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Strauss and me

Unspeak‘s neocon inheritance

An author can get a strange sense of the company he keeps by keeping tabs on his book’s amazon page. The US page for Unspeak asks: “What do customers ultimately buy after viewing items like this?” Right now, 10% are buying Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, by Michel Foucault. Fair enough: I can hardly be expected to compete with that. But what’s this? A huge 23% of people who look at things “like” Unspeak (how amazon decides what is “like” Unspeak is itself obscure) end up buying The City and Man by Leo Strauss. How strange. It is a poignant image: numerous poor, mumbling Strauss fans stumbling across the details of Unspeak, taking in the description, and hurriedly paging away to purchase another book by their master . . .

It is not mere institutional chauvinism that leads me to recommend, to those not much familiar with Strauss’s work, the classic 1985 review of his oeuvre by M F Burnyeat. (The whole of Burnyeat’s review is here, though you have to subscribe, at a ludicrously low price, to the indispensable New York Review of Books to see it.) Some choice nuggets of Burnyeat’s scholarly demolition:

I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas […] There is much talk in Straussian writings about the nature of “the philosopher” but no sign of any knowledge, from the inside, of what it is to be actively involved in philosophy. “The philosopher,” in fact, is a construct out of old books: he wrote some of them or, like Socrates, he appears as a character in them. […]

It would be tedious to follow up all the perversities, both literary and philosophical of Strauss’s reading of the Republic. I shall pick on one central statement Strauss makes about the Republic: “The philosophers cannot be persuaded, they can only be compelled to rule the cities.”

The first half of this sentence is sheer invention on Strauss’s part, as is the word “only” in the second half. The passages that Strauss is paraphrasing speak of compelling the philosophers to rule—by persuasive argument. They do not contrast persuasion with compulsion. Nor do they contain Strauss’s next point, that the philosophers will only be compelled if the nonphilosophers are persuaded—by the philosophers—to compel them. So they lend no support to Strauss’s concluding insinuation that “the just city is not possible because of the philosophers’ unwillingness to rule.”

Such is the manner in which Strauss turns upside down the meaning of the Republic . . .

Hmmm. On the other hand, it is possible that, just as Strauss turns upside down the meaning of the Republic, so I turn upside down the meaning of politicians’ and writers’ words. Some critics, indeed, have said so. This view would insist, for example, that even though George W Bush signed a statement saying he would ignore prohibitions on torture when he felt like it, he didn’t really mean it. I confess it must be a possibility, indeed, that Bush didn’t mean anything. So it seems that there is a connection between me and Strauss after all. How clever of amazon! It is even offering a special package deal if you buy Unspeak along with America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, by Strauss admirer Francis Fukuyama. Now, excuse me while I go and prove that Socrates thought homosexuality was disgusting.

  1. 1  SW  July 13, 2006, 10:24 pm 

    As they say, you can judge a man by the company he keeps.

    Foucault and Fukuyama? They make an interesting pair. They are both, if you will, foo fighters. Indeed, if we indulge in some aural archeology and sift through the sounds in their names, we can just about hear the fragments of buried syllables and assonances, the faint echoes whispering their relative philosophies: Fuck All and Fuck You.

    Unfair? Perhaps. I’ve never read Fukuyama, but have read about him, and it seems that he has been spectacularly wrong. I’ve read a lot of Foucault, and he is both spectacular and wrong. Usually, he’s so spectacular, it doesn’t matter how right or wrong he is.

    At first, one could hardly think of a pair who belong together less than Foucault and Fukuyama (or Foucault and Strauss), but they do have in common – and again, I’m going by what I’ve read about Fukuyama, not what I’ve read by Fukuyama – a method of reading history that finds support for, in Foucault’s case, his brilliant theories, and in Fukuyama’s case, his theory, partly by dismissing, ignoring or laughing off anything that might substantiate an alternative theory. One might call it Unhistory.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  July 13, 2006, 10:30 pm 

    I love the notion of Foucault and Fukuyama as Foo Fighters. Maybe it is unfair of me to speculate as to writers’ tastes in rhythmic guitar-heavy music, but I somehow get the impression that Foucault would have thought the Foo Fighters rocked, and Fukuyama probably doesn’t.

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