Jonathan Rowe has a long post here about Straussianism, and which group of Straussians is really closer to the truth about Strauss himself, and so forth. Although I’ve studied under prominent Straussians, I don’t consider myself either a Straussian or an expert on his work, since I’ve read almost none of it. Is Harry Jaffa right about Strauss? I don’t know or care. There are two things I like about the Straussians: first, they actually read the works of the classical political philosophers with a desire to understand them for what they say, rather than merely to see what “influence” these philosophers had. This is quite refreshing to me; as C.S. Lewis’ Wormwood puts it,
The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks in whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and with what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question.’ To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
The second thing is related—the Straussians do not buy into the “modern” notion that politics and morality are separate. This notion is dangerous nonsense, but there are precious few willing to say so, and the Straussians are willing to say so. Of that I approve.
Some of the Straussians are deeply opposed to what they call “modernity.” In their view (strongly reminiscent of Nietzsche’s) reason—they usually say “modern” reason, as if to distinguish it from some other kind of reason—has led us into decadence and away from the good old fashioned aristocratic virtues. In the past, people knew their place—there were those who were higher and those who were lower, and they didn’t seek to get out of that spot. Then came the Enlightenment; this consisted of a movement of clever, sneaky philosophers and writers, like Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne, and, most of all, Machiavelli. Such writers pretended to be Christians, when in fact they were skeptics bent on destroying the dream of a political state which would keep us moral as well as safe. They watered down the goals of politics to make them attainable. Locke was the zenith—or, these Straussians would say, the nadir—of this movement. The consequence was the modern secular state in which science and its methods are employed to the “relief of man’s estate” (a phrase from Bacon), while the old spiritual virtues languish. What are these spiritual virtues? Well, this is rarely put into words, but the answer is, authority, order, devotion to the “holy cause,” various other barbarisms masquerading as higher goods. Will Wilkinson has a post here on Harvey Mansfield, a prominent Eastern Straussian (whose student, Robert Eden, was my political theory professor). Wilkinson hits it on the head when he says that “Mansfield...is exhorting us to imagine his moral opinions as lines in the book of nature.”
On the other hand, I think the hysteria over Strauss and his readers is too extreme. Strauss, like Ayn Rand or Herbert Marcuse, is just a political thinker, and people read him and agree with some things he says, but neither his followers nor Rand’s or Marcuse’s, are a “cult,” or some secret conspiracy to run the world, the way the left keeps saying. And anyway, everyone knows the Freemasons are really running the world, so there’s nothing left over for the Straussians anyway.
I posted more on this subject here.