REPLY TO MY CRITICS
Shadia B. Drury, University of Calgary
There are many political theorists and intellectual historians who are not Straussians (i.e. not insiders) and who were sympathetic to Strauss because of his criticisms of relativism and value-free social science and his celebration of the tradition of natural law and natural right. I was one of these political theorists. I believe that Professor MacCormack, the editor of this journal, was also one of them. To these scholars, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss comes as a surprise: for it provides an account of Strauss that is altogether at odds with his reputation, at least among the outsiders. To Professor MacCormack, my account seemed compelling enough that he decided to get to the bottom of it. He invited a few insiders, students of Strauss and students of his students, to comment on my work. This volume, and the symposium where these essays were first presented, were the result.
I would like to thank Professor MacCormack for his interest in my work and for giving me the opportunity to respond to my critics. I believe that, contrary to their declared intention, the essays in this volume confirm the validity of my interpretation of Strauss. In what follows I hope to show why this is the case.
My critics have taken three approaches to my work. The first is to deny the validity of my interpretation of Strauss. This approach is represented by Harry V. Jaffa (who is not included in this volume).1The second approach is to affirm my interpretation of Strauss (with small reservations) while maintaining that, so understood, Strauss is neither unorthodox nor objectionable. This is the approach taken by Ernest Fortin. The third approach is a combination of the other two. George Anastaplo and Robert Stone take this third approach. They deny the validity of my interpretation on some important points and they affirm it on others.
Whatever their approach, my critics converge on the following issues. First, they object to my method of scholarship on various grounds. Anastaplo's objections are based on the fact that I am an outsider who never knew Strauss. Fortin objects to my scholarship because I do not count paragraphs and I am insensitive to the significance of numerology and other secret messages imbedded in Strauss's footnotes. This is an indication that he too thinks that only an insider can understand Strauss, because only an insider would be privy to the mysteries and secret messages woven into his work. Second, like Strauss, Strauss's followers are very fond of the argument from authority. Anastaplo uses the argument to undermine my own authoritativeness. He maintains that only certain persons can speak with authority on the ideas of Leo Strauss. Fortin uses a more sophisticated version of the argument from authority to show that the ideas I have attributed to Strauss were held by all of the greatest and wisest exponents of the Western tradition, and are therefore true and unobjectionable. Third, my critics are concerned with the status of morality in Strauss's thought. Anastaplo denies that Strauss accords morality a low status, apparently because nuns, priests, rabbis and other morally impeccable people were among his students. Others confirm the low status of morality in Strauss's thought, but insist that there is nothing more vulgar than according morality an exalted status in the scheme of things. Fourth, all of my critics are convinced that my work is motivated by a curious animus towards the person of Leo Strauss himself. In what follows I will respond to each of these criticisms in turn.
The central thesis of Anastaplo's paper, "Shadia Drury on Leo Strauss," is that where Strauss is concerned, I've gotten the words right, but I don't know the tune.2 As a result, when I do get anything right, it is quite by accident.3 Yet Anastaplo does not explicitly challenge the eminently reasonable method I use to study Strauss. On the contrary, his paper confirms its validity. Two points on method need clarification.
First, in a song there are two components, the words and the tune. A singer must get both right in order to be said to know the song. Strauss's writing also has two components: the words, and the tune or tone. In The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, I resolved to examine Strauss's words without being lulled by the conventional sweetness of the tune which accompanies them. I argued that Strauss's tone often obscures the meaning of his words. For example, the tone of reverence and piety with which Strauss often discusses religion obscures the fact that he thinks that the miracles do not provide a shred of evidence in support of revelation--for none of the miracles were witnessed by expert physicists. 4
I have compared Strauss to Farabi's pious ascetic who Strauss regards as the symbol of the esoteric writer. The ascetic lies in deed, but not in words.5 When he appears at the city gates he seems to be a drunk banging a tune to cymbals. As a result, the guards don't believe him when he tells them the truth--namely, that he is the pious ascetic they are looking for. The ascetic is known for his abstinence and mortification, his probity, propriety and devotion. This drunken rogue cannot possibly be the pious ascetic. The ascetic therefore manages to escape. In similar fashion, Strauss has also managed to elude us.
Strauss is the inversion of the pious ascetic. He sings a familiar tune full of piety and reverence; he dons the sobriety, piety and propriety of the ascetic; but his tune serves only to conceal the immoderate and intoxicated nature of his philosophy.6 And this, he tells us, is as it should be: political philosophy is the marriage of opposites, politics and philosophy. Politics needs moderation, sobriety, faith and devotion. In contrast, philosophy is immoderate, faithless and intoxicated. As Strauss writes, philosophy is "the very opposite of sobriety or moderation; thought must not be moderate, but fearless, not to say shameless."7 For Strauss, "moderation is not a virtue of thought;" it is rather a "virtue controlling the philosopher's speech."8Political Philosophy is the mating of moderate speech with intoxicated thoughts. Strauss claims that Plato's recognition of this fact is what led him to begin the Laws with an extensive discussion of wine. The vicarious enjoyment of forbidden pleasures is supposed to prepare his interlocutors for the intoxication of philosophizing.9
All this makes it clear that if we are to understand Strauss, we must learn to take him at his word, and not be lulled by the familiar sweetness of his tune.
Anastaplo is not far off. I've gotten the words right, I've just decided to ignore the tune. He, on the other hand, is so mesmerized by the tune, that he can't hear the words. In philosophy, unlike music, it's the words that matter.