Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Leo Strauss wrote his classic text in an age dominated by historicism, the notion that ideas and values are a result of historical processes, a concept that itself emphasizes change and development. In political philosophy and in the social sciences, historicism means that each culture should be judged in its own terms and not measured against a universal standard. It would be wrong, for example, to condemn one society for not behaving by the standards of another. The point is to understand the evolution of each society’s codes of behavior. This attitude is often called relativism because it recognizes no absolute truths that apply to all groups.

Strauss strenuously objected to what might be called a permissive approach to the study of the state. States might differ in their interpretation of standards and values, he realized, but that did not mean that a permanent canon of precepts did not exist. On the contrary, the ancients had discovered and promulgated an unchanging, universal framework that modern thinkers had nearly obliterated but that could be recovered by reconsidering and commenting on the classics of political philosophy.