Every now and then, I receive an online “epistola” from the National Humanities Institute, an organization that presents itself as “culturally conservative” and whose apparent lifetime director is Catholic University of America professor , Professor Claes Ryn [Email him]. NHI, which seems to operate on a shoe string, occasionally puts out a journal, Humanitas. Not surprisingly, the latest issue features as a lead article by Ryn that is likewise the subject of Epistola 18: Allan Bloom and Straussian Alienation. [PDF]
Full disclosure: Professor Ryn and I have known each other for more than thirty years and spent considerable time together, socially and professionally. In 2007, we cofounded the Academy of Philosophy and Letters , aiming to fill the Philadelphia Society's former role as a forum for conservative discussion, before it fell under neoconservative control.
But we came to a parting of the ways when Professor Ryn and an assistant, NHI President Joe Baldacchino, demanded the removal from our organization of anyone who had addressed the IQ question or even been present at conferences in which this delicate subject was broached. My admission that I did indeed believe that individuals and ethnic groups have differing cognitive abilities resulted in Ryn’s unexpected insistence that I myself should leave.
I took along those who opposed the censorship and set up the H.L. Mencken Club. From what I can determine, our side has many more members than APL—and more open discussion. (HLMC has its sixth annual conference in Baltimore November 1-3—register here!).
Nevertheless, there is nothing in the current Humanitas or Ryn’s online piece that I would disagree with—for a very simple reason. Both restate the thrust of my most recent book Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America. The arguments marshaled by Ryn indicate, as does my book, why Straussians reign in the NYT’s Sunday Book ReviewSection as well as in Conservatism, Inc.
Although Ryn does not make this last point explicitly, perhaps for fear of reprisal, a fuller explanation is at least implicit in what he does tell us. His comments may also explain why my book, initially marketed by Cambridge with high hopes and considerable promo, received absolutely no attention in the national Main Stream Media.
According to Ryn, the Straussian persuasion assumes a spirit of alienation on the part of those who promote it. Ryn sees an illustration of this in Strauss disciple Bloom’s best-seller The Closing of the American Mind.
Bloom successfully took it upon himself in 1987 to teach American Christians what America can aspire to be, as he put it, “when it’s truly itself.” Bloom’s authentic America, which a universal nation that is true to its Founding and political creed, seeks to bring secular, individually-based democracy to the entire planet. When Americans engage in war, it is intended as an “educational project,” designed to instill in slow-learners our belief in equality, which is meant for all earthlings.
Bloom and other Straussians have a tendency to read their own preferred view of the America’s founding principles, as understood by themselves and their mentor, into long dead authors. Ryn correctly notes that Bloom, in a widely distributed commentary on Plato's Republic , informs the reader that Plato was defending democracy in his most famous dialogue. Strauss makes a similar statement, writing about the Athenian aristocratic historian Thucydides that his subject was actually vindicating democracy, despite Thucydides’ bitter contempt for the way Athenian democracy functioned during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.
The conventional view is that Strauss and his disciples worked mightily to renew interest in the “ancients” as an alternative to modern political conceptions. This may not be the case, however. Straussians were really interested in enlisting ancient and early modern European political writers for their own crusade for American democracy—and that in a very contemporary form.
Also not surprisingly, given their contemporary focus and ambitions, Straussians over the decades have turned increasingly to political journalism. Pure scholarship seems to count less and less significantly in their putative field of study. And the reason is not primarily that they’re battling the “America-hating” Left—it’s that their interpretations are methodologically eccentric and brimful of their own ideological prejudices. They represent neoconservative politics packaged in academic jargon and allied to a peculiar hermeneutic that I earnestly try to make sense of in my work.
Ryn raises the question of why Straussian doctrines have caught on among self-described conservatives. His answers here do not surprise me, since for many years the two of us discussed this puzzling matter and reached similar conclusions.
Conservatism Inc. has been so totally infiltrated from the Left that those ideas that used to define the Left—abstract universalism, the rejection of ethnic differences, the moral imperative to extend equality to all human relations—has spread to the official Right. The political debate in America now centers on Leftist propositions. Accordingly, someone like Bloom, who could barely conceal his animus against what remains of a traditional Western world based on what Ryn rightly calls a “classical and Christian” heritage, could be featured in the late 1980s as an American patriot and cultural traditionalist.
When Bloom declaimed against the hippies and potheads in his tracts, Christian America rose to his defense as a man of the Right. Never mind that Bloom was a flagrant homosexual and possibly a pederast—an erotic predilection that first comes out in print in the novel Ravelstein(1999), written by Saul Bellow, a close friend of Bloom. Personally, I am still hard pressed to find anything in Bloom’s defense of America that sounds even vaguely “Right Wing.”
Ryn also observes that Catholic intellectuals gravitate toward Straussian teachings, a fact that I dwell on in my book with greater thoroughness.
It is clear that real Straussians, as opposed to Catholic wannabe Straussians, are blatantly contemptuous of revealed religion, particularly Christianity, and work persistently to wash out any religiosity from those political philosophers they profess to admire. By the time these plastic surgeons finish with Plato, or any other thinker whom they claim to be able to interpret with an unmediated view of the past (Straussians do not recognize historical distance), they’ve turned their subjects into far different beings from what they likely were. As I quip in my book, Straussian subjects—including the ancient Greeks–are usually made to look like Jewish agnostics living in New York or Chicago and attending synagogue services once a year.
But the Catholic goyim love the Straussians because they yap on about “morals” and “civic virtue.” They even occasionally, while blatantly ignoring the facts, try to identify Strauss and his disciples with medieval scholastic thought.
Even more importantly, says Ryn, Catholics recognize in Straussians figures who share their own “alienation” about living in a predominantly Protestant country. As Canadian philosophy professor Grant Havers documents in a forthcoming book about the studied avoidance by Straussian interpreters of America’s Protestant heritage, Straussians provide a narrative about the American founding that make ethnic Catholics feel secure about their Americanness.
According to the Straussians, America was founded on secular, materialist and democratic principles, but in no way on Protestant ones. Thus, if the Straussians try to de-Christianize and de-ethnicize America, they also conveniently cover up the Protestant aspects of a specifically American tradition.
Catholic Straussians (of whom there are many in Conservatism, Inc.) feel safe living in a “propositional nation” and “global democracy” in which they don’t feel threatened by the real American Protestant (and/or Northern European) American past, extending back to the colonial period. It’s more convenient to jettison such associations for the vision of a constantly changing hybrid society that is held together by universal, egalitarian propositions.
Ryn is quite good on these points . But (alas) he falls down on the job when it comes to naming the most obvious recruits to the Straussian persuasion. He hints at identifying them, but may have recoiled from the implications of being extremely candid. As a Jew, I shall do it for him.
Straussianism is unthinkable without the rise of American Jewry to journalistic and academic importance. The “alienation” from the gentile historic and cultural heritage that Ryn is analyzing applies with particular relevance to Jews; and the construction of a Straussian ideology, like Cultural Marxism, may be unthinkable without the critical Jewish contribution. Moreover, the puff pieces about the Straussians’ deep intellectuality that have periodically appeared in the NYT, Washington Post, National Review, Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard fully reflect the rise to prominence achieved by the group that typically produce the panegyrics to Straussian wisdom as well as Straussian doctrines.
Ryn notes the common ground between the author of The Closing of the American Mind and, according to Ryn’s description, a radical leftist Harvard professor of literature Stephen Greenblatt, who apparently specializes in deconstructing great literature by emphasizing its socioeconomic context. Both seemed equally intent on divesting America of its ethnic and religious roots. But there is a difference between the two—the Jewishness of whom should be taken as a critical given.
Whereas Greenblatt tries to reduce the achievements of Western culture to accidental products of historical developments, Bloom and his kindred spirits have been more ingenious. They have created their own narrative about the American and Western traditions, which is a glaringly truncated, hypermodern version of both, and they have sold these interpretations to the cognitively disadvantaged or hopelessly gullible as some kind of “conservatism.”
I shall lay my cards on the table. I am outraged at how the usual suspects kept my book from being discussed. Despite my well-known views on certain delicate subjects, I tried to produce a fair study of a difficult topic and bent backward in showing sympathy for the movement’s founder and at least some of his disciples. The successful attempt to white out my work has annoyed me no end.
But, having made that clear, I don’t think I’m simply reacting to being further marginalized by a predominantly Jewish intellectual Establishment and its obliging gentile drones.
I’m agonizing over a quandary—the same one I’ve been considering for the last forty years. I have no idea (in fact I never did) how anyone could view Straussians as “conservative” theorists, or, even more problematically, as standing in opposition to the political elite. For decades they have been an integral part of that elite and have profited enormously from their connection to it.
And there is another side to my perplexity. Although I can understand the existential reasons that Jewish and more than a few Catholic Straussians read texts as they do, it is hard for me to believe that any serious person could take these readings for high scholarship.
As a strategy, perhaps! Or even an attempt to deal with psychological and social alienation!
But as a definitive reading of what some long-dead thinker really meant?
Paul Gottfried [ email him ] recently retired as Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism His most recent book is Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.