By JENNY STRAUSS CLAY
June 7, 2003
Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a “cabal“ (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles.
My father was not a politician. He taught political theory, primarily at the University of Chicago. He was a conservative insofar as he did not think that change is necessarily change for the better.
Leo Strauss believed in the intrinsic dignity of the political. He believed in and defended liberal democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best form of government that could be realized, “the last best hope.“ He was an enemy of any regime that aspired to global domination. He despised utopianism — in our time, Nazism and Communism — which is predicated on the denial of a fundamental and even noble feature of human nature: love of one’s own. His heroes were Churchill and Lincoln. He was not an observant Jew, but he loved the Jewish people and he saw the establishment of Israel as essential to their survival.
To me, what characterized him above all else was his total lack of vanity and self-importance. As a result, he had no interest in honors within the academy, and was completely unsuited to political ambition. His own earliest passion, he confessed, was to spend his life raising rabbits (Flemish Giants) and reading Plato.
He was first and foremost a teacher. He did not seek to mold people in his own image. Rather, he was devoted to helping young people see the world as it is, in all its misery and splendor. The objects of his teaching were the Great Books, those works generally recognized as the foundation of a liberal education. But that alone was not a sufficient reason for reading them.
He began where good teachers should begin, from his students’ received opinions, in order to scrutinize their foundation. At that time, as is still true today, academia leaned to the left; hence such questioning required an examination of the left’s tenets. Had the prevailing beliefs been different, they too would have been subject to his skeptical inquiry.
Among the received opinions of the time was an unquestioned faith in progress and science combined with a queasiness regarding any kind of moral judgment, or “relativism.“ Many young people were confused, without a compass, with nothing substantial to admire. My father’s turning them to the Great Books was thus motivated not merely by aesthetic or antiquarian interest, but by a search for an understanding of mankind’s present predicament: what were its sources and what, if any, were the alternatives? The latter he found in the writings of the ancient Greeks.
Furthermore, he insistently confronted his students with the question of the “good life.“ For him, the choice boiled down to the life in accordance with Revelation or the life according to Reason — Jerusalem versus Athens. The vitality of Western tradition, he felt, lay in the invigorating tension between the two.
My father saw reading not as a passive exercise but as taking part in an active dialogue with the great minds of the past. One had to read with great care, great respect, and try, as he always said, to “understand the author as he understood himself.“ Today this task, admittedly difficult and demanding, is dismissed in fashionable academia as impossible. Rather, we are told, each reader inevitably constructs his own text over which the author has no control, and the writer’s intentions are irrelevant.
The fact is that Leo Strauss also recognized a multiplicity of readers, but he had enough faith in his authors to assume that they, too, recognized that they would have a diverse readership. Some of their readers, the ancients realized, would want only to find their own views and prejudices confirmed; others might be willing to open themselves to new, perhaps unconventional or unpopular, ideas. I personally think my father’s rediscovery of the art of writing for different kinds of readers will be his most lasting legacy.
Although I was never a student of my father’s, I sat in on a class of his in the 1960’s; I think it was on Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia.“ He was a small, unprepossessing and, truth be told, ugly man (daughters are their parents’ worst critics), with none of the charisma that one associates with “great teachers.“ And yet there was something utterly charming. One of the students would read little chunks of the text, and my father would comment and call for discussion. What marked this class was a combination of an engagement with questions of the highest seriousness (in this case, what is the best form of government) with the laughter of intellectual play.
It was magic. If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust.
Jenny Strauss Clay is a professor of classics at the University of Virginia.
To present another perspective, here is another rather long article on him
Leo Strauss and the Straussians
Until quite recently, Leo Strauss and his disciples were considered (insofar as anyone took any notice of them) just a particular variety of conservative intellectuals, with a special interest in political philosophy and American constitutional history. Now we are beginning to discover that something peculiar has been going on all this time.
The greatest peculiarity of Straussianism is that there is such a thing. Not a single other “conservative” thinker has inspired a following remotely comparable, in size, continuity, and influence, to that of Leo Strauss. There is a Straussian school as there is no Weaveran or Burnhamite or Meyeran or Kendallist or Voegelinist school. And this school has its own interests, ideas, and purposes, which are clearly distinct from mainstream conservatism, however close to their collective chest they play their cards.
The Straussians are also the only group of “conservatives” ever to amount to anything in the academic world. They have reportedly been gradually, quietly infiltrating and taking over political-science departments, making that discipline characteristically theirs, as Marxists have done with sociology, and libertarians with economics.
Then along came Allan Bloom, who was catapulted to momentary fame by The Closing of the American Mind (1987), briefly becoming one of the most publicly-recognized “conservative” figures … second only to William F. Buckley, Jr., who had spent decades making his name as the liberal establishment‘s token conservative. Curiously (and characteristically) enough, in Bloom‘s famous (or infamous) book, he only mentions his master once, and in passing, so that the vast majority of his readers remained blissfully ignorant of any connection (probably never having heard of Leo Strauss anyway); yet those in the know could immediately recognize Bloom‘s intellectual affiliation.
Strauss and the Straussians began to attract more attention, both journalistic and scholastic. One liberal scholar, Shadia Drury, has made a career of writing anti-Straussian exposés: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), Alexandre Kojeve: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994), Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997).
The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are “outmoded” and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch — usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than “outmoded” ones.
But this is only a prelude to an even more radical challenge to modern thought: the Straussians believe that premodern philosophy is better than modern philosophy. This turns the whole “progressive” view of history topsy-turvy, and provides a very distinctive point of view, and line of criticism, about modernity. The Straussians are pre-modern and anti-modern, not in the name of religion (like the various forms of religious fundamentalism all over the world) or of tradition (like conservatives since Edmund Burke), but in the name of reason, of philosophy: an understanding of reason and philosophy different from the Enlightenment‘s.
The teaching of Leo Strauss is “political philosophy” in a very special sense: his primary, if not exclusive, concern is the relation of philosophy (and the philosophers themselves) to society as a whole. Moreover, he imputes this primary concern to the premodern and early modern philosophers.
The lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens‘ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of all human endeavors. The resolution of this conflict is that the philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing “between the lines.” Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the “Great Tradition” of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke: the message that there are no gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.
With Machiavelli, however, there came a shift in emphasis. He was the first to deviate from the esoteric tradition that began with Plato, thereby initiating the Enlightenment. Machiavelli de-moralized political philosophy, and thereby created “political science.” Virtue, whether defined in classical or Christian terms, was dethroned, because no regime could live up to its demands. Instead, a new regime could and should be created, by accepting, understanding, and harnessing men‘s lower, self-interested nature.
The modern world is held to be the deliberate creation (with some unintended consequences) of the modern philosophers — namely, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress. The Enlighteners argued (though still covertly) that instead of hiding philosophy, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy: in particular, by undertaking the “project” of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications — safety, health and wealth — to common men, bribing them into acquiescence to philosophy. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of liberty and equality enabling men to pursue their self-interest.
The problem with this (in the Straussian view) is that it exposed philosophy once more, and ultimately prostituted philosophy itself into the service of common men. The esoteric tradition was forgotten, and with it philosophy as such. At the same time, philosophy inadvertently exposed men to certain hard truths, truths too hard for them to bear: that there are no gods to reward good or punish evil; that no one‘s patria is really any better than anyone else‘s; that one‘s ancestral ways are merely conventional. This leads to nihilism, epitomized by the listless, meaningless life of bourgeois man, or to dangerous experiments with new gods — gods like the race and the Fuehrer.
Strauss, an ethnic Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, looked at the regnant liberalism of mid-century America, and saw the Weimar Republic: morally weak, incapable of self-preservation. His prophecy was fulfilled by the ignominious collapse of the liberal establishment, both political and academic, in the face of the New Left.
Now, this unique interpretation of Western history depends on the existence of a “hidden agenda” in the history of philosophy. If there was, in fact, such an esoteric tradition, it has escaped the attention of most scholars. Of course, that might only prove how well-hidden it is … which goes to show how seductive esotericism can be, once you start flirting with it. But in the end, what really matters is the philosophical questions Strauss raised, whether or not he was correct in ascribing them to the historic philosophers.
There are several problems with his “teaching.” First, is the philosopher (in the original, literal sense: a “lover of wisdom”) really a superior type of person? I think that he is — but not that he is a superior being. The difference between the philosopher and the ordinary person is one of degree, not of kind. His im
pulses are the same, but ordered differently. No matter how rational he is, he is still a rational animal: a sexual one, for instance, and a social one. His curiosity is more fully developed than theirs, but unless his other faculties are at least as well developed as theirs, this one trait does not make him better than they are.
The ancient philosophers did believe that the philosophic life is the highest and best, but only a few are suited to it. The Straussians concur, and go on to imply that the major evil of modern egalitarianism is that it makes philosophy impossible, by devaluing anything that is not accessible to the common man. But philosophy is not the only thing that suffers: so do creativity, heroism, authority, and all other “elitist” qualities.
Bloom makes much of this, even though he regards these other “types of soul” as rivals to philosophy, because he wants to undermine egalitarianism, and these others are more appealing. Philosophy is all the less appealing if, as he seems to assume, the ultimate truth is that there is no truth. It is all the more important, then, to convey this truth through misdirection: the desire to know cannot be aroused unless the allure of truth is held out.
The main difference between the Straussians and Left-wing nihilists is that the former think the “truth” of value-relativism should be known only to the few. All the philosophical problems with relativism apply to the Straussians‘ Right-wing version, and in spades. Suffice it here to say that the Straussians, too, have to introduce quasi-objective standards of judgment, covertly and unintentionally: e.g., the social utility of religion and patriotism. Surely, the very fact that society requires certain things — communal loyalty, for instance — in itself justifies these things: they are rooted in nature, the social nature of humanity.
Then there is an evident contradiction between the idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth, and the idea of philosophy as a body of esoteric lore. If the Straussian reading is correct, it would seem that the history of philosophy consists of practically nothing but pondering the relation of philosophy to civil society, rather than pondering philosophical questions themselves. All the important questions have already been answered, or declared to be unanswerable: this is what created the tension between philosophy and civil society in the first place. So what is there for philosophers to do? The Straussians themselves are not even philosophers, but historians of philosophy, custodians of the esoteric lore.
The perceived need to write obscurely also tends to obscure thought. The Closing of the American Mind is much better-written (in style, at least, if not in convoluted structure and argumentation) than anything by Leo Strauss. But even Bloom makes his argument complex and subtle to the point of evasiveness, as if he wants to confuse and mislead the reader. (In particular, his critics — those who actually did read him — were hardly ever able to tell when he was or was not speaking in propria persona.) Bloom, at least, writes so well that he charms rather than repulses the reader, so one is (if sympathetic) willing to read his book again and again, with closer and closer attention; but not even the most sympathetic reader can really be sure, in the end, precisely what Bloom really means, behind all the good and important things he does say.
Bloom‘s analysis of our cultural predicament is so true, so profound, that there must be some truth in his speculations as to its causes; but he all-too-carefully avoids making clear and specific claims that can be put to the test. This is the great weakness of the Straussian method: so careful is he to hide the point of his argument, he nearly fails to make it. Certainly he fails to support it. Strauss puts his students to such a mental effort to try to understand him that they are too exhausted to make the mental effort to criticize him.
Given the inherent obscurity of the Straussian teaching, one should only be surprised if it did not produce conflicting interpretations. There are in fact two schools of Straussians: those like Bloom, who accept and propound this esoteric teaching; and those, such as Harry Jaffa, who interpret Strauss in terms of a more conventional understanding of classical philosophy. One might call them the esoterics and the exoterics, but it is hard to tell which is which.
It may be that the seeming exoterics are just better at hiding their esotericism, which makes them the true esoterics. Both of them challenge the prevailing relativism of twentieth-century thought, harking back to classical standards of truth and justice; but the esoterics only do so because truth and justice are salutary myths, while the exoterics (perhaps) really do believe in truth and justice.
The two schools are also divided on their interpretation of American history, and particularly the American Founding. Both follow Strauss‘s division of philosophical history into the (good) “ancients” and the (bad) “moderns.” According to the esoteric version, America was wholly modern from its inception: it is entirely the creation of the “modern project.” The exoteric Straussians, like conservatives, prefer to emphasize America‘s continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization.
The esoterics, then, basically agree with the libertarian and (pre-1960s) liberal understanding of American history: we are a “proposition nation,” liberal to the core, and conservatism is un-American. The cult of the Founding Fathers is just a salutary myth. The truth is that the Founders, under the tutelage of Hobbes and Locke, deliberately created a squalid regime ruled by self-interest, sacrificing virtue to liberty and equality, and are ultimately responsible for the philistinism, mediocrity, and deracination of contemporary America.
Both esoterics and exoterics seem to agree that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of “natural rights,” on which the republic was founded. Bloom regards “natural rights” as illusory, and bourgeois society as distasteful; but they are at least preferable to the nihilism of the New Left. The question is whether the New Left was the inevitable culmination of the ideology of liberty and equality — and he strongly implies that it is. His only hope seems to be the cultivation of a tiny remnant to pass on the old lore through the new Dark Age. Now, conservatism might or might not be un-American, but this sort of quietism certainly is.
Straussianism is an extraordinarily complex and subtle body of ideas, and I am sure that I have hardly done it justice in this small space. But in the end, Straussianism offers more questions than answers. This is not necessarily bad: the questions need to be asked. What is the relation of nature to culture? Can society be founded on rational principles? Has the Enlightenment brought about its own downfall? How did this happen? What can be salvaged from the wreck? — etc. Strauss, through his disciple Bloom, started me thinking about these questions, which have preoccupied me ever since.
© 2000 by Karl Jahn
The late Leo Strauss has emerged as the thinker of the moment in Washington, but his ideas remain mysterious. Was he an ardent opponent of tyranny, or an apologist for the abuse of power?
By Jeet Heer, 5/11/2003
ODD AS THIS MAY SOUND, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush‘s Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journa
lists pore over Strauss‘s work and trace his disciples‘ affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon.
Yet while the extent of Strauss‘s influence is wide, his writings are frequently obscure, and his legacy is hotly disputed by admirers and critics alike. Certainly, Strauss was no ordinary Republican idea-maker: Steeped in ancient philosophy, he had dark forebodings about democracy, religion, technology, and nearly everything else that can claim the allegiance of the contemporary conservative (or liberal, for that matter).
At first glance, a University of Chicago professor who spent most of his life pondering old books would seem an unlikely master-thinker for the policy wonks, career bureaucrats, and pundits who make up Washington‘s unelected elite. Strauss held that politics was a central human activity, but he also believed that ‘‘all practical or political life is inferior to contemplative life.‘‘ He participated in the battle of ideas not by issuing political manifestoes or angling for bureaucratic power, but by writing recondite and difficult books.
A typical Strauss volume is a densely packed commentary on a classic text like Plato‘s ‘‘The Laws‘‘ or Machiavelli‘s ‘‘The Prince,‘‘ festooned with footnotes drawing on an array of hard-won languages from ancient Greek and Latin to medieval Arabic. It‘s often difficult to discern where Strauss‘s paraphrases of dead writers leave off and his own views begin-and this has only deepened the mystery that attaches to his work.
Despite his life of quiet scholarly obscurity, Strauss has exerted a strong posthumous sway among those who bustle through the corridors of power. Washington Straussians have included Robert A. Goldwin, who had the bizarre and unenviable task of organizing weekly seminars in political theory and practice attended by President Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s; Carnes Lord, National Security Council advisor in the Reagan administration; and William Galston, deputy domestic policy adviser in the first two years of the Clinton administration. Irving Kristol, an intellectual whose name is virtually synonymous with neoconservatism, has named Strauss as a major influence, and Straussian writers and ideas regularly grace the pages of magazines like National Review, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard, which is edited by Irving‘s son William Kristol. The Bush administration‘s Straussians include the Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, who studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago, and the bioethics adviser Leon Kass, a colleague at Chicago.
Strauss also claims a large, if rather clubbish, following in the academy, especially among scholars of political theory and American constitutional history. And yet even those academics who know Strauss‘s work best often sharply disagree about its fundamental meaning. There are East Coast Straussians, West Coast Straussians, and even some Straussian Democrats. Clifford Orwin, a professor at the University of Toronto strongly influenced by Strauss, describes him as a wise teacher who counseled prudence and moderation. But Shadia Drury, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and the author of ‘‘Leo Strauss and the American Right,‘‘ completely disagrees. For her, Strauss was nothing less than ‘‘a Jewish Nazi‘‘ whose pretense of American patriotism and piety hid a cynical and extremist antidemocratic ideology.
Was Leo Strauss a friend of liberal democracy, or an elitist who wanted society to be ruled by a secretive cabal? An ardent opponent of tyranny, or an apologist for the abuse of power? An atheist or a pious Jew?
To understand Strauss, we need to look beyond the famous students and self-styled acolytes and examine the man himself.
Born in 1899 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany, Leo Strauss learned at an early age that religion and philosophy are always vulnerable to the threat of political persecution. As a young man, Strauss was a liberal rationalist who nursed the hope, widespread in German Jewish circles, that assimilation into a liberal democracy would end anti-Semitism. As an undergraduate at the University of Marburg, his mentor was Hermann Cohen, a philosopher whose reconciliation of Kant‘s philosophical ethics and biblical morality seemed to suggest that there was no contradiction in being a German Jewish liberal.
In the 1920s Strauss became increasingly disillusioned with modern liberalism. Philosophically, he was shaken by his encounters at the University of Freiburg with Martin Heidegger, the philosopher whose powerful critique of rationality‘s delusions seemed to undercut the guileless liberalism of Kant and Cohen. Politically, the instability of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism proved to Strauss that liberals were also weaklings in practical matters, unable to protect society from explosions of popular fanaticism. Furthermore, the rise of a new and more virulent strain of anti-Semitism demonstrated that assimilation had failed to solve the problems of German Jewry.
These political and philosophical problems fused together in the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power-and won the applause of Heidegger. By this point Strauss had left Germany for France, where he was studying medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy on a Rockefeller scholarship, but he continued to view events in his native country with dismay.
Strauss believed that Martin Heidegger possessed the greatest mind of the 20th century. But unlike those Heidegger admirers who excused the philosopher‘s flirtation with Nazism as a mere personal failing, Straus believed it showed that modern philosophy had gone deeply astray. Orwin explains: ‘‘Strauss‘s question always was, What was it about modern thought that could have led Heidegger to make these disastrous practical misjudgments?‘‘
In Strauss‘s mature work, he would argue that Plato and Aristotle were wiser than modern thinkers like Machiavelli and Heidegger. This exultation of ancient thought wasn‘t merely a nostalgic celebration of the good old Greek days. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes observes, Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped a still-vital truth: Inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition.
For Strauss, the modern liberal project of using the fruits of science and the institutions of the state to spread happiness to all is intrinsically futile, self-defeating, and likely to end in terror and tyranny. The best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind.
Such a philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption. For example, it may find that its city‘s prosperity derives ultimately from ‘‘force and fraud,‘‘ or that the gods do not exist. Aware that Socrates was executed for blasphemy, ancient thinkers realized that philosophy was dangerous: It had to be kept for the intelligent few rather than the ignorant many. Therefore ancient philosophers (and their medieval followers) wrote in code. Using metaphors and cryptic language, they communicated one message, an ‘‘esoteric‘‘ one, for an elite of wise readers and another, ‘‘exoteric‘‘ one, for the unsophisticated general population. For Strauss, the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity.
Although Strauss‘s ideas had been developing for years, they really coalesced when he moved to London in 1934, and then to the United States later in the decade. Like many European emigres, he found refuge at New York‘s New School of Social Research, where he taught from 1938 to 1948, and then at the Univers
ity of Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in the late `60s. While his teachings and books bewildered mainstream American social scientists and drew many hostile comments, students flocked to this odd and beguiling refugee scholar.
Many would go on to become important academics in their own right, including the philosopher Stanley Rosen (a leading light at Boston University), the historian Harry Jaffa (who later wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater), and Allan Bloom, whose 1987 bestseller ‘‘The Closing of the American Mind‘‘ would-paradoxically-bring Strauss‘s thought to a mass audience.
Mindful of the collapse of Weimar Germany‘s fragile democracy, Strauss was distrustful of American liberals; he believed they were too weak-minded and trusting to fight communism. In fact, Strauss believed that the United States shared certain ills with Soviet communism: Both societies put the material well-being of the masses ahead of the cultivation of virtues among an elite. But Strauss also saw America‘s constitutional government as the last, best hope for excellence in a modern world besotted with egalitarianism. Many of his students would go on to champion the US Constitution-with its separation of powers and its provision for a strong executive branch-as a political masterpiece that put limits on popular rule.
Stanley Rosen observes that Strauss‘s earliest students were often indifferent to politics and interested mainly in philosophy. Robert Goldwin became one of the first Straussians to work in practical politics when he joined the campaign of Charles Percy, a Republican candidate for the governorship of Illinois, in 1964. As it turned out, this migration of Straussians into the world of politics helped fill a vacuum in the Republican party, which, aside from free-market economists like Milton Friedman, had few well-educated intellectuals to fill policy-making positions. Once in Washington, Straussian conservatives could carry on their war against modern liberalism‘s moral relativism at home and naive pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union abroad.
The Straussian milieu was a closely knit one, where professors and pundits cultivated their favorite disciples with devotion. As Holmes points out, Strauss once wrote of ‘‘the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in return.‘‘
With his teachings about philosophers who write in code and secret doctrines for the elect, Leo Strauss can seem like a conspiracy buff. In fact, some of Strauss‘s followers like Allan Bloom and Willmoore Kendall do use the word ‘‘conspiracy‘‘ to describe the history of Western thought. Not surprisingly, conspiracies have flourished around Strauss himself. The followers of Lyndon H.
LaRouche, the fringe presidential candidate who believes that the world is being governed by Jewish bankers inspired by a Babylonian cult and that the Queen of England is a drug dealer, argue that Strauss is the evil genius behind the Republican Party. More sensible folk, like the New York Times writer Brent Staples, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Chicago in the 1980s, have also decried the ‘‘sinister vogue‘‘ of Strauss.
Certainly, Strauss‘s embrace of obscurity is part of his appeal. When it comes to religion, the obscurity can get especially thick. Strauss, who wrote on Jewish issues all his life, held that atheism was not a viable public philosophy. And yet he often interpreted religious figures in an impious way. He suggested once that the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides secretly believed that reason and revelation were incompatible while pretending to reconcile the Bible with philosophy. In his book ‘‘The Anatomy of Antiliberalism,‘‘ Stephen Holmes maintains that, in Strauss‘s view, only philosophers can handle the truth: that nature is indifferent to human values and needs.
So where did Strauss really stand? ‘‘He was an atheist,‘‘ says Stanley Rosen flatly. ‘‘They [Straussians] all are. They are epicureans and atheists.‘‘ (The epicurean comment is perhaps a reference to the late Allan Bloom, who was legendary for his enjoyment of the high life. After his death, Bloom‘s esoteric life as a closeted gay man turned out to be very different from his outward posture as a proponent of traditional values.)
While some Straussians dispute the idea that the master was a godless cynic, it does seem that Strauss wanted a regime where the elite lived by a code of stoic fortitude while governing over a population that subscribes to superstitious religious beliefs. ‘‘He agreed with Marx that religion was the opium of the masses,‘‘ says Shadia Drury. ‘‘But he believed that the masses need their opium.‘‘ Sociologically, Strauss‘s approach would seem to work well for the Republican Party, which has a grass-roots base of born-again Christians and a much more secular elite leadership-at least in its foreign-policy wing.
Some traditional and religious conservatives have become deeply wary of Straussians. ‘‘They certainly believe that religion may be a useful thing to take in the suckers with,‘‘ notes Thomas Fleming, editor of the right-wing journal Chronicles. ‘‘Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don‘t appear to hold to. One of Allan Bloom‘s students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is just absurd. Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe.‘‘
Clifford Orwin sees nothing objectionable in the alliance between Strauss-inspired neoconservatives and fundamentalist Christians. ‘‘The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is a big tent in which a great many people have to coexist who disagree on a great many things,‘‘ notes Orwin. ‘‘There is nothing sinister about that.‘‘
But just how ‘‘sinister‘‘ was Leo Strauss himself? The answer depends on how a reader approaches his books. If you read Strauss with a well-disposed spirit, he can be interpreted as a genuine friend of American liberal democracy. He worked to create an elite that was strong, sober, and sufficiently free of illusions about the goodness of man to fight the totalitarian enemies of liberal democracy-be they fascists, communists, or Islamicist fundamentalists.
But if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers, a more disturbing picture takes shape. Strauss, by this view, emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity. The worst thing you can do to Leo Strauss, perhaps, is to read his books with Straussian eyes.
Jeet Heer is a regular contributor to the National Post of Canada and the Globe.
This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 5/11/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.