Leo Strauss Essay - Critical Essays

Strauss, Leo


Leo Strauss 1899-1973

German essayist and lecturer.

The following entry provides criticism on Strauss’s works from 1954 through 1999.

Strauss is regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century. A prolific and influential scholar, he was noted for his lucid and insightful interpretations of the theories of such classical figures as Plato, Socrates, Fârâbî, Maimonides, and Aristophanes. His work influenced contemporary politicians and political thinkers, and followers of his philosophy are collectively known as Straussians.

Biographical Information

On September 20, 1899, Strauss was born in Kirchhain, Germany. After graduating from gymnasium in 1917 and serving in the German army during World War I, Strauss resumed his study of mathematics, philosophy, and natural science in various German universities. In 1921 he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Hamburg, and in 1925 he took a research post in the Academy of Jewish Research, Berlin. He left Germany in 1932, moved to France, then England, and finally settled in the United States in 1938, where he joined the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1949 he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and in the same year was appointed Robert M. Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science. He became a professor of political science at Claremont Men's College in Claremont, California, in 1968 and was the Scott Buchanan scholar in residence at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, from 1969 to 1973. He died of pneumonia on October 18, 1973, in Annapolis, Maryland.

Major Works

Strauss is best known for his popular and controversial interpretations of the work of classical political philosophers. Socrates and Aristophanes (1966) explores the longstanding tension between reason and religion. In Xenophon's Socrates (1972), Strauss encourages a reassessment of Xenophon's theories and place in ancient philosophy. Strauss also wrote studies of such important thinkers as Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, Martin Heidegger, Maimonides, and Plato. In Thoughts on Machiavelli (1959), Strauss explains the conflicting interpretations of Machiavelli's work, viewing the confusion as a means to better understand it. In another of his well-known studies, Natural Right and History (1950), Strauss presents a case for distinguishing right and wrong in ethics and politics. He rejects the modern nihilistic approach to political science, asserting that there is a value system inherent in any understanding of political theory. Reviewers consider Strauss's What Is Political Philosophy? (1955) and Liberalism, Ancient and Modern (1968) as appropriate introductions to his political philosophy.

Critical Reception

Strauss's interpretations of classical and modern philosophy and his impact on contemporary political thought have inspired much critical commentary. Early in his career, his work was often neglected; however, his essays and books later garnered the attention of critics, scholars, and students. Commentators divide Strauss's work into two main categories: his interpretations of the work of classical and modern philosophers and his work that focuses on Jewish themes. In the former classification, Strauss has been credited with reinvigorating the study of political philosophy through his lucid and knowledgeable analysis of significant classical thinkers. His work on such figures as Spinoza, Plato, Socrates, and Machiavelli has influenced many educators, political scientists, politicians, and political thinkers. These supporters are known as Straussians, and commentators have frequently examined their diversity and impact on contemporary American politics, particularly American conservatism.

Principal Works

Die religionskritik Spinozas als grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft [Spinoza's Critique of Religion] (essays) 1930

Philosophie und Gesetz [Philosophy and Law] (essays) 1935

The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (essays) 1936

On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero (essays) 1948

Natural Right and History (lectures) 1950

Persecution and the Art of Writing (essays) 1952

What Is Political Philosophy? (essays) 1955

Thoughts on Machiavelli (essays) 1959

What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (essays) 1959

History of Political Philosophy (essays) 1963

The City and Man (essays) 1964

Socrates and Aristophanes (essays) 1966

Liberalism, Ancient and Modern (essays) 1968

Xenophon's Socrates (essays) 1972

The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws (essays) 1975

Political Philosophy: Six Essays (essays) 1975

The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (essays and lecutres) 1989

Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964 (correspondence) 1993


John H. Hallowell (review date June 1954)

SOURCE: Hallowell, John H. Review of Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss. American Political Science Review 48, no. 2 (June 1954): 538-41.

[In the following review, Hallowell explores Strauss's conception of natural right and its place in ethics and politics.]

Is there any foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics? Professor Strauss believes that there is and in presenting his case [in Natural Right and History] makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves. Based upon a series of lectures which Professor Strauss delivered at the University of Chicago in 1949 under the auspices of the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation, this book presents a formidable challenge to a positivistically oriented social science.

Modern social science not only admits its inability to help us in discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate, just and unjust objectives but denies that any rational method exists by which such judgments can objectively be made. As a consequence, Professor Strauss points out, “we can be or become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but we have to be resigned to utter ignorance in the most important respect: we cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of our choices, i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness; our ultimate principles have no other support than our arbitrary and blind preferences. We are then in the position of beings who are sane and sober when engaged in trivial business and who gamble like madmen when confronted with serious issues—retail sanity and wholesale madness.” Such a conception of social science, Professor Strauss declares, not only leads to nihilism but, in fact, “is identical with nihilism.” Modern social scientists not only deny that “men can know what is good” but insist that that denial is required by the demands of tolerance and the cultivation of individuality.

The modern rejection of natural right, i.e. the rejection of the belief that there is a foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics, takes place in the name of history or in the name of the distinction between so-called facts and values. The first two lectures examine each of these critically, with the second being devoted to a brilliant analysis of the meaning and limitations of the methodology of Max Weber. Underlying Weber's methodology, Professor Strauss points out, is the view that “reality is an infinite and meaningless sequence, or a chaos, of unique and infinitely divisible events, which in themselves are meaningless”—all meaning originating in the activity of the knowing subject. Not only is this a view of reality with which few people today would be satisfied, says Strauss, but it is also a view to which Weber himself was unable to adhere consistently. For he “could not deny that there is an articulation of reality that precedes all scientific articulation.” The subsequent lectures discuss the origin of the idea of natural right, the classical doctrine of natural right, the modern idea of natural right especially as conceived by Hobbes and Locke, and the crisis of modern natural right in Rousseau and Burke.

The rejection of natural right in the name of history is historicism, and it is with the rise of historicism and its limitations that the bulk of this book is concerned. Briefly stated, historicism is the doctrine that all thought is historically conditioned and hence relative. There is not, because there cannot be, any knowledge of an eternal, transhistorical order such as is presupposed by the theory of natural right. But historicism is open to the objection that it professes to be a truth of just such an eternal and transhistorical nature. It states that all truths are radically dependent upon the societies in which they emerge and so are relative to those societies; but this most fundamental truth is asserted as valid everywhere and always. Historicism attempts to meet this objection by the assumption of an absolute moment in history. At...

(The entire section is 1714 words.)

Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (review date 4 November 1960)

SOURCE: Wilhelmsen, Frederick D. “Classical Political Theory and the Western Mind.” Commonweal 73, no. 6 (4 November 1960): 152, 154.

[In the following positive review of What Is Political Philosophy?, Wilhelmsen describes Strauss's interest in classical political philosophy and its place in the modern world.]

The very suggestion of a restoration within political philosophy must seem archaic, if not downright perverse, to the bulk of those academicians who practice the discipline of politics within the American academy today. I say that the suggestion must seem archaic because historicism, a first principle of most contemporary political theory, precludes...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)

John H. Hallowell (review date 7 September 1963)

SOURCE: Hallowell, John H. “Three on Politics.” America 109, no. 10 (7 September 1963): 241-42.

[In the following review, Hallowell deems History of Political Philosophy an “excellent and welcome text.”]

Although this book [History of Political Philosophy] is intended primarily to introduce undergraduates to the study of political philosophy, it should be of interest to the general reader who is looking for a similar introduction or who wants to review the history of political philosophy.

It is intended as a guide to the texts, not as a substitute for them. As a work of collaboration it displays both the virtues and the...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Willmoore Kendall (review date April 1966)

SOURCE: Kendall, Willmoore. Review of Thoughts on Machiavelli, by Leo Strauss. Philosophical Review 75, no. 2 (April 1966): 247-54.

[In the following laudatory assessment of Thoughts on Machiavelli, Kendall asserts that Strauss provides greater insight into Machiavelli's work and place within the history of political philosophy than earlier critics.]

It would be an exaggeration to say that Machiavelli can be cited on both sides of all the issues in political philosophy. He cannot, for instance, be cited on the side of that rule by “gentlemen” which the classical political philosophers regarded as the best régime short of rule by the philosopher-king;...

(The entire section is 3354 words.)

Stanley Parry (review date 18 April 1967)

SOURCE: Parry, Stanley. “The Great Tradition.” National Review 19, no. 15 (18 April 1967): 423-24.

[In the following review, Parry views Socrates and Aristophanes as an exploration of the relationship between reason and religion, “and resolves this by an analysis of the function of comedy in the life of the city.”]

In Socrates and Aristophanes Leo Strauss gives us an impressive addition to his life's work—the recovery of the Great Tradition in political philosophy. The problem the book proposes centers formally upon Socrates. As is typical of Strauss, he raises profound issues with great courage. Francis Cornford, in his Before and After...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Arnaldo Momigliano (review date October 1967)

SOURCE: Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Philosophy & Poetry.” Commentary 44, no. 4 (October 1967): 102-04.

[In the following review, Momigliano places Socrates and Aristophanes within the context of Strauss's oeuvre and political philosophy.]

Leo Strauss is right in reminding us that we must not assume too easily that the philosophers started the war against poetry. To the best of our information, the first shot came from the other side. It was fired by Aristophanes against Socrates. Yet Aristophanes was a friend of Socrates. Plato's Symposium ends with Aristophanes and Agathon falling asleep in the late hours while Socrates is trying to convince them that...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Hiram Caton (review date 25 February 1969)

SOURCE: Caton, Hiram. “Conservative Liberalism.” National Review 21, no. 7 (25 February 1969): 181-82.

[In the following review, Caton regards Liberalism, Ancient and Modern as a fitting introduction to Strauss's political philosophy.]

Getting acquainted with the thought of Leo Strauss is not especially easy for most readers. For one thing, Strauss presents his thought mainly in the form of commentaries on authors long since dead. This is a double jeopardy, for not only does he thereby disappoint the demand for originality—the real philosopher, we are assured, opens new vistas and brings fresh insights—but in addition his choice of ancient authors must,...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)

Stanley Rosen (review date May 1973)

SOURCE: Rosen, Stanley. Review of Xenophon's Socrates, by Leo Strauss. Classical World 66, no. 8 (May 1973): 470-71.

[In the following review, Rosen provides a mixed assessment of Xenophon's Socrates.]

There are two main reasons for Xenophon's bad reputation today. The first is a radical change in taste and perception, associated with the rise of Romanticism, and connected at a deeper level with the “transcendental turn” in philosophy, which takes its bearings by the twin stars of subjectivity and linguistic construction. The second is a denial of the natural difference between philosophers and non-philosophers. These two dogmas are by no means simply...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Milton Himmelfarb (essay date August 1974)

SOURCE: Himmelfarb, Milton. “On Leo Strauss.” Commentary 58, no. 2 (August 1974): 60-6.

[In the following essay, Himmelfarb offers a retrospective of Strauss's career as a political theorist and Jewish scholar.]

Leo Strauss died in October 1973, at the age of seventy-four. His name is known chiefly to two groups of scholars whose interests do not normally converge, political scientists and specialists in medieval Jewish thought. For political scientists he was the man who challenged what “everyone” knew was the first requirement of science—that it should be, in Max Weber's language, wertfrei, value-free. A scientist—an astrophysicist, say—does not...

(The entire section is 5562 words.)

John G. Gunnell (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Gunnell, John G. “Political Theory and Politics: The Case of Leo Strauss and Liberal Democracy.” In The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective, edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Soffer, pp. 68-88. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Gunnell analyzes “Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Our Time” in order to gain insight into Strauss's notion of the relationship between political philosophy and politics.]

Leo Strauss was the greatest writer of epic political theory in our century. Yet what he was saying, what he was doing by saying what he said, and what he hoped to accomplish remain open...

(The entire section is 8994 words.)

Shadia B. Drury (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Drury, Shadia B. “Esoteric Philosophy and Ancient Wisdom.” In The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, pp. 18-36. London: Macmillan Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Drury traces the impact of Islamic philosophers, particularly Al Fârâbî, on Strauss's concept of the relationship between philosophy and science.]

Strauss begins with the assumption that there exists an inevitable conflict between philosophy and the political domain, or as Strauss says, ‘the city’. Understanding this conflict is the key to understanding Strauss's political ideas.

Strauss describes his Persecution and the Art of Writing as a ‘sociology of...

(The entire section is 8439 words.)

Charles R. Kesler (review date 18 August 1989)

SOURCE: Kesler, Charles R. “All Against All.” National Review 41, no. 15 (18 August 1989): 39-43.

[In the following laudatory review of The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, Kesler details the disagreement between Strauss's ideological disciples, known as Straussians, and calls it “the liveliest and most interesting debate within conservatism.”]

Sixteen years after his death, Leo Strauss's influence on the American mind and on American politics continues to grow. His books are more widely read than ever. His students and followers, whose ranks multiply, form not only the most distinguished and combative group of conservatives in the...

(The entire section is 2905 words.)

Fred Dallmayr (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Dallmayr, Fred. “Leo Strauss, Peregrinus.” Social Research 61, no. 4 (winter 1994): 877-906.

[In the following essay, Dallmayr explores Strauss's perspective on two prominent thematic concerns in his work: the tension between ancient and modern thought and the relationship between “Athens and Jerusalem.”]

The foreigner allows you to be yourself by making a foreigner of you.

—Edmond Jabès

More perhaps than ever before, the stranger, the alien, the displaced or exiled stands today in the forefront of both theoretical and political concerns. The shrinkage of our world coupled with...

(The entire section is 9940 words.)

James V. Schall (review date June 1994)

SOURCE: Schall, James V. Review of Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, by Leo Strauss. Review of Metaphysics 47, no. 4 (June 1994): 807-08.

[In the following favorable review of Faith and Political Philosophy, Schall contends that “it would be difficult to find a more profound and stimulating book covering the whole history and understanding of faith and reason in Western intellectual history.”]

This book [Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voeglin, 1934-1964] is of fundamental importance in political philosophy as well as in theology,...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Timothy Fuller (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Fuller, Timothy. “Reflections on Leo Strauss and American Education.” In Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Émigrés and American Political Thought after World War II, edited by Hartmut Lehmann, pp. 61-80. Washington, D.C.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Fuller discusses Strauss's contributions to the debate on American education.]

What follows are reflections on Leo Strauss's role in and contribution to the debates over American education, particularly the character of his defense of liberal education. In entering the American educational scene, Strauss entered a forum in which a revolution in education had been underway...

(The entire section is 9755 words.)

Emil L. Fackenheim (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Fackenheim, Emil L. “Leo Strauss and Modern Judaism.” In Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Philosophy, edited by Michael L. Morgan, pp. 97-105. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Fackenheim considers the influence Strauss and his philosophy had on his life and studies.]

This is an unusual and indeed a first occasion for me.1 Never before have I given a lecture on Leo Strauss. I spoke publicly about him only briefly, at a memorial occasion in Toronto after his death, when a few of us spoke who felt that we had been touched by the thought of Leo Strauss. I also should say from the beginning, I seem to hear the voice...

(The entire section is 4740 words.)

Gregory Bruce Smith (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Smith, Gregory Bruce. “Who Was Leo Strauss?” American Scholar 66, no. 1 (winter 1997): 95-104.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the critical controversy surrounding Strauss's philosophy and reputation.]

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,...

(The entire section is 6688 words.)

Steven B. Smith (essay date December 1997)

SOURCE: Smith, Steven B. “Destruktion or Recovery?: Leo Strauss's Critique of Heidegger.” Review of Metaphysics 51, no. 2 (December 1997): 345-77.

[In the following essay, Smith evaluates Strauss's treatment of and relationship to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.]

Of the numerous legacies bequeathed by Leo Strauss, his influence on the study of German philosophy frequently goes least mentioned. Apart from some early reviews and other occasional pieces, Strauss left no major work on any German thinker.1 With the exception of the chapter on Max Weber in Natural Right and History and a short essay on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and...

(The entire section is 12818 words.)

Rémi Brague (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Brague, Rémi. “Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: Leo Strauss's ‘Muslim’ Understanding of Greek Philosophy.” Poetics Today 19, no. 2 (summer 1998): 235-59.

[In the following essay from an issue devoted to “Hellenism and Hebraism Reconsidered,” Brague argues that the contrast between Hebraism and Hellenism was important to the late work of Strauss but that Strauss was also indebted to Muslim philosopher Fârâbî's explanation of the Islamic concept of revelation.]


The second-century church father Tertullian may have been the first to declare, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?, but it was not until...

(The entire section is 10378 words.)

Marc D. Guerra (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Guerra, Marc D. “The Ambivalence of Classic Natural Right: Leo Strauss on Philosophy, Morality, and Statesmanship.” Perspectives on Political Science 28, no. 2 (spring 1999): 69-74.

[In the following essay, Guerra warns against vulgarizing and oversimplifying Strauss's sometimes obscure thoughts on natural rights.]

Natural Right and History is without a doubt Leo Strauss's best known and most influential work.1 It is also his most timely. When the book appeared, the major currents in political science were either corrupted or paralyzed by the modern dogmas of historicism and positivism. Contemporary social scientists understood themselves...

(The entire section is 6346 words.)

Steven J. Lenzner (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Lenzner, Steven. J. “Strauss's Fârâbî, Scholarly Prejudice, and Philosophic Politics.” Perspectives on Political Science 28, no. 4 (fall 1999): 194-202.

[In the following essay, Lenzner analyzes Strauss's rhetorical attempts to paint Muslim philosopher Fârâbî as an unbeliever and a Machiavellian, despite Strauss's admiration for much of Fârâbi's work.]

Leo Strauss is famous as a political philosopher who attempted to revive classical political philosophy in our time. Perhaps he is equally famous for the thesis that many of the great works of the past are “esoteric”; that is, they provide one salutary, “exoteric” teaching to the many who read...

(The entire section is 10078 words.)

Further Reading


Deutsch, Kenneth L., and John A. Murley, editors. Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime. Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, 451 p.

Considers Strauss's American career, the Straussians, and his impact on American political institutions.

Devigne, Robert. Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss, and the Response to Postmodernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, 268 p.

Investigates and contrasts the “key roles played by Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, and their respective followers in redeveloping conservative political theory in the United Kingdom and the United States.”...

(The entire section is 538 words.)