Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.