Kenneth B. MacIntyre launches what can only be called an, er, exoteric assault over at The American Conservative, one which may portend an internecine debate: he blasts Leo Strauss and his followers as ideological “false prophets.” Taking Paul Gottfried’s recent biography of the man as a starting point, he winds up arguing that:
The results of the Straussian method read like they were written by the intellectual offspring of Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Bergen. It may seem difficult to distinguish between the oracular pronouncements and the intellectual ventriloquism, but that’s because there is no real distinction to be made. As Gottfried notes, there is uncanny similarity between the Straussian reading of texts and the postmodern deconstruction of language. The esoteric claims provide cover for Straussian interpretive preferences and shield against criticism from anyone outside the clique. Cleanth Brooks once imagined what postmodern literary critics could have made of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and it makes just as much sense to ask what the Straussians could do with the nursery rhyme.
The two primary conclusions associated with Strauss’s esoteric reading of past texts are that all philosophers from the time of Plato onward were atheistic hyper-rationalists and that the United States emerged fully formed from the forehead of John Locke. Both of these conclusions are historically false, but it is inaccurate to call Strauss or his epigones bad historians because they are not historians at all.
To be fair to MacIntyre, the bulk of his criticism is filtered through the book he’s ostensibly reviewing (which, according to other reviewers, seems to be a more balanced survey), and isn’t that direct.
But still. This is a bomb-tossing review by design, which is why it seems to consist largely of dismissals on the grounds of inadequate historical scholarship, of repeated assertions that Strauss and Straussians are simply “not taken seriously” in some places, and of claims that this method of exegesis bears worrying similarities to postmodern deconstruction, with its obsessive parsing.
MacIntyre’s piece demands a longer response from both camps, but whatever one thinks of Strauss (or the subsequent “-ianism”), can this be really called a high-level review? Or, perhaps, is MacIntyre’s polemic necessary to ignite an argument whose time has come? Does the force (if not strength) of this essay indicate that it’s time for the American right to re-examine its discipleship, acknowledged or unacknowledged, to this man?