Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography

Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography

by Daniel Tanguay

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Since political theorist Leo Strauss’s death in 1973, American interpreters have heatedly debated his intellectual legacy. Daniel Tanguay recovers Strauss from the atmosphere of partisan debate that has dominated American journalistic, political, and academic discussions of his work. Tanguay offers in crystal-clear prose the first assessment of the whole of

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Since political theorist Leo Strauss’s death in 1973, American interpreters have heatedly debated his intellectual legacy. Daniel Tanguay recovers Strauss from the atmosphere of partisan debate that has dominated American journalistic, political, and academic discussions of his work. Tanguay offers in crystal-clear prose the first assessment of the whole of Strauss’s thought, a daunting task owing to the vastness and scope of Strauss’s writings. This comprehensive overview of Strauss’s thought is indispensable for anyone seeking to understand his philosophy and legacy.

Tanguay gives special attention to Strauss’s little-known formative years, 1920-1938, during which the philosopher elaborated the theme of his research, what he termed the “theological-political problem.” Tanguay shows the connection of this theme to other major elements in Strauss’s thought, such as the Quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns, the return to classical natural right, the art of esoteric writing, and his critique of modernity. In so doing, the author approaches what is at the heart of Strauss’s work: God and politics. Rescuing Strauss from polemics and ill-defined generalizations about his ideas, Tanguay provides instead an important and timely analysis of a major philosophical thinker of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

The Review of Metaphysics
"Tanguay's comprehensive and penetrating book explores Strauss's approach to the theologico-political problem. . . . Admirably translated. . . . Tanguay offers an intellectual biography in which Strauss's later works are repeatedly treated as refinements of earlier efforts."—The Review of Metaphysics
Daniel J. Mahoney
"Daniel Tanguay's intellectual biography of Leo Strauss is the fullest and fairest analysis of Leo Strauss's thought available in any language."—Daniel J. Mahoney, Assumption College
Stanley Rosen
“This may well be the best study of Leo Strauss yet to appear. It evokes a detailed account of Strauss the thinker rather than the icon of ideology and has something useful to say about all aspects of Strauss’s work. Tanguay is especially helpful for his account of the Jewish and Arabic Strauss and the interplay of this side of Strauss’s thinking with his understanding of the roots of modernity. I was struck by his observation that Strauss is not a conservative because he devalues convention in favor of nature. I recommend this book very highly.”—Stanley Rosen

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Yale University Press
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By Daniel Tanguay

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10979-5

Chapter One


To understand the importance of the theologico-political problem for Strauss, it is necessary to turn to the period of the formation of his thought: the 1920s. This formative period was decisive for the subsequent evolution of his thought in more than one respect. It suffices here to bear in mind his encounter with the thought of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. Yet even more important was his commitment to reflecting on the Jewish condition. In the preface he wrote for the English translation of Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1930), published in 1965, Strauss traced the main lines of his intellectual evolution up to 1928, that is, up to the completion of the composition of that book. There he treats in succession the situation of the Jews in Germany, Zionism in its different varieties, the "new thinking" in its religious (Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber) and atheistic (Nietzsche and Heidegger) versions, and the debate between Hermann Cohen and Spinoza; and he summarizes the principal results of Spinoza's Critique of Religion while silently incorporating large extracts from the introductionto the work he wrote after it, Philosophy and Law (1935). Strauss' intention in the preface is to lay bare the theologico-political predicament in which he found himself as a young Jew in Weimar Germany, and at the same time to specify the motive that had pushed him to immerse himself in the study of Spinoza.

These two matters are closely linked: Strauss had from the very beginning seen Spinoza as the one who had articulated two of the modern solutions to the Jewish problem: assimilation and political Zionism. Spinoza prefers the former and suggests the latter. His preference for assimilation is a consequence of his struggle to found the liberal state and his defense of the freedom to philosophize. The liberal state is in effect neither Jewish nor Christian. It pushes religious preference into the private sphere. The constitution of a liberal state implies the development of an extremely liberal Judaism, or, more simply and honestly, the abandonment of Judaism, at least as the tradition had always understood it. This abandonment leads in the long term more or less to assimilation. Spinoza, the renegade Jew, was therefore at the origin of the political project responsible for the emancipation of the Jews in Germany, but also for their assimilation.

Yet neither emancipation nor assimilation of the Jews seemed to be able to resolve what came to be called, for lack of a better term, the Jewish problem or the Jewish question, that is, the continued hatred of Jews even in those countries where they had been emancipated. It was in this very concrete form that the theologico-political problem first presented itself to Strauss. As a young Jew, born and educated in Germany, he was witness to the ultimate failure of political emancipation. With the advent of the Weimar Republic, one could certainly have thought for a time that the Jewish problem was on the way to being settled in Germany. By in fact granting the Jews full political rights, it consummated the emancipation that had begun in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century under the influence of the French Revolution. Through the political recognition of Jews as full citizens, the Weimar Republic achieved the original ideal of liberal democracy. According to Strauss, this original ideal had been worked out in the theologico-political treatises of the seven- teenth and eighteenth centuries directed against the "Kingdom of Darkness," that is, against Christian and medieval society. The most characteristic phenomenon of that society was the Crusades, which "culminated not accidentally in the murder of whole Jewish communities." Spinoza thought the only way to bring the mania of religious persecutions and intolerance to an end was to make positive religion a private matter and to institute a political order in which a universal morality founded on tolerance and freedom of thought would reign. Spinoza was therefore the founder of liberal democracy and, by the same token, the originator of the modern solution to the Jewish problem. Yet, in Strauss' view, liberal democracy's presumed resolution of the Jewish problem, and more broadly of the theologico-political problem, was based on an illusion. The Jewish problem was not resolved by the Weimar Republic because, in fact, as Strauss says without mincing words, "the German-Jewish problem was never solved. It was annihilated by the annihilation of the German Jews." If emancipation is not a solution to the Jewish problem, what about the Zionist solution that aims to establish an independent Jewish state? There is no question that Strauss was impressed by political Zionism. He was even an engaged militant in the cause of political Zionism, as several of his writings from the 1920s attest. Yet this passionate commitment was not blind. Strauss very quickly entered into the complex debates that were agitating the Zionist movement. In the first part of this chapter we will examine some of the positions he took. In this exploration, we will follow a double objective: first, to show how these internal debates in the Zionist movement could have led Strauss to pose the theologico-political question in a radical manner; and, then, to indicate the connection between this reflection and the inquiry that led him to explore Spinoza's critique of religion and, later, that of Hobbes. This connection becomes evident only if one grasps the primary intention of political Zionism and can demonstrate that Strauss shared it.

The political solution to the Jewish problem, such as a Leon Pinsker or a Theodor Herzl supported, presupposed the abandonment of Jewish messianism and the traditional religious conception of Jewish life. This abandonment had to be preceded by a refutation of the religious orthodoxy that, so it seemed, paralyzed the Jews and prevented them from actively working toward the construction of a Jewish state that would assure them a liberation not only imaginary, but real. Spinoza provided the weapons for this critique of orthodoxy. Thus for political Zionism to be coherent, Spinoza's critique of orthodox religion had to be definitive and true.

The central question preoccupying the young Strauss was to know whether Spinoza's critique of religion, upon which all subsequent critiques of religion depend, succeeded in refuting orthodoxy on its own ground. We note that what is at stake here is not only the validity of the modern critique of religion, but the ultimate justification of the modern project as well. The main intention of the Enlightenment is in fact to free man from heteronomy and to found a society in accord with the principles of man's moral autonomy. The internal coherence of the modern Enlightenment therefore depends on its ability to refute completely the religious orthodoxy that keeps man in a state of dependence with regard to the Law and religious faith. In his first work, Strauss tried to show that this critique of religion did not succeed in completely and definitively refuting orthodoxy. In the second part of this chapter we will summarize the major points of Strauss' interpretation of Spinoza's argument.

We will see that the conclusion Strauss reached shook his adherence to political Zionism on a theoretical level and thus led him to rediscover the theologico-political problem in all its radicalism. At this point, any interpretation of Strauss' thought runs the risk of understanding him to favor a return to some form of religious orthodoxy or philosophic dogmatism. Yet Strauss never succumbed to this temptation. Dissatisfied with the modern solutions to the theologico-political problem, he was instead led to pose afresh the Socratic question. To wrest the Socratic question from its modern oblivion henceforth became one of the tasks of Strauss' thought. In the final chapter we will examine various dimensions of the Socratic question and the obstacles Strauss foresaw to its resurgence.

Political Zionism: First Confrontation with the Theologico-Political Problem

A few years before his death, Strauss reflected on his youth at a public lecture where, in the company of his longtime friend Jacob Klein, he cast light on certain aspects of their common journey. Klein recalled the two obsessions of the young Strauss: God and politics. For his part, Strauss mentioned his vain efforts to win Jacob Klein over to the Zionist cause at the beginning of the 1920s. The contrast between the two personalities is striking: whereas Klein was the very model of the assimilated and cosmopolitan European Jew, Strauss came from a provincial family of German Jews who always observed the "ceremonial laws." Under the influence of philosophy, Strauss had certainly distanced himself from the religion of his fathers. Yet he remained preoccupied by the question of God and of fidelity to the Jewish tradition.

It is this never belied fidelity to the Jewish tradition, or more precisely to the essence of Jewishness, that explains Strauss' conversion at the age of seventeen "to simple and straightforward Zionism." In terms close to those of Herzl, Strauss considered Zionism as a movement that aimed above all at restoring the honor of the Jewish people through the creation of an independent national state. The conversion of Strauss to Zionism presupposes a radical distancing from the Jewish religion. Political Zionism in fact rejects the traditional religious solution, which asserts that the salvation of the Jewish people depends not on the action of men but on divine intervention. Only fidelity to the Law in patient waiting for an end to the sufferings of the Jewish people can prepare hearts for the advent of a new messianic era. The end of the Galut, or of the Jews' exile, will therefore come about not as the result of human action but rather as the fruit of an unfettered divine intervention that completely eludes any human power. Political Zionism renders a severe judgment on this passive messianic waiting, which uselessly prolongs the sufferings of the Jewish people and keeps it in an abnormal condition of existence that, in the long term, threatens its very survival. The liberating energies of the Jewish people must not be spent in vain, but henceforth invested in the construction of a real political state. To convert the passive energies of the Jewish people into active forces, political Zionism must show how implausible the traditional solution is, and even its noxious and paralyzing character. At a deeper level, political Zionism rests on atheism. It is an atheistic solution to the Jewish problem.

As his earliest writings attest, Strauss supported a "simple and straightforward" political Zionism. However, the young Strauss' engagement in the Zionist cause was not uncritical. The internal debates of the German Zionist movement seem to have gradually modified his perception of the Jewish problem and led him to abandon the militant Zionism of his youth. In several later autobiographical texts, Strauss described the principal stages of considerations that led him to forsake political Zionism and to consider the hypothesis of a possible return to orthodoxy. These retrospective reconstructions, written at a distance of more than thirty years, are on the whole quite faithful to what it is possible to make out in the texts from Strauss' youth.

In this section we will trace the main lines of this intellectual development. Yet one thing must be clear from the beginning: even if Strauss perceived the limits of the Zionist solution, he remained faithful to certain aspects of Zionist thought. It is thus possible to locate in his Zionist thought the origin of certain reservations about liberalism that Strauss exhibited over the course of his life. More specifically, Strauss never denounced the hopes of his youth, and he recognized that the founding of the State of Israel "procured a blessing for all Jews everywhere regardless of whether they admit it or not."

In Strauss' view, Spinoza had anticipated two fundamental modern attitudes toward the Jewish problem: emancipation followed by the assimilation of the Jews into a liberal democratic society, and Zionism. Liberal democracy, such as Spinoza conceived of it, led necessarily to assimilation, that is to say, to the disappearance of the public and political distinction between Jews and non-Jews. In this context, assimilation always means assimilation into a secular society that is essentially neither Christian, Muslim, nor Jewish: in sum, an areligious or liberal society. Liberal democracy, when it is logically coherent and faithful to the principles that animate it, implies the emancipation of the Jews. Moreover, it is due to this logic of the spirit of liberalism that the Jews experienced emancipation in the wake of the French Revolution. Assimilation thus seems able to settle the Jewish problem definitively: to rid the Jewish people of their sufferings by granting to each individual, whether non-Jew or Jew, the full exercise of the rights of citizenship.

According to Strauss, liberal society was never able to eradicate discrimination against the Jews, and therefore never succeeded in furnishing a totally satisfactory solution to the Jewish problem. These limits of liberalism were brought to light by Zionism. Strauss adopted this Zionist critique of liberalism completely. From this perspective, liberalism rests altogether on the distinction between the public and the private sphere. Liberal society guarantees the equality of everyone's rights in the public sphere and uses the law to protect the sphere of the individual's private life, given that the particular religion practiced by an individual belongs to the private sphere. Strauss maintained that this distinction between public and private spheres has a double effect: on one hand, it assures legal protection for the free exercise of religion within the private sphere, it being understood that the liberal state is governed by a principle of nonintervention in private life; on the other, by virtue of this same principle, the liberal state cannot protect the individual against discrimination in the private sphere. As an example of the implicit discrimination that can reign in a liberal society, Strauss cites the racial hierarchy (from top to bottom: Anglo-Saxons, Jews, blacks), "entirely extra-legal, but not illegal," which dominates American society. In other words, according to one of the theses of political Zionism that Strauss adopted here, liberalism cannot put an end to discrimination and hatred of the Jews.

Strauss also shares political Zionism's analysis on another point: not only can it not guarantee the Jewish people an end to discrimination, assimilation destroys that which formerly made for its pride and gave it the courage to withstand hatred and contempt. Whereas traditional Jews were immunized against hatred by the belief in Israel's election, "the uprooted, assimilated Jew had nothing to oppose to hatred and contempt except his naked self." Assimilation replaced the self-assurance that characterized Jewish life in the ghettos with a naive confidence in the humanity of civilization. It was accompanied by a self-forgetting that culminated in contempt for one's own people and its traditions. In reality, assimilation required the abandonment of all that had ever constituted Jewish identity. Moreover, assimilation, a renunciation unworthy of one's self or one's people, "proved to require inner enslavement as the price of external freedom." Strauss therefore rejected assimilation for a moral reason: assimilation is not compatible with dignity, self-respect, or a sense of honor. This sense of honor in being Jewish, and the desire to preserve that honor, is the source of Strauss' political Zionism.


Excerpted from LEO STRAUSS by Daniel Tanguay Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Daniel Tanguay is associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of political science, University of Ottawa. He lives in Ottawa. Christopher Nadon is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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