The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

Zombies V: I am not a Straussian


The one thing I can't stand about Straussians is that they are always trying to deny that they are Straussians.  I recently debated a friend on a private message board in which he tried to deny this very thing, and I just let him, because every attempt he made to disprove that he was a Straussian only confirmed the fact that he was, indeed, a Straussian.

It is only Straussians who feel the need to deny they are Straussians, while the rest of us are simply never accused of such a thing.

Robert Kagan, a few years ago, actually wrote an article ironically entitled I Am Not A Straussian, in which he tries to subtly extricate himself from being labeled (outed?) as a Straussian.  He is amusing about it, and carefully avoids a full denunciation of all Straussians, as many Straussians denying that they are Straussians are apt to do, while also trying to make clear why (wink, wink) he isn't one.  It is an effort that would have made Leo Strauss himself proud.

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.

But it is in this cleverness, of course, that we can always find them out, these Straussians.  They are always engaged in perpetuating the Noble Lie, as Plato called it.

In truth, Straussians are more or less Zombies, and all Zombies are ultimately Straussians.  They have the vague family resemblance to human beings, but underneath they are motivated by a single desire, be that world domination, academic influence, or human flesh.

Which is why the cleverness of Straussians can be so misleading.  How can a mere ideologue, you may ask, evince the subtlety and depth that Straussians sometimes seem to exhibit?  But the answer is very simple, and if you have ever studied Descartes' Parrot, it should be very obvious.  A creature that spends its whole life merely imitating, parroting if you will, the surface appearance of deep people, can certainly fool you eventually into thinking that it possesses such depth.  Isn't this the whole point of the Turing Test?

The rest of us spend all of our efforts trying to appear not so deep, really.  It tends to confuse, and it can put people off.  There is nothing worse, I have discovered, than trying to fill a lull in a business meeting by bringing up the distinction between nature and convention as something essential to understanding ancient Greek thought.

Which is why this analysis of Will Smith's remake of I Am Legend as a Straussian parable, on the blog Biomusicosophy, is so refreshing -- though I have my own suspicions that the author may himself be either a Straussian or a Zombie.   The author hangs his entire analysis on the particularly Straussian (though admittedly also Masonic) distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric.

The film has two sections and two audiences. I Am Legend is truly two films. Section One, the esoteric section, runs from the beginning of the film to the moment when Will Smith goes on a suicide mission after his dog has died and he has lost all hope. At the moment when the infected almost devour him, there is a bright light. This light represents a few things, one of them being the transition into Section Two of the film. Section Two, the exoteric section, runs from the moment after the bright light until the end of the movie, when the Brazilian woman and the child make it to the safe zone in Vermont. My thesis is this: Section One of the film is for philosophers, Section Two of the film is for the masses.

It's brilliant stuff, really, though, as Robert Kagan suggests (and he would know, being a Straussian) a real Straussian interpretation would invert the analysis to demonstrate that it is Section two, with all of the brutal action scenes, which is the true esoteric teaching, while the first part, trying to redeem mankind, is the part intended for mass consumption.

Not that I would know.

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