The Closing of the Straussian Mind

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. 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).

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 …

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