Monday, December 14, 2009


Numerology, Global Warming, Moral Relativists, Truth Relativists, and Leo Strauss

From Bryan Caplan:

If you think Rothbard was harsh on Hayek in Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, here's what he has to say about Leo Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli:
First, something should be said about the manner, the texture, the methodology of this book, which is really so absurd as to be almost incredible. It is based on the assumption, explicitly made at some points, that Machiavelli was a true Devil-figure, i.e., that he was evil, and that within this framework, he was all-wise, all-seeing, omniscient, etc... Taking his two books The Prince and The Discourses together, the result is that whenever Machiavelli contradicts himself in any way or omits something of note or puts in a particularly weak (to Strauss) argument or makes an error, Strauss immediately and persistently assumes that this simply couldn't be and that there must be some deep, twisted, hidden meaning to all this.
Rothbard then savages the famed Straussian method of interpretation:...
First, Strauss's flight into numerology. On page 48, he remarks on what is to him the strange and wondrous fact that Machiavelli's Discourses have 142 chapters, the same number of chapters of Livy's History. To me, this is not at all surprising, since the Discourses are proclaimed to be a commentary on Livy's History. But this is enough for Strauss. This "strange fact" he says, "makes one wonder whether the number of chapters in The Prince is not also significant."... On and on we go, until finally, on page 52, Strauss makes his crazy numerology explicit: "This is not the place to give further examples of Machiavelli's use of the number 26, or more precisely, of 13 and multiples of 13..." And off we go further expecting at any moment to be introduced solemnly to the Mysteries of the Great Pyramid and the manacle of Dr. Fu Manchu.
A commentor says
I'll try and briefly say something about Strauss's manner of interpretation. Strauss was informed by two traditions of interpretation--the Greek and the Talmudic. If he sometimes went overboard in his detective work (and I won't deny he did), it is well to remember that he viewed himself as restoring to our historical and philosophical memory a "forgotten kind of writing" that had been forgotten because modern assumptions (or presumptions) had themselves been taken overboard.
My comment there is

Applying numerology to Machiavelli sounds wrong,but that he writes in units of 13 is an interesting point. What is his motive? Maybe just clarity (i.e., 13 is the optimal number of sections for any book), but that's interesting too, and a sign that he was very careful about his writing.

I like the earlier commentor's point about Strauss noting that there is an older way of writing that we have forgotten. After all, a lot of people *did* believe in numerology. Thus, with medieval Christian and Jewish writers, we ought to pay attention to their chapter numbers, something I otherwise would ignore. If a scholar says something is important in document A (the mystical signfiicance of numbers, the importance of stretching the truth to persuade the public about global warming, the subjective nature of all knowledge), we should use that in thinking about what he writes in document B.

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