Leo Strauss? Who’s He?

Plato, Hobbes, and Marx wrote  books that are called “great” but their arguments are fallacious, sometimes laughably so and their conclusions are “naïve,” if not outright pernicious. That’s Brendon Boyle’s contention in the current issue of Commentary magazine.

Boyle teaches classics at the University of North Carolina. He’s reviewing W.G. Runciman’s Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and The Communist Manifesto (Princeton University Press).

Here’s how Runciman himself puts the matter: “Plato, Hobbes, and Marx are all convinced in their different ways that once the right people are in power, they will want to do the right thing and will know how to do it, so that harmony and order will thereafter prevail.” The argument’s “specious,” he says. “Look around you.”

I agree with Runciman this far: it’s pie in the sky to think that justice will prevail once the “right people” are permanently installed at the top. But I was taught that Plato intends us to reach that conclusion.

Where’s Leo Strauss when we need him? Strauss famously argues that Plato wishes us to conclude that the Just City as Socrates describes it in the Republic is impossible:  it’s ludicrous and pernicious. The Republic “conveys the broadest and deepest analysis of political idealism ever made” (Strauss, The City and Man, page 127).

I won’t pick a quarrel with Runiciman. He should have read Strauss, but he’s a Britisher and Britishers don’t always read Americans. (You Tube has Runciman’s lecture on the three authors, given at Trinity College, Cambridge.)

It’s Boyle, the reviewer, who concerns me. He’s writing in Commentary, the homeland journal of the neo-conservative movement in the United States and he appears to be completely ignorant of the argument about the Republic made by the man who is known to some of his friends and most of his adversaries as America’s greatest neo-conservative philosopher. A generation has arisen that knows not Leo Strauss! Say it isn’t so.

Boyle admits that we should probably go on reading Plato, Hobbes, and Marx.  Their books are not “good” but they do, in some fashion, “… lend an education – and a life – vitality.” I don’t know what to make of this remark about vitality, and I don’t think Boyle does either.


7 Responses to “Leo Strauss? Who’s He?”

  1. 1 _______ September 17, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Rick Salutin just wrote a piece about Strauss in the G&M. He seems to think that Stephen Harper is a Straussian… Since apparently even right-wing academics don’t know much about Strauss, I am not sure Salutin is an expert.

    Maybe you could put a reply to Salutin on your blog. Explain the main tenets of his thought… Would be a public service.

  2. 2 janetajzenstat September 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    The current issue of the Claremont Review of Books (Volume X, Number 3, Summer 2010) contains an article by Michael P. Zuckert entitled “The Strauss Wars Revisited.” I’d send it to Rick Salutin, but, dear friend, I think Salutin has long ago made up his mind on the subject of Leo Strauss and many other matters. He would not appreciate my efforts.

  3. 3 Craig September 22, 2010 at 7:00 pm


    What do you think of Strauss’ methodology – particularly the idea of secret or esoteric writing? It is what underlies his conclusions about Plato (not to mention his very flawed take on Locke).

  4. 4 janetajzenstat September 26, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Strauss’ methodology: I accept his idea that writers keep their readers in mind.(You write a Ph.D. thesis this way, a blog that way.) I accept the idea that writers sometimes deliberately leave out a dimension of the argument. In short I agree with Strauss to this point: to understand a text it helps to think about the addressees. Does the author have in mind readers centuries in the future? Radio listeners in wartime Britain? Giller prize judges?

    But the methodology surely betrays Strauss in his reading of Locke – as you suggest. When I read first read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, I was encouraged to think that he quotes frequently from the Old Testament in order to placate religious authorities. I am now persuaded that he means those Biblical quotations to illustrate and illuminate his argument. I agree with Jeremy Waldron on this matter.

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