Well, that’s always news.
Steven Smith, the reviewer, puts himself in the middle—between the extremes of Harry Jaffa and Laurence Lampert.
The two extremists, in Steven’s view, are dogmatic, taking liberties with what Strauss actually said in the service of their projects. Jaffa’s is American or in service, at least seemingly, of the faith of our Founding Fathers. Lampert’s is Nietzschean/Platonic—or in defense of innovative forms of enlightenment in the service of philosophy. Maybe they’re both in the service of philosophy. But I give Jaffa credit for caring about a lot more than philosophy.
Someone might say that the extremes—as extremes often do—have lots of similarities. For Lampert, following Benardete, says the first philosopher—the first rationalist deep down—was Homer. And so: “Lampert uses Benardetes insight to argue that philosophy and poetry are not really in opposition, as Strauss had maintained, but that philosophy is itself a form of poetry, whose task is to shape new gods and new worlds.”
Question: Do Jaffa and Lampert agree that philosophy is finally world-shaping or regime-shaping poetry? Divide up into small groups and discuss. Smith says Lampert’s view of philosophy is East Coast or apolitically concerned with “the possibility of philosophy” and not much of anything else. Certainly the East Coasters typically stink as poets or seductive public intellectuals.
Still, if philosophy is a form of world-shaping poetry, then why isn’t it political philosophy in some basic sense? Shouldn’t it be judged, as Machiavelli says, by its political/transformational effectiveness? Jaffa certainly is much more concerned with the poetic effect of what he says than Lampert, even if Lampert is the guy with the impious thought (shared by Stanley Rosen) that philosophy is poetry, the best kind of poetry. Jaffa, in his first book on Lincoln, even displayed honest/tricky Abe as America’s greatest poet. If philosophy is poetry, then the search for some apolitical ground for wisdom is misguided.
The intention of Smith’s review is to show that Straussians who don’t share his political moderation are pretty nutty. But the attempt to balance genuine philosophic radicalism with political moderation is typically at the expense of one or the other. We wouldn’t want Straussians divided into two categories: boring and domesticated and nutty. I wouldn’t have displayed “my” fellow Straussians as nutty to the readers of the NYT.
Jaffa spent parts of his life playing the extemist in defense of liberty, but he always seemed to me less nutty than some thought. Lampert, let’s face it, is a wild man. But who doesn’t know that? And that means he’s no Homer—and doesn’t claim to be—when it comes to world-shaping and god-inventing. There’s a lot to learn from his “pushing the envelope.” Strauss=Nietzsche—he doesn’t quite sell that. But Strauss and Nietzsche are a lot closer than the Jaffa-ite wavists claim; Lampert is right about that.