Into the Intro: Leo Strauss


This book reconsiders the views of Leo Strauss on the relationship between philosophy, law and political violence—the aspect of Strauss’s philosophical scholarship that has been most publicly controversial, and where his intentions have been most vehemently disputed.  Around the time of the Iraq War, a bevy of books and articles appeared claiming Strauss and his followers had inspired the foreign and defense policies of the Bush Administration. Scholars and journalists alike scoured Strauss’s difficult and erudite works about political thinkers such as Machiavelli and Thucydides.  They purported to discover there cleverly-placed and shrewdly-veiled messages of bellicose imperialism, war without limits, and unbounded executive power—the doctrines they suspected Strauss of teaching orally to a closed circle of disciples.

Here I contest these charges, through re-interpreting Strauss’s published work in light of the lectures and seminars he gave to his students, which have become publicly available over the last few years. Strauss, I argue, offers a new, classically inspired philosophy of political violence, but one based on a strong preference for peace over war.  This philosophy holds that there are circumstances where the use of violence is a justified necessity, a wholly different proposition from arguing against all moral and legal constraints on war.  As Strauss puts it, “Socrates was a man of peace rather than of war.  It should go without saying that a man of peace is not the same as a pacifist.”(XSD, p. 89)

The fundamental tension or opposition between philosophy and violence that Strauss identifies is inspired by the Socratic/Platonic view of thinking in relation to action.   Strauss writes in On Tyranny:  “The classics understood the moral-political phenomena in the light of man’s highest virtue or perfection, the life of the philosopher or the contemplative life.  The superiority of peace to war … is a reflection of the superiority of thinking to doing or making.”(TM, p.295)  Philosophical reason is intrinsically oriented toward gentleness and peace, agreement and dialogue rather than polemics and clashes of ideological absolutes.  This is a counterpoint to the stances of an array of modern philosophers who see philosophy as intellectual warfare:  “the daughter of tumult and war …a battlefield”, as Bernard-Henri Levy puts it in a recent book, describing his own position.

At the same time, Strauss believes that, in order to be socially responsible and protect the freedom of the mind, philosophy must address the problem of violence and consider how, through legal and moral restraints, humanity can be preserved even in the most extreme situations.  Thus, Strauss would agree with Bernard-Henri Levy on the point that at least one essential function of philosophy is to think about the “violence, instability, unpredictability, sometimes the horror, of events.”  But Strauss’s insistence on legal and moral restraints is diametrically opposed to the Machiavellian teaching attributed to him by his accusers.

In the mature period of his scholarship, Strauss turns from Plato and Aristotle to ancient political writers and men of action, Xenophon and Thucydides, who faced more directly the moral and legal problems of political violence.  Strauss fuses their thinking on political violence with the Socratic/Platonic conception of philosophy’s critical distance from partisan or sectarian political projects, hence from ideology.  He sets up this viewpoint as a response to, and debate with, modern philosophical alliances with political violence, above all those of Machiavelli and the Machiavellianism of the right represented by (the fascist/Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt) and the left (by Strauss’s friend the Marxist-Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève).

Strauss and the Problem of “Straussianism

Leo Strauss was born into an observant Jewish home in Germany at the end of the 19th century. As a young man he participated in the Zionist movement; he studied philosophy in several German universities, encountered Husserl and Heidegger as well as the academic philosophy of the neo-Kantian school, and began his scholarly career as a researcher in Jewish Studies in Berlin in the 1920s. Strauss left Germany in 1932 and did not return after Hitler came to power (except for a brief visit after the War). He lived in England and France for a number of years before moving to the New School in New York, where he obtained a regular faculty position in 1941. Later, Strauss accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago, where he wrote the works that have made him famous, such as Natural Right and History, The City and Man, and Thoughts on Machiavelli. He is best known in America, at least by those who have taken the trouble to study carefully his writings, for his critique of the roots of modernity based on a perspective that is largely drawn from pre-modern philosophy — Greek, Jewish, and Islamic.

At the University of Chicago, Strauss shaped the intellectual orientation of students already inclined in many cases toward the intellectual and/or political right, who were searching for alternatives to the prevailing progressive academic orthodoxy. Some were disillusioned Communists looking for a new direction.   Absorbed in the research and writing of his most important works, and dealing with his own and his wife’s health issues, Strauss did little himself to encourage the use of his teaching to found a highbrow conservative sect.  Allan Bloom presents Strauss as distant from students and more interested in his own scholarship.

Even though he accepted the label of “conservative” Strauss took pains to distance himself from typical conservative political positions and ideology. He went so far as to characterize calling himself a conservative as “purely rhetorical”—a sort of rebelliousness against political correctness or progressivism as the prevailing orthodoxy on campus. (SHG, III:1)  As Strauss explained in one of his classes, he could not accept the dogmatic belief in inevitable progress that was apparently held by liberals in the academy at that time.  Nevertheless, on the crucial question of “justice”, as opposed to faith in progress, Strauss said he was with the liberals. (SHG, pp. 1-3)  Strauss also exhorted contemporary conservatives to reject imperialism and support the project of European integration. (SK, pp. 2-3)

But this side of Strauss has been mostly invisible to the academy, not to mention the larger world of ideas.  Very painfully visible is what could not unfairly be described as a Straussian cult, ever expanding into liberal arts colleges and state universities in the farthest corners of America.  I use the expression cult here without polemical intent.   For unlike the original sect of Chicago highbrow conservatives, whose sensibility is well represented by Catherine and Michael Zuckert, the public face of Straussianism has increasingly been composed on the one hand of noisy right-wing polemicists like Harvey Mansfield, William Kristol, and the late Allan Bloom, for whom Strauss is a kind of mascot or warhorse of conservative Kulturkampf, and on the other hand a large number of college teachers who do not really agree on what Strauss meant, but are united by the belief in his vast superiority in heart and mind to all contemporary thinkers.  I also believe the use of the expression “cult” is justified in light of Strauss’s own suggestion that reverential assent or obedience to any human teacher or book is idolatry; and such reverence is just what Straussianism typically demands.  Strauss wrote:  “if the Bible is a work of the human mind, it has to be read like any other book—like Homer, like Plato, like Shakespeare—with respect but also with willingness to argue with the author, to disagree with him, to criticize him.  If the Bible is the work of God, it…has to be read in a spirit of pious submission, of reverent hearing.” Strauss clearly believed that reverent hearing should be reserved for God.

I do not in the least want to disparage individual scholars who are Straussians; in many cases their writing and teaching meets the highest intellectual standards; in some cases they have even incrementally moved away from Straussianism by questioning if not openly criticizing aspects of Strauss’s thought, an attenuation of cultishness in their individual behavior.    As will become clear in chapters 3 and 4, where I address Strauss’s On Tyranny and Thoughts on Machiavelli, I owe a considerable debt to the Strauss scholarship of Nathan Tarcov, for example.  My concern with the collective behavior of Straussians as opposed to their individual merits as scholars is not about descending into petty academic politics:  it is simply that this collective behavior has made an open-minded engagement with Strauss’s works by the mainstream academy almost impossible.

As Anne Norton has rightly noted, “this phenomenon-the desire to be a master, to form an exclusive intellectual cult-is by no means peculiar to the Straussians. I have seen it among the students of Arendt, Wolin, Habermas, and Derrida, and in less elevated places.” What sets apart Straussianism from the intellectual cults Norton mentions is the Straussians’ relations with others in the academy.  The Straussians do not usually go out into the marketplace of ideas and try to engage with contrary positions, attempting to persuade that Strauss was right; instead, apart from withering polemics, usually against scholars of a liberal, post-modern, or positivist orientation, they tend to keep to themselves, with an attitude of superiority.  They spread Straussianism (whatever version they subscribe to) by converting undergraduate students to their Straussian outlook, rather than through engagement and dialogue with different scholarly positions.  The notion of superiority or even election does make Straussians different from the other intellectual “cults”:  for instance, I have known many students and followers of Habermas who argue vigorously for his approach to democracy and social critique; but I have yet to encounter a single one who viewed her or himself as personally superior or “special” by virtue of following Habermas as opposed, say, to Dworkin, Rawls, or Derrida.  The Straussians’ superiority, or perhaps supremacy, complex is captured by Allan Bloom’s grandiose suggestion that “I believe our generation may well be judged by the next generation according to how we judged Leo Strauss”, which Bloom was content to have seen by non-Straussians as a “threat”.

The approach is acknowledged, even with a hint of self-critique, by one of the leading Straussians, Thomas Pangle:  “To be sure by placing themselves in so intellectually aggressive, and consequently embattled or isolated, a salient, those conspicuously influenced by Strauss may incur the danger of slipping into a defensiveness that can perhaps distort thinking, as well as impinge upon collegiality; but this is a cost well worth paying in return for the invigorating pressure to self-questioning and to intellectual probity.” Pangle goes on to cite the end of a lecture by Strauss where he quotes a Latin phrase that means “Aristotle seeks a fight” (Aristoteles quaerere pugnam). But Strauss mentions this phrase in order to explain that it ought not to be taken out of context; intellectual disagreement is valuable only when conducted with a view to seeking agreement on the truth-“peace”-rather than scoring polemical victories to the cheering of one’s own followers.  As he wrote to Gerhard Krüger, “Relative to agreement [Verständingung] at any price, conflict is truer; however, the last word can only be peace, i.e. agreement through truth.  That this agreement of reason is possible, I firmly believe [firmiter credo].”  One cannot but observe the complete opposition in tone and substance to Pangle’s (albeit slightly qualified) praise of intellectual aggression.

The thinkers with whom Strauss himself engaged intensively—whether the rebellious Heidegger student Karl Löwith, the Hegelian Marxist Alexandre Kojève, or the Jewish mystic Gerschom Scholem—were individuals with whom he carried out epistolary debates permeated by the greatest respect, a profound sense of intellectual equality.   None of these men were Straussians, yet it was with them (and a few others, also non-Straussians, such as philosopher of mathematics Jacob Klein or the hermeneutics theorist Hans Georg-Gadamer) that Strauss preferred to engage in extended intellectual conversation, trying insistently but always respectfully to persuade them of the truth his positions.

Strauss was not unaware of the dangers of Straussianism as admitted by Pangle.  Thus his advice to former students beginning their teaching careers:  “Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart.”(LER, p. 9)  And Strauss pointedly reminded his conservative epigones, who liked to think of themselves as apostles of the Western canon: “Karl Marx, the father of communism, … was liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire.”(LER, p. 24)  In his public written exchange with Alexandre Kojève On Tyranny, the subject of Chapter 3 of this book, Strauss acknowledged:  “There will be a variety of groups of philosophic friends:….  Friendship is bound to lead to, or to consist in, the cultivation and perpetuation of common prejudices by a closely knit group of kindred spirits.  It is therefore incompatible with the idea of philosophy.  The philosopher must leave the closed and charmed circle of the “initiated” if he intends to remain a philosopher.”(OT, pp. 194-195)

Taking these words seriously means no longer allowing Straussianism to be an obstacle to engaging freely, reflectively and critically with Strauss himself—a thinkers who confronted the extremes of his century through re-connecting with older thought, but in a very different way than, say, Hannah Arendt or Eric Vögelin.   Leo Strauss was held in high regard by 20th century minds that have a secure place in the academy’s pantheon, whether on the left or the right, or even the center, including as already mentioned,  Hans-Georg Gadamer,  Alexandre Kojève, Gershom Scholem, Karl Löwith. One could add Raymond Aron and Walter Benjamin to the list and even, despite their frosty collegial relations, Hannah Arendt—who described Strauss to Karl Jaspers as “A truly gifted intellect.”  Isaiah Berlin, who criticized Strauss as “wrong-headed” and did not understand him well, nonetheless grasped that he was “a careful, honest, and deeply concerned thinker.”

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