The New Republic has given Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, one of its first negative reviews (behind firewall, I haven’t read it or the novel, only the New Yorker excerpts). Not that there’s any reason to give Franzen the utmost in kid-glove treatment—though I’m increasingly fond of The Corrections, it is not perfect by any means, and is often very annoying. The interesting thing is that, a few days later, Adam Kirsch, TNR’s poetry critic, chimed in to defend neoconservatism from Franzen’s insulting portrayal. Of course, The New Republic has long leant towards neoconservatism itself on many issues. Not content to defend the politics of his own magazine, however, Kirsch goes on to defend the late philosopher Leo Strauss from charges, more or less, that he agreed with Plato:
“Not many of the millions of readers of Freedom will also have been readers of The Nation or the London Review of Books during the Bush years. But those who were will immediately recognize this passage as an allusion to Leo Strauss—who was alleged, in these circles, to be the secret mastermind of belligerent neoconservatism.
It was Strauss who allegedly taught that “the philosopher” had the right and duty to lie to the public in the service of a greater good, and who used Platonic myths to undermine democracy. It’s not necessary to reargue here the falsity of this understanding of Strauss—who, in fact, wrote about the way free-thinking and rationalist philosophers throughout history used occult writing to outwit the religious taboos of their time.”
Kirsch is wrong. Strauss (like his disciple, Allan Bloom) held that philosophers have both an esoteric and an exoteric teaching. The esoteric teaching is specifically hidden from everyone other than philosophers. The esoteric teaching is different from the exoteric teaching, and the exoteric teaching is, in turn, deliberately intended by the writer as the message that’s to be conveyed to laypeople who read the book. The purpose of the dual meaning is to keep most people from knowing what the philosophers are saying, because most people—not to mention the authorities—would not want the philosophers’ real beliefs to be widely shared. (In fact, in the places and times Strauss was most interested in, the authorities might arrest a philosopher who was too clear about his message.)
Strauss wanted to insist that moral truth is always and everywhere the same, yet philosophers in different times and places have disagreed about the nature of moral truth. To defuse relativism, Strauss developed a theory that explained away the appearance that philosophers have always been relativists (or “historicists”): “Plato and Aristotle (and their medieval followers as well) often concealed their own thought by accommodating themselves to the opinions of their contemporaries.... Thus was born Strauss’s famous doctrine of ‘esoteric teaching,’ his conviction that philosophical texts can contain hidden meanings reserved for an elite readership that knows truly how to read.” *
In other words: The contents of a philosophy text are not reliable evidence of what the author believed. What the writer believed is, it follows, the esoteric teaching understood by the true philosopher, who has been educated in a philosophical way. Only philosophers and scholars of philosophy understand what the texts that constitute the history of philosophy really mean. People who have read only the primary texts—unless they are themselves philosophers, or at least scholars of philosophy—cannot know. As Larmore says, Strauss’s aim here is to deny that we should take seriously things like Aristotle’s defense of the morality of slavery, because truth doesn’t change, and we know that slavery is wrong.
The same thing presumably applies to books published today. That is, if a philosopher named Lenny Ostrich writes a book, he will have the intention that philosophers will use his book as evidence of the truth, and everybody else will use his book as evidence of a lie. If this isn’t lying, I don’t know what would count. (Obviously, other thinkers have held a similar idea. For example, Marxism possesses a variety of theories about social and psychological mechanisms that almost make it impossible not to lie to one group of people or another.) This is something entirely different from writing a book that is simply “difficult,” an evaluation that includes nonphilosophical works like Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well as Werner Heisenberg’s Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory and Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures.
This doesn’t mean that philosophers should write propaganda.** A philosophy text is not a political act, and its intended audience is philosophers and students of philosophy. The Straussian idea, on this view, is simply that what philosophers do is nobody’s business but their own (in a way, it’s a kind of hypertrophied zeal for academic freedom). It isn’t that philosophers ought to have a political project in which they enlist nonphilosophers by misleading them about the nature of philosophy. But it does include the project of misleading nonphilosophers (not least about the nature of philosophy), and the possibility of someone having a this project like this one should seem at least a little troubling now that education is so widely available (and not least to a journalist like Kirsch). Five hundred years ago, a writer might want to mislead a few priests and university dons, who wouldn’t want even philosophers to read potentially subversive books: a few people, who had the learning and the time to study deeply, could learn the truth—the others would remain as they were. These days, the same writer would be misleading large numbers of people (many of whom already nominally agree with him) who had been led to believe what he wrote was important, and who might mistake his untruths for useful information.
And worse: Strauss was a scholar of political philosophy, and his neoconservative disciples have not been scholars but rather practitioners of politics. They seem to have taken the lesson that philosophy hides, specifically, truths about the world of government and politics. Moreover, they mostly seem committed to the idea that they themselves belong to the elite that knows all the secrets about this world (if not that they themselves are “philosophers”). Such a person might well conclude that part of their job is to lie to everybody else about what’s “really going on” behind the scenes. (Admittedly, their beliefs may have no effect on their actions; most liars don’t need a fancy theory to tell them it’s all right to lie.)
It’s not an uninteresting theory. And if true, it would make some of TNR’s own writers quite a bit more interesting than they would ordinarily be. It might even be helpful for interpreting the postmodern novel.
* My quotation is from Charles Larmore’s 1989 essay on Strauss, which was published in The New Republic and reprinted in The Morals of Modernity.
** And it obviously doesn’t turn propagandists into philosophers, either.