One Take on Strauss's Craziness
By Bryan Caplan
First, something should be said about the manner, the texture, the methodology of this book, which is really so absurd as to be almost incredible. It is based on the assumption, explicitly made at some points, that Machiavelli was a true Devil-figure, i.e., that he was evil, and that within this framework, he was all-wise, all-seeing, omniscient, etc… Taking his two books The Prince and The Discourses together, the result is that whenever Machiavelli contradicts himself in any way or omits something of note or puts in a particularly weak (to Strauss) argument or makes an error, Strauss immediately and persistently assumes that this simply couldn’t be and that there must be some deep, twisted, hidden meaning to all this.
Rothbard then savages the famed Straussian method of interpretation:
Now, it is true, as Strauss points out, that in those days, radical thinkers (i.e. thinkers against the usual stream) were wont to be circumspect, because they were in considerably more danger than they are today. But it is one thing to look for circumspection and quite another to construct a veritable architectonic or myth and conjecture based on Machiavelli as an omniscient Devil, writing on a dozen different layers of “hidden meaning.”
If this seems extreme, I shall give a couple of examples of the almost excruciatingly crackpot nature of Strauss’s scholarship…
First, Strauss’s flight into numerology. On page 48, he remarks on what is to him the strange and wondrous fact that Machiavelli’s Discourses have 142 chapters, the same number of chapters of Livy’s History. To me, this is not at all surprising, since the Discourses are proclaimed to be a commentary on Livy’s History. But this is enough for Strauss. This “strange fact” he says, “makes one wonder whether the number of chapters in The Prince is not also significant.”… On and on we go, until finally, on page 52, Strauss makes his crazy numerology explicit: “This is not the place to give further examples of Machiavelli’s use of the number 26, or more precisely, of 13 and multiples of 13…” And off we go further expecting at any moment to be introduced solemnly to the Mysteries of the Great Pyramid and the manacle of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Even though I’ve never read Strauss, I often speak of “Straussian readings.” It’s a catchy meme. Yet the Straussians I’ve met have been so dogmatic and unforthcoming that I suspect that Rothbard is basically right. Does anyone care to rise to the defense of Leo Strauss?