Thinker creates poli sci rift
Published: Monday, February 9, 2004
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Part two of a two-part series on the controversial modern philosopher Leo Strauss and his impact on political science at Boston College and beyond.
Professor Susan Meld Shell, department chair of the Boston College political science rejects the title "Straussian." Although she admires the work of political philosopher Leo Strauss like many professors in the department, she avoids labeling her beliefs with his name.
"I don't actually like the term 'Straussian,' Shell said, noting that Strauss' theories are not meant to be presented in one concrete world view, such as Marxism. "What one takes away from Strauss is very complicated," she added.
Along with a handful of other professors in the department, Strauss obtained a great pupil in Allen Bloom, a prolific political philosopher in his own right and the man responsible for the most popular translation of Plato's Republic.
Despite differing personalities, the duo of Strauss and Bloom became an exceptional student-teacher relationship. A traditional conservative, Strauss overlooked Bloom's personal life. Bloom was a closet homosexual and died of AIDS, a fact that remained essentially hidden until writer Saul Bellow outed him in the novel Ravelstein, a fictional work based on Bloom's life. Stephen Mitchelmore, a literary critic wrote in his review of Ravelstein, that before Bloom died he asked Bellow to write about him "warts and all."
After studying under Strauss at the University of Chicago, the two formed a mutually beneficial working relationship. Bloom took after his mentor in his writings, expanding Straussian theories more deeply into the world of politics. He also continued the Straussian tradition of exploring classic texts in order to establish absolute philosophic truths.
Additionally, Bloom cemented Strauss' formidable reputation in the minds of a new crop of political scientists. The classrooms at Cornell became a battleground of ideas as students experimented with Straussian notions in a political climate dominated by moral relativism, liberalism, and anti-Americanism.
"When I was in college, the dialogue in universities was a bit different. You had a set of arguments played out in front of you," said Shell.
The BC political science department has assembled first-generation students of Strauss with a younger crop of Bloom disciples. Shell, Alice and Nasser Behnegar studied under Bloom while both Robert Faulkner and Christopher Bruyll studied under Strauss at the University of Chicago.
Under Bloom, Shell cemented some of her ideological beliefs along with techniques that helped her in her career long after her college years at Cornell.
"I learned the importance of the relationship between religion and philosophy and ... that there's a political direction to everything, in ways that are obvious and not obvious," said Shell.
On a more personal level, Shell changed as a reader and writer after her time with Bloom. "There's an importance to reading something more carefully. The greatest works can't be read too quickly," she said.
Followers of both Strauss and Bloom similarly emphasize the importance of pouring through the Greek classics and reading them as slowly and thoroughly as possible.
There's a story about Strauss that best sums up his mentality toward the classic texts, said Faulkner. "They say he would teach an entire class of Plato's Republic and still never make it past Book 5."
Strauss believed that the classic texts could be understood on multiple levels - the exoteric and the esoteric. Strauss set forward that Plato had to disguise his more ambitious, controversial theories to avoid persecution. Only a handful of readers will ever be able to remotely find Plato's intended meanings.
Straussian critics see an inherent elitism in this theory. "Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the 'Great Tradition' of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke," wrote Straussian critic Karl Jahn in Leo Strauss and the Straussians.
Canadian researcher Shadia Drury has made a career of exploring the alleged elitism and destructive tendencies of Strauss's theories. She said that this elitist bent is responsible for events ranging from the war in Iraq to the United States' shifting position in the United Nations.
Regarding Iraq, Drury argues that many higher-ups in the Bush Administration are Straussians who have applied their penchant for deception and negative view of the common man to foreign policy.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a central figure in the intelligence disputes surrounding the Iraqi war, studied under Strauss at Chicago.
"Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States," Drury said in an interview with a Canadian news website. Wolfowitz has taken this theory and decided that the government should be dictated by the "wise" or elite, Drury said.
As a Straussian, Wolfowitz most likely has no qualms with keeping the truth from the public, argued Drury. "I never imagined ... that the unscrupulous elite that [Strauss] elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realized in the political life of a great nation like the United States," she said.
Defenders of Strauss claim that Drury has taken the critique too far, to a point where it borders on conspiracy theory. "[Drury] is trying to read nefarious plots in places where there aren't any. ... Politicians shade the truth all the time, it's seen in a much more negative light than it should be ... which isn't to say that out and out deception is acceptable, but it's a big leap on [Drury's] part," said Shell.
Faulkner agreed, calling Drury a "one-trick pony." "Strauss was a backer of constitutional liberties, and he actually hated the term 'the masses,'" he said.