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Among the Straussians

In response to:

The Fundamentalists and the Constitution from the February 18, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

It has become a common practice among reviewers faced with the task of generating a single review essay from eight or ten books to elaborate a broad critical thesis rather than to assess individual titles. This was Gordon S. Wood’s tactic in his lucid piece taking the Straussians to task (“The Fundamentalists and the Constitution” [NYR, February 18]).

The practice exacts a price in misdirection, however. Wood’s essay is a case in point, at least with respect to one of the volumes nominally under review—the late Robert Horwitz’s anthology The Moral Foundations of the American Republic. Including this collection under the rubric of Straussian fundamentalism is a little peculiar. Wood does, to be sure, advise us that “not all the contributors to these collections are Straussians or even political conservatives.” But this passing disclaimer, which alludes to no specific titles, can hardly prepare readers for the remarkable catholicity of Horwitz’s collection.

Horwitz was a Straussian but not a sectarian, and his contributors in fact include this writer (my views on Strauss are evident in “The Philosopher Despot,” my essay on Allan Bloom in the January Harper’s); the late Columbia historian and well-known liberal Richard Hofstadter; the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University, and a progressive egalitarian, Robert Dahl; and that redoubtable critic of Strauss and fundamentalism, and the biggest surprise of all in Horwitz’s volume, the notable historian, Gordon S. Wood. Yes, Gordon S. Wood.

I admire Wood’s finely crafted critique of Straussian fundamentalism and believe he means what he says. But I fear that other readers, familiar with the gyrations of Strauss’s esoteric method, may somehow conclude that in reviling as Straussian a book to which he himself is a closet contributor, Wood may actually be revealing himself as…a Straussian?

Benjamin R. Barber

Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

Gordon S Wood replies:

Professor Barber is correct in saying that I ignored the contributions of non-Straussians in the volumes I used in my essay. I was interested only in the contributions of the Straussians and said so in my article. I had no intention of assessing individual titles and was not writing a conventional review, as the grouping of the titles in a separate box under the heading “works discussed in this essay” should have suggested.

I agree with Professor Barber, however, that it would be unfortunate if the format I used implied that the Straussians are in any way opposed to scholarly debate and discussion. Far from it. They enjoy argument as much as any scholar, and perhaps more than some of their opponents. Robert Horwitz certainly did. For his volume of fourteen essays he collected a number of disparate contending pieces (some of which had been previously published elsewhere, including Hofstadter’s, Dahl’s, and mine) and set them among a more or less equal number of Straussian contributions. The point in all these bicentennial volumes and collections is not that the Straussians are the only contributors but that they are such vigorous and articulate ones with a scholarly voice disproportionate to their numbers. To call attention to this phenomenon in current scholarship was the aim of my essay.

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