An excerpt from

Reading Leo Strauss

Politics, Philosophy, Judaism

Steven B. Smith

Why Strauss, Why Now?

Strauss was a towering presence … who neither sought nor had any
discernible influence on what passes for the politics of the group.
—Joseph Cropsey, “Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago”

Who was Leo Strauss? Strauss was a German-Jewish émigré, the product of the pre–World War I Gymnasium who studied at several universities, finally taking his doctorate at Hamburg in 1921. He was a research assistant at an institute for Jewish research in Berlin before leaving Germany in 1932 to settle first in England and later in the United States, where he taught principally at the New School for Social Research in New York and later the University of Chicago. It was during his period in Chicago that Strauss had his greatest influence. He was, by most accounts, a compelling teacher, and like all good teachers everywhere he attracted students, many of whom came to regard themselves as part of a distinctive school. By the time of his death in 1973 Strauss had written (depending on how one counts them) more than a dozen books and around one hundred articles and reviews.

Strauss’s works were highly controversial during his own lifetime. When he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago he was the author of two books published in Germany that were long out of print: a slim monograph on the political philosophy of Hobbes, and an even briefer commentary on a minor dialogue by Xenophon. The future trajectory of his life’s work would by no means have been obvious. In the autumn of 1949 he gave a series of lectures under the auspices of the Walgreen Foundation, titled Natural Right and History, that was to set his work on a new and distinctive path. It was, literally, his way of introducing himself to the world of American social science from the seat of a major university. The book of the same title was published four years later, in 1953. What exactly did Strauss set out to do?

Strauss offered a deliberately provocative account of what might be called the “modernity problem” that had been widely debated in prewar European circles, but which was still relatively unknown to Americans of that era. Prior to Strauss, the most important current of twentieth-century American political thought was John Dewey’s “progressivism.” Against the view that the advance of science, especially the modern social sciences, was bringing about the progressive triumph of freedom and democracy, Strauss rang an alarm bell. Strauss argued by contrast that the dynamics of modern philosophy and Vertfrei, or value-free social science, were moving not toward freedom and well-being but to a condition he diagnosed as nihilism. In Strauss’s counternarrative of decline, the foundations of constitutional government as understood by the American framers were gradually being sapped and eroded by the emergence of German-style historicism according to which all standards of justice and right are relative to their time and place. All of this was presented as the outcome of a densely detailed history of political thought in which all the trappings of German scholarship were on full display. His analysis was bold, audacious, and learned. The ensuing controversy pitted those advocates of American progressivism against Strauss, who regarded modernity as a mixed blessing that required certain premodern classical and biblical teachings to rescue modernity from its own self-destructive tendencies.

People on the outside often think of Straussianism as some kind of sinister cult replete with secret rites of initiation and bits of insider information—much like a Yale secret society. Straussians are often believed only to associate with other Straussians and only to read books written by one another. Some actually believe that Straussianism requires the subordination of one’s critical intellect to the authority of a charismatic cult leader. Others regard it as a political movement, often allied with “neo-conservatism,” with a range of prescribed positions and ties to conservative think tanks and policy centers. The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger deplores the influence of what he calls Strauss’s “German windbaggery” and compares it to the deleterious influence of Hegel on earlier generations. “Strauss,” Schlesinger continues, “taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions. He approved of Plato’s ‘noble lies,’ disliked much of modern life, and believed that a Straussian elite in government would in time overcome feelings of persecution.” None of these beliefs could be further from my own experience.

There is no doubt that the influence of Strauss—or at least his purported influence—is greater now than at any time since his death more than thirty years ago. Of course, Strauss is widely regarded today as a founding father, perhaps the Godfather, of neo-conservatism, with direct or indirect ties to the Bush administration in Washington. The last few years have witnessed a virtual hostile takeover of Strauss by the political Right. “The Bush administration is rife with Straussians,” James Atlas has written in the New York Times. Never mind that the Bush administration, like all administrations, is rife with people of all sorts. The association of Strauss with neo-conservatism has been repeated so many times that it leaves the mistaken impression that there is a line of influence leading directly from Strauss’s readings of Plato and Maimonides to the most recent directives of the Defense Department. Nothing could be more inimical to Strauss’s teaching.

Early readers of Natural Right and History like Walter Lippmann saw in the book a support for the belief that the growing debility of modern democracy was due to its loss of faith in the natural law tradition. Straussians have always advocated a strong national government against the crabbed conservatism of “states rights” fundamentalists or the reactionary defenders of a purely federal reading of the Constitution. A textbook on American political thought compiled by two students of Strauss was dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Felix Frankfurter and “to the noble employment of the power they once wielded.” The editors of the collection commend FDR for expanding the powers of government beyond securing the bare rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a “higher and grander” conception of the modern welfare state. What distinguished the Straussian approach to politics was the focus on the “philosophic dimension” of statecraft, often at the expense of mass behavior or interest-group politics that attracted the attention of mainstream of political science. Straussians typically studied not only the deeds, but the words of singular political leaders and statesmen, but without any particular ideological pique or animus. Straussians might be either liberal or conservative, although there was a bias toward those who sought to anchor their policies in a reading of the principles of the American founding. Even recently a distinguished student of Strauss served as a prominent member of the first Clinton administration, advising on matters of domestic policy.

The fact is that Strauss bequeathed not a single legacy, but a number of competing legacies. It is a gross distortion to retrofit Strauss’s teachings to conform to the agenda of the political Right. His writings on a wide range of subjects continue to spark lively debate among students in a host of fields. New scholarly editions of his work including previously unpublished essays and lectures as well as a voluminous correspondence have all recently appeared, and more are slated for the future. The influence of his ideas on politics and policy-making are continually discussed and debated, and are frequently condemned in leading opinion magazines, journals, and newspapers. To the question “why Strauss, why now?” I would say,” if not now, when”?

What Is a Straussian?

Once when I was in graduate school, at a party where there was probably way too much to drink, a friend of mine—now by coincidence a prominent attorney in New Haven—was asked if he was a Straussian. “If you mean by that do I regard everything that Leo Strauss ever wrote as true,” he replied, “then, yes, I am a Straussian.” We all laughed because my friend’s answer so perfectly captured and parodied the common view of Straussianism. The question, am I a Straussian, is something I have been asked on more than one occasion over the years. Sometimes the question seems prompted by nothing more than the idle desire to know what Straussianism means. At other times it has the vague character of an “are you now or have you ever been . . .” kind of accusation. In any case the question has caused me to think about what it is to be a Straussian.

The first point I would make about Straussianism is that it is not all of a single piece. There is rather a set of common problems or questions that characterize Strauss’s work: for example, the difference between ancients and moderns, the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, and of course the tension between reason and revelation. None of these problems can be said to have a priority over the others nor do they cohere in anything as crude as a system. Whatever may be alleged, there is hardly a single thread that runs throughout these different interests. Strauss did not bequeath a system, doctrine, or an “ism,” despite what may be attributed to him. Rather, he presented a distinctive way of asking questions or posing problems that may have been loosely related but that scarcely derived from a single Archimedean point of view. It is questions that motivate all of Strauss’s writings—questions like “Is reason or revelation the ultimate guide to life?” “Has the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns been decided in favor of modernity?” and “Are the philosophers or the poets better educators of civic life?” The point of Strauss’s questions is less to provide answers than to make us aware of certain alternatives. In the age-old debate, he was probably more a fox than a hedgehog.

There are many different kinds of Straussians with many and varied interests and perspectives. Some Straussians have devoted themselves entirely to ancient philosophers, while others work on postmodernism; some are deeply religious, while others are proudly secular; some think about politics and policy-making, while others delve into the deepest problems of Being. This diversity reflects, to some degree, the variety of Strauss’s own interests. Strauss’s writings range from studies of the ancient political philosophy of Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, to the Judeo-Arabic writers of the Middle Ages, to such early modern political thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figures like Nietzsche, Weber, and Heidegger, to issues regarding the philosophy of history, hermeneutics, and the nature of the social sciences. In each of these areas Strauss made notable and lasting contributions that are still widely discussed today.

Few people—one might have to go back to Hegel—have written with as much authority on so wide a range of philosophical, literary, and historical topics. Precisely because Strauss’s work covers such a broad landscape, there is not one way of being a Straussian. In fact there are considerable differences among his heirs over precisely what is most valuable in his legacy. Strauss regarded himself as taking the first tentative steps toward the reawakening of substantive interest in the permanent or fundamental problems of political philosophy at a time when it was widely argued that political philosophy was dead. More than this, he expanded the repertoire of political philosophy to include a large number of previously neglected thinkers and topics. The major textbooks of his era made no reference to any of the medieval Judeo-Arabic writers or even to the works of the American founders. Strauss’s work treated the American founding as an important philosophical moment in the development of modernity and even encouraged a reconsideration of the ideas of philosophically minded statesmen like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson. His work also inspired a serious engagement with the work of African-American political thinkers from Fredrick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when their writings received little formal recognition in the academy. None of this, however, gets us any closer to an understanding of what a Straussian is.

Careful Readers and Careful Writers

Straussianism is characterized above all by what its practitioners often call the art of “careful reading.” When asked what he taught, it is said, Strauss often replied “old books.” Strauss paid special attention to reading mainly primary sources, typically in their original languages. This does not sound terribly controversial today except that at the time the idea of actually reading the great works of political theory had fallen out of favor. It was widely believed in many circles that the development of the modern behavioral sciences had put political philosophy on the path to ultimate extinction. It was believed by many that the meaning of writers like Plato, Hobbes, or Rousseau had been more or less established and all that was necessary was to situate them in their place along the historical time line so that the proper burial rites could be given. Political philosophy had become a kind of undertaker’s art with little relevance or importance for the living issues of either politics or philosophy.

Strauss helped to change this perception. In the language of the old Westerns, he came to realize that “there’s gold in them thar hills.” In contrast to the prevailing historicism that regarded the great works of the tradition as a product of their times, Strauss treated these texts not as museum pieces to be labeled and catalogued, but as living and vital contemporaries from which there was still much to learn. The history of political thought was not an end in itself, but a necessary propadeutic to the recommencement of serious political philosophy. Strauss taught that the interpretations that had been ascribed to the great writers of the past were far from settled or obvious, that to understand them it was necessary to bracket our contemporary preconceptions about the path of progress or history and to consider their writings afresh as part of an ongoing conversation in which we, the readers, were invited to take part. It is possible for us to participate in such a conversation precisely because the great thinkers disagree with one another. Is Being one or many? Does it exhibit permanence or change? It thus becomes necessary for us to try to understand and to judge between rival teachings, to determine which among them is closer to the truth. The reader is thus invited to participate in a conversation in which the outcome is far from predetermined, but which remains, in Strauss’s term, an open question.

Strauss was, above all, a reader. He taught his students how to read and how careful writers, like himself, wished to be read. Strauss expanded the scope of our reading to include forgotten figures and others who had been overlooked by the canon of political philosophy. Not only did he breathe new life into familiar figures and texts; he introduced new and unfamiliar writers like Al-Farabi, Judah Halevi, Maimonides, and Spinoza to the attention of political philosophers. He pioneered the study of politics and literature by focusing on the literary character of texts and highlighting the “old quarrel” between philosophy and poetry in his reading of thinkers like Plato and Nietzsche. He inquired into the rhetoric in which philosophical arguments are cast long before it became fashionable to talk about “speech acts” and the performative function of language. He paid special attention to ironies, jokes, and puns even in the most serious works and devoted one of his last books to a study of the comedies of Aristophanes. Strauss’s most important legacy was teaching his readers how to read. No one can be a Straussian who does not fundamentally love to read.

It is, of course, slightly disingenuous to suggest that Strauss taught the simple art of reading. No reading, we have been taught to believe, is ever innocent, and Strauss was scarcely a naive reader. He was in fact one of the great “masters of suspicion.” Strauss’s manner of reading unfolded from a single premise that he happened upon slowly and that he developed in a variety of contexts over many years—namely, that great writers often hide or conceal their most profound thoughts from all but the most careful and persistent readers. This seems a simple enough, even a commonsense premise. Do any of us ever say (or intend to say) all that we mean? Do we not speak in different ways to different people depending on the context of the conversation and the extent of our desire to communicate? Strauss’s discovery—actually, he called it a “rediscovery”—of esoteric writing can be attributed to a number of causes, from the simple desire to avoid persecution for unpopular or heterodox opinions, to a sense of “social responsibility” to uphold the dominant values of one’s society, to the wish to tantalize potential readers with the promise of buried treasure.

Strauss’s recovery of the esoteric tradition has been deeply controversial, to say the least. In the first place, there is the question of how we know when an author is writing in a way to deliberately conceal or obscure his teaching. There is, for example, genuine disagreement over whether Descartes’s incorporation of God into his system was a strategic ploy or a genuine expression of his religious convictions. One could ask similar questions of a host of thinkers. Did Maimonides write to confirm or undermine a belief in the primacy of revelation? Did Machiavelli write to advise or usurp the prince? Did Locke’s theory of natural rights, the virtual cornerstone of the American Declaration of Independence, secretly contain a crypto-atheist and materialist tendency? The answers to these questions are obviously not self-evident. It is clear from what Descartes says about himself that he was writing with the example of Galileo’s fate before the Inquisition strongly impressed on his mind, and we know from recent biographies of Locke that he wrote under constant surveillance—so much so that the Master of his Oxford college once referred to him as “the master of taciturnity.”

Critics of Strauss’s practice of “reading between the lines” have latched onto two potential pitfalls or abuses of the method. There is a genuine problem of how to distinguish careful writers who may disguise their teachings from those who are simply muddled. When is a contradiction simply a contradiction and when is it a clue to a paradox? How do we know whether an author is trying to reveal something through a system of elaborately “contrived deceptions” or is simply confused? Strauss himself expressed caution when applying this method. “Reading between the lines,” he wrote, “is strictly prohibited in all cases where it would be less exact than not doing so.” Strauss is clearly being deliberately coy here, but his point is a serious one. There is no a priori way of answering this question, any more than there is an a priori way of knowing when a wink is a wink and not a blink. In other words, look and see for yourself. The proof is in the eating.

There are other critics who believe that Strauss’s manner of reading leads to the perverse conclusion that whenever a writer says X, we should assume that he really means not-X. Thus a learned classicist—who should know better—has written of Strauss’s reading of Plato’s Republic that he makes the text mean exactly “the opposite of what it says.” This is, of course, absurd. The idea that an esoteric communication could be decoded simply by inverting the literal meaning of a text stands in direct violation of the very principles of esotericism. It would be to turn interpretation into a kind of cryptography. What Strauss did show is that the Republic is a book written for several different types of audiences represented by the different characters in the dialogue and that this helps to explain the very different rhetorical stratagems employed throughout the work. Strauss stressed that every text will inhabit a different set of historical circumstances that delimit what can and cannot be said and that every author will express a very different temperament and sensibility regarding his audience. In contrast to any kind of flat-footed literalism, he sought to avoid the reductionism inherent in the view that every book can be read as if it were a journal article written last week.

Perhaps the most revealing (although less often commented upon) aspect of Strauss’s manner of reading is his claim that “the real opinion of an author is not necessarily identical with that which he expresses in the largest number of passages.” In other words, careful reading must be attuned to the singular, the unexpected, and the anomalous. The true intention of an author may be revealed more clearly in what is left half-said or only subtly alluded to than in what is constantly and relentlessly reaffirmed. The result of this manner of reading is to create what a recent French reader of Strauss has referred to as “two regimes of proof.” The one follows the scientific method that regards the true as what is subject to repetition and control, while the other, Strauss’s hermeneutic method, sees the truth in what is singular and nonrepeatable. Truth is to a certain degree “identical with rarity.”

Strauss’s recovery of esoteric writing could not but leave the impression that his own writings were presented in some kind of code to which only the initiate held the key. Of course, if there ever was such a secret teaching, those who know it aren’t saying and those who are saying don’t know. Strauss did write cautiously and reticently, especially with regard to the American regime, but certainly not to conceal some sinister intent. He did not write for the sake of undermining democracy, restoring ancient hierarchies, or advocating policies of imperial expansion—all accusations that have been leveled against him—but for the purpose of protecting the regime from the corrosive blasts of skepticism that philosophy necessarily effects on any body of received opinion. He did not sanction the selective use of lies in public life, as has been asserted, and he certainly nowhere claimed that his own works, much less those of others, were written to convey the opposite of what they said. Strauss wrote as he read, that is, with an awareness that there are multiple kinds of readers with different interests and different needs and that like any good teacher it is necessary to address them in different ways.

There is considerable controversy over the sources of Strauss’s recovery of the esoteric tradition. Was its source in Plato’s artful use of the Socratic dialogue to convey various meanings to different readers without actually speaking in his own name? Was it in Maimonides’s allegorical reading of certain scriptural passages and imagery? Or was it in Nietzsche’s claim that all that is profound loves masks? Strauss himself loved masks and even admitted in a letter to his fellow émigré Karl Löwith that “Nietzsche so charmed me between my 22nd and 30th years that I literally believed everything I understood of him.” Strauss was not a Nietzschean. As he says, Nietzsche’s spell on him was broken after he reached the age of thirty. But he did carry with him something of Nietzsche’s love of unmasking others and his desire to hide behind masks of his own making. No one can claim to have read Strauss seriously without attaining an appreciation for the immense sense of playfulness, of hide and seek, that attends his manner of reading and writing.

The Theologico-Political Problem

The great theme of Strauss’s life work—what he himself referred to as “the theme of my investigations”—is the theologico-political problem, a term he drew from his early studies of Spinoza. At the center of the theologico-political problem is a choice or conflict between two comprehensive and apparently irreconcilable alternatives: revelation and reason, or as he refers to them metaphorically, Jerusalem and Athens. The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is not simply a philosophical or theological problem; it is at heart a political one. It is a matter of authority and who holds ultimate authority. Does final authority rest with the claims of revelation and all that it implies or with one’s autonomous human reason as the most fundamental guide to life?

Yet while Strauss sometimes presents Jerusalem and Athens as two incompatible alternatives between which one must choose, he elsewhere presents them as two limbs of the tree of knowledge that have mutually nourished and sustained one another. It is the dialectical tension between these two that has provided the “core” or “nerve” of the Western political tradition. Indeed, Strauss shows that the theologico-political problem is more than just a function of civilizations touched by the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It extends as far back as Socrates, the first political philosopher, who was sentenced to death by the city of Athens for corrupting the young and disbelieving the gods of the city. From the outset, the claims of philosophy have been at odds with the ancestral laws of the city and its interpreters. The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens was already something that took place, figuratively speaking, within the heart of historical Athens. It is a problem conceivably coeval with humanity itself.

The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens is, however, more than an extended metaphor for the conflicting claims of revelation and reason. Jerusalem meant for Strauss the spiritual and historical homeland of Judaism and the Jewish people. Strauss was a German Jew who grew up during the final years of Wilhelmine Germany and who came to adulthood during the Weimar Republic, before leaving Germany for good at the onset of the Hitler period. His earliest writings dealt almost exclusively with Jewish themes and Zionist theory. He described himself as having been “converted” to political Zionism at the age of seventeen, and he was later able to write that the establishment of the state of Israel procured “a blessing for all Jews everywhere” whether they realized it or not. The Zionism advocated by Strauss was not of the messianic or redemptivist kind. He strongly opposed the view that the establishment of the Jewish state could provide a solution to the Jewish Question. He once enigmatically referred to the Jewish people and their fate as “the living witness for the absence of redemption.” The establishment of the Jewish state was rather a political necessity forced on the Jews not only for the sake of their collective survival, but for the sake of Jewish self-respect.

The question for any student of Strauss’s work is where he stood on the theologico-political problem. Was he a citizen of Jerusalem or Athens? As the studies in this work indicate, there is no simple answer to this question. Strauss taught sacred texts as though they were philosophical works and philosophical works as if they were sacred texts. His careful readings have often been called “Talmudic,” generally by people who know little of Talmud, and sometimes “kabalistic” by those who know even less of Kabala. What is true is that he often saw things that more conventional readers ignored. In an essay on Thucydides he emphasized the role of piety and “the gods,” concluding with the question quid sit deus (what does God mean?). In an article on Genesis he could treat the opening chapters of the Bible as if they were a companion to Aristotle’s Physics.

Strauss taught his readers to listen carefully and to take seriously the claims of Jerusalem, especially at a time when the modern social sciences were treating religion as if it were some atavistic holdover from a dark antedeluvian past. The Enlightenment’s “Napoleonic” attack upon revelation, best expressed in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, was beaten back by successive waves of counter-Enlightenment theology and the call for a return to orthodoxy. The rationalist’s attempt to overthrow faith is self-refuting, as it rests on a faith in reason that reason itself cannot justify. Nietzsche’s announcement of the “death of God” must be considered at best premature. But neither did Strauss’s critique of the Enlightenment lead to an endorsement of Jerusalem. “The victory of orthodoxy through the destruction of rational philosophy was not an unmitigated blessing,” he wrote. The challenge was not to declare a winner in the struggle, but to remain open to the claims of each and the challenge of each.

The Politics of Philosophy

What were Strauss’s politics? This seems to be the question at the heart of the recent debate over Straussianism. To be sure, an extraordinary range of positions have been attributed to him or have been said to be inspired by his writings, from a politics of “national greatness” to expanding an American empire. He has been declared an enemy of democracy and a partisan of the radical Right. But where did Strauss even remotely imply this? His opposition to communism, his rehabilitation of the tradition of natural right, and his skepticism of the general direction of democracy has as much in common with liberalism as with conservatism. On the basis of my own reading, Strauss had no politics in the sense in which that term is generally meant. His works do not endorse any political program or party, whether of the Left or of the Right, Democratic or Republican. He was a philosopher.

If there is a distinctive politics in Strauss’s writings, it concerns almost exclusively what could be called the politics of philosophy. Political philosophy meant for him not merely the philosophical treatment of politics, but the political treatment of philosophy. Strauss once declared his writings to be a contribution to the study of the “sociology of philosophy,” by which he meant the study of philosophers as a class. What distinguishes all philosophers as a class from all non-philosophers is an intransigent desire to know, to know things from their roots or by their first principles. It is precisely because philosophy is radical that politics must be moderate. Accordingly, Strauss saw a permanent and virtually intractable conflict between the needs of society and the requirements of philosophy. Philosophy understood as the search for knowledge is based on the desire to replace opinion about all things with knowledge of all things. This desire to replace opinion with knowledge would always put philosophy at odds with the inherited customs, beliefs, and dogmas that shape and sustain social life. The politics of philosophy consists of the philosopher’s twin needs to show a respect—a decent respect—for the opinions and beliefs that sustain the collective life of society and at the same time to address and recruit new members into the ranks of the potential philosophers.

The question that naturally arises is the relation between the philosopher and the city or the political regime, or (to put the matter a slightly different way) the relation between theory and practice. Strauss often presents these as two virtually incompatible ways of life, that of the philosopher and that of the citizen-statesman or what he sometimes, following Aristotle, calls the gentleman. Is philosophy ministerial to the statesman’s life or is politics of value only because it provides the context for the pursuit of philosophy? Which holds the higher rank? Strauss’s writings exhibit the same degree of discretion and tact in discussing this problem as in addressing the related theme of Jerusalem and Athens.

It is this problem of the relation of philosophy to the regime that has divided the Straussian legacy between rival East Coast and West Coast camps. Of course this distinction refers not merely to geography, but to a state of mind. At issue is the meaning of the word “political” in the expression “political philosophy.” East Coasters are said to believe that “political” refers only to philosophy’s mode of expression, the deference philosophy pays to what it is compelled to obey and what it perforce pretends to esteem. West Coasters, by contrast, regard political philosophy as offering substantive moral guidance to political life on issues like religion, patriotism, and the status of America among the nations of the world. Does philosophy ultimately stand above or apart from the world of politics? or are politics and patriotism goods that philosophy, too, must respect? The result, as the founder of the West Coast school has put it, has been a “crisis of the Strauss divided.”

The essays collected in this volume all take a stand on the East Coast—the far East Coast—world of Straussian geography. Strauss was, on my reading, a philosopher for whom philosophy meant reflection upon the fundamental or permanent problems of political life. Strauss believed all alleged solutions to such problems, the theologico-political problem for example, to be inherently contestable. He was, as he once described himself, a skeptic in the original Socratic sense of the term. It was, as Strauss saw it, the peculiar heroism of philosophy to live with that sense of uncertainty and to resist the attractions of absolutist positions in both politics and philosophy. Strauss taught the necessity of detachment, of a certain ironic distance from the world of politics and the partisanships that it engenders. Those who put politics before philosophy or who regard philosophy as an instrument of political action threaten to demean philosophy, to reduce it to the status of an ideology, no different from Marxism.

Strauss was fundamentally a skeptic for whom the ends of politics and philosophy were inherently irreconcilable. Strauss taught, if he taught anything, that “there is a fundamental disproportion between philosophy and the city,” that is, the ends of philosophy and the ends of politics are irreducible to one another. He was far more impressed with the irreconcilability of basic values than with their harmony. The closest he ever came to giving a clear and unequivocal answer to the problem of philosophy’s relation to politics occurs in a public exchange late in life with his friend Jacob Klein. Strauss regarded Klein, along with Alexandre Koj√™ve and Hans-Georg Gadamer, as his oldest philosophical friends, a group who, despite their philosophical differences, remained committed to the idea of philosophy as a way of life. In a revealing sentence Strauss noted that on the basis of his reading of Maimonides he came to attach a much greater significance to the tension between philosophy and morality than had Klein. “Mr. Klein and I differ regarding the status of morality,” Strauss said. He then goes on to clarify his meaning as follows:

Now let me explain this. That the philosophic life, especially as Plato and Aristotle understood it, is not possible without self-control and a few other virtues almost goes without saying. If a man is habitually drunk, and so on, how can he think? But the question is, if these virtues are understood only as subservient to philosophy and for its sake, then that is no longer a moral understanding of the virtues. . . . If one may compare low to high things, one may say similarly of the philosopher, what counts is thinking and investigating and not morality.

It has sometimes been argued that Strauss’s defense of philosophy as a way of life has led to the creation of an inward-looking elite that exempts itself from the moral principles applicable to the rest of humanity. This assertion of the priority of the philosophic over the political life did not lead Strauss to neglect, much less to despise morality or virtue. To the contrary, Strauss was deeply concerned with the steady erosion of democracy into a form of mass culture. “Democracy,” he wrote, “ is meant to be an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy.” By this he meant a regime in which education—liberal education—had become the prerogative of every citizen. Democracy as originally understood was, in a word, liberal democracy. But this classical conception of democracy as an aristocracy of everybody has slowly degraded into a form of “really existing” democracy. Modern democracy is today a form of mass rule, but mass rule does not mean rule directly by the masses so much as rule by mass culture, a culture manipulated by marketing techniques and other commercial forms of propaganda. “Are we not crushed, nauseated, degraded,” Strauss asks rhetorically, “by the mass of printed material, the graveyards of so many beautiful and majestic forests?” It remains today the task of liberal education to act as a “counterpoison” to the effects of mass culture and to recall citizens to the meaning of democracy as it originally was meant.

Strauss once described himself as a “friend of liberal democracy.” This was clearly intended to be ambiguous. A friend of liberal democracy is not the same thing as a liberal democrat. So what kind of friend was he? Strauss was not a liberal in any orthodox sense of the term, but there is such a thing as Straussian liberalism. He was certainly not a partisan of the hardcore Right, although some of his students have been. Strauss’s politics, such as they were, had more in common with cold-war liberals of his generation—Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Trilling, Walter Lippman, Raymond Aron—than with any of the major conservative figures of the same period. What Strauss brought to liberalism was a kind of “Tocquevillian” sensibility that regarded the freedom of an educated mind as the best antidote to the pathologies of modern mass politics. Contrary to the views attributed to him by many of his friends and virtually all of his enemies, Strauss regarded himself as a teacher of moderation. “Moderation,” he wrote, “will protect us from the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.”


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-15 of Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism by Steven B. Smith, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)


Steven B. Smith
Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism
©2006, 268 pages
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