The Politics of Moderation: Strauss’s Esotericism

To the Editors:

At the end of his “Reply to Harry Jaffa” (Claremont Review of Books, Spring 1985), Thomas Pangle threatens that Harry Jaffa is so immoderate that he is in danger of being stricken from the list of philosophers. Accordingly, he pleads with Jaffa’s friends and followers to prevent him from publishing more essays like “The Legacy of Leo Strauss.” As one of Jaffa’s long-time followers, I am writing to say that, before I read his “Reply,” I might have been sympathetic to Pangle’s plea. Having read it, I am more convinced than ever of Jaffa’s moderation.

It is hard not to sympathize with Pangle, the Straussians, and others who have felt the sting of Jaffa’s words. However, in important matters like those under dispute, we put aside our merely personal feelings in order to ask: Did they deserve to be stung?

According to Professor Pangle, in a philosophic dispute on moral and political questions no one deserves to be stung: “labeling [one’s] opponents or their views immoral” is forbidden by him. Anyone who dares to label, he believes to be “ineligible as a dialectical partner.” But this means that if one is in a dispute with someone whose position is truly immoral, one must conceal that truth. Now I have heard that Professor Pangle is a believer in Leo Strauss’s doctrine of philosophic esotericism, according to which philosophers are supposed to conceal their true views from the uninitiated; e.g., by putting them at the very center of their writings. So let me say, without, in any way wishing to pull rank on Pangle, that Mr. Strauss told me—in perfect confidence—the whole truth about esotericism: It is the means of defending morality. (I put the previous sentence at the very center of this letter, in order that it not be concealed from any Straussian.) Pangle seems to suppose that Straussian esoteri­cism could obfuscate immorality. Strauss would never have taught such a thing, because that would have contradicted his teaching that philo­sophic wisdom and political moderation are harmonious. Acting accordingly in his dispute with Machiavelli, Strauss scarcely hesitated to declare his inclination to the view that he was an evil teacher of evil. Of course, Machiavelli was not alive to be stung by Strauss’s hard words. However, Jaffa is far more gentle with Pangle than Strauss was with Machiavelli.

After all, Jaffa does not claim that Pangle “is free from any inner attachment to anything noble or just,” but only that “Pangle’s hero” is. In fact, Pangle’s understanding of the nature of philosophic disputation confirms the truth, and so the justice, of Jaffa’s “labeling” of his position. For to claim, as Pangle does, that a worthy “dialectical partner” is indifferent to moral dis­tinctions is to claim, theoretically, that morality—the noble and the just—is not a matter worthy of serious philosophic concern and to claim, practically, that we should not help our friends, even by means of disputations, to be as good as they can be. Harry Jaffa has devoted a good part of his life to trying to help his friends by means of philosophic disputes on the nobility and justice of their actions. This is a sign of his amazing moderation; i.e., of his adamantine devotion to the achievement of the best good that can be had in the present circumstances, and by the mildest of means.

That Pangle believes Jaffa’s unusually kind and helpful words to be the products of “disfigur­ing passions,” that he supposes Jaffa’s almost profligate use of his time to correct Pangle’s essay to be “mikropsuchia,” is symptomatic of the very blindness to the moral phenomena which “The Legacy of Leo Strauss” is intended to correct.

–John A. Wettergreen