The Magazine

I Am Not a Straussian

At least, I don't think I am.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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I JUST WANT TO MAKE clear that I am not a Straussian. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Some of my closest friends are Straussians, and I have long admired the work of Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield, and Thomas Pangle--though not, I must say, Leo Strauss himself, since I have never understood a word the political philosopher 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.

I feel the need to set the record straight because I am routinely called a Straussian by students of what is known as neoconservatism, and at the very least this is an insult to true Straussians, who presumably do understand what they're talking about. There isn't room here to list all the places where I have been called a Straussian--a Google search for "Robert Kagan" and "Leo Strauss" turns up 16,500 hits. Suffice to say that the immensely erudite Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has referred to me as a "student" of Strauss and Bloom, as has the columnist William Pfaff, and a half dozen other equally learned folk. A professor somewhere named Anne Norton has written a whole book assuming that I am a Straussian. You may ask why didn't she call me, just to confirm. But that would have been journalism, not scholarship. Then there are the followers of Lyndon LaRouche (see their "Children of Satan" pamphlets), left-wing and right-wing bloggers, as well as Arab, Asian, African, and, of course, European journalists and academics.

In recent years the discussion has achieved a new level. I am now frequently accused of being not just a Straussian but a bad Straussian, because some scholars have pointed out that my foreign policy views do not really accord with Strauss's thinking. So I have been charged with distorting and even betraying Straussianism. I'm prepared to believe this is true. But as I mentioned, I don't understand Strauss, so it's hard for me to evaluate.

Again, I don't really care. But I see that courses are now being taught in some American colleges urging students to delve into the significance of Straussianism in shaping my foreign policy views. And I think it's a shame if students write entire papers based on a simple factual error.

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 learned from my father that the problem with Straussians was that they were ahistorical. They were consumed with the great thinkers and believed the great thinkers were engaged in a dialogue with one another across time. This made Straussians slight the historical circumstances in which great thinkers did their thinking. Indeed, my father, the historian, taught me to mistrust not only Straussians but also political philosophy in general, and I have pretty much done so--though, again, I have to admit it's partly because I find it hard to understand.

The irony was that my father, who never agreed with the Straussians, spent a good deal of time defending them from attack at the university. In the late 1970s, he tried to save Tom Pangle from getting chased out of Yale by the political science department, many of whose leading lights declared Pangle's views intolerable. (They didn't even know at the time that Straussianism would prove to be the main cause of the Iraq war three decades later--although they may have suspected it.) My dad tried to help not because he agreed with everything Pangle thought but on grounds of academic freedom.

That episode may explain why even my poor father sometimes gets called a Straussian. But I sometimes fear he is being tarred by his association with me, his Straussian son. Being a gentleman of the old school, he has never felt it necessary or appropriate to correct the record. But I thought I'd better, because this is a different world, one where factual errors whip around the Internet, and no one is ever kidding.

This article is first in a series. Next: "I am not a Trotskyist."

Robert Kagan is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.