June 05, 2003

Thoughts on Leo Strauss, or, a Product of a Procrastinatory Monday Morning

I spent half of Monday going and reading Leo Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli. I read carefully. And now it is crystal clear to me that all previous students of Leo Strauss have completely failed to understand the book, and have failed to grasp the core of Strauss's political philosophy.

The conventional Strauss-student interpretation of Thoughts on Machiavelli is that Strauss's book is a complete and thorough refutation of Machiavelli's teaching. Machiavelli wants to overthrow the teaching of classical political philosophy, with its search for how to organize the well-ordered city in which the good for man can be pursued. Machiavelli wants to replace it with... Machiavellianism. Thus Strauss begins his book by writing (pp. 9-10) that he chooses the side of those who profess:

...the old fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil.... the only philosopher who has lent the weight of his name to... [the] way of political thinking and political acting... [which is now designated] by his name. Callicles and Thrasymachus, who set forth the evil doctrine... are Platonic characters... the Athenian ambassadors who state the same doctrine... are Thucydidean actors. Machiavelli proclaims openly and triumphantly a corrupting doctrine...

And Strauss ends his book by writing (p. 295) that:

Machiavelli does not bring to light a single political phenomenon... not fully known to the classics. His seeming discovery is only the reverse side of the oblivion of the most important [elements of political philosophy]: all things necessarily appear in a new light if they are seen for the first time in a specifically dimmed light. A stupendous contraction of the horizon appears to Machiavelli and his [modern liberal] successors as a wondrous enlargement of the horizon.

Thus Machiavelli is not only a teacher of evil, but a myopic and limited teacher of evil to boot. Strauss finds it hard to imagine how anyone could ever have taken him seriously: on the next to last page of his book, Strauss marvels aloud (p. 298) at how anyone could ever have seen the "modern venture [of political philosophy, that of Machiavelli] as an enterprise that was meant to be reasonable."

But is this the right reading of Strauss? We need to be careful. Strauss warns us early in the book that we need to be careful. On his fifth text page (p. 13) Strauss warns us that, "Not the contempt for the simple opinion [that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil], nor the disregard of it, but the considered ascent from it leads to the core of Machiavelli's thought." Yet when we reach the end of the book, our straightforward reading is that Strauss has confirmed and reiterated the simple opinion: Machiavelli is a teacher of evil. But this is not an "ascent": when one ascends, one looks around and loses sight of what is now hidden and blocked by one's feet. Therefore any reading of Thoughts on Machiavelli must be false if it does not understand that Strauss intends that the sophisticated reader ascend from--lose sight of--the simple view of Machiavelli as a "teacher of evil." On page 13 Strauss writes about what is "truly admirable" in Machiavelli: "intrepidity... the grandeur of his vision... graceful subtlety." Is a teacher of evil who loses track of the most important things due to his myopia "truly admirable"? Can the vision of such a thinker have "grandeur"? Clearly not. Here on page 13 Strauss is warning us that if we read to the end of the book and think that Strauss's teaching is that Machiavelli teaches evil and does not see the most important things, that our reading is wrong. And--as we will see later--it is no accident that Strauss tells us this on page 13.

We must go back to the beginning, then, and reread Thoughts on Machiavelli--this time with "graceful subtlety," this time looking for a different and more sophisticated message.

How, then, does one read Thoughts on Machiavelli with "graceful subtlety"? Well, Strauss tells us straight out how to read his book: he says that Machiavelli wants us to read Machiavelli's books in the same manner that Machiavelli reads Livy, and by stressing this Strauss tells those of us who know how to read in between the lines that he wants us to read Thoughts on Machiavelli the same way that he, Strauss, reads Machiavelli. How does Strauss read Machiavelli? Consider the following (p. 48ff): "The strange fact that the number of chapters of the Discourses is the same as the number of the books of Livy makes own wonder whether the number of chapters of the Prince is not also significant. Since the Prince consists of twenty-six chapters... we turn to the twenty-sixth chapter of the Discourse... the only chapter... devoted... [to] the chief theme of the Prince.... The term 'tyranny'... is avoided in the twenty-sixth chapter... the terms 'tyrant' or 'tyranny' are avoided in the Prince... we gain some confdidence that in taking seriously the number 26, we are on the right path.... This is not the place to give further examples of Machiavelli's use of the number 26, or, more precisely, of 13 and multiples of 13." Could there be a clearer indication that we are supposed to take the numbers 13 and 26 very seriously indeed when we read Thoughts on Machiavelli? If additional indications were necessary, would not they be provided by the fact that the last text page is page 299--and 299 = 13 x 23! Clearly this is no accident. Nor is at an accident that it was on page 13 that Strauss warned us that those of us who were not among the simple had to "ascend"--i.e., lose sight of--the simple interpretation of Machiavelli as a "teacher of evil." No interpretation of Thoughts on Machiavelli can possibly be correct if it does not take what Strauss writes on pages 13, 26, and 299 as the most important keys to the work.

So let's take seriously all these signs that Strauss is telling us that page 26 is a major key to his book. What does Strauss say on page 26? One of the key pieces of Strauss's apparent argument that Machiavelli is a "teacher of evil" is that Machiavelli's Prince and Discourses are to be considered equally important statements of "all that Machiavelli knows". But page 26 overthrows this. On that page Strauss talks about those features of the Prince that are "the strongest support for the view, held by men of the competence of Spinoza and Rousseau, according to which the Prince is a satire... support the view...[that] we find the full presentation of Machiavelli's teaching in the Discourses." He then plants a false trail: "I do not believe that we can follow these lines of interpretation." Why? Strauss gives no reasons not to follow Spinoza and Rousseau's opinion. Since he gives no reasons--and a writer as sophisticated as Strauss cannot have intended an absence of reasons to go unnoticed--he is saying that there are no reasons not to accept Spinoza and Rousseau's view. The only ones who should reject Spinoza and Rousseau's view are those who do not reason or need reasons--i.e., the simple, who need to believe that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil because it would be too dangerous for them to believe Machiavelli's (and Strauss's!) true teaching, given their lack of philosophical preparation for it.

Moreover, Machiavelli gives no valid reasons for rejecting the view that Machiavelli's Discourses contain Machiavelli's major and most important teachings. The usual argument is that the Prince contains only that part of what Machiavelli thinks that Machiavelli believes will help him get a job, and that the Discourses--addressed not to one single Prince but to a much larger audience--is a better guide to Machiavelli's thought. Strauss says that this argument is wrong. Why? Because, he claims, both books are addressed to Princes: the Prince is addressed to an actual prince (Lorenzo di Medici) and that the Discourses is addressed to potential princes (p. 21: "men who, while not princes, deserve to be princes). But this is a howling blunder: there is no conceivable way that Machiavelli's friends to whom he dedicates the Discourses could ever become princes, so they are not potential princes. At most, they are the possible magistrates of some future Florentine Republic. But to compliment your dedicatees as people who would make good princes does not thereby make them princes, or potential princes. A writer as careful as Strauss could not have committed such a blunder unless he intended for careful readers to take notice. Therefore we must conclude that the very bottom of page 26 is intended to throw the simple off the scent: Strauss's true teaching is indeed that the meat of Machiavelli's argument is to be found in the Discourses and that Spinoza and Rousseau were correct when they read the Prince as a (half-conscious?) satire.

What, then, is Strauss's opinion of Machiavelli's (republican) teaching as found in the Discourses? Let's turn to page 13 x 23--the last page of the book, the other page to which Strauss has directed us by as much as saying, "Look here if you are not dumb as a post." Strauss writes that Machiavelli's contention does "possess a foundation." What is this foundation? It is that "the use of science for such [military] inventions... renders impossible the good city in the classical sense." Advances in technology have rendered the aim of the classics--a well-ordered city ruled by or friendly to philosophers and philosophy consisting of a few leisured landlords, a number of metic traders and craftsmen, and a mass of dependent subsistence farmers--impossible. Strauss's final message is that--barring a catastrophic nuclear war--the fundamental project of classical political philosophy is dead, impossible, irrelevant.

What then is left? Well, Strauss has spent the whole book exploring the contrast between classical political philosophy and Machiavelli's. Now at the end of the book--on a page he has told is as an absolute key to understanding his message--he tells us that classical political philosophy is hopelessly flawed. All that is left is the road marked out by Machiavelli. Strauss is therefore a thorough-going Machiavellian.

And, of course, as a thorough-going Machiavellian, he takes steps to hide his true teaching from the simple who are philosophically unprepared for it and to whom it might be dangerous to reveal it. A careless reader will miss the importance of Strauss's declaration of allegiance to Spinoza and Rousseau and his elevation of the Discourses on page 26 (remember! The Prince has 26 chapters!), will miss his declaration on page 13 that you have to lose sight of the belief that Machiavelli is a "teacher of evil," and will miss the importance of Strauss's declaration of the death of the project of classical political philosophy on page 299 (remember! 299 = 23 x 13!). They will think that Strauss rejects Machiavelli in favor of the classical political philosophical position--that Strauss does indeed see Machiavelli as a "teacher of evil."

But we who read carefully enough to have the key to Strauss know better. We may have started from the simple beliefs that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil, and that the classical tradition in political philosophy is superior. But we have ascended above these beliefs. We now see to the further horizon that Strauss intended us to see, and things look very different indeed.

We are the only people who understand the true and secret teaching of Leo Strauss.

Leo Strauss (1958), Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 0226777022).

Oh. And consider everything above this paragraph in this post enclosed in a <satire>...</satire> container...

Posted by DeLong at June 5, 2003 07:07 AM | TrackBack


Hm. So Leo Strauss wonders who could ever have taken Machiavelli seriously. Bit late, innit? Some folks already did.

How many centuries must we now wait for Prof. Derzukunft to wonder who could ever have taken Leo Strauss seriously? And that will also be a bit late.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on June 5, 2003 01:51 PM

To what lofty heights have you climbed! truly an ascent to a realm beyond good and evil.

But if Strauss was a thorough-going Machiavellian, it should be noted that Machiavelli was not at all a Straussian. No esoteric/exoteric distinction for him: the meaning of those classical texts was plain, and they offered lessons that could be readily extracted and directly applied. In short, for all that "Machiavellianism" is now a byword for expediency, duplicity and dissimulation, the man was a naive enthusiast with a fervent, and an almost artless, belief in the power of direct didacticism.

The above also enclosed in a satire tag.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on June 6, 2003 10:35 AM

Whatever Strauss meant, I think Brad's revelation/satire/sadly misspent time is one more piece of evidence that we should (a) never trust a Straussian and (b)obviously not make one dogcatcher, much less, oh, I don't know, Undersecretary of Defence.

Posted by: Tim on June 6, 2003 11:02 AM

Whatever Strauss meant, I think Brad's revelation/satire/sadly misspent time is one more piece of evidence that we should (a) never trust a Straussian and (b)obviously not make one dogcatcher, much less, oh, I don't know, Undersecretary of Defence.

Posted by: Tim on June 6, 2003 11:03 AM

Brilliant stuff! I haven't laughed so hard in ages! I especially loved the kabbalistic touches - all that numerological to-and-froing: I couldn't help but thinking "This is either humor or madness of the first rank!"

If there is one thing that mars the satire somewhat, it is your declaration that it really is satire at the end. You ought to have left the ambiguity in place - it would have been delicious if someone had picked this up and attempted a serious rebuttal!

The scariest thing of all, though, is that this really is the sort of thing that passes for argument in many academic circles ...

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on June 6, 2003 03:37 PM

I liked the part about reading the 300+ page book in a morning.

But seriously folks, Strauss is a very disturbed man. Unfortunately, he was also knowledgeable so he can pass as a thinker. He is not and it is doubleplus creepy that Straussians are crawling all over our gov.

Posted by: tristero on June 6, 2003 06:46 PM

This is a scream. It's a perfect-pitch parody of Strauss' style.

Unfortunately, I think you've also nailed Strauss' esoteric doctrine: he's a complete moral nihilist with a sham heumeneutic technique that turns everything into an argument for such nihilism. It's Strauss, not Machiavelli, who is a dangerous teacher of evil.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on October 5, 2003 10:12 AM
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