Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Joseph Cropsey, 1920-2012

Joseph Cropsey died on July 1 at the age of 92 in Rockville, Maryland.

He was my major professor and the supervisor of my dissertation when I was a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, 1971-1978.

Through his childhood friend, Harry Jaffa, he learned about Leo Strauss when Strauss was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City.  Cropsey was a Ph.D. student in economics at Columbia University, writing a dissertation on Adam Smith.  Eventually, he jointed Strauss at the University of Chicago.

His classes in the history of political philosophy were always full, with as many as 60-70 students in each class.  Part of the attraction of his classes was his elegant style of lecturing.  I have never heard anyone who could lecture as he did without notes for one and a half hours, speaking in complete sentences and paragraphs.  A typescript of a lecture could be a well-written essay.

My preference was for a more engaged, discussion-style class.  I would often try to ask questions to initiate an interchange, and it was made clear that this was not what he wanted.  Eventually, I learned to enjoy what I could from his lecturing.

We often disagreed.  In fact, he fundamentally disagreed with the argument of my dissertation on Aristotle's Rhetoric, because like many Straussians, he had no interest in the possibility that rhetoric could be a form of genuine reasoning, which was my argument.  Nevertheless, he allowed me to develop my reasoning, and approved my dissertation despite my disagreement with him.  I respected this, and it has been the model for me in supervising dissertations.

He was a remarkable thinker.  I have written a blog post on his book Plato's World and another post on his reading of Adam Smith.

He will be missed.

William Kristol has written an obituary in The Weekly Standard for Cropsey, Anna Schwartz, and Yitzhak Shamir, who all died in the last two weeks.


Anonymous said...

This is a tremendous disappointment. It is at once your worst post ever and the worst eulogy I've ever seen.

Larry Arnhart said...

Is there anything inaccurate in what I have said--about Cropsey's lecturing style, his view of rhetoric, or his reading of Plato?

David Gordon said...

I thought it was a moving and beautifully written tribute to a distinguished thinker and scholar, and I'm baffled that anyone could think otherwise.

Robert Kraynak said...

I think that Larry's comments on Joseph Cropsey were respectful and appropriate. When a great scholar and teacher dies, we should offer tributes to them as men or women of virtue, but we should also engage in an open and honest assessment of their scholarship. Cropsey's book on Plato does seem like a "Heideggerian reading of Plato without mentioning Heidegger" - it describes the Socratic philosopher as someone who shows "care and courage" in the face of an indifferent or unknown cosmos. We need to discuss Cropsey's provocative reading of Plato and compare it to Strauss' reading - I am sure Joseph would love to join us!

Anonymous said...

Cropsey's greatness, to me, appears also in his Heideggerian "openness," the magnificent Third Edition (1987) of "The History of Political Philosophy." Who would have thought, in, say, 1974, at the University of Dallas, that Husserl and Heidegger, two favorites of the then Psychology Department, would someday be included? Cropsey's endorsement of the new Introduction (by Tarcov and Pangle)...Is it an endorsement? Again, this wonderful openness to what liberal Heideggerians might call the "power of the possible." (Within certain limits, of course.) What struck me in reading this edition was the awesome "range" of the so-called "Straussian." On the left we find, say, a William Galston. (Galston is not there, but he has written on Heidegger.) Then on the right we find...I don't know who all. I'm looking forward to reading Cahterine Zuckert's (and Michael Zuckert's) "The Truth About Leo Strauss." Her "Postmodern Platos" bears witness to the ongoing influence, this perennial debate, between "Strauss" and "Heidegger," between the "ancients" and the "moderns," between "reason" and "faith." I also look forward to reading more of this blog, e.g., discussions of Remi Brague versus Leo Strauss. One notes that the Holy Father, too, seems to have been influenced by the tradition of rational "faith," by the idea of the "logos" as divine creative intelligence. True, Ratzinger sees God in the platonic "intelligibles" however understood. God is thus "in nature" in a true sense. He may be more than that; but he is also that. And of course, the "conscience" derives from "nature" as the natural-universal TAO or "moral sense."

Sebastian said...

I graduated from Chicago in 1995 (political science and economics) and took two courses with Cropsey while he was finishing his book on Plato. The polisci major was all philosophy, and today I look back on it like a degree in Straussianism, especially as I extended the torture with an MA at Boston College. I remember Cropsey's lectures as opening portals for blitz-like connections to everything else I was studying. Not only where his interpretations of Plato's "second sailing" and all the rest interesting and original, but he had a capacity for linking abstract themes to practical politics and life. One moment he was talking about Crito's attempts to remove Socrates from prison, the next he was quoting John C. Calhoun's refutation of Daniel Webster. His lectures synthesized many of the strands of my undergraduate studies. I hope to upload the last two lectures on the Phaedo once digitized.

Having said that, Cropsey was very protective and even dogmatic about all things Straussian. His son Seth is a hardcore neocon of the worst variety and his actions lend much credence to the argument, which I have tried to refute or at least mitigate, conflating Strauss with that nefarious school. As I settle into financial success and comfort, I wanted to bridge the gulf between the Straussians and his rightwing detractors but now fear it's a futile endeavor. I underestimated the commitment of each camp to their own mythology and idolatry. They are both right and wrong simultaneously but they simply cannot speak to each other - and from experience, I must blame men like Nathan Tarcov and Joseph Cropsey for this impasse.

In his final course at Chicago, Edward Shills, who was responsible form Strauss's transfer from the New School, mentioned that when it came to those people, there is salvation within, damnation without. It took me a few years to understand just how right he had been. Shil's course, by the bye, was on the collective unconscious - and planted the seed that would eventually take me from the little world of the Straussians to much richer pastures.

May Cropsey rest in peace.