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Lessons of Leo Strauss

In response to:

Sphinx Without a Secret from the May 30, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of a book by Leo Strauss [NYR, May 30], M.F. Burnyeat quotes me several times on the subject of Strauss as a teacher. Permit me a few clarifications.

  1. In the course I described, Strauss generated excitement for a text by Hobbes, along with the suspicion of its truth. Since Burnyeat goes on to “demonstrate” that Strauss thought Hobbes part of modern rot, that endeavour becomes unintelligible according to him. But what Burnyeat does not comprehend is not thereby incomprehensible.

  2. Strauss did, indeed, teach us to begin by trying to understand a thinker the way he understood himself. I know of no better way to begin. A goal Burnyeat considers illusory does not thereby become an illusion, except, perhaps, for himself. Burnyeat has certainly failed to understand me the way I understand myself. It makes me wonder how he fares with great texts.

  3. Since Strauss taught a number of different and differing texts, he did not ask us to surrender our critical intellect; he awakened it. I know of nothing more calculated to awaken one’s critical powers than to ponder with an open mind the disagreements between, say, Hobbes and Plato.

  4. Similarly, we were not asked to abandon our selves, but to fulfill ourselves by contact with texts written by minds greater than ours.

  5. Strauss did teach us to see certain problems inherent in political ambition. In the century of Stalin and Hitler, that does not seem especially problematic to me.

These remarks are aimed at readers of The New York Review, not Burnyeat. We inspiring teachers know a hopeless case when we see one.

Werner J. Dannhauser

Ithaca, New York

M.F Burnyeat replies:

If the English words “understand a thinker the way he understands himself” mean what they say, then for me to understand Professor Dannhauser the way he understands himself it would be necessary, for a start, that I should have read the books that Dannhauser has read and had the thoughts that Dannhauser has had, and necessary that I should not have read the books I have read and had the thoughts I have had. I conclude that, fortunately, “understanding a thinker the way he understands himself” describes an illusory, because impossible, goal.

I do not conclude that I do not understand Professor Dannhauser’s letter, nor that Dannhauser does understand what he himself has written. I doubt that any Straussian understands their magic formula “understanding a thinker the way he understood himself”; certainly, none of them has made any serious attempt to explain it. What is clear is that they use it to block criticism of, e.g., Hobbes from the standpoint of contemporary thought.

The students are asked to set aside their own opinions (those “watered-down teachings derived from Marx, Freud, and others” as Dannhauser described them in the article from which I quoted), and told that in order to understand Hobbes “as he understood himself” they must assume that his teaching is “simply true.” When they discover that modern rot sets in with Machiavelli and Hobbes, this is not because their own opinions have been brought back into play, but because they have been put through the same process in order to understand, e.g., Plato “as he understood himself.” Such criticism of Hobbes as Strauss permits is criticism of Hobbes from the standpoint of “ancient wisdom.” As I explained in my review, it is Plato (as misread by Strauss) who shows that Hobbes starts the modern rot, not the students themselves.

Strauss did not disguise the fact that on his picture of intellectual inquiry the students’ own opinions have no standing and deserve no respect. My phrases “surrender of the critical intellect” and “abandoning of self” are simply English words which describe the state of affairs.

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