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Faking it

Yale University Professor Steven Smith has written a new book on the thought of Leo Strauss, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosphy, Judaism. Clifford Orwin reviewed it favorably in the May issue of Commenatary; Orwin’s review isn’t available online, but my friend Bruce Sanborn summarizes it in this post at The Remedy. The virtue of Orwin’s review is that it is based on deep knowledge of the book’s subject.

Tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review carries Robert Alter’s review of Smith’s book. Like Orwin, Alter speaks favorably of the book. Unlike Orwin, however, Alter doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Alter says of Strauss, for example:

His first book was on Spinoza, and he subsequently devoted scrupulous, often maverick, studies to major figures of political philosophy from Plato and Maimonides to Machiavelli, Hobbes and the framers of the American Constitution.

Alter’s familiarity with Strauss’s work appears to be faked; I believe that Strauss himself wrote virtually nothing — let alone a “study” — about the framers of the Constitution. His reference to the Declaration of Independence in the introduction to Natural Rigtht and History and his writings about Locke may be the closest he came to the thought of the framers.

Smith devotes the longest chapter of his book to “Strauss’s America.” He asks: “What did Strauss think of his adopted country?” He observes: “Paradoxically, Strauss has relatively little to say directly about the American regime, although his writings have helped to generate an important body of literature on the founding period and other critical turning points in American politics.” Smith cites the work of Harry Jaffa, Charles Kesler, Ralph Lerner, Harvey Mansfield, and Herbert Storing. Given Strauss’s silence on the framers and the founding, Smith uses Strauss’s “judgment on Locke” to infer Strauss’s “judgment on America.” He notes: “Strauss is silent about the development of Lockeanism in American politics…” (Smith also takes a stab at teasing out Strauss’s view of the relation between Machiavelli and the American founding from Strauss’s introduction to Thoughts on Machiavelli.)

Alter crudely turns his praise of Strauss and Smith to immediate political purposes. According to Alter, Strauss “repeatedly argued against the very idea of political certitude that has been embraced by certain neoconservatives.” Alter himself sounds a little too much in love with his own certitude for a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

UPDATE: At No Left Turns, Joseph Knippenberg takes a friendlier look at Alter’s review here.

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