How dumb is Steven Smith?
Smith teaches political theory at Yale. He is a Straussian. Strauss’s apology for his mode of teaching political philosophy is that philosophy is the only thing that can innoculate ambitious and capable young men of leisure – Straussians call them gentlemen – against the desire for political power. In the context of Strauss’s own early sympathies for fascism and his lifelong belief in a muscular, more or less theocratic, and very nationalist Israel, this apology was necessary and perhaps inadequate. It was also, I think, sincerely meant. Philosophy, or fearless rational inquiry and skepticism of all popular dogmas, religious faiths, and civic cults, is anathema to politics. But politics always tends towards the narrow, the sectarian, the idiotic, and the cruel, and politics will stamp out philosophy if it has a chance. So Strauss thought that philosophical education, approached in a suitably circumspect and flirtatious way, could temper the most dangerous young men, give them a taste of more cosmopolitan and more personal pleasures, and keep them liberal (in the older, aristocratic sense of the term).
Costin Alamariu – better known to the world as Bronze Age Pervert – wrote a dissertation at Yale, supervised by Smith, which argued that Plato’s secret teaching is that Callicles is right, that philosophy and power are identical, and that natural right is the complete domination of the weak by the strong. This is, of course, the opposite of Strauss’s apology. Alamariu is himself one of the ambitious and capable young men of leisure that Strauss thought so necessary and so dangerous to political life. Smith was, apparently, completely overawed by his student. He disagrees with Alamariu’s argument, he says. He also says, though, that “The dissertation was, in many ways, a brilliant sort of tour de force.” Rather than taking an ambitious little rich kid and giving him an innocuous hobby and a high-minded disdain for political power, Smith has, apparently, flattered and pampered a little fascist into thinking he is the philosophical prophet of warrior kings and the extermination of the bugmen.
In the process, Smith has made American Straussianism look not so much evil – remember Shadia Drury’s dark fantasies of Straussians as the puppetmasters of the Bush White House? – as pathetic and stupid. And East Coast Straussians, even! The dumb subservience to Republican electoral politics and the cultural Right was supposed to be confined the the West Coast (Californians are classically airheads). The East Coast was for the cynical Brahmins of the clan – sophisticated, gay, and Europe-oriented. But here is Yale out-Claremonting Claremont, producing a highly-literate guttersnipe intent on rallying the basement dwellers of 4chan.
So, congratulations to Steven Smith. He has managed to eviscerate Strauss’s apology for Straussianism, egg on an aspiring Nazi, and make the West Coast Straussians look like the smart, morally sane ones. That’s pretty dumb!