Peter Thiel’s Apologia: Leo Strauss and Donald Trump

I wrote the piece below almost five years ago, after a New Yorker article on Peter Thiel had appeared, which referenced the writings and philosophy of Leo Strauss. Though Strauss had passed well before my time at University of Chicago, I studied with a few of his students and admirers, including Allan Bloom, Nathan Tarcov and Clifford Orwin. This certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert of “Straussian” philosophy, but at the time (2011), I thought I’d capture what I remembered of Bloom, his writings as well as a relatively small subset of Strauss’ published work. Reviewing it today, it still struck me as reasonably accurate if not particularly well written, especially given some of the recollections were just that — remembering what Bloom said some twenty plus years later.

I feel obligated to reiterate that I don’t know Thiel and don’t have anything personal against him other than I disagree with some of his politics and, potentially, as I’ve never spoken with him, his extrapolations and interpretations of Strauss and Bloom’s work. It doesn’t take a genius to see someone who’s a pretty astute businessperson, and I enjoyed and agreed with much of Zero to One.

My point in “re-publishing” the earlier piece is that I highly doubt one could draw a direct line from believing in “Straussian philosophy” to supporting Donald Trump. We’ll of course never know what Strauss or Bloom would have thought of the current US election — I suspect they’d be disgusted at the low level of discourse, fanned by social media — but I’ll offer these musings:

Bloom was explicitly supportive of people’s right and need to distinguish good from evil, and of society and politicians decrying the injustices and ineptitude of Soviet government and society, an “Evil Empire.” It seems quite different from the gross categorization of illegal Central American immigrants as “Bad Hombres.” The nature of Bloom’s thoughts on Communism (and relatedly Fascism) was quite subtle and sophisticated, of which there were three primary, intertwined concerns:

First, the nature of Communist society was inherently unjust and ineffectual, because it didn’t align with aspects of human nature foundational to society’s progress and ultimate happiness. Though one could argue or assume that everyone is created, in God or the laws’ eyes, equal, in actuality, there are differences in skills and talents that enable individuals to be better in certain instances than other individuals — better scientists, philosophers, musicians, basketball players, etc. Communism, by its very nature, would aim to minimize such naturally occurring differences, and consequently, prevent more talented individuals from reaching their potential and also benefiting society. As such, it was and is “unjust”. (Bloom’s interest in Plato’s Republic partly stemmed from its discussion of those inequalities’ potential benefits to society.)

Second, given that labor would not be paid on skill, capability or ostensibly even work for wages, people are not incentivized to work diligently. In one lecture, Bloom mentioned that when the Communists assumed power, food shortages (and consequent famine) ensued because the farmers stopped being productive: “They simply stopped working.” [I’m admittedly quoting hazy memories of a 24 year old lecture and didn’t fact check the causality.]

Third, establishing a communist society was corrupted by the fact that it required a totalitarian regime to implement, oversee and often brutally enforce it existence, qualities it shared with the other twin spectre of 20th century government, Fascism. Workers might unite and revolt, but a ruthless tyrant was required to establish the government. Furthermore, enforcing its foundational requirement — a near-classless society — required forcefully “equalizing” the differences amongst people, the very ones which, in concert, benefited society: progress, invention, etc. I don’t need to describe the nature and destruction that such tyrannical force, justified with rabble-rousing rhetoric, wreaked on not only the countries themselves, but the world at large.

It’s this third point that’s most relevant to why I question Thiel’s allegiance to, and support of, Donald Trump, especially in light of his respect for Strauss’ work. Amidst Trump’s desire to return America to greatness “again”, the Republican candidate is leveraging rhetoric and threats consistent with those of totalitarian dictators — whom Bloom would have, referencing Classical literature, simply called “tyrants.”

Trump ruthlessly attacks dissenters, whether his opponent, the press, former business associates and beauty queens, even indicating that he would use government institutions outside his control to persecute and quash opponents. His proposed clampdown on immigration could likely stifle many who innovate and give the United States an edge. As an interesting counterpoint, in another lecture during “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” I distinctly remember Bloom provocatively asking the class whether it was necessarily just that the United States required its president to be physically born in the country when it was possible that the best candidate could have been born elsewhere.

If Strauss and Bloom themselves were to be studied in the same way they studied philosophers and texts—trying to understand them as they understood themselves vs. a contemporary lens — one would inevitably have to consider their writings, especially Strauss’, in light of, if not as responses to, the two forms of government that either exiled or killed millions of people, and those leaders who established and promoted those regimes.

Through fortune, need and possibly prescience, Strauss left Germany (incidentally, where Thiel was born) for England after the Nazi party had been established, but before it had assumed power, then emigrated the United States, where he taught at colleges, including a significant stint at University of Chicago. I can easily envision how he felt viewing the rise, death and destruction that swept across (and remained in parts of) Europe from the late 30s through the early 70s, as he studied ancient and modern history and philosophy — musing how history, or its dynamics, would eternally repeat itself, not unlike how Nietzsche described.

To my mind, it’s not a giant leap to imagine Strauss or Bloom perceiving Trump as a tyrant in the making, one less interested in making government and society better than in blowing it up, ironically, “by any means necessary” to achieve a noble, populist goal, a “dominant United States”. A leader who would indiscriminately and unjustly penalize entire tranches of people for perceived affronts to America’s greatness.

More recently, I think about how they might view this election and Trump’s rise and support, and how such dangerous demagoguery can so easily come to power, amidst part of a population entranced by rhetoric and another, equally foolish group believing that the unthinkable could never happen in a much wiser, all knowing “modern” age.

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Peter Thiel in the New Yorker / Leo Strauss / Studying with Allan Bloom

I read the profile on serial entrepreneur/venture capitalist/libertarian Peter Thiel, who heads the Founders Fund, in the New Yorker with great interest. Besides some substantial ups and downs in his hedge fund, he has funded some of the most interesting — and likely profitable — “start ups” in recent memory, including Facebook and Spotify. As if that were not enough, he started by founding PayPal, which he sold to eBay for billions. Early in the article, it mentioned that he was reading Leo Strauss, whose name was frequently mentioned as inspiring George W. Bush’s neo-con cabinet’s argument for the “pre-emptive” strike against Iraq. Even actor-director-sometime liberal activist Tim Robbins had poked fun of governmental Straussians mid-decade, through his Public Theater play Embedded, portraying the Bush cabinet paying homage to a large, well-lit poster of a younger Strauss.

I found the positive and negative media coverage curious back then and wondered what Strauss and his student Allan Bloom would have thought of Strauss’ purported inspiration for justifying the wars.

We’ll never know, but when I saw Strauss purposely name-checked/dropped in the Thiel New Yorker article, it made me remember Bloom, with whom I took two classes: an introduction to political philosophy and a graduate seminar on Aristotle’s Politics. I’ve read several of Bloom’s books — The Closing of the American Mind, Giants and Dwarfs as well as his translations and commentaries on Rousseau’s Letter to M. D’Alembert and Plato’s Republic. I also had a few conversations with him during office hours back in 1992, the year before he passed away. Of Strauss’ writings, I’ve read Natural Right and History, Note on the Plan of Beyond Good and Evil, the essay on Genesis, many of the essays in History of Political Philosophy (which he edited with Joseph Cropsey) and The City and Man. I’ve also read two of Shadia Drury’s critiques of Strauss (which are well-worth reading), as well as a collection of essays on Closing. I know this represents a subset of both men’s oeuvres — Strauss was incredibly prolific — but…well…I think they are reasonably representative of their thinking and interests.

I’m writing this not as a critique of neo-conservatism or of libertarianism, or of conservatives, the Bush administration or, for that matter, of any liberals. It’s simply meant to clarify what I feel are some misconceptions of Bloom and Strauss, who were wary of philosophy being simplified and co-opted by special interest groups and politicians looking for academic and intellectual justification for their often wrong-headed beliefs. In fact, one of Bloom’s main arguments of Closing is that the Left used an astounding misinterpretation of Nietzsche to support a watered-down version of relativism that logically precluded anyone from judging or valuing anything — from individuals, to the arts, to regimes — even as these very people thought their relativism an unassailable truth. Ironically, Bloom claimed, this was precisely the opposite of what Nietzsche had argued: the supremacy of certain individuals and forms.

Here’s some of what I remember, filtered through the haze of 20 years ago:

-Strauss and Bloom were primarily interested in understanding regimes and their citizens — how particular regimes cultivated particular types of citizens and their relationships to the government and to each other. This type of study was categorized as “political philosophy” and was not limited to understanding secular government and society (established through reason and natural right), but also included studying those governed by divine belief (established through God’s command as relayed through the Bible). They thought such serious study a critical component of understanding human nature and purpose, the highest calling of philosophy — answering the fundamental, permanent questions, like “What is the good life?”

-Strauss and Bloom both held that the two primary progenitors of these two forms of government were the Greeks and Jews via ancient Athens and Jerusalem, respectively. Strauss wrote more than Bloom about Jewish thinkers and writing, including essays on Spinoza, Maimonides and Genesis, but Bloom, clearly an acolyte of Plato and Rousseau, also respected the value of belief in the divine, as believers possessed a sound moral foundation, even if it wasn’t founded on reason (and reasoning), that was a critical component of civil society. In this regard, he was not unlike Rousseau whose chief concern about the Enlightenment and the arts (First Discourse, Letter to M. D’Alembert) was that it would undermine civil society’s critical belief in the divine…even as he composed operas.

-To Bloom’s mind, at the very least, the religious — even casual believers — felt comfortable discerning right from wrong, an act contemporary casual relativists would deem “judgmental” and against their purported, though ultimately superficial openmindedness. Thus, Bloom was respectful of religion even if he himself wasn’t a believer. Consequently, he felt that one could be a non-believer without necessarily being a nihilist; natural right, discerned through reason, could also provide humanity (and societies) a moral foundation. I think he also believed that although these two traditions were markedly different, that they could co-exist, though not tension-free, in a democracy like the United States (or Athens 5th Century B.C.).

-Strauss and Bloom’s great interest and study of regimes seems to imply that government is important — very important, as it helps determine the character of its citizens, something that Tocqueville clearly noticed in Democracy in America. Some forms of government are more desirable (demonstrably better) than others, but Strauss’ thinking does not appear to support the principles of libertarianism (and/or limited government). In fact, early in Closing, Bloom dismisses the Ayn Randian form, when he claims that many female college students cite “The Fountainhead” as a favorite, not recognizing its decidedly illiberal, inegalitarian implications. It is not clear to me that Strauss or Bloom believed in a diminished government, though they were against the range of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century — fascist and communist — which they felt didn’t align with natural rights or divinity. I don’t know why Thiel was reading Strauss — beyond his being on conservatives’ reading lists — but in any case, it is not because Strauss was libertarian. For what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that people on the left could learn a lot by reading Strauss (and Bloom).

-Bloom was a great teacher, sometimes a provocateur in and out of class. He believed that liberal education, supported by studying the greatest thinkers, was fundamental to democracy; that’s what inspired the initial essay and eventual book of Closing. He was quite funny, and you can get a sense of his lectures by listening to the multiple audio recordings of his lectures, which are free. I saw him have some great debates with hostile students, whom he’d de-fang with simple logic. One of my favorite memories was when he asked a young female student, “What makes you think you know more than Plato?” I went to Chicago an avowed liberal and, now in my early 40s, I’m still liberal, but at Chicago, I was forced to question my beliefs, to better understand their foundations, to think, to tackle the “great books” — not always grasping the subtlety of their meaning, but definitely taking something great away. This openness in the form of questioning, informed and inspired by “great books” and great teachers, was what Bloom and Strauss thought liberal education should be, and that it was fundamental to a democratic society (and government).

-Shadia Drury has argued — somewhat persuasively — that Strauss and Bloom believed in philosophy’s preeminence in society (aligned to Plato’s hierarchy in the Republic) and consequently that they hoped to increase their form of philosophy’s influence in government, not unlike Machiavelli’s desire to advise the prince in The Prince. I never discussed this with Bloom, so it could be true. That being said, I don’t believe they were attempting to create a secret cabal to usurp political power. Actually, if Strauss and Bloom were so concerned about keeping the secret beliefs of the great philosophers secret, they would have been foolish to have written Persecution and the Art of Writing (which argued and illuminated that philosophers, to avoid being tried and killed, attempted to obscure their true beliefs in the face of offending people and governments [Socrates being put to death Athens being an example of philosophy not protecting itself]) and The Closing of the American Mind (which was an open critique of relativism on education, with a forward by a Nobel Prize winning, best selling American novelist!). Clearly, neither men were that concerned with secrecy…or they wouldn’t have written these books, which remain in print decades after their deaths. It could make for a great Dan Brown novel though, and conspiracy theories abound.

-Bloom’s critique of rock and roll seemed quite inspired by Plato, Aristotle and Rousseau, who recognized the incredible influence of music on young people’s minds. Different “modes” made people feel different — could be ennobling for soldiers going to war; Aristotle wrote the better part of a book in the Politics on the subject. Bloom felt that rock and roll took advantage of young people’s souls by appealing to what was base and untutored in them. Plus it was ubiquitous. Interestingly, Bloom told me that even though he loved and had an extensive classical music collection, he also enjoyed some of the classic pre-rock tunes — the Great American Songbook. As I walked with him across the quads of Chicago late in the day, with long shadows cast in front of us, he started singing “Me and My Shadow.” I asked him what he thought of those songs, and he said they were nice and simple songs — not like rock.

-That Bloom was gay was apparently known to many “in the academy.” I suspected that he had AIDS, as he had taken a leave of absence the year before I arrived at Chicago. That being said, I never felt that his sexual proclivity, which I didn’t think much about in college, was inconsistent with his support of so-called family values. He simply believed that young people, himself included, benefited from having two parents at home. Children of divorced parents, he found as a teacher over many years, were more likely to hold strong opinions and be less open to questioning them — something that was sub-optimal in a liberal education, which was foundational to democracy. Again, this thinking was embraced by the Right and criticized by the Left, but I never felt that Bloom embraced the notion of “family values.” Quite the contrary, he disliked the very use of the terms “values” and “cultures”, which he thought strayed from their original words’ true meaning and reflected unthinking relativism. He simply found that children raised by a family (parents who remain together and do not divorce) better prepared students for a liberal education.

I loved my experience at University of Chicago. I haven’t spent much time thinking about everything I learned there, but taking classes with Bloom, Clifford Orwin, the great Greek translator David Grene, the cultural historian Karl Weintraub (who disagreed with Bloom on historical relativism), his wife Katy O’Brien-Weintraub, the great art historian Ingrid Rowland, philosopher Ted Cohen and critic-at-large and photographer Joel Snyder amongst many others, was so important to my intellectual development.

As I approach my 20th reunion next spring, it’s great to remember how much I learned.