Leo Strauss Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2435 words.)