The year 2003 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Leo Strauss, the influential German-Jewish thinker who spent half his life teaching and writing in the United States. Three superb studies of Strauss’s thought were published last year in continental Europe, where his posthumous reputation has grown steadily in recent years. In Germany the first three volumes of his collected works have now appeared, revealing a young Strauss engaged in Zionist polemics and absorbed with what he called the “theological-political problem.” They also bring him closer to the world of his better-known European contemporaries like Gershom Scholem and Karl Löwith, with whom he maintained a lively correspondence. All this publishing activity has helped to establish Strauss as one of the great minds to have emerged from the rich culture of Weimar.
But that was not the Leo Strauss discussed and rumored about in the United States last year. In the lead-up to the recent Iraq war the attention of the press concentrated frantically on the neoconservative foreign policy establishment in Washington in hopes of finding its intellectual roots. As seems to happen whenever the mainstream press finally pays attention to conservative intellectuals, old pictures of the diminutive Strauss were extracted from the archives to accompany articles exposing him as the master thinker. Journalists who had never read him trawled his dense commentaries on ancient, medieval, and modern political thought looking for incriminating evidence. Finding none, they then suggested that Strauss never wrote what he thought, that his secret antidemocratic doctrines were passed on to adepts who subsequently infiltrated government. At the ideological fringes the term “cabal” was occasionally employed, in ignorance (one hopes) of its anti-Semitic connotations.
The nadir of this episode was reached when the demagogue Lyndon LaRouche published a hysterical pamphlet on the Strauss–neocon connection that also made the rounds on the Internet. I encountered LaRouche’s followers between classes one day on the campus of the University of Chicago, where Strauss once taught. They had a sound truck blaring an incomprehensible message into the quad, while acolytes passed out copies of the pamphlet, titled “Children of Satan.” A wild-eyed young woman pushed one into my hands, demanding, “You’re not a Straussian, are you?” Before I could respond she declared, “Leo Strauss was a fascist.”
Several of Strauss’s academic disciples responded in print to these bizarre charges, trying to explain that his writings were concerned with the fundamental issues of political life—justice, modernity, virtue, authority—not with partisan matters. They were joined by Strauss’s daughter, the classicist Jenny Strauss Clay, who in The New York Times expressed dismay that a simple scholar who “believed in and defended liberal democracy” and whose “heroes were Churchill and Lincoln” could be slandered in this way. “If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust,” she wrote wistfully.
Yes, if only. But that is not likely to happen soon because Strauss’s achievement was a mixed one. When Strauss died thirty years ago, he left behind two legacies: that of a thinker and that of a teacher. His books are read all over the world today, but his pedagogical activity, and its effects, have been limited to North America. Over three decades in the classroom, Strauss managed to acquire a large, sometimes fractious, but deeply devoted following of American students, many of whom also became teachers. A “Straussian” school developed in universities, mainly in political science departments, and it is now three or four generations old. In recent decades younger members of the school have turned their attention increasingly to Washington, with many serving at the highest levels of government, almost exclusively in Republican administrations, and others play central roles in the neoconservative intellectual-political-media-foundation complex that has become so influential since the 1980s.1
How and why has this happened? The new European books on Leo Strauss, which will be examined in this article, take us a long way toward answering this question. Because they are written by scholars who take Strauss with the utmost seriousness but are untouched by the pedagogical and political activities of the American Straussian school, they succeed in excavating his deepest philosophical insights without putting them to partisan use. They give us, for the first time, a Straussianism not mysterious. In so doing they make it possible to see the political drift of his American school, which grew up in a highly contentious period of our history, as an independent phenomenon. They help us to see that there is indeed a story here—about late-twentieth-century American political and intellectual life, if not about Leo Strauss. That story will be the subject of a subsequent article.
Leo Strauss was born into a rural Jewish family outside Marburg, Germany, in 1899. His boyhood ambitions, he once remarked, were simple and pastoral: to become a country postman, raise rabbits, and read Plato. His family was observant but not educated, and after serving in the First World War Strauss drifted into Zionist circles and began writing for their political publications. (A number of these articles, reprinted in the Gesammelte Schriften, have now been translated in Michael Zank’s edition of writings from Strauss’s early years.) Strauss studied philosophy in several German universities, eventually writing his dissertation under Ernst Cassirer in Hamburg, though in his letters he maintained that Nietzsche was his only teacher in those years. The one encounter that impressed him was that with Martin Heidegger, whose lectures Strauss attended in Freiburg. Like many members of his generation he was deeply marked by Heidegger’s debate with Cassirer at Davos in 1929, a debate that began over Kant and ended in deep disagreement over the nature and future of philosophy.
From the start, however, Strauss was aware that the life of philosophy could never be a simple matter for a thoughtful Jew aware of his peo-ple’s history. Late in life he addressed this theme in a semi-autobiographical essay that became the preface to the English translation of his book on Spinoza. This extraordinary document is a phenomenology of the modern Jewish spirit, describing from within the intellectual steps by which German Jews had moved from orthodoxy to liberal assimilation in the nineteenth century, then to Zionism and the “new thinking” of Franz Rosenzweig and other messianic writers in the early decades of the twentieth.2 This story had been told before from a purely historical standpoint as a struggle between orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Strauss saw in it instead what he called a “theological-political problem.”
Strauss often remarked that although politics can address finite problems it can never resolve the fundamental contradictions of life. Those contradictions have their source in the human need to answer the existential question “How should I live?,” a supra-political question giving rise to stark alternatives. In the West, those alternatives were seen in philosophy and divine revelation, the lives of Socrates and Moses. The tension between them was, in Strauss’s view, the hidden wellspring of our civilization’s vitality. But the thinkers of the modern Enlightenment, horrified by religious war and frustrated by the other-worldliness of classical philosophy, tried to reduce that tension. They mocked religion, advocated toleration, and tried to redirect philosophy toward more practical pursuits, whether political, technological, or moral. They imagined a world of satisfied citizens and shopkeepers, and nearly succeeded in creating it.
But as the nineteenth century progressed it became abundantly clear that one problem, the “Jewish question,” could not be dissolved. Not because of Christian prejudice, which was real enough, or Jewish stubbornness, but because the existence of the Jews as a people constituted by di-vine revelation was a challenge to the Enlightenment’s hope that politics could be isolated from supra-political claims. The principle leading to emancipation—that, to quote from the debate in the French National Assembly of 1789, “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals”—proved untenable; the call of revelation could not be extinguished from thought or politics. And that, for Strauss, meant that philosophy needed to reconsider the original “theological-political problem” afresh.
The great virtue of the new European studies of Strauss is that they have put his scholarly writings convincingly within this larger setting. The books by Daniel Tanguay and David Janssens do so by following the step-by-step development of Strauss’s ideas and writings, especially in the Thirties and Forties, a reconstruction that—remarkably, but tellingly—no American Straussian has thought to undertake. Both books rely heavily on the editorial and interpretative work of Heinrich Meier, the editor of the German edition of Strauss’s writings, and the author of two concise, synthetic explications of Strauss’s thought. Anyone who has tried to read Strauss unassisted will know how difficult it is to grasp the relations among his works, given the extraordinary range of his writings: studies of Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, as well as a book on Aristophanes; learned articles on medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers, such as Maimonides and the less well known Alfarabi; major books on Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spin-oza as founders of modern politi-cal thought, culminating in his best-known work, Natural Right and History (1953); and his scattered essays on Judaism, the “crisis of modernity,” and the nature of philosophical writing. Meier, Tanguay, and Janssens have found a plausible way to make it all fit, and in doing so they distance Strauss from his more partisan American interpreters.
Tanguay, who is French-Canadian but was trained in France, is particularly good at tracing Strauss’s development in an accessible way. He begins with the Jewish question as a “theological-political” problem and Strauss’s early conviction that one needs to find “a horizon beyond liberalism.” That phrase, found in Strauss’s youthful critique of the jurist (and later Nazi apologist) Carl Schmitt, is often quoted by critics who charge Strauss with being a partisan anti-liberal. Here the statement takes on its real significance, which is intellectual and existential. The problem with the Enlightenment’s liberal aspiration to take religious issues entirely out of politics and thereby pacify human existence was, in Strauss’s view, that it distorted our understanding of the human condition.
In Plato’s Republic Socrates likened that condition to our being in a cave transfixed by shadows projected on a wall, when we should be outside, gazing upon things themselves in the sunlight. The question human beings face in this cave is how to live: Do we remain shackled by convention, satisfied with the partial view of life endorsed by political and religious authority, or do we ascend to inquire into life under our own power? The answer provided in most societies in history has been one that mixes the theological and political: we are to obey the laws because they are sacred. The Socratic alternative to this obedience in the cave was the life of Socrates himself, a life of perpetual philosophical questioning beholden to no theological or political authority. Between these antagonistic ways of life, which Strauss sometimes called those of Jerusalem and Athens, there can be, he argued, no compromise; we must choose. Yet both share the assumption that the existential question can indeed be settled.
What changes in the modern era, in Strauss’s view, are both the understanding of this antagonism and the strategies for coping with it. In a powerful image he developed in one of his earliest writings and used repeatedly throughout his life, he posited the existence of a second cave created by modern Enlightenment, an “unnatural” one into which we have descended, distorting the natural condition of having to choose. Enlightenment thinkers were hostile to theological-political authority but failed to see that most people and societies need that authority; such thinkers as Voltaire and d’Alembert wanted to écraser l’infâme rather than simply distance themselves from it.
In trying to reestablish societies on enlightened foundations, these thinkers blurred the distinction between the philosopher and the city and became ideological partisans—of democracy or anti-democracy, of technology or anti-technology, and so on. The situation deteriorated even more in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern thought descended into relativism and nihilism, and the fundamental existential questions that dominated classical thought came to be seen as mere products of their times or cultures. This “historicism,” as Strauss called it, is now so deeply rooted that it prevents an honest examination of those fundamental questions as if genuine answers were possible, the kind of examination Socrates taught. If the philosophical life of Socrates were to be pursued again, the very idea of it would first have to be recovered from historical oblivion. That was Strauss’s most fundamental ambition: to prepare a return to Socratic philosophy by first beating a path up from the second cave through the critical study of the history of philosophy.
Seen in this light, Strauss’s seemingly scattered historical studies and their unique approach take on coherent philosophical meaning. They are all based on the large assumption that we are living under some sort of spell in the “second cave” of Enlightenment illusions, and on the enticing thought that escape is possible. This is an unfalsifiable assumption, of course, as Strauss himself conceded by likening his work to that of restoring an older prejudice to counter the modern one. But along the way he also managed to open a new way of looking at philosophy in relation to its history.
Tanguay follows the twists and turns of Strauss’s scholarly studies to show how he tried to recover the original, Socratic understanding of philosophy, beginning with Spinoza and working his way back to Plato, then working forward again to trace philosophy’s decline in the modern period. It was in these studies, especially those on Maimonides and Alfarabi, Tanguay suggests, that Strauss discovered the philosophical tradition he wanted to restore.
That tradition was, to use Strauss’s terms of art, “zetetic” and “esoteric.” Zetesis is a Greek term meaning inquiry or question, and is associated with skepsis, which has a similar meaning. Strauss understood Socrates to be a zetetic thinker who unraveled problems and left them in suspension, which differs from some scholarly views of Socrates as promoting fixed doctrines about cosmology, nature, the city, and the soul. But Strauss went further to suggest that the ancient and medieval Platonic tradition that grew out of Socrates’ activity practiced esotericism in political and pedagogical relations. The key figure here, as Tanguay demonstrates, is Alfarabi, the founder of medieval Islamic philosophy who also had a decisive influence on Maimonides, his medieval Jewish counterpart. The conventional view of Alfarabi and of Maimonides is that both tried to reconcile classical philosophy with revealed law and thereby reform their societies. When Strauss discovered Alfarabi he became convinced that this was just his exoteric, publicly accessible, doctrine, and that if his works are read more attentively a subtler, esoteric teaching emerges.
As Strauss characterized them, Alfarabi and Maimonides were zetetic philosophers in the Socratic tradition who found themselves faced with powerful conventions sanctioned by revealed religions unknown to the classical world. They saw that revelation and philosophy could never refute each other or be intellectually synthesized without abandoning one or the other. But they also understood that philosophy’s skepticism could pose serious risks, whether to the philosopher himself (witness Socrates’ fate) or to the moral-legal foundation of the city, which rests at some level on unquestioned beliefs (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”). Philosophy lives with a permanently open horizon, leaving unsettled many basic questions regarding morality and mortality. Most people, and all societies, need settled answers to those questions. So how is the philosopher to behave responsibly in such a situation, while still remaining himself?
According to Strauss’s reading, Alfarabi and Maimonides wrote in such a way that the casual reader would take away the lesson that philosophy and revelation are compatible. This exoteric lesson is doubly beneficial. It permits the philosopher to live and teach free of suspicion from theological and political authorities; it also plants the idea publicly that those authorities must justify themselves before the tribunal of reason, thereby acting as a brake on superstition and tyranny. The attentive reader, however, will note that these texts are full of contradictions, lacunae, strange digressions, senseless repetitions, and silences. As the reader goes deeply into them he begins to learn a different, esoteric lesson, which is that philosophy and revelation are not at all compatible. This esoteric lesson is also doubly beneficial. It teaches the reader that genuine philosophy can and should be kept free from all theological and political conventions; it also teaches him by example how to establish relations that are both esoteric and exoteric with conventional authority and with potential students of philosophy. The achievement of Alfarabi was to have demonstrated how philosophy can be both free, if understood esoterically, and politically responsible.
This was what Tanguay calls the “Farabian turn” in Strauss’s thought. After making the turn Strauss then worked back in time, developing an idealized picture of an “ancient” or “classical” philosophical tradition that was also esoteric. The ancients, he claimed, sought a rational account of nature while simultaneously recognizing the less than rational character of political life, which is dominated by opinion and passion. He then moved forward to show, or claimed to show, how this understanding of the philosophical life disappeared in the modern era. Strauss’s theory of exoteric writing and esoteric reading is extremely controversial among classicists, medievalists, and historians of modern thought, though few seem to have read his book on the subject, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952). Most find his interpretations and those of his students to be arbitrary, sometimes perverse, and, more importantly, flattening, since they all seem to arrive at the same lessons about the philosopher and the city, nature and convention, and the need for esotericism itself.3
Many of these charges are just. What is unfortunate is that controversy over this subject has obscured Strauss’s larger aim, which was to reread older works in order to challenge the way we conceive of ourselves today. His interpretations try to suggest that the truly radical nature of Socratic questioning had been domesticated and routinized by modern Enlightenment philosophy, and that this was a loss, not a gain. Through the new philosophy of the Enlightenment we have learned to master nature and partially master our political destinies, but in the process we have lost the genuine freedom of philosophy as a way of life. In the process of Enlightenment, we have forgotten ourselves.
Talk of forgetfulness reminds one of Heidegger, and one does not distort Strauss by considering his entire oeuvre to be a long response to the challenge Heidegger laid down. Both were convinced that the history of philosophy makes up a coherent story that ends in the problem of nihilism stated by Nietzsche; both sought the “decisive” moment in that story when an earlier practice of philosophy was lost and the decay set in; both, if in different ways, tried to bring about the “destruction” of a mistaken philosophical tradition and the recovery of an earlier one. Countless questions can be posed about Strauss’s efforts to accomplish these aims: about the “second cave” and the need to recover anything at all; about the Socratic ideal he advances; about the practice of esoteric reading; about the existence of a coherent “ancient” or “classical” philosophical tradition; about the “waves of modernity” that led from Enlightenment to nihilism; about the connection between the history of these ideas and concrete political history.
All of his claims are questionable—in the sense that they deserve and repay serious questioning, and not the summary dismissal they so often receive in Anglo-American academic circles. The reason Strauss is becoming important in continental Europe is the dawning realization that he belongs to that extraordinary moment in modern German thought when the entire philosophical tradition, from the Greeks down to the present, suddenly seemed doubtful and a new beginning seemed necessary. Those who want to understand that moment and take its challenges seriously know they have to read Heidegger. The works under review give reasons to believe they also must read Strauss.
But these works do something else, equally important. By returning our attention to the real core of Strauss’s thinking, and to its development in Europe during the first half of his life, they help us to isolate it from his American school and their political activities since his death in 1973. This will be the subject of a subsequent article.
—This is the first of two articles on Leo Strauss.
October 21, 2004
A useful list was compiled by Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, editors of Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). On it we find the following positions held over the past quarter-century by people “influenced by Leo Strauss and his students”: chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, associate director of USIA, assistant deputy secretary of state for human rights, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, director of the National Advisory Board of Foreign Intelligence, as well as a large number of presidential and vice-presidential advisers, members of the National Security Council, defense analysts, advisers to cabinet secretaries, and others. It also includes one former presidential candidate, Alan Keyes. It is worth noting the paradox that most of these people served in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, when their presence was little remarked, and that there are probably fewer Straussians in the current Bush administration. ↩
See my article on Rosenzweig, “A Battle for Religion,” The New York Review, December 5, 2002. ↩
One of the most stimulating critical articles on Strauss was M.F. Burnyeat’s widely read “Sphinx Without a Secret,” The New York Review, May 30, 1985. For an equally stimulating dissent by a non-Straussian classicist, see G.R.F. Ferrari, “Strauss’s Plato,” Arion, Fall 1997, pp. 36–65. ↩