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.
Strauss introduced the book with the words of the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident,” and then asked: Do we still? Does the contemporary West still believe in natural “inalienable Rights,” or do we rather believe, as Strauss dryly puts it, that “all men are endowed by the evolutionary process or by a mysterious fate with many kinds or urges of aspirations, but certainly with no natural right”? If the latter, doesn’t that mean that modern liberalism has declined into relativism, and isn’t that indistinguishable from the kind of nihilism that gave rise to the political disasters of the twentieth century? “The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism,” Strauss writes, “nay, it is identical with nihilism.” As a rhetorical device for piquing interest in the apparently antiquarian task of recovering classical philosophy, this introduction succeeds brilliantly. But it also raises the peculiar thought that such an enterprise is wrapped up with American destiny.
Strauss never wrote a single essay about American thought and only a few shorter pieces on “the crisis of our time,” forgettable exercises in Weimar Kulturpessimismus that display little feel for American life. After Natural Right and History he spent most of his time at Chicago teaching courses on important European figures in the history of philosophy, concentrating mainly on their political works. Some of his students, though, perhaps inspired by that book, turned to American political thought in earnest, and their influence subsequently became large.4 For the first two decades of his teaching, Straussianism remained a narrowly academic phenomenon. During the first two decades of his Chicago period, Strauss’s American students were mainly interested in studying old books, in reviving la querelle des anciens et modernes, and adapting an aristocratic understanding of the philosophical life to the slightly vulgar American democratic setting. That had little to do with Socrates but it was roughly consistent with Strauss’s own scholarly activity, the main difference being the missionary zeal and rhetoric of moral uplift that sometimes suffused their writings. There were odd examples of Strauss’s students getting involved with contemporary politics (one wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater) and it is true that conservatives were drawn to him because of his skepticism toward modern ideas of progress and his hostility to communism. But so were cold war liberals who shared his admiration for Lincoln and wanted to have a clear understanding of liberal democracy’s weaknesses in order to protect it. Most were probably Democrats in those years and supported the civil rights movement, but the school remained scholarly, not partisan.
After 1968, all that changed. The universities imploded, and Straussianism took a new turn. It is difficult for those of us educated on the other side of that cultural chasm to imagine the trauma experienced by some of those teachers wedded to the pre-’68 American university, however sympathetic to their loss we might be. Their sense of betrayal is infinite; they cannot and will not be consoled. Straussians in the universities took the student revolts, and all that followed in American society, particularly hard. From Strauss they had learned to see genuine education as a necessarily elite enterprise, one difficult to maintain in a leveling, democratic society. But thanks to Natural Right and History, they were also prepared to see the threat of “nihilism” lurking in the interstices of modern life, waiting to be released, turning America into Weimar.
This was the premise underlying Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and helps to explain why its genuine insights about American youth got buried in apocalyptic doomsaying. Bloom and several other influential Straussians spent the Sixties at Cornell, which had a particularly ugly experience with student violence, race-baiting, and liberal cowardice in the face of attacks on the university. Buildings were seized, faculty were threatened, the university’s president assaulted. That moment seems to have been a revelation for Bloom, opening his eyes to the fact that “whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same” and that “Enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the sixties.”
In the wake of the Sixties, and after Strauss’s death in 1973, one began to see a new, more political catechism developing among certain of his disciples. Some Straussians remained nonpartisan and to this day devote themselves to teaching old books for their own sake; many others, traumatized by the changes in American universities and society, began gravitating toward the circles of neoconservatives then forming in New York and Washington. The catechism these political Straussians began to teach their students is nowhere recorded, and not because there is a secret doctrine being passed around by esoteric means. Rather, the catechism so permeates the way they think about Strauss today, and therefore about themselves, that its philosophical and political tenets need not be articulated.5 It begins with the assumption that the modern liberal West is in crisis, unable to defend itself intellectually against internal and external enemies, who are abetted by historical relativism. This crisis obliges us to understand how modern thought reached such an impasse, which takes us back to the break with classical thought. There we discover the prudently contrived character of classical philosophy, which trained its adepts directly, and statesmen indirectly, about the fundamental problems of politics. This practice, it is then suggested, deserves to be recovered, especially in the United States, which was founded self-consciously on the idea of modern natural right and therefore still takes it seriously. Such an exercise would not only shore up the American polity, it would contribute to the defense of liberal democracy everywhere.
There are several noteworthy features of this catechism. Unlike the new European studies of Strauss’s thought, which focus on the tension between philosophy and revelation, the catechism begins and ends with politics, specifically American politics. But it does so in contrasting styles. To speak musically, it begins to strains of Götterdämmerung and ends with “Stars and Stripes Forever.” This contrast has even worked itself out geographically in what once was called “the crisis of the Strauss divided.” Straussians in the South and West, in places like Claremont College, tend to be Sousa-ites, extolling the virtues of the American way of life, while in the North and East, in places like Harvard, Toronto, and Chicago, a Wagnerian “crisis of the West” style is preferred. Students drawn to Straussianism may not hear the disharmony; many are not particularly political, at least initially. They are simply captivated by their first experience in the classroom—Straussians are excellent teachers—and the frisson of having their basic presuppositions challenged. But given their lack of a previous education in philosophy, it doesn’t strike them that the version of it they are hearing has an oddly political and parochially American focus.
Those who then enter the Straussian orbit follow fairly predictable paths. They do not launch themselves directly into the philosophical inquiries that Strauss’s historical works were meant to make possible again. They try vainly to catch up with their Gymnasium-educated teacher, reading all the works he read and trying to figure out how they fit into the story told in Natural Right and History. There is a set curriculum. Many learn Greek to study Plato and Aristotle, then Thucydides and Xenophon; the intrepid will work up enough Hebrew and Arabic to follow Strauss’s studies of Maimonides or Alfarabi. A millennium and a half of Christian thought is pretty much ignored, taking Strauss’s silence on this minor historical episode to be authoritative. Then they turn to the moderns, tracing the decline of political philosophy from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, whose daring they are taught to appreciate, while still disapproving. The writings of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists make up the American section of the reading list, supplemented by the ever-present Tocqueville.
Given the state of American education it is hard to complain about a curriculum that encourages students to extend their thinking from ancient to modern thought. But so tied is the teaching to Strauss’s own readings that it becomes a well-tailored straitjacket. More than anything, it kills students’ intellectual curiosity and fills them with contempt for teachers and fellow students who aren’t with the program. And for those who go on to graduate study, their lack of curiosity and independence blocks them at almost every turn. Straussians complain bitterly about their trouble finding academic work, attributing it to “a system of political screening as forbidding as any blacklist,” as one put it.6
There certainly is prejudice against Straussians in those universities where conservatives are still being treated like untouchables. But there is also experience with Straussians, and it has been mixed. At a time when university professors are often more interested in following academic fashions than in teaching students classic works on fundamental human problems, it can be refreshing to have Straussian colleagues who love teaching and have something to say about those problems. That certainly has been my experience. But in other, less happy places, the Straussian habit of forming dogmatic cliques with students and hiring one another has fractured professional and personal relations, making potential colleagues wary of hiring them. The kind of scholarship the Straussians typically produce also makes it difficult for them to advance. Their dissertations and books—which they have trouble finishing, given the weight of Strauss’s example—range from impenetrable exercises in esoteric analysis to solid interpretations of well-known classics. Some of the latter are extremely useful but rarely display originality or a willingness to stray beyond convention; their introductions and conclusions can be tendentious, the remaining chapters thorough, somewhat pious, unsurprising. One puts most of them down thinking: just another brick in the wall.
Studying the works of Leo Strauss and following his example—his curiosity, independence of mind, originality—should not be a recipe for intellectual stasis. But for young people brought up on the American Straussian catechism it has become one. Little wonder, then, that so many of them end up making the trip from Athens to Washington, where at least the political atmosphere is more congenial. In a sense, they have been prepared for that, too. From Strauss they will have learned that although philosophers should not try to realize ideal cities they do bear some responsibility for the cities in which they find themselves. For years they will have heard about the importance of defending liberal democracy against the threats it faces; they will have read a lot of cloying scholarship about the American founding, the glories of statesmanship, the burden of prudence, and the need for civic virtue. They also will think that America has been slipping into nihilism since the Sixties and that, however vulgar, right-wing populism contributes to our nation’s “becoming naïve again” about basic right and wrong. So when the sword falls and their academic prospects are ended, their instinct is to turn to Washington as a second-best, “patriotic” alternative. And when they do, they find themselves welcomed with open arms by a neoconservative establishment eager for recruits.
American neoconservatism exists in a beltway within the Washington Beltway. It is a world unto itself, intellectually and socially, sustaining foundations, think tanks, advocacy groups, magazines, and consulting firms, not to mention people in government who work as advisers, speechwriters, and mid-level bureaucrats. A number of books have been written about the movement, none of which quite captures its metamorphosis from a loosely connected network of professors and magazine editors into a well-integrated force shaping American public policy.
The neoconservative impulse was originally a moderating one, arising from a sense that American liberalism needed a reality check. Great Society programs, it was said, were exacerbating problems they were meant to solve, such as poverty and urban blight; rising taxes were stifling economic prosperity; middle-class values were being vilified, driving voters to the right; the “Vietnam syndrome” was paralyzing American foreign policy. Over the past two decades these criticisms have become commonplaces in American politics; with the election of Bill Clinton it appeared that we were (nearly) all neoconservatives now. Except for the neoconservatives themselves, who in the interim abandoned the moderate liberalism they once championed, for a coarse provincial ideology giving them enormous influence in Washington.
Neoconservatives used to give two cheers for capitalism; now four or five seem hardly sufficient. They once promoted a hard realism in foreign policy, to counteract the pacifist idealism they saw among Democrats in the Seventies; now they flirt with an eschatological faith in America’s mission civilisatrice, to be fulfilled by military means. They once offered a complex view of bourgeois culture in its relation to economic and political life; now they are in the grip of an apocalyptic vision of post-Sixties America that prevents them from contributing anything constructive to our culture. How these eschatological and apocalyptic ideas about America can exist in the same breast, without some effort at reconciliation, remains a mystery to every outsider who glances at a neoconservative magazine today.7 They appeal, though, to political Straussians, whose hearts beat arhythmically to both Sousa and Wagner.
Traditional American conservatism was anti-intellectual; neoconservatism is counter-intellectual. That is the source of its genius and influence. Unlike traditional conservatives who used simply to complain about left-leaning writers, professors, judges, bureaucrats, and journalists, the neoconservatives long ago understood that the only way to resist a cultural elite is to replace it with another. So they have, by creating their own parallel universe, mainly in Washington but with satellites in universities, and by attracting ambitious young people who share their views. Some have edited conservative student newspapers or studied with politically engaged Straussians; others joined the conservative Federalist Society in law school. All hope to make the “long march through the institutions.” Their intellectual life, such as it is, is conceived wholly as the making of strategies for retaking cultural and political territory. That is obviously easier when Republicans are in the ascendancy, but they are not dependent on elections. There are always jobs to be found editing magazines or writing speeches or working for foundations; the neoconservative world is, paradoxically, a benevolent welfare state in which loyal citizens are always cared for.
Neoconservatism began as an intellectual movement. It is now an essential part of Republican politics, and therefore American life. But politics demands compromises and alliances. So it is not unusual in neoconservative Washington to find yourself at an event with a motley collection of people: older New York intellectuals, professors in exile from politically correct universities, economic visionaries, Teddy Roosevelt enthusiasts, home-schooling advocates, evangelical Protestants, Latin-mass Catholics, Likudniks, and personalities from shock radio. Sprinkled among them you are sure to find a young Straussian foundation officer who did his doctoral dissertation on, say, Lincoln’s speeches but didn’t get tenure. Another couldn’t finish his thesis on the politics of Plato’s Timaeus and now works as a defense analyst. Both will patiently explain to you the logical connection between ancient philosophy and the latest press release from the American Enterprise Institute. It would take a comic genius, an American Aristophanes, to capture the strangeness of this little world.
Straussians have indeed become central to that world, but it is mistaken to think Strauss’s ideas govern it. On the contrary, what we have witnessed over the past quarter-century is the slow adaptation of Straussian doctrine to comport with neoconservative Republicanism. A small monument to that endeavor is Carnes Lord’s recent book on political leadership, The Modern Prince. Lord is a Straussian who began his career translating and writing about Aristotle, and his work in classics is widely respected. He then served on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council before becoming an adviser to Vice President Dan Quayle, and he is now professor of strategy at the Naval War College—an unusual parcours in any liberal democracy but our own.
Lord clearly enjoys politics and administration, and knows much about them. His vocabulary may be abstractly Straussian—there is much talk of “regimes,” “founding,” “prudence,” “honor,” and “statesmanship”—but most of his concerns are quite concrete: the decline of parties, the shift of legislative initiative to bureaucracies and the courts, the challenge of managing intelligence. He is often wise and occasionally unpredictable when discussing the difficulty of leading complex modern democracies. But Lord is also worried and angry, and wants his readers to be, too. What disturbs him is how little room there is for bold leadership in contemporary America, and he blames this on many things. He blames the progressive “feminization” of politics (the decline of “manliness” is a Straussian-neoconservative obsession); he blames the press and the universities for diminishing respect for public officials (though he makes no effort to hide his contempt for former President Bill Clinton); he even blames the intelligence and military establishments, which are too cautious by half and constrain the more assertive foreign policy he clearly would like to see. Contempt for the CIA and the Pentagon is a central tenet of neoconservative orthodoxy in Washington, as the entire world has learned, to our chagrin, in the wake of the Iraq war.
The book’s final chapter, whose title, “Exhortation to Preserve Democracy from the Barbarians,” is drawn from the last chapter of Machiavelli’s The Prince, would seem to return us to higher Straussian ground. But no. Machiavelli’s chapter was a patriotic call to arms demanding the expulsion of foreign invaders from Italy. Lord’s informs us that “the real problem facing the modern prince is not the barbarians at the gate; it is the barbarians within.” These are to be found not only in the press and universities, they are, in his view, being bred everywhere by “the multiculturalist mentality” that undergirds our overly lax immigration policies, by the decay of moral standards, and by the atrophy of America’s “political religion of constitutionalism,” among much else. All of this is sure to leave Lord’s neoconservative readers satisfied, but most other Americans stupefied.
Anne Norton, a professor of political theory at the University of Pennsylvania, is neither satisfied nor stupefied. In her new book on the political Straussians, the first of its kind (but surely not the last), she asserts that Lord and his kind promote a “troubling model of leadership” bordering on authoritarianism. These sorts of charges have been made before but have more weight in this case because Norton studied with some Straussians at the University of Chicago and admires many of their intellectual achievements. She gets many things absolutely right about the school, such as the value of the close reading it teaches and the intensity of teacher-pupil relations. “Straussians adore their teachers,” she writes, “they talk about them like young girls talk about horses and boy bands.” She also sees how those intense relations can turn sour, harming students intellectually and psychologically. She punctures the myth of “secret teachings” by Straussians—“it was all done in the open”—and admits that academic prejudice against Straussians and conservatives is real. When Norton writes in an autobiographical vein, she can be charming and fair.
When she turns to the Straussian connection with neoconservative politics, though, her grip becomes unsteady. She is disturbed by the political turn of the Straussians after 1968, less because it distorted the aims of an important thinker than because it aided and abetted the ascendancy of the Republican right. Her hostility occasionally brings out an Aristophanic wit, as when she remembers “tiny little men with rounded shoulders” and “larger, softer men, with soft white hands that never held a gun or changed a tire,” delivering speeches on manliness when she was a student. But it also drives her to repeat slanderous rumors and academic urban legends about certain Straussians, as a way of scoring political points. One’s confidence in her own political judgment is not enhanced by her rosy assessment of the academic benefits that rioting Cornell students allegedly brought to the university in the Sixties, nor by her likening Theodore Roosevelt to Osama bin Laden as a promoter of misogynist jihad. In the end, Norton cannot decide whether Strauss was responsible for the neoconservative turn of his school or not, perhaps because she is not entirely sure what neoconservativism is. But whatever it is, she’s against it. That will make her book popular at the faculty club, just as Lord’s will be welcomed within the Beltway, but not beyond it.
To turn from Carnes Lord and Anne Norton back to the new European works on Leo Strauss is to breathe an altogether different air. Those studies of his thought remind us why he attracted devoted students and readers in the first place, and help us to measure the distance we have traveled since his death thirty-two years ago. The ironies in this short chapter of American intellectual history are almost too many to number. Where but in America could a European thinker convinced of the elite nature of genuine education find some of his pupils making common cause with populist politicians? Where but in America could a teacher of esotericism, concerned about protecting philosophical inquiry from political harm, find his views caricatured in the newspapers and weeklies? And where but in America could an admirer of Socrates, who spoke of his students as “the young puppies of his race,” expect to see his students’ students become guardians of an ephemeral ideology?
It is a shame that Strauss’s rich intellectual legacy is being squandered through the short-sightedness, provincialism, and ambition of some of his self-proclaimed disciples. But American life is hard on all European legacies. Fortunately, his books remain and they can be studied with profit without paying the slightest attention to those disciples or their polemical adversaries in the university and the press. The fact that he is finding new readers abroad who have no connection with the American school is encouraging, and one can only hope that the new European studies of his thought will eventually be translated and find an audience here. When the American press was in the middle of its Strauss fever last year a number of alarmist articles appeared in Europe as well. But there were also a few wise ones defending Strauss against Americans who would use him for their own political ends. One of the best was by an Italian scholar of Jewish thought. Her title simply ran: “Hands Off Leo Strauss!”8
—This is the second of two articles on Leo Strauss.
November 4, 2004
Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). ↩
“Leo Strauss: Becoming Naïve Again,” The American Scholar, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Autumn 1975). ↩
The best distillation of it can be found in the essay on Strauss by Nathan Tarcov and Thomas L. Pangle, which serves as an epilogue to History of Political Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, third edition, 1987), the reader first compiled by Strauss and Joseph Cropsey in the Sixties and still in print. ↩
Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime, p. 71. ↩
I helped to edit one of those magazines, The Public Interest, in the early 1980s. ↩
Irene Kajon, “Giù le mani da Leo Strauss,” MicroMega (April 2003). See also Carole Widmaier, “Leo Strauss est-il néoconservateur? L’épreuve des textes,” Esprit, November 2003. ↩