Who was Leo Strauss?

Author:Smith, Gregory Bruce

More than twenty years after his death, Leo Strauss remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Commentators, both friendly and hostile, have variously found the pivot point of Strauss's thought in a desired return to Greek thought--in some permutations complete with the elitism of the rule of philosopher-kings; or in a conservative defense of modern, liberal democracy, especially against Marxist communism; or in a furtive, esoteric, historicist, Nietzschean nihilism hidden behind a clever, rhetorical public teaching on the one hand, or in a dogmatic, hierarchical, inegalitarian understanding of unchanging Nature on the other; in the reflections of a fundamentally Jewish thinker, or in a Socratic skepticism; and on and on.

Since his death Strauss has even been attacked in the popular press, an odd phenomenon for a man who seldom declaimed in public and, despite a sense of professional obligation to his university and his students, clearly preferred the withdrawn, quiet, private, contemplative life. It would be difficult to find a man less likely to want to be a philosopher-king, or to want to have any public persona whatsoever. That Strauss has become so controversial has to be traced ultimately to the untimely nature of his thinking, and his willingness to question openly the philosophical orthodoxies of his time. But to an equal extent, the controversies surrounding Strauss must be traced to the idiosyncracies of unpredictable changes in moral, cultural, and political fashions. Because of the unpredictable nature of such fashions, how Strauss's influence will evolve in the future is difficult to predict.

Leo Strauss was born in Kirchhain, Hessen, Germany, in 1899. He received a traditional gymnasium education. He reports that as a young man he read and re-read the works of Nietzsche. He was also much attracted to Zionism. After serving in the German army during World War I, he returned to study philosophy, mathematics, and natural science at the universities of Marburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg. Upon completing his formal education, he was a researcher in the reform institute for Jewish studies in Berlin, where he examined seventeenth-century biblical criticism, especially that of Spinoza. From these studies came Strauss's first major work, Spinoza's Critique of Religion. After completing his doctorate, Strauss sat in on the courses offered by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who was teaching at Freiburg. Husserl was famous for the philosophical injunction to get "to the things themselves," a premise that, in altered form, Strauss himself adopted. It was at Freiburg that Strauss also sat in on the courses of Husserl's assistant, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose influence on Strauss was far greater than is usually seen. Heidegger, like Nietzsche, had launched a theoretical critique of the origins of late-modern nihilism. In a parallel fashion, Strauss was much preoccupied with the "Crisis of the West."

In 1932 Strauss left Germany to avoid Nazi oppression, returning thereafter for only a brief period. After two years in France on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and four lean years in England, he came to the United States in 1938, where he remained until his death in 1973. Between 1949 and 1968 Strauss taught political philosophy at the University of Chicago; there he wrote an impressive number of terse and intensely erudite books and articles about such authors as Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Farabi, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Nietzsche, and Husserl. Even a cursory attempt to confront these works presents one with themes that lie far from contemporary public debates: the relation between Reason and Revelation, the battle between the ancients and the moderns, the nature of esoteric philosophic writing, the origins of late-modern historicism. It is an odd legacy for such a man to have somehow become taken as the arch-enemy of democracy and be made responsible for controversial positions on everything from multiculturalism to Supreme Court nominations to debates about social justice.

It is always dangerous to try to deduce too much from the origins and personal history of a thinker. In the classic model of philosophy, especially as Strauss understood it, the thinker seeks to stand outside his place and time, not in order to negate the world he lives in but to gain the widest possible perspective on it. Strauss strove for that detachment. But he hardly could have avoided being influenced by his experience as a German Jew, born to an orthodox family. From the very beginning, Leo Strauss was a profound, fervent supporter of liberal democracy as the best political dispensation available in the modern world. He had seen the inadequacies of other modern regimes, such as fascism, at first hand, and he viewed communism as straightforward tyranny.

Strauss was especially impressed with the American variant of liberal democracy and studied its history, its Constitution, and the writings of its founders and statesmen. While he never wrote on these subjects, he saw a rare genius in the practice of American political life. But his scholarly work on modern political philosophy forced him to conclude that the modern philosophical premises that supported liberal democracy were inadequate; and if not transcended, they would weaken attachment to a fundamentally just and decent way of life. Beginning with his work on Hobbe--The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, completed while he was still in England--and proceeding through his studies of Locke and Machiavelli, as well as in his pivotal Natural Right and History, Strauss tried to understand the essence of modern political philosophy and how it could lead to such radically different offspring as liberal democracy, fascism, and Marxist communism. Eventually Strauss was led back to Greek thought in hopes of finding an alternative to the nihilism he saw as implicit in modern thought. This led to his attempt to give life back to the confrontation between the ancients and the moderns. It is by addressing the major philosophical themes that occupied Strauss's scholarly efforts that his influence can be confronted at the deepest and least accidental level.

Strauss's scholarly work initially tried to confront the nihilism of what he would eventually call the "third wave of modernity" by addressing itself to that component of Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead," which implied that belief in a transcendent God and His revelations had become impossible for future humanity. In Spinoza's Critique of Religion, Strauss tried to show that none of the modern critiques of the possibility of revealed religion was definitive. Thus the possibility of taking revealed religion and its wisdom seriously remained open. From Spinoza, Strauss was led to the great medieval Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), whom Spinoza had taken as one of his major opponents. It was from Maimonides that Strauss learned about the esoteric or secret writing that became one of his major scholarly themes. Thereafter, he never left behind the question of the relation between Reason and Revelation, or "Athens and Jerusalem."

In the face of late-modern irrationalism, which he saw as the inevitable outcome of modern rationalism, Strauss also tried to reconsider the other central component of Western civilization, Greek rationalism. He repeatedly made clear that the heart and soul of Western civilization was to be found in the irresolvable tension between Revelation and Rationalism. Strauss's argument was that the modern philosophical attacks on Reason and Revelation were not conclusive; he never claimed much more certainty than that. Strauss hoped to reopen questions that had been presumed conclusively closed. He did not presume to substitute a new closure for that openness. Despite his discussions of Natural Right and Natural Law, Strauss never asserted the existence of rigid moral absolutes. It is especially paradoxical, therefore, that Strauss should be seen as a dogmatic partisan.

Strauss did make clear, however, that in his mind the viability of Western civilization--with Western liberal democracy being one of its central components--rested on the ever-renewed reinvigoration of the West's distinctive tension between Reason and Revelation. Both were under assault in his time. Strauss was equally clear that the tension could never be resolved in favor of either Reason or Revelation. In general terms, Strauss encouraged an openness to this tension, not dogmatism or irrationalism--or what comes close to the same thing as irrationalism, secret writing and esoteric misdirection.

Modern philosophy and modern political philosophy had attempted to transcend both Greek rationalism and...

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