss, on the contrary, took us back through the history of philosophy to Plato, not in order to overcome the modern Enlightenment but to find its mistakes and to correct these in the name of a genuine liberalism and freedom of thought. Heidegger has sometimes been called a liberator and Strauss is often denounced for his conservatism. Both judgments are largely nonsense unless they are given careful qualification. Heidegger’s conception of radical freedom has nothing to do with Western European liberalism, and for much deeper reasons than his support of the Nazis. Strauss held a number of views (which I do not always share) that seem to be conservative because they are intended to compensate for the exaggerated decline of modern liberalism into nihilism. We should also never forget that the fashions of today do not necessarily provide us with the best criteria for understanding what it is to be a liberal, and that this term has changed its sense in the development of the modern epoch.
My point here is that Strauss was neither a liberal nor a conservative in the contemporary senses of these terms, but a philosopher. His primary concern was with the preservation of philosophy, but he saw that preservation as inseparably dependent in our time upon a society that did not regard nobility and what Nietzsche calls “rank-ordering” as incompatible with freedom. In other words, Strauss understood the tyranny of the left as well as of the right. In the climate of the past fifty years, this balance made him look like a conservative, and to some, a reactionary if not actually a fascist.
I would accept Strauss’s characterization of himself as a modern classical liberal. To the extent that this form of liberalism had deteriorated into what we came to call “post-modernism,” Strauss of course responded as a conservative. But he was altogether more flexible and more moderate than his close friend, Alexandre Kojève, who accepted the bankruptcy of the West up to the Napoleonic counter-revolution, but who also accepted its purification by his own post-Hegelian version of Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Heidegger.
As so often happens with memoirs, I am moving ahead of myself. Let me come back to my earliest impressions of the Strauss circle, and so of the master himself. I arrived in Chicago for my “second sailing” in the Fall of 1950, as a graduate student in the department of philosophy. It soon became evident to me that Strauss transcended the faculty members of the philosophy department in virtually every significant way. The first qualitative difference to be mentioned, and the hardest to describe, is that Strauss was in fact a philosopher who did not obfuscate fundamental issues with elaborate and gratuitous methodological chicanery. Nor was there in him the despicable bullying and dogmatism that was common in the Chicago philosophy department during the reign of Richard McKeon. Finally, the level of scholarship and the breadth of learning that Strauss combined was entirely missing in the philosophy department. Rudolph Carnap was a member of the department when I arrived, but he was soon driven out by McKeon. Of the other senior professors, Charles Hartshorne was by far the best, both as a person and a philosopher, but his interests were very far from my own. Suffice it to say that I was quite unhappy in the philosophy department.
My serious education took place in Strauss’s seminars, or during conversations in his office or home. Needless to say, Strauss had no standing in the philosophy department, and I was officially a designated student of Richard McKeon. I began to detach myself from the philosophy department and to spend much time in the Chicago art museum instead of attending philosophy seminars regularly. My “career plans,” as students say today, extended no higher than the possibility of becoming a janitor in a junior high school, as I romantically put it to my fiancée. But the serious part of the day was devoted to listening to or speaking with Strauss, and immersing myself in the texts that were being analyzed in his graduate courses. Interestingly enough, my status in the philosophy department improved under this regime, and just when I had decided to shift to the Committee on Social Thought (about which more below), I was praised by the graduate officer for my performance on the Master’s qualifying examination and offered financial assistance to begin doctoral study in philosophy.
During the first two years of my study at Chicago, then, I was in a real sense a man without a country, moving back and forth across the frontier with forged papers. One could call this a practical application of Strauss’s understanding of esotericism. And this brings us to a question that has played a puzzling and, to be frank, irritating role in my professional life. It is also one of those aspects of the relation between teacher and student that is most difficult to explain. But it is important to get this right for the sake of the general validity of my portrait of Strauss. Stated crudely, the question is whether I was then (or am now) a “Straussian.”
This obnoxious expression has many counterparts among academics; one finds the students of all charismatic teachers being described as “Hegelians,” “Marxists,” “Wittgensteinians,” even “Quineans.” Strauss himself liked to quote Nietzsche to the effect that the best thing a student can do for his teacher is to kill him. I will never forget a conversation with Strauss during the last year of my stay at Chicago, when the question of finding a teaching position was being discussed. “Disown me!” Strauss said, smiling hugely and straightening up in his swivel chair to facilitate the punctuation of his remark with the inevitable flourish of his cigarette-holder. By this advice, of course, Strauss did not mean to suggest that I forget or dishonor everything that I had learned from him, but that I do what is necessary to carry out his deepest teaching: live the life of a philosopher.
Let me therefore say at once that there were no “Straussians” among the inner circle of Strauss’s best students. There was of course a certain area of agreement about the solidity of Strauss’s scholarship; if this had not been so, it would have been folly to study under his supervision. We were all convinced that he was right about the tradition of esoteric writing, and as a corollary, we accepted the need to read serious philosophical works written at least before the French Revolution with a kind of Talmudic eye. Even more important, we felt as a direct force the erotic strength of Strauss’s spirit, and we were ourselves “turned around” (to use Socrates’ metaphor of the periagōgē tēs psuchēs) by that strength in a way that goes beyond inspiration to a re-attunement of the soul and an opening of the eye of the intellect. This is something that does not come from reading books, but only from direct contact with a great teacher.
I am myself an example of the fact that Strauss did not demand unquestioning obedience of his students. I admired him enormously, and in due course I came to revere him as a rare blessing, without whose training and guidance my life would have been seriously diminished. But on the crucial point, I was not from the outset, nor did I ever become, a “Straussian.” I put this word in scare-quotes to indicate that it is a pseudo-term employed by ideologues as an excuse to avoid serious thought, or as a mask for their own ignorance. No one could deny that Strauss had his own views, and that he was not quick to assume that his students knew more or had thought more deeply than he. He was of course correct in both respects. But he always accepted modifications or addenda to his interpretations when the evidence warranted it, and he welcomed competent, or at least sincere and well-argued disagreement.
This is, or should be, obvious. Let me be more precise. I had reservations about Strauss’s general political orientation. I am not referring here merely to the question of domestic or contemporary issues, but to the underlying critique of modernity. Except for a short period very early in my studies with Strauss, when I was largely under his spell, I have always leaned toward the moderns in their famous quarrel with the ancients. To the extent that I agreed with Strauss’s analysis of the defects of the late-modern world, I also disagreed with him about the appropriateness of the rhetoric he had devised to encourage salutary revisions in, or even the elimination of, those defects. This is to say that I disagreed with him about the tactics to be employed as a politically engaged partisan of philosophy. Stated more abstractly, I found his praise of the ancients and his criticism of the moderns to be equally excessive. I was, therefore, and have remained, a partisan of modernity in a sense deeper than Strauss’s conception of classical liberalism.
At this point, I want to interject a relevant observation about Strauss’s critique of modernity. Although it is similar to that of Heidegger, it differs from his in a significant respect. There is virtually no emphasis upon the problem of technology, and certainly none in the style of Heideggerian ontology. Instead, we are given numerous criticisms of methodology, and in particular of the methodology of modern social science, with its mathematical model of rationality. A critique of methodology is useful, but it does not go to the heart of the matter. Whatever we may think of it, Heidegger’s analysis of technē does go to the heart of the matter. I am certainly no Heideggerian, but I have studied him closely for fifty years, and I have been sometimes surprised and always struck by how much Strauss learned from Heidegger, but also at how much he sacrificed of Heideggerian depth. It was of course part of Strauss’s deconstruction of Heidegger to move back to the surface as a preparation for the descent into the depths. But one must in fact descend, and this, Strauss did not do, whether from conviction or lack of theoretical strength.
Strauss is extremely useful as an antidote against Heidegger’s speculative excesses and hermeneutical brutality. But he is not a metaphysician or a poet. This will be regarded by many as a compliment. I shall not debate the point, but simply record it as a difference between Strauss and me that did not at all interfere with my great admiration for him, nor did it diminish all that I have learned from him. He certainly understood this difference, and there is no doubt that he tried to mitigate my own metaphysical and poetical excesses, just as there is no doubt that he was right to do so. What needs to be emphasized is that, whereas my contemporaries and I would not have chosen to study with Strauss if there were not unmistakable evidence of his superior gifts, this choice was never in the best cases a passport to discipleship.
And yet, there was something like a Strauss “school,” as is inevitable with charismatic teachers. I have already noted that this phenomenon is not at all uncommon among philosophers, and it is simply bad faith to criticize Strauss because he had many students who admired him enormously. The animus addressed toward Strauss, and in a general sense, “Straussians,” had to do with the substance of his teaching, not with his success in attracting students. Strauss was disliked for his critique of the sacred cows of modern social and political science, in particular of Max Weber (whom he highly admired), and because of his rediscovery of the tradition of esotericism, a tradition known to every well-educated scholar until the late nineteenth century, and one that is referred to by thinkers of the rank of Descartes, Leibniz, Condorcet, Hume, Kant, Lessing, Renan, and Nietzsche, to mention only a few of the most prominent examples of modern times. Too many professors, in a radical distortion of genuine liberalism, condemned Strauss’s views on esotericism because they were ignorant of the evidence.
In speaking of Strauss’s bad reputation, I have to come back to the question of conservatism. Strauss was widely condemned as a conservative, whereas someone like W. V. Quine, who was at least as conservative as Strauss, was not. I still remember a full-page ad in the New York Times shortly before the decisive outbreak of the Watergate scandal, defending then president Nixon, and signed by a large array of well-known academicians, including Strauss – and Quine. I mention in passing that it was not at the time self-evident that support for Nixon was the equivalent of a declaration of fascism, as is so widely assumed today. I say this as a New Deal Democrat who despised Nixon, but that does not alter the complexity of the situation that was symbolized by the Vietnam War. Be that as it may, I never heard Quine being accused of fascism, nor indeed, was his political position widely discussed in academic circles, although it was certainly known. The key, of course, is that Quine was a “technical” philosopher. One could separate his logical views from his politics, just as, to move to the other end of the political spectrum, one could do in the case of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics. In other words, Strauss’s reserve with respect to the application of scientific models to the study and interpretation of human life struck his critics as a reactionary repudiation of modernity in a way that was not associated with conservative logicians or, say, physicists.
In sum, Strauss became an immediate target of opprobrium for the liberal academic Establishment. He was challenging the theoretical and methodological soundness of modern social science, which claimed to represent the scientific Enlightenment and the progress of the human race. This challenge, incidentally, was the attenuated or surface version of Heidegger’s critique of technicism. In Strauss’s version, the challenge was manifestly political, whereas in Heidegger’s case, one could claim to speak as an ontologist or seeker after Being, and thereby to be permitted to detach the ontological question from contingent political appropriations. This is very much like saying that the attempt to reduce the study of human nature to a branch of mathematics and physics, or in today’s idiom, neurophysiology and electrical engineering, both has no political implications and is leading us to a radically extended form of Enlightenment – as if that were not itself a political position of utmost force and seriousness. By analogous reasoning, Heidegger’s attack on modernity in general and the Enlightenment in particular was associated by his French followers with a doctrine of liberation and creativity, two of the favorite principles of the majority of late-modern thinkers. As one could also put this, Heidegger was assimilated into the left-wing interpretation of Nietzsche. This camouflage could never be sustained in Strauss’s case.
One more remark on this topic. Just as Quine was forgiven his conservatism because of his technical orientation in logic, so Heidegger was often forgiven his obnoxious political views on the grounds that he was an ontologist or “thinker” and so naive in practical affairs. Some of his students went so far as to blame Heidegger’s politics on the influence of his wife, who was the daughter of a Nazi general. Those who dispense such nonsense are nevertheless touching the surface of a serious problem, that of the relation between theory and practice. Strauss attributes to Lessing the “concealed” view that “all practical or political life is essentially inferior to contemplative life, or that all works, and therefore also all good works, are ‘superfluous’ insofar as the level of theoretical life, which is self-sufficient, is reached.” Speaking about Thucydides, Strauss says, apparently in his own voice, that “wise men will always be inclined to see in political life an element of childishness.” One can reply that evil works are also superfluous for theoretical life, but this does not answer the question of the ground of good works. The decency of the philosopher seems to be a contingent character trait. If morality is exoteric, could one not argue that philosophy is the most dangerous of all gifts?
I have already mentioned that Strauss’s rediscovery of the tradition of esotericism brought much ridicule and even hatred down on his shoulders and those of his students. It is worth describing an encounter I had with a charming and well-known Oxford don a few years after leaving Chicago. This man, G. R. G. Mure, was a considerable scholar of Aristotle and Hegel. He was also an old-fashioned gentleman and someone who still embodied the Oxbridge philosophical world as it existed prior to World War I. In short, he had been formed by a style of thinking that had long since ceased to exist effectively. Although he was a life-long Oxonian, and at the time of which I speak, the Warden of Merton College, he was philosophically a stranger in his own home, who stated in print that if he had a son who wished to study philosophy, he would not send him to Oxford. There was, then, no fondness for contemporary analytical philosophy here, and more important still, Mure was an unabashed elitist who complained vigorously to me about the debasement of academic standards at Oxford, thanks to relaxed policies of admission. “Anyone can get into Oxford today,” Mure assured me, noting that in his day, 2% of the applicants had been accepted, whereas the figure was now 6%.
I mention this because it is an essential part of the context of my anecdote. Mure had invited me to visit him in Oxford and to dine at Merton as his guest. At that time (1961), women could not avail themselves of this privilege, and my wife was left in the culinary hands of the Randolph Hotel. The entire atmosphere was heavy with the redolence of tradition and conservatism, just the place, one might think, for a good chat about esotericism. I was seated at high table next to an eccentric English economist straight out of a Hollywood movie or better, an episode from the Inspector Morse television drama, in which all dons are monarchists and supercilious despisers of America and the lower classes. “What do Americans think of spiritualism?” my neighbor inquired in a loud and slightly menacing tone. This led, oddly enough, to a conversation about Aristotle, during which I was asked what I thought about some aspect of Aristotle’s political writings. I do not recall the point my companion was making, but only that I began to suggest that Aristotle did not really believe the view in the passage under discussion. I was cut off in mid-sentence by Mure, who had apparently been listening to the conversation. “Oh, no, my dear chap! You must have been misled by the view that Aristotle had a secret teaching. Aristotle would never have concealed his views; he was a philosopher!” A moment’s pause. “And besides, he was a student of Plato!”
I want to suggest that Mure’s conception of the truthfulness of philosophers was a product of his character or gentlemanliness, not of his theoretical understanding. This suggestion may be only partly correct, since Mure would have known of, and might have agreed with, Hegel’s contention that, whereas philosophy is esoteric in its own right, the truth cannot be concealed but must reveal itself. However this may be, let us notice that a good character is essential to the foundation of political or personal morality. Mure’s expertise in Aristotelian metaphysics and Hegelian logic were quite separate from his good character and could be found in Nazis as well as in gentlemen. If we think this point through, we may find the discomfiting truth that Heidegger and Strauss differ in decency or moral character but, despite Heidegger’s idiosyncratic terminology, not entirely as partisans of theory. One more disconcerting question: if the truth requires the practice of esotericism, if simple decency demands that the philosopher promulgate a salutary exoteric doctrine, then is it not an act of indecency to make manifest the distinction between esotericism and exotericism?
Strauss could have been a mathematical logician and a conservative without exciting anything more than an embarrassed reserve on the part of his liberal admirers. But the claim that philosophers concealed their views for political purposes offends us at a very deep level. Even worse is the endorsement of esotericism as articulated by Nietzsche: “Everything deep loves a mask” and “everything rare for the rare.” Nietzsche’s left-wing admirers would have difficulty in presenting these assertions as made by a man of the left. Nietzsche himself was consistent and adamant in his praise of “elitism”: “My fundamental thought – Rank-ordering.” These are sentiments that cannot be tolerated by hyper-progressivists who have moved so far beyond Western metaphysical standards that they lack any basis for a defense of truth and Enlightenment. The statements are therefore either ignored or falsified by radical left-Nietzscheans.
The pedagogical or political task faced by Strauss in large part depended upon his solution to the problem of speaking publicly about, and so revealing, the tradition of esotericism, while at the same time somehow honoring the judgment of its practitioners that certain truths should not be revealed. To some extent, Strauss could plead (borrowing an argument from Maimonides) that the tradition was in danger of being altogether forgotten; hence the need to rescue it from oblivion. But how can one call attention to the practice of esotericism without revealing at least some of the secret teachings? Since this is unavoidable, one must choose carefully which secrets to reveal in any particular set of historical circumstances. For example, in a democratic age, it is relatively safe to expose the concealment of enlightened views by those thinkers who lived in an aristocratic, traditional society. Trouble arises when one attempts to provide a cautious interpretation of radical views that upset or reverse the dominant opinions of the time.
Let us remember that Strauss distinguished between (at least) two kinds of esotericism. The first kind is employed in times of the religious and political persecution of philosophy. The second kind, however, – and it is to this that Nietzsche alludes – is not historically conditioned but has its roots in the natural distinction between the few and the many. It seems reasonable to argue that the first kind of esotericism need no longer be practiced when the times are right for frankness. Strauss in effect followed this inference in the case of the thinkers of the early Enlightenment, who intended their veiled thoughts to be discerned by free thinkers even while protecting themselves from persecution by the oblique representation of their doctrines. One might suppose that the secret teaching of the medieval Arabic and Hebrew philosophers could be revealed in our own time, during which one is apparently free to say anything. But Strauss’s “interpretations” of people like Halevi and Maimonides were, if anything, more obscure than the originals. In the case of Maimonides, Strauss seems to have followed a policy that infuriated believers and unbelievers alike. The first, disregarding Maimonides’ bad reputation among his contemporaries as an unorthodox and possibly heretical thinker, were repelled by Strauss’s broad hints that Maimonides was an Aristotelian, not a believing Jew (although I should add that these hints were themselves veiled over by Strauss’s insistence that Maimonides was writing for the most part, even in The Guide of the Perplexed, as a commentator on the Bible and Jewish tradition). The second group, the unbelievers, were motivated either by the aforementioned assumption that philosophers always speak the truth, or that one must take a historical view of philosophy and understand it as the voice of the time. On this latter assumption, genius was cut to the pattern of convention, something that would be difficult to imagine in the natural sciences.
Rather than develop further the tangled motives for Strauss’s great unpopularity as the rediscoverer of esotericism, let me suggest that he used the wrong rhetoric for his own time and place. On balance, I prefer Hegel’s treatment of the same question in his lectures on the history of philosophy. To repeat a previous remark, Hegel denies the claims, current in his own time, that Plato practiced esotericism, on the ground that the philosopher cannot philosophize with his ideas in his pockets. This ground is to say the least a curious one for a thinker who lectured regularly to students who were preparing to join the Lutheran clergy. But Hegel is right in saying immediately afterward that philosophy is by its nature esoteric. In order to show the truth of this judgment, however, one must actually philosophize, and this means with one’s ideas on the table, not concealed in one’s pockets. This is especially true in times during which esotericism need not be invoked in order to preserve one’s life or liberty. In such a time, it is incumbent upon the philosopher to present as forceful and detailed a statement of his or her doctrines as is humanly possible. Only this will attract the best young minds to a genuine philosophical encounter, assuming, as did Strauss, that philosophy was in radical decline. In order to recapture the best minds for philosophy, one cannot rely upon exoteric statements of natural right and the irrefutability of religion, while at the same time dropping broad hints that the atheists and materialists were either entirely correct or themselves irrefutable. Needless to say, it does not follow from this that those who speak frankly about their views are for that reason morally or theoretically superior to Strauss.
During my first years as a graduate student, I saw these questions almost entirely from Strauss’s viewpoint. I had not yet understood the inner implications of the fact that I was vehemently and publicly defending the existence of esoteric doctrines, and furthermore, if the truth be told, that I was very eager to outdo Strauss himself in my discovery and public statement of the content of these doctrines. One thing at least I must have seen, if only intuitively. If one is going to reveal the practice of esotericism, and this, of course, means that one can do it at the risk of one’s academic career but not one’s life, then one has to go all the way. Strauss did not do this. It was his failure to exercise greater boldness in defending his already bold claim that I could not accept. Strauss would have explained this by saying, as I noted above, that I liked to “épater le bourgeois.” I can only say in reply that his way led to what was for me an unsatisfactory political stance, which at its worst is directly responsible for what is today called “Straussian.”
This problem can also be stated as follows. Strauss was neither an ancient Greek nor a medieval Jew but a resident of the declining stage of the late-modern world that had been formed by ideas which were part of the esoteric teaching of the great founders of modernity. The first task for the would-be reformer under these circumstances is to rethink the entire modern tradition from the standpoint of contemporary values. References to esotericism are out of place at this stage of the enterprise; what is worse, they are counter-productive because they go so deeply against the grain of contemporary prejudices. Let us say that the correct use of esotericism under these circumstances is to conceal it entirely. Furthermore, it is in the long run a mistake to express one’s reforms in the rhetoric of ancient and medieval thinkers, especially if the deeper content of that rhetorical surface cannot be revealed because this content is reserved for the few. Since the many outnumber the few, the inevitable result is a denaturing of Strauss’s own deepest views; at best, perhaps, the result is something like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. At the worst, we arrive at the completely spurious association of Strauss with American neo-conservatives and the foreign policy of the administration of the second President Bush.
Let me be very clear about the following point. Strauss’s students and the students of his students have produced many extremely fine books, and I have no wish to dissociate myself from this splendid heritage of my late teacher. I am endeavoring to make quite a different point. The anti-Straussian academic public, which is certainly in the overwhelming majority, despite Strauss’s ever-increasing notoriety, takes its bearings by the worst elements of soi-disant “Straussians” and uses this as an excuse to ignore, and a weapon to attack, what is best in the Straussian tradition. The current rediscovery of Strauss and the use to which his name has been put confirms or (to be more cautious) is entirely compatible with my point.
The issue of esotericism proved to be the grain of sand in the oyster of contemporary liberal-progressive academia, but a grain of sand that produced a terrible itching sensation rather than a pearl. Surely the master of esotericism must himself write as he reads. Do not his constant criticisms of the twentieth-century version of enlightened liberalism show the grave political dangers of Strauss’s teaching, despite these occasional favorable references to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill? Whatever Socrates may have advocated in Plato’s Republic, was not G. R. G. Mure in principle correct to say that philosophers always speak the truth? And if it is indeed true that Strauss practiced esotericism, what are we to make of his interpretations of the great figures of the Western tradition themselves? Is Strauss not guilty of lying in the service of his own elitist and thoroughly un-modern views? These are the charges that were and are now being leveled against Strauss.
Let me summarize this line of reflection. Strauss hoped to plant the seeds of a revolution in contemporary political thinking, and initially in the scholarly disciplines of social and political science. This hope makes sense if and only if the times are right for a public statement of esotericism. Strauss gave us a veiled presentation, or what one may call an exoteric version of esotericism. Precisely if we accept his judgment that our epoch is deeply nihilistic, this is not the time for caution. The more one thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that Strauss did not believe in the possibility of a full statement of the philosophical analysis of religion and politics. His way out of nihilism was through the revitalization of tradition. Whereas this has attractive political implications, it is not theoretically attractive. Therefore it did not capture the audience that should have been addressed, namely, the sharpest intellects and the most gifted revolutionaries, in a word, the young generation that would determine the success or failure of the nihilism of the old generation. Strauss obviously believed that what was required in our time was a cautious presentation of daring. But this posture is appropriate to times of relative stability, not to those in which nihilism is regarded as common sense if not quite as pure reason.
This last observation requires amplification. Strauss was from his youth a committed Zionist, and at the same time a devoted student of the medieval philosophical and theological tradition, with special emphasis upon Arabic and Hebrew. These studies led him both backward to an appreciation of the ancient Greeks and forward to a criticism of the spiritual shallowness of the modern epoch. I think it is fair to say that Strauss subscribed to the thesis that political liberalism without religion cannot sustain its own virtues. The political necessity of religion was enunciated by the great figures of Western thought from Plato to Rousseau. Today this thesis is regarded as conservative, not to say reactionary. For Strauss, it was rather the foundation of liberalism in the genuine sense of the term, namely, one that required a higher foundation than the merely human for its vitality and nobility. But it does not follow from this that Strauss was personally religious, as is today widely assumed by many with a religious agenda of their own. As Strauss once told me, “philosophers are paid not to believe.” This apparently simple statement is in fact very deep and even obscure. But the failure to distinguish between philosophy and religion leads to philosophical confusion.
I am, then, suggesting that Strauss’s many writings devoted to the quarrel between Athens and Jerusalem are extreme examples of his own esotericism because they give the impression that from the fact that philosophy cannot refute religion, it follows that the two are equal and philosophically compatible. It is then not noticed that this is itself a philosophical judgment, and that as such, it gives the palm to philosophy. In sum, Strauss never defended philosophy against religion in public but rather attempted to replace both of them with a politicized substitute in which each is independent from the other. He thereby camouflaged the fact that the quarrel between Athens and Jerusalem is a philosophical debate. On his own understanding of religion, the latter has nothing to say about such a quarrel because to enter into the quarrel is to surrender to the judgment of reason. Strauss was fond of quoting Plutarch’s assertion that to ask “what is god” is already to reveal oneself as an atheist.
We can therefore safely say that Strauss was a friend of religion, but that, given his understanding of philosophy, he could not have been personally religious. One might ask why I state this in public, and some of Strauss’s disciples have protested the publication of a letter from Strauss to his friend Karl Löwith stating unequivocally that he is not a believer. These persons reveal the weak spot in Strauss’s political rhetoric. It attempts to revivify late modern nihilism with weapons largely borrowed from medieval and classical solutions to the inner conflict between philosophy and religion. In order to come to grips with the defects of late modernity, and thus to rescue philosophy from its abasement, one must address oneself to the roots of modernity. And these roots are neither classical nor medieval. In a word, one must meet modernity on its own ground, not on the ground of Xenophon or Al-Farabi.
Needless to say, I had not worked out these views during my tenure as Strauss’s student. I was, however, full of doubts from the outset about the very doctrines by which Strauss had captured my loyalty. I knew that if philosophy is superior to poetry in one sense, this can only be because poetry is philosophy in another. My reservations about the Straussian program can be summarized in the assertion that I was (and am) a modern, not an ancient. But this did not interfere with my admiration for Strauss because I was not a “Straussian.” And neither was he.
I want to make one more extended point about the question of esotericism. The simplest way to gain access to this problem is by thinking of ordinary behavior. In everyday life, we speak differently to different people, depending upon their capacity, the presence of an unsympathetic audience, the need to persuade such an audience, and so on. But we do not conceal our views continuously. If we did, we could not communicate at all, since communication, even esoteric communication, depends upon an intelligible structure of experience that provides meaning to our discourse, whether disguised or open. The esoteric or concealed message is communicated to some segment of one’s discursive audience, and the attention of this audience must be captured by the quality of the exoteric presentation. We do not parse the rambling of fools for profound hidden meanings. Nor are we shocked when fools contradict themselves. By the same token, if one attempts to conceal one’s thoughts in an inappropriate discourse, one runs the risk of not being understood because of the perfection of the disguise. This is why Maimonides compares esoteric speech to a golden apple covered over with a silver filigree with interstices so fine that only the most sharp-eyed can see through them to the gold within. We do not search for esoteric meanings in cook-books or treatises on engineering.
My first point, then, is that an esoteric text is accessible to a competent reader. And my second point is that the practice of esotericism is political; it depends upon the existence of a community of what I will call gold-souled persons. And this is reflected in our ordinary experience. All indirect discourse, whether irony, flattery, tact, or some other modality of speech, assumes a hierarchical audience. The politics of esotericism is aristocratic, but this is true at every level of human discursive existence. It is sheer hypocrisy to complain about Straussian elitism.
I want to tell briefly the story of my shift from the philosophy department to the Committee on Social Thought. In doing so, I draw freely from a testimonial written for the memorial service conducted at the University of Chicago in David Grene’s honor shortly after his death. David Grene was the last of the great personalities who made up the Committee on Social Thought as I knew it in the early Fifties. He was a man of unsurpassable vitality, and what is seldom found in persons of overwhelming energy, he possessed a deep intuition with respect to the human soul. Sometimes his energy and the strength of his convictions made him seem intimidating, but his kindness and loyalty to his friends and students soon manifested themselves. I owe to this extraordinary man a debt that can never be repaid. We first met in 1952, through the mediation of Edward Shils, a prominent sociologist at the University of Chicago. At the time, I was a waiter at the faculty Quadrangle Club, and Shils was one of my regular customers. We soon became acquainted, and would engage in conversation as time allowed, on such theoretical topics as how to make ox-tail soup in a pressure cooker. Apparently Shils was impressed with my know-how; he asked me if I would like to join the Committee on Social Thought. I had no clear understanding of what that was, but on the basis of my exchanges with Shils, himself a remarkable and extremely complex man who could nevertheless act decisively when the occasion warranted it, I was entirely amenable. How could an academic institution that placed a premium on making ox-tail soup be all bad? Shils told me to arrange an appointment with David Grene, but to say nothing to him about financial assistance. “I’ll take care of the money question,” Shils assured me. As the day of my appointment with Grene approached, I became more and more nervous. We were to meet in the Common Room of the Social Science Building at a given hour. I entered the room in some perturbation, which was intensified by the sight of a red-faced man with flaming hair, dressed in an incandescent orange tweed suit, and seated with a cup of tea balanced on his crossed legs. With all of my physical dexterity and social suaveness at play, I lurched forward, smashed into his crossed legs, and spilled the cup of tea all over his orange trousers. For a moment, I thought of racing out of the room, convinced that I had destroyed my academic career. Suddenly a deep, resonant voice in an Irish accent boomed into my ear: “Come up to me office!” I followed Grene in a semi-trance to the fifth floor where he was ensconced in a long garret-like room. As I stood shaking at one end of the room, Grene paced off in the opposite direction and took a stand with his back to me and his hands clasped in what I took to be disdain. Suddenly he wheeled to face me, and punctured the air with an abrupt and totally unexpected question: “How much money d’ ye want?” Precisely the topic I had been warned by Shils not to raise! When I succeeded in gathering my wits, I found that I was a member of the Committee on Social Thought and the recipient of a handsome fellowship. This was the best entrance examination I have ever taken. To me, it expresses the epitome of the good old days of the Committee. No one asked me for a transcript or letters of recommendation, nor was I pressed to write an essay describing my plan of future study. All that was required of me was my recipe for ox-tail soup for Shils and the spilling of tea over David Grene’s trousers. There were truly giants in those days!
The students on the Committee were different from those in the philosophy department in several respects. On the whole, they were broader, livelier, more imaginative, and less directly concerned with professional success. The Committee was very well supported financially, thanks to the largesse of Elinor Castle Nef, the extremely wealthy wife of the chairman, John U. Nef, and could afford to attract top prospects from other departments, needless to say, much to the annoyance of their colleagues. We were also graced with the frequent appearance of world-class personalities, with whom we could mingle at elegant soirées hosted by the Nefs in a luxurious apartment whose walls were lined with French Impressionist paintings and where ladies in black dresses and white aprons served Viennese pastry with Schlagobers. Our distinguished guests included T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, Louis Massignon, Colin Clark, and Mies van der Rohe, among others.
The general atmosphere produced by this mixture of money, fame, and the genuine loyalty to intellectual distinction, together with a largely European faculty and world-view, required or elicited a certain urbanity among the older students that unfortunately was not quite suited to my experience or temperament. Nor was I alone in this respect. Nothing in my past experience had prepared me for the sight of John U. Nef, wearing his Legion d’Honneur ribbon and striding toward me down a long hallway arm in arm with Mies Van Der Rohe, a rather tall and imposing presence, with the greeting; “My dear Rosen! You’re looking very dapper this evening! May I introduce Mies Van Der Rohe?” My memory of the introduction is surreal but existentially accurate. As I reached out to shake his hand, Van Der Rohe walked right over, or through, me, trampling me into the carpet.
Let me hasten to add that the majority of the faculty members were at least as capable as the graduate students of seeing the risible elements in these soirées. But they were not simply risible. They prepared us for the great world of culture and fame in a way that did not exist in the philosophy department. I do not mean that we learned to be gratified by the presence of famous persons. The contrary would be in many respects closer to the truth. But the variety and generally high achievements of our distinguished visitors brought to life the dedication to interdisciplinarity and creativity that we espoused. It is easy, and to some extent necessary, to laugh at the salon-like atmosphere of the Committee, but I want to put it on the record that I never encountered anywhere else in the academic world a comparable degree of vitality, imagination, and support.
It would have been widely agreed, I believe, by the students of my generation, that David Grene was the pulse-beat of the Committee on Social Thought. Grene was not the most famous member of the Committee, but he possessed the greatest vitality and was the most fully engaged teacher, with the possible exception of Yves Simon, a former student of Maritain and a man of great character. With all his virtues, however, Simon lacked the spiritual energy and charisma that Grene possessed in abundance. There was a kind of wildnesss and freedom from convention in Grene that supplemented his mastery of Greek and Latin and brought classical drama and poetry to life. Grene possessed a beautiful voice and the theatrical gift of enacting all roles in a Greek tragedy. This gift was somewhat compromised by a penchant, probably unconscious, for seeing the ancient Greek dramatists as anticipations of Yeats and John Millington Synge. But this fault – and it must be identified as such – was balanced by the virtue of being able to draw us directly into a play – and this remark holds for Shakespeare as well as for Aeschylus and Sophocles – in a way that a philological analysis alone could never accomplish. One might wish to argue that it was the wrong play into which we were drawn, but I think that this would be unfair. I mention it only because it is a necessary part of the contrast between Grene and Leo Strauss, and that contrast defines the inner structure of the Committee on Social Thought in the time that I was there.
At first glance, Grene and Strauss were almost but not quite opposites: on the one hand, a man of unrestrained passion and poetic flair, with a deep distrust of philosophy, extroverted, intuitive, the center of whatever circle he entered, a striking presence who was soon on a first-name basis with his students; on the other, a physically slight, soft-voiced, somewhat reserved and even masked German civil servant with very little if any poetic flair, who referred to his students as Mr. X or Miss Y, a man of enormous erudition with an eye for minute shades of meaning and a strong distaste for bombast, who spoke obliquely about obliquities. In sum, a spiritual representative of the Abbey Theater and a Hebrew Averroist: spontaneous frankness and prudential concealment.
As sometimes happens with persons of complementary characters, Grene and Strauss became somehow attracted to one another. I say “attracted” rather than “friends,” but relations were warm and this encouraged the easy movement of students from Strauss to Grene and back again. Certainly Strauss was not jealous of Grene, and he encouraged his students to read Greek with him. At first, Grene’s generosity overcame temperamental and what may be called “doctrinal” differences. But the honeymoon was aborted one evening when Strauss gave a lecture on Thucydides in which he criticized Grene’s interpretation. I no longer remember the details, but Grene was deeply wounded, and relations between the two were never the same.
So far as I am aware, however, the students continued their close associations with both men, and there were no public ruptures or private recriminations, with one small exception. Grene indicated to me by a negative remark that my rather Straussian interpretation of Machiavelli’s Prince had made him deeply unhappy, and that he was unable to support me for honors on my doctoral qualifying examination. I want to say at once that I never begrudged him this very human deviation from neutrality, nor did it affect the loyalty and effort with which he supported me in my attempt to obtain a teaching position. There was something tragic about the fact that Grene’s closest students were all, so far as I can remember, disciples or deep admirers of Strauss. Grene bore this burden with greatness of soul, and he will always have my gratitude and affection.
Despite the electricity generated by Grene’s dynamism and his poetic perception, it was clear to those with eyes to see that a deeper, stronger, and purer electricity was emanating from the pallid features and fragile voice of Leo Strauss. His circle of students grew steadily larger, and a list of these students, together with the names of their own students, would include many of the best-known, and more important, the best American scholars of the history of political thought and political science of the last fifty years. As is inevitable in such cases, there was a natural rank-ordering of these students, and this in turn led to the previously discussed phenomenon of the “Straussians,” with their concern for the preservation of esotericism and the exercise of prudence, as well as their tendency to exorcise those who did not adhere closely to what they took to be the tenets of Strauss’s teaching. These mediocre spirits especially objected to someone like myself who actually wrote, for better or worse, on philosophical subjects, including the limitations of esotericism. I believe that I was the first student of Strauss to publish a book-length study of a Platonic dialogue, and the first to write extensively on Heidegger. This earned me the enmity of the more rigid Strauss students. There also seem to be a large number of self-styled “Straussians” who never knew the master, but who have come to his works through the influence of contemporary neo-conservatism, and whose tenacity in preserving the purity of Strauss’s teaching is exceeded only by their ignorance of the content of that teaching.
During my student days with Strauss, it was taken for granted by the master and the students alike that the latter were novices, being trained with an eye to competence, and with little or no expectation of our producing “original” works, a word frequently associated by Strauss with charlatanry. We were in effect devoting ourselves to the life of philosophical scholarship, with the hope of producing useful commentaries on the works of the very few great thinkers, but not, I must reiterate, of the works of the greatest thinkers, namely, Plato and Aristotle. I will not deny that there is something attractive about this modesty, but there is also something stultifying, and it is not surprising that eventually the members of the Strauss school turned to the production of books on Plato, Aristotle, and even Heidegger. I would be the last person to belittle competent scholarship, but it has to be said that there is something odd about dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of wisdom while at the same time accepting that one is incapable, not simply of wisdom, but even of philosophy.
 The first quotation is from “Exoteric Teaching” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, selected and introduced by Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London: 1989), p. 64. The second is from “Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History” in the same volume, p. 74.