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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)

1.

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.”1

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.2 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.3 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.”4 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 of an inspiring teacher?

It is true that Strauss’s writings are remote and rebarbative. They deal, largely, with what Strauss liked to call “old books.” He studies, and would have us study with him, Plato and Xenophon, Aristotle and Cicero, Farabi and Maimonides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke—these are “the considerate few.” The range of his learning is indeed formidable; his command of ancient and medieval languages cannot fail to impress; his minute scrutiny of each text establishes an aura of reverence for its author. According to Strauss, these old books “owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn.”5 And one can understand that today’s puppies need assistance if they are to respond with love to Strauss’s manner of commenting on these classic texts; for he deliberately makes the hard ones harder and the easier ones (e.g., Plato and Xenophon) the most difficult of all. Even more do the young need assistance if they are to be inspired to found their understanding of the contemporary world on Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political thought.

But the Straussian teacher is not just the honey that sweetens the taste of wormwood.6 Here is an account of the first meeting of Strauss’s seminar on Hobbes at the University of Chicago in the fall term of 1956:

He exposed our opinions as mere opinions; he caused us to realize that we were the prisoners of our opinions by showing us the larger horizons behind and beyond them. Thus we all believed in watered-down teachings derived from Marx, Freud, and others; but buttressing our views was modern thought as such, and one of its towering giants was Hobbes. To understand the true nature of our beliefs, it was necessary to undertake an arduous journey back in time, a journey that would not even end with Hobbes, for modern thought at its best was a rebellion by giants like Hobbes against men perhaps even more gigantic—Plato and Aristotle.

But the conversion, the turning to light he tried to effect in us, did not necessarily terminate in Platonism. Not the least remarkable of a number of remarkable suggestions—or commands—which Leo Strauss produced that day was that we simply must begin with the assumption that Hobbes’s teaching was true—not relatively true, not true for Hobbes, not true for its time, but simply true. That was why we had to read him with all the care we could muster, and that was why (I was to hear him say this again and again) one ought not even to begin to criticize an author before one had done all one could do to understand him correctly, to understand him as he understood himself. 7

When other teachers invite their students to explore the origins of modern thought, they encourage criticism as the road to active understanding. Understanding grows through a dialectical interaction between the students and the author they are studying. Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.” It is all too clear that this illusory goal will not be achieved by the end of the term. Abandon self all ye who enter here. The question is, to whom is the surrender made: to the text or to the teacher?

The injunction to understand one’s author “as he understood himself” is fundamental to Straussian interpretation, but he never explains what that means—only that it is directed against his chief bugbear, “historicism,” or the belief that old books should be understood according to their historical context. Thus “I have not tried to relate his [Xenophon’s] thought to his ‘historical situation’ because this is not the natural way of reading the work of a wise man and, in addition, Xenophon never indicated that he wanted to be understood that way.”8 Evidently it would be presumptuous for students to criticize “a wise man” on the basis of their own watered-down twentieth-century thoughts. Let them first acquire the wise man’s own understanding of his wisdom.

I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas. As to why, in recent decades, increasingly many puppies should have opted for the joys of surrender, and how the muting of one’s own power of judgment fits into the psychology of conservatism—these are questions for the social scientists whom Strauss despised and abused.9 My task here is to tell readers who are interested in the past, but who do not wish simply to retreat from the present, what happens in the thought-world that Strauss’s writings fashion from his favorite old books.

2.

One must be swayed by a sincere longing for the past.”10

…today the truth may be accessible only through certain old books.”11

The leading characters in Strauss’s writing are “the gentlemen” and “the philosopher.” “The gentlemen” come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it: they are not the wealthy as such, then, but those who have “had an opportunity to be brought up in the proper manner.”12 Strauss is scornful of mass education.13 “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”14 Such “gentlemen” are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy.15 They are thus ready to be taken in hand by “the philosopher,” who will teach them the great lesson they need to learn before they join the governing elite.

The name of this lesson is “the limits of politics.” Its content is that a just society is so improbable that one can do nothing to bring it about. In the 1960s this became: a just society is impossible.16 In either case the moral is that “the gentlemen” should rule conservatively, knowing that “the apparently just alternative to aristocracy open or disguised will be permanent revolution, i.e., permanent chaos in which life will be not only poor and short but brutish as well.”17

So who is “the philosopher,” and how does he know that this is the right lesson for “the gentlemen”? He is a wise man, who does not want to rule because his sights are set on higher things.18 His interests, being lofty, are essentially at variance with the interests of society—in both senses of the word “interests.”19 Teaching “the gentlemen” their lesson is the one service to society by which he can justify his remaining aloof from political affairs and protect himself from destruction by the multitude.20 We are assured, however, that “the philosopher” is not likely to be found in a university philosophy department.21

He is not likely to be found in a political science department either. A follower may speak of Strauss as a philosopher, meaning one of those who “bring back reports from regions most of us are not privileged to enter,”22 but Strauss surely included himself when he wrote, “We cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize.” He continues: “This philosophizing consists at any rate primarily and in a way chiefly in listening to the conversation between the great philosophers… and therefore in studying the great books.”23 Certainly, neither Strauss nor Straussians engage in the active discussion of central questions of philosophy which is characteristic of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and modern philosophy departments. They confine themselves to the exposition of texts, mainly texts of political philosophy—not, for example, Aristotle’s Physics or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (It would be difficult to start from the assumption that the Aristotelian cosmology is “simply true.”)

  1. 1

    Joseph Cropsey, ed., Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (Basic Books, 1964), editor’s preface, p. viii.

  2. 2

    Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences (Yale University Press, 1984), p. 202.

  3. 3

    See Toulmin’s article in The New York Review (December 6, 1984), p. 4.

  4. 4

    Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experience, p. 202.

  5. 5

    Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Free Press, 1952), p. 36.

  6. 6

    For the sweetness, see Allan Bloom’s stunningly seductive appreciation “Leo Strauss September 20, 1899–October 18, 1973,” Political Theory 2 (1974), pp. 372–392, which also gives a very helpful account of the successive phases of Strauss’s thinking and writing.

  7. 7

    Werner J. Dannhauser, “Leo Strauss: Becoming Naive Again,” The American Scholar 44 (1974–1975), p. 638.

  8. 8

    On Tyranny (Agora Paperback Edition, Cornell University Press, 1963), p. 24. Cf., Persecution, p. 159; Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 33; What is Political Philosophy? (The Free Press, 1959), pp. 66, 101.

  9. 9

    Especially in Natural Right and History. Cf., What is Political Philosophy? chapters 1–2; The City and Man (University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 8–12; Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Basic Books, 1968), chapter 8. Strauss’s denunciations of modern social science should be read in the light of the fact that he taught in a department of political science, as do most of his followers. What is at issue in the polemic with his professional colleagues is how such departments are to be conducted.

  10. 10

    Leo Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” Review of Metaphysics 5 (1951–1952), p. 576.

  11. 11

    Persecution, p. 154.

  12. 12

    What is Political Philosophy? p. 113; cf. Liberalism, p. 11.

  13. 13

    What is Political Philosophy? p. 38; Liberalism, pp. 63–64.

  14. 14

    Liberalism, p. 4.

  15. 15

    Natural Right, p. 143; City and Man, pp. 27–28, 37.

  16. 16

    City and Man, p. 127; cf. Socrates and Aristophanes (Basic Books, 1966), pp. 279–280, 312. For the earlier version, cf. On Tyranny (first published in 1948), pp. 77–79; Natural Right, pp. 138–139, 151, 199–200, 307; Thoughts on Machiavelli (The Free Press, 1958), pp. 172–173, 296.

  17. 17

    What is Political Philosophy? p. 113, where Strauss indicates that when this argument is applied to the present day, it yields his defense of liberal or constitutional democracy—i.e., modern democracy is justified, according to him, if and because it is aristocracy in disguise. Cf. Liberalism, p. 24.

  18. 18

    Natural Right, p. 151; What is Political Philosophy? p. 113.

  19. 19

    On Tyranny, p. 63; What is Political Philosophy? pp. 221–222; Liberalism, p. 14.

  20. 20

    What is Political Philosophy? p. 92–94, 120, 125–126.

  21. 21

    Liberalism, p. 7.

  22. 22

    Dannhauser, p. 641.

  23. 23

    Liberalism, p. 7.

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