Two Students and One Administrator: A Reconstruction toward the Definition of a University [In re Leo Strauss]

by George Anastaplo

C…. Leo Strauss used to advise students that before they began a personal attack on someone, they should inquire of the man that they were talking with, “Is he a relative of yours, perhaps? Or somebody to whom you are indebted?”

B. Really? That is more practical-minded than I would expect from him.

A. Not even his warmest admirers would say that practical advice is the strongest side of him. That is partly because he makes little effort in that direction.

B. We do not hear as much about him around here as we used to. However, I suppose it is generally agreed among political scientists that a couple of his books still have some merit.

A. Much more than that should be said on his behalf.

B. How much more? Don’t forget that this is a social occasion.

A. He may well have been the greatest figure in the University since the [Second World] War, certainly among the departments outside of the physical sciences.

B. Are you not afraid of exaggeration? After all, some would say that there were people all over the University during Strauss’s time here who were just as good, if not better.

A. If anyone should say that, I’d wonder whether he understands how good Strauss really is.

B. Even in the law school, we had first-rate men in various subjects—Gregory and Bogert, to name a couple who were not at all controversial and are not here now.

A. You have no idea of how far you are from appreciating Strauss when you compare even these men to him. There is a world of difference.

B. Those men were excellent in their fields, with national reputations.

A. But they did not probe as deeply as Strauss—nor were the questions they considered as broad or as enduring.

B. Isn’t that a matter of opinion?

A. A lot of important things are, but some opinions are simply better than others. Look, I know what those men taught—

B. I do, too:     it was my job to know.

A. I am sorry I must insist, if only because I may be the only one still around here who was exposed as a student, at one time or another, to most of the men who were considered the University’s leading figures in the social sciences and the humanities during Strauss’s service. One is obliged to try to keep the record straight.

B. There was always something quixotic about you. Don’t you realize how easy it is to exaggerate the merits of someone you happen to be attached to?

A. Of course, and one has to be on guard against that. But I do have an idea of how the scholars on this campus with reputations thought (whether in law or in the humanities or in the social sciences)—I have a good idea both of the questions they directed themselves to and of what they said. They simply could not hold a candle to what Strauss was doing. Let us look, for instance, at what Strauss did in his study of—

B. Let’s be realistic! You must not realize how often someone in my position hears such an argument about a favorite scholar.

A. But may it not be valid sometimes? Your problem is deciding when. One cannot judge unless one has serious standards or reliable advisors with serious standards and unless one has a sound opinion of what the scholar under review does. I know you don’t agree about Strauss—for if you did, you would never have permitted him to leave this community.

B. That sort of things happens every day. It has nothing to do with me.

A. Things could have been done to make it attractive for Strauss to stay around here upon reaching the official retirement age:     such extraordinary measures, and the instances in which they are employed, contribute to the definition of a genuine university community.

B. We administrators have to defer to the judgment of a scholar’s discipline.

A. And what if the discipline does not speak with one voice?

B. There are recognized authorities. We have procedures for determining such matters. Besides, men get old, younger men are coming on—they must step aside; there is a natural process.

A. But, Mr. B, you do not permit the gem to be separated from your collection, no matter what the established practices are—that is, if you recognize it as the gem that it is.

B. I certainly recognize rhetoric when I hear it.

A. All right. Let me get down to cases. Look at the influence of Strauss in comparison with someone of greater stature than the men you’ve named, McKeon—

B. Aha! That shows how outdated you are:     it is remarkable how everything has passed you by.  McKeon is not really much to compare Strauss with. He’s passé, too.

A. Oh, I know that McKeon has had his day as a campus power—

B. I don’t suppose you will ever grow up. Won’t you see that there are trends in such matters:     sometimes one man’s stock is up, sometimes another’s. Much depends on whether he strikes a response in the mood of the moment—then his reputation is made.

A. At least for awhile. Do no questions and discussions transcend the moment? You did speak of the natural a moment ago. What did you mean by that?

B. I am surprised to hear you speak of McKeon and his cult. Everyone thinks of you as independent-minded, perhaps even too much so.

A. I never was one of McKeon’s followers—I was no protégé of his—but it is unrealistic to disparage the power of the man, however unfashionable he has become. Even so, when one compares his work—

B. No let me sum up your position about Strauss—I know it!—for the others here should understand what you are really saying and how someone in my position must look at such problems.

A. Believe me, I am not really concerned about the others—

B. Oh, I know you are probably winning this argument with them—

A. You don’t seem to understand that it’s not a question of “winning.” It is a question of what the truth is and of how we may best seek it. But I’m afraid we are about to be interrupted by someone from your office with a message  .  .  .

The University of Chicago [undated]

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