Friday, August 27, 2010

Such a thing as truth

A few years ago in some liberal circles a favorite conspiracy theory had to do with the supposed malign influence of "Straussianism," which somehow inspired an equally awful neoconservative foreign policy. The promoters of the conspiracy theory misrepresented Leo Strauss whose ideas about political theory are pretty straightforward and which, as Brian Bolduc reports in the Wall Street Journal, are about to become more accessible as recordings of his lectures are made available online.

Strauss sounds like a very good teacher. Bolduc:
Greater familiarity with Strauss's lectures may demolish this myth of him as a neoconservative Svengali. Instead, people may come to recognize him as, among other things, an engaging teacher.

Students loved Strauss because he rebelled against his profession's norms, especially historicism—the belief that all thought is the product of its time and place. Aristotle, historicism contends, believed the Greek city-state was the best regime because he lived in one. His insights are inapplicable to a modern liberal democracy.

This tenet still infects political science today, causing students excruciating boredom in their (typically, required) classes on political theory. Why should students care about Plato if they're taught that his philosophy is obsolete?

Listening to the tapes, you hear Strauss's different approach. He believes that thought—at least by great minds—can transcend its time and place. In other words, he believes there is such a thing as truth.

Instead of cataloging philosophers for rows of classroom note takers, he throws students into an ongoing argument: How should we live? He forces students not merely to study political philosophy but to engage in it. ....

...[H]e spent so much time answering students' questions that his class often ran past its allotted time. "At times a course went on for so long that Mrs. Strauss had to come in and stop it," says Werner Dannhauser, a former student of Mr. Strauss.

The reason for Strauss's energetic exchanges was that he took students seriously. "He said, 'When you're teaching always assume there is a silent student in the class who knows more than you do,'" remembers Roger Masters, another former student. ....

.... Political scientists who refuse to bend to their field's reigning ideology need a standard-bearer. And what a quizzical standard-bearer Strauss was: a chubby, balding little man with a thick German accent, a squeaky voice and a constant cigarette in his hand.

"You would not think that this man either in his appearance or in his speech would be a Pied Piper to students," says Jenny Strauss Clay, his daughter. "It wasn't for reasons of style or eloquence; it was for something else."

It was for his love of political philosophy, which—despite critics' objections—he believed to be more than an academic exercise. For him, it was a way of life.
Leo Strauss, Back and Better Than Ever in New Recordings and Transcripts of His Political Philosophy Lectures - WSJ.com