Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2435
Article abstract: A renowned political philosopher, Strauss searched the texts of both the ancients and the moderns to construct his vision of a viable politics that included the rule of the wise.
Leo Strauss was born into an orthodox Jewish family in Kirchhain, Hessen, Germany, on September 20, 1899. He received a classical education in a Gymnasium (secondary school) and served in the German army. By the age of seventeen, he was a firm believer in Zionism, the belief that a Jewish homeland should be established in Palestine. His later writings included discussions of Jewish history, philosophy, and culture. He studied philosophy and natural science at the universities of Marburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg, and he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Hamburg in 1921.
Strauss studied with Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, an extremely influential philosophy built on the premise that there could be a science of phenomena. Husserl argued that the philosopher could develop a system describing phenomena, a system that would be as rigorous as the natural sciences. Strauss’s other important teacher, Martin Heidegger, one of Husserl’s students, rejected phenomenology to concentrate on a study of being, the human awareness of existing in time (temporality), and how this awareness influences the human personality and its consciousness of death. These two thinkers stimulated Strauss to develop a philosophy treating politics as phenomena that could be accurately described while acknowledging that politics is subject to temporality; that is, historical processes change the significance of politics over time.
In 1932, Strauss won a Rockefeller grant to study in Paris, where he concentrated on medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy. After 1933, when Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, it became impossible for Strauss to return to Germany, and in 1937, he migrated to the United States, taking a position as a research fellow at Columbia University in 1937. The next year, he became a research fellow at the New School for Social Research. In 1949, he began teaching political philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he embarked on the works of his mature career.
Following Husserl, Strauss emphasized the idea of the whole, a term he would employ in several of his books. To acquire knowledge, the thinker has to have a sense of the whole—that any particular idea is related to a body of ideas and that those ideas make sense only because of their connection to a whole. By the same token, the thinker could have an awareness of the whole only by examining particular ideas. Sometimes called the hermeneutical circle (a circle because interpretation or hermeneutics constantly shifts from part to whole and from whole to part), this concept became valuable to Strauss as he tried to show that good government is not a historical phenomenon but instead a set of ideas developed by the ancient Greeks and others, a set of ideas that could be obscured by historical developments but could be recovered by a persistent thinker and commentator on the classic texts of political philosophy.
In his early career, Strauss focused on theology, exploring the thinking of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, two philosophers from earlier centuries who attacked traditional religion and many of the traditional explanations for the foundations of political states. Like these philosophers, Strauss explored the meanings of reason and revelation because he saw the conflict between religion and philosophy as the core of Western civilization that contributed to its dynamism.
Allan Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and a disciple of Strauss, divided Strauss’s career into three phases. In the first, Strauss produced two major books, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion and The Political Philosophy of Hobbes. He began to explore what later became his mature program of study: how to interpret the fundamental tension between the need to set up a civilized state and the philosopher’s often corrosive explorations of truths that could undermine belief in the civilized state.
Strauss contended that the state rested on “noble fictions” about its founding: that it arose out of a gift of the gods or otherwise had a divine sanction. In fact, the state often resorted to violence and other forms of compulsion to establish and to maintain its existence. No state, Strauss believed, could survive without employing coercive means. Thinkers who come into conflict with the state or who openly expose the state’s suspect substructure can expect to be punished. Noting how philosophers such as Socrates and Spinoza had been persecuted and even put to death because of their unorthodox ideas, Strauss sought a method of commentary on these thinkers and on others that emphasized the need for both exoteric (explicit) and esoteric (implicit) teaching to safeguard both the philosopher, whose wisdom could guide the state, and the state, which could profit from such wisdom only indirectly and gradually.
In his second phase, Strauss began to elaborate what he meant by exoteric and esoteric philosophy. Examining the texts of great philosophers, he found passages that seemed deliberately obscure, as if certain philosophers had put up obstacles to an easy grasp of their ideas. Writers such as John Locke, Strauss reasoned, were perfectly capable of writing plainly, so there must be a reason for their abstruse passages. Strauss suggested that Locke wrote on different levels for different audiences. Ideas that were not controversial or that could be readily absorbed and accepted were stated directly; however, ideas that might jeopardize the philosopher’s authority or the authority of the state were couched in much more subtle and even elusive language and were meant only for thinkers who could approach the philosopher’s own sophistication. In this sense, philosophy’s meanings are hidden; they are there, in the text, but they have to be dug out and analyzed by a persistent commentator.
As Bloom argued, Strauss began, in this second phase, to adopt the two-tier method he analyzed in philosophers—using an accessible style for unobjectionable ideas and an evasive style for his more challenging arguments. Regardless of historical period, Strauss found philosophers engaging in the same maneuvers of both courting and eluding their readers. As his titles from this phase suggest, Strauss (under the shadow of Hitler) was acutely conscious of writing in a world full of danger for philosophers. These titles include Persecution and the Art of Writing, Natural Right and History, and On Tyranny.
In his third phase, Strauss began to expand his own use of the exoteric/esoteric method. Reviewers were often baffled by his books because they did not obey the rules of conventional scholarship, which demanded that scholars be explicit about their ideas. On the contrary, Strauss seemed to be concealed in his commentaries on the great philosophers, daring the enterprising, resolute reader to understand him just as Strauss believed the philosophers he wrote about challenged him. Even Straussians such as Bloom, however, confess that they find certain of Strauss’s books from this period difficult to comprehend, especially titles such as Thoughts on Machiavelli, The City and Man, and The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws.
A consistent theme in all of Strauss’s work is his attack on the modern social sciences. He decried the dominant methods of academic sociologists and political scientists who tried to describe society and politics in value-neutral terms. Their moral relativism and refusal to make judgments appalled Strauss, who saw this intellectual stance as a dereliction of the thinker’s responsibility. There exists a wisdom of the ages on which social scientists should draw and which they should use to assess the contemporary world. To the argument that different societies have different standards and should not be assessed in absolutist terms, Strauss replied that societies might differ as to the nature of the summum bonum (Aristotle’s term for the supreme good) but that did not mean that there is no such thing. Thinkers should always argue for what they see as the truth, even if there is a dispute about what that truth is.
Strauss’s influence on his colleagues and students grew steadily during nearly twenty years of teaching at the University of Chicago. After he retired in 1968, he taught briefly in California at Claremont Men’s College (later renamed Claremont McKenna), then spent his remaining years as a scholar in residence at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland—a fitting destination because of the school’s emphasis on the “great books” curriculum and its rigorous education in the classics of philosophy, more rigorous even than that provided at the University of Chicago. When he died, he was the recipient of lavish tributes, many of them printed in National Review, a conservative weekly magazine.
As Shadia Drury observes in her study of Strauss, his reputation grew considerably after his death. Reviewers often mistook the aims of his books, and in his own lifetime he was regarded primarily as a historian of ideas, not as a philosopher. He seemed to subordinate himself to the texts he expounded, and he preferred to call his writing teaching. Although Strauss did not make any claims to being an original philosopher, Drury (not a Strauss disciple) and many others treat him as an innovative, unconventional figure whom contemporary philosophy is just beginning to understand and to assimilate.
Drury and others would argue that Strauss’s indirect presentation of ideas was deliberate and was in itself a demonstration of his belief that philosophers cannot enunciate their most inflammatory and unorthodox ideas openly. On the contrary, philosophy must proceed obliquely—in a sense, politically. Political philosophy is not just about politics; it is itself a part of politics and must proceed in a political fashion. The concrete result is that philosophers must be acutely aware of their audience, of how much their audience can absorb, and of how to advise the state and its leaders without undermining their authority.
Although the nature and significance of Strauss’s ideas have been subject to many different interpretations, it is uncontestable that he is regarded as the inspiration for several generations of conservatives. Many of them, like Bloom, began as Strauss’s students. Others have become political advisers to conservative administrations, following Strauss’s view that philosophers can become indispensable advisers to rulers, if not rulers themselves.
Plato’s idea of the philosopher-king and Niccolò Machiavelli’s idea of the philosopher as adviser to the prince inform much of Strauss’s view of philosophy and philosophy’s role in the modern political state. He was “conservative” in the sense that he believed that his fundamental ideas derived from the teachings of the Greeks and the Hebrews and that modern philosophy’s role is to rediscover the truths of the ancients.
Strauss believed there are universal ideas, and he had a vision of politics that transcends individual cultures. He did not deny cultural differences or that history shapes the thinker’s understanding of universals, but the fact that interpretations may clash and societies may implement universals in contradictory fashions does not destroy the idea of universals. It is in this sense that he was conservative. Conservatives have taken him as a mentor because he believed in a tradition that must be recovered and maintained against what has been called historicism, the doctrine that ideas grow out of and are changed by history, and that no idea can be said to be permanent. Historicism claims that all ideas are the product of their time and place. As a conservative and antihistoricist, Strauss became the leading light for conservatives and others who wish to examine and perhaps even to slow down the momentum of political change.
Bloom, Allan. “Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899-October 18, 1973.” Political Theory 2 (November, 1974): 372-392. An often cited intellectual biography by one of Strauss’s students and colleagues at the University of Chicago.
Coser, Louis A. Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Singles out Strauss as the only refugee scholar who gained a devoted following of students and colleagues who perpetuated the influence of his work. Coser also casts important light on Strauss’s efforts to come to terms with postwar America.
Deutsch, Kenneth L., and Walter Nicgorski, eds. Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. Includes an excellent introduction to Strauss’s life and work, along with essays on his major books and his influence on other thinkers.
Devigne, Robert. Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss, and the Response to Postmodernism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Chapters on British and American conservatism and on new conservative theory. Devigne shows how in Britain and in the United States, Oakeshott and Strauss reshaped the meaning of conservatism according to their interpretation of principles derived from classical philosophy.
Drury, Shadia. Leo Strauss and the American Right. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A valuable source on Strauss’s contributions to political science.
Drury, Shadia. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Contains an excellent biographical/critical introduction and chapters on Strauss as teacher and philosopher; on his theology; on his interpretation of Socrates, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Plato, and Nietzsche; and on modernity. Concludes with a critique of Strauss’s ideas. Notes, annotated bibliography, and index.
Emberly, Peter, and Barry Cooper, eds. Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Vogelin, 1934. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. In addition to the correspondence between the philosophers, which explores Strauss’s views on reason and revelation, the volume includes essays by Strauss and Vogelin, along with commentaries by other scholars on the Strauss/Vogelin dialogue.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Seabury Press, 1975. Contains an explanation and criticism of Strauss’s antihistoricism.
Jaffa, Harry V. American Conservatism and the American Founding. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984. Chapters 8-10 are especially helpful in situating Strauss within the history of American conservatism.
Lampert, Laurence. Leo Strauss and Nietzsche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. A very readable account of Strauss’s ideas and his interpretation of Nietzsche. A bibliography and index are included.
National Review 25 (December 7, 1973): 1347-1357. This issue, entitled “The Achievement of Leo Strauss,” includes tributes to Strauss’s work and to his influence. One of the more accessible introductions to Strauss’s impact on American conservatives.
Rosen, Stanley. Hermeneutics as Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A useful explanation of how Strauss uses hermeneutics (interpretation) in his studies of political philosophy.
Scott, Warren. The Emergence of Dialectical Theory: Philosophy and Political Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Examines Strauss’s criticism of value-free social science and his handling of classical political philosophy, which Scott finds disappointing.