The semiotics of fear

I’ve never read the works of Leo Strauss, but a colleague (who we’ll call ‘TK’) once described Strauss’s philosophy to me roughly as follows:

TK: Strauss believed that people don’t actually mean what they say. There’s always a hidden subtext. If you are one of the initiated, who has the key to the code, you can decipher what they mean.

Me: So when Strauss said that people don’t mean what they say, did he mean that? Or did he, according to his own philosophy, actually mean something different? In which case, what he really meant was that people do mean what they say. But if that’s so, then he did mean that they don’t mean what they say. And then, well you get the point – we’re stuck in an endless logical loop.

TK: Indeed. Followers of Strauss are divided on this issue. Some think that he did mean that; some think that he didn’t. They’ve fallen out pretty badly over it.

I’ve no idea if that’s a fair description of Strauss, but it was enough to convince me that I could avoid reading him without doing great harm to my intellectual sanity. Apart from being inherently paradoxical, this sort of thinking is, I think, rather dangerous. It allows anyone who considers themselves one of the ‘initiated’, and as such understands what’s going on beneath the surface, to argue that we should ignore what others are saying because it’s not what they mean. Instead, we should pay attention to the initiate’s interpretation of what they’re saying, even if it’s the exact opposite of the actual words uttered. In this way, our intellectual high priests can convince us that black is white, dark is light, and the moon is made of green cheese.

Let’s take an example. If the Russians deny that they have plans to invade the Baltic states, are they are actually denying that they plan to invade the Baltic states? Or are they, by repeatedly denying the claim, deliberately drawing attention to it, thereby reinforcing in people’s minds the possibility that it might be true? If it’s the latter, then by saying that NATO fears are exaggerated, what the Russians are really doing is constructing a ‘fear narrative’. Denials are admissions, and attempts to reassure are in reality attempts to frighten.

Crazy? Yup. But this is precisely the argument put forward by four Estonian scholars in a new article published in the academic journal Media, Conflict & War. Entitled ‘Discourse of fear in strategic narratives: The case of Russia’s Zapad war games’, it needs to be read to be believed.

Zapad, you may recall, is the name of occasional exercises held jointly by the armies of the Russian Federation and Belarus. The last of these took place in 2017, and led to lots of hysterical commentary in the Western press. Numerous ‘experts’ lined up to explain that the exercise was much larger than the Russian claimed and that it could even be the precursor to an invasion of Poland or the Baltic States. The Estonian article analyzes how the Russians responded to these claims. It studies statements by official Russian spokesmen about Zapad 2017 ‘as a case study to exemplify concrete uses of fear discourses in strategic communication.’ The stated assumption is that military exercises are more than military exercises. They are tools in a psychological game of ‘strategic communication’ in which the Russians seek ‘the cultivation of a general atmosphere of fear and confusion.’

So how did the Russians spread fear during Zapad 2017? According to the authors, they did so by accusing the West of spreading fear. Russian officials, they say, ‘maintained that all danger scenarios about Zapad were ungrounded because the exercise was, in their words, “defensive”.’ Words ‘like “panic”, “hysteria” and the “Zapad syndrome” were used to describe the discourse of “irrational fear of Zapad”, allegedly cultivated among Western people by the NATO allies.’

Now, you might imagine that we should take these words at face value – that there really was a lot of ‘irrational fear’ and ‘hysteria’ about Zapad, and that all the Russians were doing was complaining about it, as well they might. But that would be wrong, say our Estonian friends, arguing that they have unlocked the secret code of what the Russians truly meant. The key to this code is the ‘logic of antithesis’. The Russian complaints were ‘projection’, in which the Russians accused the West of ‘everything that Russia has usually been accused of.’ According to the ‘logic of antithesis’, ‘when an antithetic enemy is created, it is often constructed as a symmetrical copy of one’s own structures.’ The Russians’ complaints of Western fear-mongering, disinformation, and aggression were, therefore, merely reflections of Russia’s own fear-mongering, disinformation, and aggression.

I suppose that could be true – in theory. But the authors don’t produce any evidence to show that it’s true in reality. All we have is the claim that they’ve somehow cracked the code. You can believe that if you like, but there’s no particular reason why you should. A simpler explanation would be just that the Russians meant exactly what they said. And as a general rule, I tend to think that the simpler explanation is normally the right one.

The same complaint can be made about the authors’ assertions concerning the second part of the Russian code, which they refer to as ‘affirmation through negation.’ The authors describe this in the following way:

It is noticeable that when representatives of the Russian Federation spoke about the threat of war in relation to Russia, they did it in a ridiculing tone, casting the threat scenarios related to Russia military’s capability as absurd, and referring to the ‘paranoia’ in the Western media. For instance, the news portal Delfi quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin [as saying] … ‘I can assure you: there are no plans for any sort of invasion into the territory of neighbouring countries.’ … Fomin’s explanation could be seen as both ironic and threatening. … What this example illustrates is that, rhetorically, Russia did not always need to express the growth of its military capability directly. Although the Russian spokespeople persistently denied the threat of Russia instigating a war, they nevertheless referred to the narrative of Russia’s increased military capability and the potential of starting a conflict. This rhetorical means could be called affirmation through negation – if something is constantly negated, the target audience develops a justified doubt that something is disguised behind the negation.

So, let’s get this straight. When Mr Fomin denied that Russia intended to invade neighbouring countries, this was ‘ironic and threatening’! What we’re being told is that by constantly denying that they had plans for military aggression, what Russian officials were really doing was drawing attention to the claims that they had such plans, and thereby deliberately inciting fear. I’m sorry, but in my mind this is ridiculous. It truly is a case of saying that white is black. Again, I guess that theoretically it could be true, but isn’t it more likely that the denials were just that – denials? If we follow the Estonians’ argument, if the Russians admit that they have aggressive intent, then they have aggressive intent. But if they deny that they do, then that’s ‘affirmation through negation’, and so that’s an admission too. Either way, the Russians are aggressors. This isn’t logic. It’s just a way of reinforcing prejudices.

This isn’t even the worst of it. For the authors wrap up their article with a rather bizarre piece of speculation, writing:

We cannot confirm whether ‘Zapad 2017’ was set up by Russia so as to depict NATO as exaggerating the ‘Russia threat’ and Russia as the moral victim, but this could indeed count as a plausible interpretation of Russia’s behaviour.

As I’ve said before, ‘Damn, those Russians are clever!’ They deliberately organized their exercise in a way that they knew would get all the crackpot Russophobes in the West to make hysterical, paranoid, exaggerations, multiplying the true number of troops in the exercise five-fold, ten-fold, or twenty-fold, and speculating that it would lead to the annexation of Belarus or the invasion of Poland. All those lunatic stories about Zapad 2017 – it turns out that they’re not our fault after all. The Russians conned us into writing them so that we’d look bad! You have to hand it to the them. They’re amazingly cunning.

Or maybe not. Maybe people in the West wrote all that nonsense about Zapad because they actually are paranoid or Russophobic or just have an interest in fomenting the idea of the Russian threat. Maybe when Russians complained about it all, they did so simply because it was something worth complaining about. Maybe when they denied that Zapad was a precursor to an invasion of Europe, it’s because it wasn’t a precursor to an invasion of Europe. Aren’t those more logical explanations than that it was all part of some dastardly plan involving saying one thing but meaning another, but in such a way that people knew that they meant the other and not the one (which makes me wonder why they didn’t just say so in the first place)? Conspiracy theories – even when framed in fancy academic jargon – generally overcomplicate. The idea that the Russians are grandmasters of the black arts of psychology and semiotics, that they’re craftsmen of complex scenarios in which their every action and statement is weaved seamlessly into coherent plans of ‘strategic communication’, gives them far more credit than they deserve. Sometimes, things are what they seem, and people mean what they say. When you start saying that a denial is really a confession, then you can accuse anybody of anything, and anything they say is an admission of guilt. And that, I guess, is the point. But it begs the question: who’s really constructing the ‘fear narrative’ here – the Russians or the Estonians?

21 thoughts on “The semiotics of fear”

  1. “The same complaint can be made about the authors’ assertions concerning the second part of the Russian code, which they refer to as ‘affirmation through negation.’”

    I have a suggestion for our State Duma – pass a law, forbidding to eat shit. All shy and conscientious members of intelligentsia, handshakable kreakls, hipsteriat, liberasts, EuroUkrs, Baltic Tigers Sprats and Free and Independent Western Media ™, in total accordance with “affirmation through negation” principle, would then start eating it with gutso… I mean, even more so. Because if The Regime is against it all Free People must be in favor of it!


  2. I read the article the professor reviewed. It appears to be, as he says, more warmed over hyperhawk cold war stuff about Russian fears of a security threat from the west and reassurances as being nothing more than part of a deception campaign while they wage a preternaturally aggressive, undermining stealth campaign designed to subvert ‘the West.’
    Once again though one has to wonder WHY it is that ‘we’ need to defend the Baltic states. One has to wonder WHY they were let into NATO and also WHY the Balts seem so eager to antagonise the Russians and simultaneously stoke Russophobia.


    1. that’s too easy, Patrick.

      The two senior research authors belong into an, yes, admittedly Eu sponsored academic network, which Paul may or may not have alluded to above.

      From there on it gets harder. Many, many scholars. And yes I am vaguely aware that some interesting projects are aware of EU sponsorship too, and successfully applied. One or the other I find interesting too.


  3. The thing about Carl Schmitt and such is that of course they aren’t saying that litterally no one is be believed. Obviously, the claim is that Carl Schmitt and his follower are the ones – and the only ones – to be believed. Same with the Estonian ‘scholars’.

    There are True Believers, and then there are Infidels. That’s all.


    1. I just realised that I made a massive boo-boo and wrote ‘Carl Schmitt’ when I meant ‘Leo Strauss’. I have amended the piece accordingly.


      1. Professor, I recommend you read Carl Schmitt as a Russia expert for the following reason:

        I read in one of the editions of Dutch Russophobe Marcel Van Herpen ‘Putin’s Wars’ that Putin and his inner circle are inspired by Carl Schmitt. Specifically, Schmitt’s ideas about sovereign dictatorship as manifested by Putin’s 2000 ‘Dictatorship of the Law’ Speech and his ‘radical power grab’ and the idea that Putin believes he is forcing through a new political order by whatever means necessary.

        Having read Carl Schmitt – and loathing him intensely because Schmitt’s aims were to justify the destruction of democracy and later the actions of Germany in both World Wars while using a combination of liberal rational scholarship and conservative thinking to do so – I can tell you that the people saying this have not really read Carl Schmitt.

        For a start, granting for a moment that Putin has established a dictatorship, Putin’s Russia does not meet Schmitt’s definition of a Sovereign Dictatorship which is a regime of constituting power that makes the rules up as it goes along in order to establish a new political order. Putin’s words in ‘Dictatorship of the law’ and in subsequent actions continuing up to the present day more closely reflect Schmitt’s ideas on what a ‘Commissarial’ or ‘Commission’ dictatorship looks like. Namely a dictator, as in Roman times, is vested with plenipotentiary powers to defend and strengthen the established constitutional order, and always ultimately constrained by that order. This indeed reflects more what Putin does using institutions and the 1993 constitution as the basis for his presidency and this was continued of course under Medvedev.

        So I do recommend reading Schmitt, if nothing else to be able to better deconstruct some of the things said by Russophobes. And while I find Schmitt egregious, he is a good writer.


      2. Paul, I found the Leo Strauss hype curious. But yes he links to Schmitt biography wise, somehow. As he links to others, As Hannah Arendt to both Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.


  4. Paul,

    I dealt with some issues involved in abuse of methods of analysis derived from Strauss in an extended discussion of a paper by two influential ‘neoconservatives’ who were self-professed disciples of his, Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky, entitled ‘Leo Strauss and the World’ of Intelligence’, which Colonel Lang posted on his ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ blog back in November 2005.

    (See .)

    It was in essence a defence of a ‘liberal’ tradition of analysis, key origins of which were in British naval intelligence in WW1, which was brought into the Office of Strategic Services by ‘Beetle’ Smith when he was Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff during the succeeding conflict.

    After Smith was appointed to sort out the fledgling CIA following North Korea’s attack on the South in June 1950, the same approach was incorporated into the Office and Board of National Estimates he employed the Yale historian and OSS veteran Sherman Kent to create.

    This analytical tradition was largely destroyed by William Casey, a veteran of the ‘derring do’ side of the OSS, after Reagan came to power.

    In my SST piece, I discussed some parallels between Kent’s views on intelligence methodology and the critique of the approach and performance of the pre-war and wartime MI6 by a distinguished ex-employee, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.

    This critique seemed to me applicable to the approach of that organisation to intelligence over Iraq, among other things, and I think the problems he identified are even more glaringly apparent with figures like Christopher Steele and Alex Younger.

    In general – although the piece needed more polishing than I had time to give it – I would largely stick by what I wrote then.

    However, I have become clearer about some matters relating to Strauss in the intervening years, partly through reading some commentary by an American scholar now teaching at East Anglia, Michael Frazer, who is kind enough to make much of his writing freely available on the ‘’ site.

    (See .)

    A 2006 piece entitled ‘Esotericism Ancient and Modern: Strauss Contra Straussianism on the Art of Political-Philosophical Writing’, while I think it too kind to its subject, does enable to separate out different strands of argument.

    It is a true and important observation that, where it is dangerous for people to articulate what they think candidly, they will not uncommonly find ways of making clear their real thoughts by oblique means, which can be understood easily by a target audience at the time, but which people reading what they write in later times have to learn to decipher.

    In Strauss, this – correct and valuable – emphasis is tied up with certain more specific applications, which are highly questionable. One is a reconciliation of a dilemma which is liable to arise if you believe that religious beliefs (or other kinds of collective belief) are socially necessary but rationally unjustifiable.

    Essentially, Strauss’s answer is one of the positions which one can attribute to the chameleon-like figure of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel: that in the interests of avoiding chaos, an élite should profess to subscribe to beliefs they do not hold, and even indeed persecute those with whom they have covert sympathy.

    A central problem with Strauss’s approach is that to determine whether there actually is an ‘esoteric’ meaning to a text, it is necessary to use the ideas of a school of intellectual historians who have always been ‘at dagger’s drawn’ with the Straussians: the ‘historicist’ school associated with a Cambridge (UK) tradition, in which Quentin Skinner is a crucial figure.

    This comes largely out of the work of the British philosopher/archeologist/historian and WWI vintage Admiralty Intelligence employee R.G. Collingwood, which I discussed in my SST remarks.

    Ironically, the value of his emphasis on the importance to reconstructing the problems which figures are trying to solve by reconstructing the context in which they were thinking and acting in studying the Soviet Union was well brought out in a fascinating discussion in Stephen F. Cohen’s 1973 biography of Bukharin, which alludes to Strauss.

    Towards its close, Cohen discusses a review by his subject of the 1935 study ‘The Fate of Man in the Modern World’ by Nikolai Berdyaev – a writer to whom, as we know, Putin has referred. Precisely because the biography has set out so much context, its author can see that his subject is indeed articulating an ‘esoteric’ critique of Stalinism: which has some relevance to understanding ‘Putinism.’

    In relation to intelligence analysis, however, what becomes pernicious is when – as with so much ‘neoconservative’ writing, and the Estonian analysis you discuss – the approach taken by Strauss to proving that the great philosophers were all ‘Grand Inquisitors’ at heart is promiscuously applied.

    Here, although I would want to develop the argument, my discussion back in 2005 of the ‘Collingwoodian’ intelligence methodology of Michael MccGwire, the former head of the Soviet naval section of the Defence Intelligence Staff, remains to the point.

    What I would now want to do would be to bring out the methodological sophistication arising out of a tradition where, if you got your analysis wrong, your ships ended up at the bottom of the sea, by reformulating some of MccGwire’s central arguments in terms of ideas drawn not just from Collingwood, but from ‘Bayesian’ analysis. (In its modern development, this owes a very deal to the work of Alan Turing’s assistant, Jack Good – born Irving Jacob – at Bletchley Park.)

    When I first became interested in these matters, in the mid-’Eighties, I was very much a member of what might be called the ‘Church’ of Cold War liberalism. However, I then discovered that among the ‘heretics’ were MccGwire and other experts on technical military issues who had concluded over time that conventional wisdoms on the ‘Soviet threat’ could not accommodate the available evidence.

    A point which he stressed – which does indeed bring one back to Strauss – is that textual evidence is commonly systematically ambiguous, involving a massive danger of circularity: that it comes to appear self-evident that the available evidence supports one’s initial assumption.

    A key issue was raised as far back as 1958, in a pioneering academic analysis entitled ‘Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age’, actually written just before its author, Raymond Garthoff, was recruited into the Office of National Estimates.

    As presented in a June 1950 discussion in the confidential General Staff journal ‘Military Thought’, the offensive configuration of the Red Army in Europe was a response to the fact that, unless the effective deployment of the vastly superior American military-industrial potential in Europe could be prevented, the Soviets must inevitably lose a world war they feared the ‘imperialists’ might unleash.

    It was precisely this kind of evidence which MccGwire – a colleague of Garthoff’s at Brookings in the ‘Eighties – repeatedly pointed out was inherently ambiguous.

    His solution to this problem – actually very ‘Bayesian’ in spirit – was that it was necessary to formulate the alternative hypotheses clearly, and generate testable predictions in relation to non-textual evidence which enabled one to assess their relative probability: the kind of weapons the Soviets produced, and how they trained and exercised their forces.

    When I first encountered MccGwire’s work, and mentioned it to one of the ‘cardinals’ of the ‘Church’, Lawrence Freedman, he said something dismissive to the effect that ‘retired spooks go the other way.’

    This turned out to be complete nonsense. At the same time Garthoff was producing his study, MccGwire had been working on Soviet submarines – discovering that the major part of the vast construction programme which had been initiated in 1950 had no anti-aircraft capability, but was equipped with an 100mm gun.

    Shortly after graduating as chief cadet captain from Dartmouth, and before he turned eighteen, MccGwire had had a ‘worms eye view’ both of the relief of Malta in ‘Operation Pedestal’ in August 1942, and of the Anglo-American landings in North Africa the following December.

    So it was not difficult for him to realise that his earlier assumption that the prime purpose of the Soviet submarine fleet was to attack NATO’s transatlantic lines of communication was wrong.

    These armaments would have been useless against convoys, but very effective had the kind of amphibious operations of which he had extensive personal experience been attempted in the Baltic or Black Sea.

    A result of this was that both Garthoff and MccGwire accurately analysed both the Soviet shift from nuclear strategy back to conventional ‘deep operations’ from the late ‘Sixties to the mid-‘Seventies, and then the decision to liquidate the whole ‘deep operations’ posture a decade later.

    A key analysis – the article ‘Rethinking War’ published in the Spring 1988 issue of ‘Brookings Review’, is actually available among a collection of MccGwire’s writings at the ‘Unz Review’ site. Also available on the web is an unpublished July 1987 paper ‘The Genesis of Soviet Threat Perceptions.’

    (See ; .)

    However, those whom MccGwire used to call ‘the keepers of the threat’ – and it is now clear that not only Freedman but Christopher Donnelly, who is supposed to be an expert on Russian military thinking, belong in this category – were not prepared to tolerate such heresy.

    So, they did not understand the old threat, or how and why it was liquidated. Now they have a new threat. And, like the Estonians you discuss, they lack the intellectual resources to understand it.


    1. A 2006 piece entitled ‘Esotericism Ancient and Modern: Strauss Contra Straussianism on the Art of Political-Philosophical Writing’, while I think it too kind to its subject, does enable to separate out different strands of argument.

      too kind to Strauss? … Or too kind of Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky’s use or misuse of Strauss? You do not give us any information about them. Strictly, and yes I am only halfway through your paper, could yes at that point I wondered why the relation between deception and “esoteric reading” never surfaced on your head. …

      We always agreed on one basic. A lot of this stuff has a significant, ok Phil Weiss would call it, tribal touch and feel about it. You surfaced on Mondoweiss shortly too, didn’t you? And yes, I admit the paper feels highly arrogant.

      But it is about Leo Strauss?


      1. ok more arbitarily. Strauss vs Straussians in the present, or more recent present. Maybe I’ll try to read a more recent German postdoctoral thesis/Habilitation on the subject:

        Claremont campus in search of the [ more recent] Straussians

        Andrew Majeske, Donald Trump, American Caesarism, and the Legacy of Leo Strauss


      2. LeaNder,

        I should stress that I have no pretensions to being a scholar. My most salient background is in a style of analytical television current affairs which is now extinct.

        What have found time and again, however, is that in trying to make sense of the present one is dragged back into making attempts, however hamfisted, to rethink one’s understandings of the past.

        Over the years, in trying to do this I sometimes found myself pushed back to looking in more depth into arguments I came across in my – undistinguished and mildly irreverent – Cambridge student career, four decades ago now.

        A case in point was when I encountered the discussion of the Schmitt and Shulsky paper on ‘Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence’ in the ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’ paper which Colonel Lang published in ‘Middle East Policy’ in May 2004. It sent me back to dismissive remarks about Strauss’s work on Hobbes in a lecture by the historian of political thought Quentin Skinner.

        Actually, I have come to think that in the methodological argument, both were in part wrong, as indeed I think Frazer suggests.

        On the one hand, I think the ‘historicist’ tradition which, in a British context, comes largely out of R.G. Collingwood, to which Skinner belongs, is quite right in arguing that to make sense of the great thinkers of the past, one has to understand them as responding to specific problems, rather than engaging in timeless arguments. It follows that the reconstruction of historical context is central to accurate interpretation.

        But, on the other, I think that Skinner in particular has been excessively disposed to disregard the extent to which one can still usefully, as it were, engage in a conversation with figures like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Plato or Aristotle.

        In relation to Strauss, a key – and highly controversial – text is the letter he wrote from Paris to Karl Löwith on 19 May 1933. Looking at it again, I see that there are arguments about the translation of this, and I could not immediately trace the original. A 2006 version of a key passage by Scott Horton reads as follows:

        ‘the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination. I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos. There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.’

        (See .)

        At this point, however, questions about Strauss’s understanding of ‘Roman thought’, raised very sharply by a writer in the tradition of Collingwood, become material. A central problem in the history of political ideas has been the relationship between the ‘republican’ Machiavelli of the ‘Discourses on Livy’, and the author of ‘The Prince’, widely regarded as a manual for tyrants.

        This, apparently, led Strauss to apply the notion of an ‘esoteric’ doctrine to Machiavelli. In his edition of ‘The Prince’, however, Wootton reconstructed the context to show that the advice given to the Medici in that text was not about how to deal with Florence.

        It related to the possibility that the Medici pope, Leo X, would attempt to establish a principality in central Italy for his nephew Giuliano. An excerpt from the study ‘Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetities from Machiavelli to Madison’ which Wootton published last year develops his reading:

        ‘So The Prince is a book about how to establish yourself as the ruler of a territory which has previously lacked any well-defined state power, and which, because of the prevalence of feudal inequality and private fortresses, is incapable of political liberty. It is a handbook for someone who wants to establish a despotism, but a despotism in a region where there had previously been no consolidated state power.’

        (See )

        What I think Strauss may have failed to understand is that ‘republican’ thought, from its origins as a reworking of ‘Roman thought’ in the context of sixteenth-century Italian dilemmas, has always had at its centre an understanding that what one might call constitutional government has preconditions, institutional and cultural.

        If this is so, the notion that there can be no ‘middle ground’ between ‘Caesarism’ and ‘natural rights’ theory is exposed as simply wrong. In trying to make sense of crisis periods in ‘modern’ history, at the time of in retrospect, what one might call an ‘historicist’ approach will commonly focus, not on abstract principles, but on understanding whether the conditions for an ordered liberty are or are not present.

        Whether or not ‘liberal’ prescriptions are relevant commonly depends on the answer to that question. So, to take two texts which Paul has discussed, the February 2014 memorandum to Nicholas II from Pyotr Durnovo, and the 1909 ‘Vekhi’ symposium, in the conditions of pre-revolutionary Russia a quite consistent case could be made, in terms of the ‘republican’ tradition, in favour of savage repression.

        Likewise, given conditions in much of Europe in the late ‘Twenties and early ‘Thirties, a case could be made for ‘Caesarism’ as the least worst option.

        That said, in assessing the cogency of the case, it was also relevant to ask how likely it was that a contemporary ‘Caesar’ would turn out to resemble Augustus, as portrayed by Virgil. A particularly interesting discussion comes in the portrayal of debates among the Munich intelligentsia after 1918 in Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel ‘Doktor Faustus’ – which is actually a work of political theory, among other things.

        What is essentially an ‘historicist’ critique of the kind of politics which Strauss would adopt is framed by Mann – see chapter 34 –in terms of two figures, both French: the great analyst of the failures of liberalism in France, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Georges Sorel.

        As Mann notes, in place of ‘parliamentary discussion’, his ‘Reflections on Violence’ suggested that: ‘the masses would have in the future to be provided with mythical fictions, devised like battle cries, to release and activate political energies.’

        The novelist goes on to characterise a tension which I have suggested is central to one version of Straussian ‘exotericism’ in a discussion of Sorel’s opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘the community.’ His book, it is suggested:

        ‘showed by implication that truth had the community as its goal, and that whoever would share in the community must be prepared to sacrifice considerable elements of truth and science and line up for the sacrificium intellectus.’

        It is interesting to compare this with a quotation from the 2002 study ‘Silent Warfare’ by Schmitt and Shulsky: ‘But intelligence can never forget that the attainment of the truth involves a struggle with a human enemy who is fighting back – or that truth is not the goal, but only a means towards victory.’

        (This, and a lot of similar material, can be found in an interesting 2017 thesis by Tom Griffin, entitled ‘Offensive Intelligence: An Epistemic Community in the Transition from Cold War Liberalism to Neoconservatism’, at .)

        In relation to making sense of Strauss and his followers (who obviously cannot be simply be equated), what may need to be taken into account is not simply the impact of the catastrophic nature of the ‘Caesarism’ which emerged in Germany. It may also be that, coming to the United States, he encountered a country where, in sharp contrast to the Germany of his youth, notions like that of the ‘droits imprescriptibles de l’homme’ had enormous – one might say ‘mythic’ – force.

        One then comes back to the problem implicit in the notion of ‘esoteric’ writing. If indeed, as an article to which you linked suggests, Strauss came to champion the kind of ‘natural rights’ thinking on which he had earlier poured scorn, was his ‘esoteric’ view that this was a Sorel-style fiction appropriate for its time and place? And, how should one regard the enthusiasm of many of his followers for building this ideology into a definition of the United States as a ‘propositional nation’?

        The question acquires fresh force if, as I do, one actually shares much of Strauss’s original scepticism about the kind of universalism found in the ‘Declaration of Independence’ – and is aware of the way that, in the thinking of those who made the American Revolution, it coexists, not always easily, with more traditional ‘republican’ ideas.

        A further question may then arise as to whether Strauss’s failure to grasp that the maxims of ‘The Prince’ were not intended as universally applicable indicates a failure to grasp the dangers of employing them in the setting of a constitutional republic. Among these, a not insignificant one is the danger that one ends up the prisoner of one’s own ‘mythical fictions’.


      3. thanks, David appreciated. Give me some time.

        We may be back to the old Janus Face between Zionism and “old Europe’s” Right up to its later more fascist expressions at the time. Wrong?

        In context: the two extreme struggling political expressions?

        Strictly that may have been our topic from the moment we met wordwise. At least as I recall more indirectly.

        But yes Strauss vs Löwith is an interesting topic. Or let’s say both vs Edith Stein? …


        on a more personal/private level, yes I did find most methods outside New Hstoricism, I guess it was called, uninteresting, as student of literature. Interestingly enough in spite of the fact I had disliked history classes in school. … With the exception of Dr. Traber who gave the by then notorious rebel a chance. A novelty at the time, in hindsight it was the only way he could challenge the curriculum.

        But from a new historicism basis, do you need Machiavelli to understand Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Venice may have both legal and cultural connotations that even the groundlings may have understood? Would you need Plato and the rest?


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