In the new issue of the Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan tries to correct the record regarding his own views and, perhaps most delightfully, those of his father, the eminent classical historian (and friend of Victor Davis Hanson) Professor Donald Kagan: “I am not a Straussian.” As a Yale undergraduate, Robert Kagan was a student of Thomas Pangle, a student of Strauss now teaching at the University of Texas. Kagan claims that he has “never understood a word the political philosopher [Leo Strauss] wrote. I mean not a single word. Nor have I been very good at understanding his disciples, really, and Pangle, from whom I once took two courses, can back me up on this.”
Donald Kagan is the author of the famous four-volume history of the Pelopennesian War that was published between 1969 and 1987. He returned to the subject with a popular one-volume history of the war that was published in 2003. In On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Professor Kagan offered the reflections of a lifetime spent in the study of history.
Professor Kagan taught at Cornell from 1960 to 1969, when he left to join the Yale faculty. Allan Bloom also taught at Cornell until 1969, leaving after the Cornell faculty and administration capitulated to the demands of gun-toting radical black students who took over the administration building that spring. (Bloom wrote about the events at Cornell in The Closing of the American Mind. University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs revisted the subject in the 1999 book Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University.) Robert Kagan’s article provides a hilarious child’s-eye view of his father’s arguments with Bloom during their Cornell years:
It is true that I have known Straussians almost all my life. And the one thing I was taught about them from the earliest age is that they are wrong. The person who taught me this was my father, an ancient historian who spent a good portion of his time at Cornell University in the 1960s arguing with Allan Bloom. As a youngster of eight or nine I got to witness many of these arguments in the faculty lunch room at the Statler, where my father would take me on summer days. They were fun. For one thing, Bloom was an incredible character, though to my youthful eye he acted, talked, and dressed a bit silly. I remember being absolutely enthralled by his famous stutter. He would start a sentence by saying, “The-ah, the-ah, the-ah, the-ah, the-ah truth that Socrates was, ah, seeking…” Something like that. Also, whenever I saw him he would practically squeeze the life out of me with a bear-hug. It was actually painful. And he once accidentally stubbed a cigar out on my hand at a poker game.
But that’s not the reason I never became a Straussian. It was because my father explained to me, as well as to Bloom, of course, that Bloom did not understand Plato. This may seem a bit outrageous to many people today, given Bloom’s reputation. But I still think my father was right, and at the time I had no doubt that he was right. My father was and is a great arguer, and as a boy I was inclined to believe that he was right about practically everything. So to me, the Kagan-Bloom debates always looked like a complete wipe-out.
As best I can recall, their biggest point of contention was whether Plato was just kidding in The Republic. Bloom said he was just kidding. I later learned that this idea–that the greatest thinkers in history never mean what they say and are always kidding–is a core principle of Straussianism. My friend, the late Al Bernstein, also taught history at Cornell. He used to tell the story about how one day some students of his, coming directly from one of Bloom’s classes, reported that Bloom insisted Plato did not mean what he said in The Republic. To which Bernstein replied: “Ah, Professor Bloom wants you to think that’s what he believes. What he really believes is that Plato did mean what he said.”
Anyway, my father said Plato was not kidding. The argument would go back and forth for hours, and in my memory it always ended with Bloom saying, “We’ll have to look at the text,” which was a great way of ending the discussion because there was no ancient Greek text of The Republic available in the Statler’s lunch room. So, as I saw it, and as my father saw it, that was sort of a surrender.
I’m pretty sure that I take Bloom’s side in the argument with Profesor Kagan, if by “just kidding” we substitute “writing ironically” — a subject for another day. In the meantime, enjoy Robert Kagan’s article.
UPDATE: I have corrected a couple of details in this post courtesy of a message from Professor Joseph Knippenberg, who posts over at No Left Turns and threatens to comment on Robert Kagan’s article later today. Thanks also to TigerHawk and to reader Andrew May.
In his article, Robert Kagan refers to Anne Norton’s book on Strauss and Straussians. Professor Knippenberg reminds me of Clifford Orwin’s Claremont Review of Books piece on Norton’s book: “The Straussians are coming!”