Letters


Nicholas Xenos and the Rhetoric of the War on Leo Strauss

 

Dear Editor:
 

I thought I had read enough of the recent commentary on the thought and influence of Leo Strauss. The recent commentary in Logos by Nicholas Xenos seemed to be different, however, due to the fact that Xenos (unlike the rest of the bandwagon) seems to have read Strauss for himself rather than relying on secondary sources or simply quoting from other likeminded articles. In this respect, and this respect only, his original effort is to be commended.

 

Two brief criticisms: 1) Arguing that Strauss and “Straussians” (whatever that means) rely on a rhetoric of right and wrong is a good starting point, but by itself is pure sophistry. Xenos fails to reflect on his own thesis, which also takes advantage of moral categories. Is it “evil” to speak of good and evil? Xenos implies that it is and thus puts himself in the same category as his Strauss. Is it “bad” to distrust the excesses of democracy? Xenos implies that it is and therefore indicts his Strauss for reading Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, James Madison, Tocqueville, Mill and a host of other influential thinkers. It adds nothing to a discussion of Strauss in particular – it is a merely a way of using democracy as a “good” white and everything else as an “evil” black.

 

2) The suggestion that Straussians all read the same books is tenable. To go on and suggest that they all speak the same way (use the same words) and dress the same way goes much too far. I imagine the same sort of rhetoric was used in Salem during similar hunts for teachers of dark secrets.

 

The writings of Leo Strauss comprise a vast body of thought. To select individual passages as fundamentalists are prone to do with the Bible proves nothing about the work as a whole. As Dr. Xenos well knows, even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose … or was that Shakespeare.

 

Rafael Major

1121 Adelaide

Ft. Smith, AR 72901   
 

Nicholas Xenos Responds:

If I understand Mr. Major’s complaint correctly, he charges that I implicitly invoke absolute categories of good and evil while criticizing Strauss and Straussians (and I suspect he knows who they are) for doing the same thing.  Apparently, my rejection of this distinction is itself one example of it, and my insistence upon emphasizing Strauss’s (and much of contemporary liberalism’s) antidemocratic nature is another.  However, my point was to show how the rhetoric of absolutes is deployed in a reactionary and antidemocratic manner by Strauss and others while professing to advance so-called liberal democracy.  It is Strauss’s thesis, not mine, that modernity is characterized by an ungrounded relativism.  Typically, Mr. Major refers to “the excesses of democracy” as if they are so obvious as not to need demonstration.  His comment regarding the canonical authors is apparently in reference to their individual and collective “distrust” of those excesses.  Far from indicting Strauss for reading these authors I would merely question the way he and his school read them and offer different readings.  But these issues go well beyond the narrower purpose of my article.

It is also symptomatic that Mr. Major invokes the image of a witch-hunt to characterize my characterization of the language and appearance of Straussians.  I plead guilty to trivialization on the fashion front but not on the linguistic.  However, all of these similarities reinforce the popular notion that Straussians form a sort of sect or cult.  While denied on the one hand, this perception proves useful when Straussians wish to portray themselves as a persecuted group.  Meanwhile, Mr. Major seems to be more chagrined by the idea that I think Straussians all dress like Young Republicans than by the fact that Leo Strauss professed fascist and authoritarian sentiments in 1933 as a proper reaction to the newly installed Nazi regime and that I claim that these sentiments subsequently were subsequently submerged in his esoteric “teaching” but were never relinquished.  Whose excesses are really at issue here?

Nicholas Xenos
Dept. Political Science

University of Massachusetts, Amherst