Sphinx Without a Secret

Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy

by Leo Strauss, with an introduction by Thomas L. Pangle
University of Chicago Press, 260 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Wishing neither to be destroyed nor to bring destruction among the multitude, the considerate few have imperturbably conveyed to their readers an eloquence of articulate silences and pregnant indications.”

This extraordinary sentence was written not by Leo Strauss but to introduce a book honoring him. It perfectly expresses the substance, and the style, of his teaching. Accordingly, it does not explain to outsiders what that teaching is, or by what powers the teaching has raised Strauss to his present eminence as a guru of American conservatism. For initiates of his ideas, on the other hand, those who are in touch with “the considerate few,” the sentence will be like poetry in the way it condenses into one pregnant utterance the entire thought-world of the master.

Leo Strauss was born in Germany in 1899 and died in Chicago in 1973. He studied philosophy at several German universities and worked as an assistant at the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin, where he “concentrated on biblical criticism and the thought of Spinoza.” He came to New York in 1938 and taught political theory at the University of Chicago between 1948 and 1969, when he retired. By this time he was arguably one of the most influential thinkers in the US.

There are two ways to approach Strauss’s thinking. Some fourteen books and a multitude of learned papers are listed in the bibliography of Strauss’s writings appended to the volume under review. Alternatively, one may sign up for initiation with a Straussian teacher—at Harvard, at the University of Chicago, or the many other universities and colleges to which Strauss’s pupils and the pupils of his pupils have now penetrated.

It is the second method that produces the sense of belonging and believing. The books and papers are freely available on the side of the Atlantic from which I write, but Strauss has no discernible influence in Britain at all. No one writing in the London Review of Books would worry—as Stephen Toulmin worried recently in these pages about the State Department’s policy-planning staff—that Mrs. Thatcher’s civil servants know more about the ideas of Leo Strauss than about the realities of the day. Strauss has no following in the universities where her civil servants are educated. Somehow, the interchange between teacher and pupil gives his ideas a potency that they lack on the printed page.

There is no doubt that Strauss was an inspiring teacher. Lewis Coser’s recent study of refugee scholars in America singles him out: “He alone among eminent refugee intellectuals succeeded in attracting a brilliant galaxy of disciples who created an academic cult around his teaching.” And many stories testify that the disciples too are as impressive in their teaching as in their scholarly productions. But for an outsider this only doubles the enigma. How do Strauss’s ideas attract such devotion? And why do they need it? Why do they rely for their persuasiveness on the mediation …

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Letters

Lessons of Leo Strauss October 24, 1985

The Studies of Leo Strauss: An Exchange October 10, 1985