"Strauss' interpretation of Plato is wrong from beginning to end." M.F. Burnyeat.
Although we philosophers are thought of as a cerebral bunch, our loathings can be pretty intense. I need not mention the hundred-year, fraternal civil war, which around here we label a 'divide,' between analytic and continental philosophy; we are not known for our fondness for what passes as 'theory' among literature and cultural studies departments (and I have experienced plenty of uncivil behavior from folk in, say, science studies in return). But when professional philosophers are not just puzzled by the Straussians they encounter, we reserve a special kind of bile and invective against them, especially as Strauss's students found their ways into advising Goldwater and Reagan (and beyond); once I was halted in my invective against Wolfowitz by (The University of Chicago's) Ralph Lerner's, 'Paul once sat in that chair, and was no less passionate than you.' Undoubtedly a few of us were at least mildly irritated by reading Steven Smith's very respectful review of books on the legacy of Strauss in a recent New York Times Book Review--"doesn't he know that 'Strauss is not a Philosopher!'"?
In his famous essay, Burnyeat (a former teacher) overreached. Invoking "ordinary scholarship," Burnyeat treats Plato (surprisingly Popperian) as a "radical utopian," primarily relevant for opening up "a reasoned debate on the nature and practicality of a just society" (emphasis in Burnyeat). Given that Burnyeat was in no sense an ordinary scholar, who also searchingly pioneered the historiographical construction of the classics, these lines are painful read; Burnyeat reduces the significance of Plato's political philosophy to being a forerunner of Rawls. Those of us living in the shadow of the surveillance state may find Strauss' "anti-Utopian teaching" ("invented" or not) about Plato a useful touch-stone, sometimes. For in Republic and Laws surveillance are ever-present and its limits thematized. The cause of Burnyeat's overreach is that Plato's Laws has always been a blind-spot to him (and until recently ordinary analytic scholarship).
At some level, Burnyeat must have known he overreached, because he allowed the original and reprinted version of the piece to have a clear reference to a famous short story by Oscar Wilde, -- which may be read as an allegory on philosophical madness [Murchison is introduced as a truth-teller] ! -- that ends with that enigmatic "I wonder."
The animosity of analytical philosophy toward what I call "vulgar Straussianism" is certainly well deserved; vulgar Straussians practice a reductive hermeneutics where all classical texts end up saying the same thing (i.e., something like Nietzschean nihilism is true and needs to be overcome, or -- what amounts to the same -- endorsed); Allan Bloom's attempts at put-downs of Woody Alan's Zelig are comically off-key. Moreover, we analytical philosophers like to think of ourselves as being against discipleship--we prefer to follow the arguments where they lead. (So, we might understand ourselves as disciples of argument.) In fact, perhaps our animosity is, in part, explained by the fact that we have been so incapable of preventing disciple-ship in our midst (fill in your favorite example: Wittgensteinians, Cavell-ians, or -- more controversially -- Rawlsians, etc.) Yet, the too-generous reception of Burnyeat's essay, which includes a brilliant parody of a Straussian reading of Strauss, signals the tribalism in our midst, as if philosophy reduces to party-politics (cf. here and here).
As an aside, analytic metaphysics may well be the partial off-spring of Straussianism (recall hereand here), so the vehement anti-Straussianism also obscures our own sources and, thus, a proper self-understanding.
In his NYT piece, Smith, a respected Spinoza scholar, seems to treat the right sort of discipleship as a virtue: "Like all serious teachers, Strauss developed followers, and like all disciples these have split over the meaning of their teacher’s work." This claim strikes me as based on a mistake. It's true that once one has "developed followers" the split over meaning seems inevitable. But not all serious teaching involves the choice of creating a school. If we grant serious teachers the possibility of thoughtful reflection on the needs of their students, their chosen discipline, and, perhaps, the political needs of their times--they may desire and, in fact, be capable of avoiding school-formation. In his obituary of Ian Mueller, Stephen Menn rightly calls attention to Mueller's stance on this point (see also my obituary).
Smith's claim is also at odds with what he takes to be his understanding of Strauss, who he understands as possessing that "special combination of philosophical radicalism and political moderation." One need not agree with Smith's evaluation to recognize that 'radicalism' and 'moderation' are both extremely context-sensitive as well as open to post-facto re-interpretation. By tacitly denying that Strauss had alternatives available to him qua teacher, Smith avoids too-easily the second-order moral and philosophical reflection on Strauss' choices as scholar-teacher among the American (political) elite(s).
Even so, the experiences of Strauss' students hold more than historical significance. They often describe -- as Smith reports -- their experiences as a "conversion experience. “Saul on the road to Damascus was not more stunned, nor more transformed than I,” [Jaffa writes."] (I was reminded of L.A.Paul's "What Mary can’t expect when she’s expecting," which describes motherhood in language remniscent of Pauline's conversion (recall).) This reminds us that student attachments to teachers can be very intense, sometimes bordering on madness. (This is not to deny the madness among teachers and their attachments to students!) Saying this is not to deny that a post-conversion rationalization cannot be secured. Such attachments (and post-facto rationalizations) are, of course, thematized in Plato's works (and not only there)--this, too, is a blind-spot of Burnyeat when reflecting on Strauss' contributions to Plato scholarship, despite (or perhaps because) his own serious engagement with the very possibility of philosophical teaching.
An eminent logician once taught me that there are many routes into philosophizing and one's philosophical education. The texts and teachings of Strauss and their fate in the age of complicity with American empire are one such starting point; there are alternatives, too.