‘Reading Leo Strauss,’ by Steven B. Smith
Neocon or Not?
FOR a scholar who addressed what the general public would regard as abstruse topics in a dry academic fashion, Leo Strauss has become a name that reverberates widely — and, for many, ominously. He is seen as the seminal thinker behind neoconservatism, its intellectual father.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish home in a small German town in 1899, Strauss was trained in the rigorous discipline of Geistesgeschichte, intellectual history. He began his career in the 1920’s in an innovative adult Jewish learning institute. His first book was on Spinoza, and he subsequently devoted scrupulous, often maverick, studies to major figures of political philosophy from Plato and Maimonides to Machiavelli, Hobbes and the framers of the American Constitution. He left Germany in 1932, went to England via Paris, and in 1938 came to the United States. He taught for a decade at the New School in New York and then from 1949 to 1968 at the University of Chicago, where he exerted his greatest influence. He died in 1973.
Strauss was very much caught up in an extraordinary intellectual ferment among German Jews who came of age around the time of World War I. He was friends with Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, in the early 1920’s. He worked with Franz Rosenzweig, the bold architect of a Jewish existentialist theology. He was admired by Scholem’s friend Walter Benjamin, the eminent literary critic and cultural theorist. Like all these thinkers, he was concerned with the tensions between tradition, founded on revelation, and modernity, operating with unaided reason.
How, then, has Strauss come to be viewed as a sinister presence in contemporary politics? Some of his students, or students of his students, went on to become conservative policy intellectuals in Washington. Perhaps the most well known of his disciples, Allan Bloom, remained at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his best-selling book, “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987), a scathing critique of the debasement of American higher education by conformist progressivism. In the mid-1980’s, a highly critical article in The New York Review of Books linked Strauss with conservatism, and in the next few years, numerous pieces in other journals followed suit. It has become received wisdom that a direct line issues from Strauss’s seminars on political philosophy at the University of Chicago to the hawkish approach to foreign policy by figures like Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush administration.
“Reading Leo Strauss,” Steven B. Smith’s admirably lucid, meticulously argued book, persuasively sets the record straight on Strauss’s political views and on what his writing is really about. The epigraph to its introduction, from an essay by the political scientist Joseph Cropsey, sounds the keynote: “Strauss was a towering presence . . . who neither sought nor had any discernible influence on what passes for the politics of the group.”
Although it is said that Strauss voted twice for Adlai Stevenson, he appears never to have been involved in any political party or movement. What is more important is that his intellectual enterprise, as Smith’s careful exposition makes clear, repeatedly argued against the very idea of political certitude that has been embraced by certain neoconservatives. Strauss’s somewhat contrarian reading of Plato’s “Republic,” for example, proposed that the dialogue was devised precisely to demonstrate the dangerous unfeasibility of a state governed by a philosopher-king.
“Throughout his writings,” Smith concludes, “Strauss remained deeply skeptical of whether political theory had any substantive advice or direction to offer statesmen.” This view was shaped by his wary observation of the systems of totalitarianism that dominated two major European nations in the 1930’s, Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. As a result, he strenuously resisted the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence. Such thinking could scarcely be further from the vision of neoconservative policy intellectuals that the global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change. “The idea,” Smith contends, “that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss.”
Liberal democracy lies at the core of Strauss’s political views, and its basis is the concept of skepticism. Since there are no certainties in the realm of politics, perhaps not in any realm, politics must be the arena for negotiation between different perspectives, with cautious moderation likely to be the best policy. At one point, Smith, the Alfred Cowles professor of political science at Yale, describes Strauss’s position as “liberalism without illusions.” All this may sound a little antiquated, and Smith is right to associate Strauss with cold war liberals like Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Walter Lippmann and Lionel Trilling. But it’s a view from the middle of the past century that might profitably be fostered in our own moment of political polarization, when a self-righteous sense of possessing assured truths is prevalent on both the right and the left.
The other general point that Smith makes about Strauss’s alleged paternity of neoconservatism is that a considerable part of his work has nothing to do with politics of any sort. Smith divides his book — a collection of previously published essays, inevitably with some repetition among them — into two parts, the first entitled “Jerusalem,” the second, “Athens.” Strauss used these terms to designate the two poles of Western culture, roughly corresponding to revelation and reason. It is in the “Athens” section that Smith traces Strauss’s trajectory through the history of political philosophy. The essays of the “Jerusalem” part, on the other hand, follow his engagement with Maimonides, Spinoza, Scholem and Zionism (a movement that he had embraced from adolescence but that he thought did not alter the metaphysical condition of galut, exile, in which Jews found themselves).
The Jewish-theological side of Strauss certainly had no perceptible effect on his American disciples, most of them Jews and all of them, as far as I know, secular. In these concerns, Strauss was thoroughly the intellectual product of 1920’s German Jewry. Like others of that period, including Walter Benjamin, he approached the idea of revealed religion with the utmost seriousness. It does not appear that he remained a believing Jew, yet he was not prepared simply to dismiss the claims of Jerusalem against Athens.
On the contrary, the sweeping agenda of reformist or revolutionary reason first put forth in the Enlightenment worried him deeply, and he saw religion, with its assertion of a different source of truth, as a necessary counterweight to the certitudes of the 18th century. His vision of reality was, to use a term favored by both Scholem and Benjamin, “dialectic.” Why some of his most prominent students missed this essential feature of his thought, and why they turned to the right, remains one of the mysteries of his intellectual legacy.
Robert Alter’s most recent book is “Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel.”