In a previous article I discussed a number of new European studies of the thought of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish thinker who spent the second half of his life teaching and writing in the United States.1 Those studies reveal a very “European” Strauss, concerned with Zionism and the Jewish question, the legitimacy of the modern Enlightenment, the rival claims of philosophy and revelation, and most fundamentally the possibility of restoring the Socratic practice of philosophy as a way of life. This Strauss is very little known or understood among the wider public. Instead, his name has been associated in recent decades almost exclusively with the activities of his American disciples, many of whom are deeply involved with Republican and neoconservative politics. This has led to wild speculation about Straussian influence in American government, even the suggestion that Strauss’s “esoteric” method of reading texts might lie behind a duplicitous foreign policy, especially in the recent Iraq war.
Most of these charges are patently absurd. What is not absurd, and deserves reflection, is the genuine connection that seems to exist in the United States between Strauss’s self-proclaimed disciples and a highly partisan faction in American public life. If the European interpreters of Strauss’s thought are to be believed, he taught that there was a fundamental tension between the life of philosophy and that of the city, and while philosophers might have to behave responsibly in light of that tension, ideological partisanship was a temptation to be avoided.
This is not the way many of Strauss’s American followers see the matter today, as we see if we examine the essays collected a few years ago in Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime. In that book, Mark Blitz, a former associate director of the United States Information Agency during the Reagan years who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College, a Straussian stronghold, tries to isolate “the elements in Strauss that prepared and allowed an affinity with conservatives.” He finds the following:
anti-communism (and not amelioration), the virtue of individual responsibility (and not excessive social welfare), individual rights (and not affirmative action or feminism), market competition (and not excessive regulation or quasi-oligarchy), and educational and artistic excellence (and not “politicization” or self-indulgence).2
While it is true that Strauss was opposed to communism, spoke of virtue, and was concerned with educational excellence, there is not a word in his works about such topics as welfare, affirmative action, feminism, and the like. Not a word, as Blitz himself admits. Why, then, do so many of his disciples act as if the political implications of his thought point them in one partisan direction? Why is it that his European readers, who study his books but have no connection with the pedagogical tradition Strauss began in America, find no such partisan drift? And who is right? To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at Leo Strauss in America.
Strauss arrived in the United States in the middle of his life, at the age of thirty-eight. He had spent most of the 1920s as an itinerant German scholar, working and teaching at various Jewish research centers while writing books on Spinoza and Maimonides. His circumstances finally changed in 1932 when he received a Rockefeller grant to do research in Paris, where he remained until 1934, and then in England, where he lived until 1937. In view of what was unfolding in Germany, the grant may have saved his life. Strauss published a much-admired book on Hobbes while in England, a country he loved, and, to judge by his correspondence, where he would have preferred to remain. But he had no academic prospects there, or in Palestine, where his friend Gershom Scholem failed to secure him a position. In the end, Strauss looked to America, a country he had expressed no interest in until then. After spending a short time as a research fellow at Columbia University he obtained his first fixed teaching post at the New School for Social Research in 1938, where he spent ten obscure but intellectually productive years. In 1949 Strauss left the New School for the University of Chicago, where he would remain for the next two decades building the devoted student following that became “the Straussians.”
Strauss came to Chicago at a unique moment in the history of American higher education. The Second World War had just ended, Nazism had been defeated, and the cold war with Soviet communism had begun. The universities were expanding, both in size and in reach, by admitting people who had previously been excluded. In such a context one can imagine students’ excitement when a short, unassuming foreigner with a high-pitched voice entered the classroom and began analyzing the great books, line by line, claiming that they treated the most urgent existential and political questions—and that they might contain the truth.
The effect would have been intensified for Jewish-American students, who, at a time when cultural assimilation still seemed the wisest course, found themselves before a teacher who treated Judaism and the philosophical tradition with equal seriousness and dignity. Strauss’s method was famous for its simplicity and directness. (We know this from tapes and transcripts of his later courses, which circulate among his disciples.) A student would be asked to read a passage from the work in question; Strauss would make a comment or two, noting contradictions or discrepancies with earlier passages; a student might then raise a question, which would lead Strauss to digress, taking it to a much higher level and illustrating it with often earthy examples. (He was particularly fond of examples from Ann Landers’s column.) Then on to the next passage. And that was all. No attempt was made to force the work into an arbitrary historical context; nor were there appeals to disembodied streams of thought. The only relevant questions were: What did Aristotle, or Locke, or Nietzsche mean in this work? And, on a generous reading, could he possibly be right?
In a charming memoir of his time at Chicago, Werner Dannhauser described the experience of studying with Strauss as “becoming naïve again.”3 For Dannhauser, Strauss’s greatest pedagogical achievements were to have shown his students how to become attentive readers and to take their own experience seriously, free from preconceived notions or rebarbative jargon:
We learned to trust the superiority of proverbs again; we learned to talk in simple words again. Instead of “values,” we talked of good and bad; we discussed unhappiness rather than alienation, and things ceased to be dysfunctional—they just did not work.
Recaptured naiveté is an old Romantic trope, as Strauss knew perfectly well. But it also bears some relation to the kind of open Socratic questioning he held out as a philosophical ideal in his Weimar years.
As a response to the “low dishonest” atmosphere of the Thirties and then the monstrous total war in Europe and Asia, one understands its appeal. The problem proved to be that Strauss was teaching young Americans, for whom these developments were remote. Discovering Strauss, they were less like prodigals returning home from dissipations than young provincials just discovering the world beyond the city’s walls. Had Strauss returned to continental Europe to teach after the war, his students already would have studied the history of philosophy, however superficially, in high school. That might have made them more difficult to reach, plunging them deeper into what he called the “second cave” of historicism and relativism. But in return they probably would have been more inclined—as are the authors of the new European studies of Strauss—to see him as a thinker exploring the philosophical tradition for his own purposes. His American followers have had difficulty seeing him in that light, as an original thinker whose example might help them down their own paths. They treat him less like Socrates than like Moses.
Strauss’s seminars were almost always devoted to single philosophical works, not to large swaths of intellectual history. But shortly after arriving at Chicago he was asked to deliver the prestigious Walgreen Lectures, which were finally published in 1953 as Natural Right and History. This work, his most influential, must be considered the founding document of the Straussian school. It was, so to speak, Strauss’s application for citizenship and his way of accepting his academic chair in political science.
In it he developed a number of original theses about the history of political philosophy, all directed against standard Whiggish accounts that described a steady rise from classical, to medieval Christian, to early-modern authoritarian, to late-modern democratic and socialist thought. Strauss claimed that, properly viewed, there was a coherent tradition of “classical natural right,” running from Socrates to Thomas Aquinas, who shared more than one might think. The assumption of this classical tradition, ancient and medieval, was that there is a distinction between nature and convention, and that justice is what accords with the former, not the latter.
Whether the rules of nature are discovered through philosophy or revelation, whether one account of nature is more persuasive than another, all this is less important, according to Strauss, than the conviction that natural justice as the highest human possibility is indeed the standard, and that without it we cannot understand or criticize the conventional arrangements in which we find ourselves. What Machiavelli represented, in Strauss’s view, was a great rebellion against this standard—not only against Christianity but against the tradition of classical natural right as a whole. Once that break was made it was only a matter of time, Strauss argued, before modern thought—after making intermediate stops at Locke’s liberalism and Rousseau’s Romanticism—descended into historicism and nihilism.
Natural Right and History, a dense and brilliant argument, is put forward with unusual panache yet without sacrificing Strauss’s characteristic directness and irony. Although it treats the history of philosophy, it does so in a way that forces the reader to think hard about fundamental questions. Whether it convinces is another matter. Critics have charged Strauss with ignoring the very different contexts in which his authors wrote, with under-appreciating, if not ignoring, Christianity’s break with the classical past and the Christian roots of early-modern discussions of human rights and limited government, and with many other errors. And even Strauss’s students admit that his treatment of natural right might be difficult to square with his own treatment of Socratic philosophy, which he depicts as suspending all simple appeals to nature.
But the real problems with Natural Right and History are not historical, they are pedagogical. Its effects on Strauss’s American disciples have been stultifying. In a little more than three hundred pages, the book offers students unfamiliar with any other account of philosophy’s history an epic, just-so version of it, tracing our intellectual decline from the golden age of Athens to the modern age of iron. It is a script. But unlike the script one might be taught in a European high school, along with others, this script gave the United States an important place in the unfolding of a single story.