Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Dirty Little Secret

Okay, I admit it. I am the intellectual grandchild of Leo Strauss. You know Leo Strauss, the evil father of neo-conservatism. The person who runs the Bush administration from the grave on its quest for world domination.

In college, I studied political philosophy. I even wrote a short thesis on David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. My professor was a student of Strauss. Through that professor, I became acquainted with other heirs of Strauss--thinkers like Alan Bloom, Thomas Pangle, and Francis Fukuyama. Strauss is a dense read. I would be surprised if the hyperventilating critics actually have a clue what he thought.

Steven Smith has a nice introduction into the thought of Leo Strauss. Quickly one realizes that the bogeyman of the American left has almost no resemblance to the actual man. Primarily Strauss was concerned with the reading of good books by great thinkers. In the same vein, my professor taught me to read books with the assumption that the author knew more than me. Bringing this humility to a text allowed me to plunge deeply. I wrestled with apparent contradictions, assuming that the author was trying to teach me something.

As Smith recounts, Strauss himself wrestled with questions that few ask anymore. "Is reason or revelation the ultimate guide for life?" "Has the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns been decided in favor of modernity?" and "Are the philosophers or the poets better educators of civic life?" The diversity of thought on these questions by Strauss' students suggests that Strauss himself was not interested in promoting a rigid ideology.

The most difficult part of Strauss is his rediscovery of esoteric writing. In this way of thinking, great writers would not always come out and say what they thought. For example, we cannot assume that the words of a character in a Shakespeare play are Shakespeare's own thoughts and ideas. In fact, they may be the opposite of his own. Perhaps, the character is a foil, or perhaps the dialogue itself is what is important. In a novel, play or dialogue, this may make sense, but Strauss even suggests that prose writers may hide meanings within a text. I found such hidden meanings difficult to ferret out. Perhaps, even the hidden meaning was the product of my imagination. Listening to my professor, you would think that almost every author was a a closet atheist.

Laying that criticism aside, I owe an incredible debt to Leo Strauss and his intellectual heirs. First, I love primary texts. I much rather read an author than about an author. Second, I try to suppress my pride as a read an author. Rather than casting judgment on a text, I try to listen. This attitude was instrumental in me becoming a Christian. Dropping my arrogance, the Holy Spirit opened me to the truth of the Scriptures. Finally, I have learned that words and ideas matter. I am able to ask hard questions. Was Tertullian right that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem? When conflict occurs in the biblical text, is there a greater meaning? In my own sermons, where is the gospel and where is my own cultural baggage? What are the idols of our age, and what can we do to avoid them?

For me, Leo Strauss' legacy is a method not an ideology.

1 comment:

Simon said...

It's all in the subtext.