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Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaismby Steven B. Smith
Interest in Leo Strauss is greater now than at any time since his death, mostly because of the purported link between his thought and the political movement known as neoconservatism. Steven B. Smith, though, surprisingly depicts Strauss not as the high priest of neoconservatism but as a friend of liberal democracy-perhaps the best defender democracy has ever had. Moreover, in Reading Leo Strauss, Smith shows that Strauss's defense of liberal democracy was closely connected to his skepticism of both the extreme Left and extreme Right.
Smith assesses Strauss's attempt to direct the teaching of political science away from the examination of mass behavior and interest-group politics and toward the study of the philosophical principles on which politics are based. With his provocative, lucid essays, Smith establishes a distinctive form of Straussian liberalism.
About the Author:
Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University
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Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism
By Steven B. Smith
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2006 University of Chicago Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionWhy Strauss, Why Now?
Strauss was a towering presence ... who neither sought nor had any discernible influence on what passes for the politics of the group. -Joseph Cropsey, "Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago"
The essays contained in this volume are all intended as a contribution to the understanding of the philosophy of Leo Strauss. They do not purport to provide a comprehensive overview of Strauss's life and work, much less an evaluation of the influence of his teaching and the creation of a school of political thought bearing his name. They do attempt to examine what I consider the central and most enduring theme of Strauss's legacy, namely, what he called the "theologico-political problem," which he also referred to metaphorically by the names Jerusalem and Athens.
Who was Leo Strauss? Strauss was a German-Jewish emigre, the product of the pre-World War I Gymnasium who studied at several universities, finally taking his doctorate at Hamburg in 1921. He was a research assistant at an institute for Jewish research in Berlin before leaving Germany in 1932 to settle first in England and later in the United States, where he taught principally at the New School for Social Research in New Yorkand later the University of Chicago. It was during his period in Chicago that Strauss had his greatest influence. He was, by most accounts, a compelling teacher, and like all good teachers everywhere he attracted students, many of whom came to regard themselves as part of a distinctive school. By the time of his death in 1973 Strauss had written (depending on how one counts them) more than a dozen books and around one hundred articles and reviews.
Strauss's works were highly controversial during his own lifetime. When he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago he was the author of two books published in Germany that were long out of print: a slim monograph on the political philosophy of Hobbes, and an even briefer commentary on a minor dialogue by Xenophon. The future trajectory of his life's work would by no means have been obvious. In the autumn of 1949 he gave a series of lectures under the auspices of the Walgreen Foundation, titled Natural Right and History, that was to set his work on a new and distinctive path. It was, literally, his way of introducing himself to the world of American social science from the seat of a major university. The book of the same title was published four years later, in 1953. What exactly did Strauss set out to do?
Strauss offered a deliberately provocative account of what might be called the "modernity problem" that had been widely debated in prewar European circles, but which was still relatively unknown to Americans of that era. Prior to Strauss, the most important current of twentieth-century American political thought was John Dewey's "progressivism." Against the view that the advance of science, especially the modern social sciences, was bringing about the progressive triumph of freedom and democracy, Strauss rang an alarm bell. Strauss argued by contrast that the dynamics of modern philosophy and Vertfrei, or value-free social science, were moving not toward freedom and well-being but to a condition he diagnosed as nihilism. In Strauss's counternarrative of decline, the foundations of constitutional government as understood by the American framers were gradually being sapped and eroded by the emergence of German-style historicism according to which all standards of justice and right are relative to their time and place. All of this was presented as the outcome of a densely detailed history of political thought in which all the trappings of German scholarship were on full display. His analysis was bold, audacious, and learned. The ensuing controversy pitted those advocates of American progressivism against Strauss, who regarded modernity as a mixed blessing that required certain premodern classical and biblical teachings to rescue modernity from its own self-destructive tendencies.
People on the outside often think of Straussianism as some kind of sinister cult replete with secret rites of initiation and bits of insider information-much like a Yale secret society. Straussians are often believed only to associate with other Straussians and only to read books written by one another. Some actually believe that Straussianism requires the subordination of one's critical intellect to the authority of a charismatic cult leader. Others regard it as a political movement, often allied with "neo-conservatism," with a range of prescribed positions and ties to conservative think tanks and policy centers. The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger deplores the influence of what he calls Strauss's "German windbaggery" and compares it to the deleterious influence of Hegel on earlier generations. "Strauss," Schlesinger continues, "taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions. He approved of Plato's 'noble lies,' disliked much of modern life, and believed that a Straussian elite in government would in time overcome feelings of persecution." None of these beliefs could be further from my own experience.
There is no doubt that the influence of Strauss-or at least his purported influence-is greater now than at any time since his death more than thirty years ago. Of course, Strauss is widely regarded today as a founding father, perhaps the Godfather, of neo-conservatism, with direct or indirect ties to the Bush administration in Washington. The last few years have witnessed a virtual hostile takeover of Strauss by the political Right. "The Bush administration is rife with Straussians," James Atlas has written in the New York Times. Never mind that the Bush administration, like all administrations, is rife with people of all sorts. The association of Strauss with neo-conservatism has been repeated so many times that it leaves the mistaken impression that there is a line of influence leading directly from Strauss's readings of Plato and Maimonides to the most recent directives of the Defense Department. Nothing could be more inimical to Strauss's teaching.
Early readers of Natural Right and History like Walter Lippmann saw in the book a support for the belief that the growing debility of modern democracy was due to its loss of faith in the natural law tradition. Straussians have always advocated a strong national government against the crabbed conservatism of "states rights" fundamentalists or the reactionary defenders of a purely federal reading of the Constitution. A textbook on American political thought compiled by two students of Strauss was dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Felix Frankfurter and "to the noble employment of the power they once wielded." The editors of the collection commend FDR for expanding the powers of government beyond securing the bare rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a "higher and grander" conception of the modern welfare state. What distinguished the Straussian approach to politics was the focus on the "philosophic dimension" of statecraft, often at the expense of mass behavior or interest- group politics that attracted the attention of mainstream of political science. Straussians typically studied not only the deeds, but the words of singular political leaders and statesmen, but without any particular ideological pique or animus. Straussians might be either liberal or conservative, although there was a bias toward those who sought to anchor their policies in a reading of the principles of the American founding. Even recently a distinguished student of Strauss served as a prominent member of the first Clinton administration, advising on matters of domestic policy.
The fact is that Strauss bequeathed not a single legacy, but a number of competing legacies. It is a gross distortion to retrofit Strauss's teachings to conform to the agenda of the political Right. His writings on a wide range of subjects continue to spark lively debate among students in a host of fields. New scholarly editions of his work including previously unpublished essays and lectures as well as a voluminous correspondence have all recently appeared, and more are slated for the future. The influence of his ideas on politics and policy-making are continually discussed and debated, and are frequently condemned in leading opinion magazines, journals, and newspapers. To the question "why Strauss, why now?" I would say, "if not now, when"?
What Is a Straussian?
Once when I was in graduate school, at a party where there was probably way too much to drink, a friend of mine-now by coincidence a prominent attorney in New Haven-was asked if he was a Straussian. "If you mean by that do I regard everything that Leo Strauss ever wrote as true," he replied, "then, yes, I am a Straussian." We all laughed because my friend's answer so perfectly captured and parodied the common view of Straussianism. The question, am I a Straussian, is something I have been asked on more than one occasion over the years. Sometimes the question seems prompted by nothing more than the idle desire to know what Straussianism means. At other times it has the vague character of an "are you now or have you ever been ..." kind of accusation. In any case the question has caused me to think about what it is to be a Straussian.
The first point I would make about Straussianism is that it is not all of a single piece. There is rather a set of common problems or questions that characterize Strauss's work: for example, the difference between ancients and moderns, the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, and of course the tension between reason and revelation. None of these problems can be said to have a priority over the others nor do they cohere in anything as crude as a system. Whatever may be alleged, there is hardly a single thread that runs throughout these different interests. Strauss did not bequeath a system, doctrine, or an "ism," despite what may be attributed to him. Rather, he presented a distinctive way of asking questions or posing problems that may have been loosely related but that scarcely derived from a single Archimedean point of view. It is questions that motivate all of Strauss's writings-questions like "Is reason or revelation the ultimate guide to life?" "Has the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns been decided in favor of modernity?" and "Are the philosophers or the poets better educators of civic life?" The point of Strauss's questions is less to provide answers than to make us aware of certain alternatives. In the age-old debate, he was probably more a fox than a hedgehog.
There are many different kinds of Straussians with many and varied interests and perspectives. Some Straussians have devoted themselves entirely to ancient philosophers, while others work on postmodernism; some are deeply religious, while others are proudly secular; some think about politics and policy-making, while others delve into the deepest problems of Being. This diversity reflects, to some degree, the variety of Strauss's own interests. Strauss's writings range from studies of the ancient political philosophy of Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, to the Judeo-Arabic writers of the Middle Ages, to such early modern political thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figures like Nietzsche, Weber, and Heidegger, to issues regarding the philosophy of history, hermeneutics, and the nature of the social sciences. In each of these areas Strauss made notable and lasting contributions that are still widely discussed today.
Few people-one might have to go back to Hegel-have written with as much authority on so wide a range of philosophical, literary, and historical topics. Precisely because Strauss's work covers such a broad landscape, there is not one way of being a Straussian. In fact there are considerable differences among his heirs over precisely what is most valuable in his legacy. Strauss regarded himself as taking the first tentative steps toward the reawakening of substantive interest in the permanent or fundamental problems of political philosophy at a time when it was widely argued that political philosophy was dead. More than this, he expanded the repertoire of political philosophy to include a large number of previously neglected thinkers and topics. The major textbooks of his era made no reference to any of the medieval Judeo-Arabic writers or even to the works of the American founders. Strauss's work treated the American founding as an important philosophical moment in the development of modernity and even encouraged a reconsideration of the ideas of philosophically minded statesmen like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson. His work also inspired a serious engagement with the work of African- American political thinkers from Fredrick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a time when their writings received little formal recognition in the academy. None of this, however, gets us any closer to an understanding of what a Straussian is.
Careful Readers and Careful Writers
Straussianism is characterized above all by what its practitioners often call the art of "careful reading." When asked what he taught, it is said, Strauss often replied "old books." Strauss paid special attention to reading mainly primary sources, typically in their original languages. This does not sound terribly controversial today except that at the time the idea of actually reading the great works of political theory had fallen out of favor. It was widely believed in many circles that the development of the modern behavioral sciences had put political philosophy on the path to ultimate extinction. It was believed by many that the meaning of writers like Plato, Hobbes, or Rousseau had been more or less established and all that was necessary was to situate them in their place along the historical time line so that the proper burial rites could be given. Political philosophy had become a kind of undertaker's art with little relevance or importance for the living issues of either politics or philosophy.
Strauss helped to change this perception. In the language of the old Westerns, he came to realize that "there's gold in them thar hills." In contrast to the prevailing historicism that regarded the great works of the tradition as a product of their times, Strauss treated these texts not as museum pieces to be labeled and catalogued, but as living and vital contemporaries from which there was still much to learn. The history of political thought was not an end in itself, but a necessary propadeutic to the recommencement of serious political philosophy. Strauss taught that the interpretations that had been ascribed to the great writers of the past were far from settled or obvious, that to understand them it was necessary to bracket our contemporary preconceptions about the path of progress or history and to consider their writings afresh as part of an ongoing conversation in which we, the readers, were invited to take part. It is possible for us to participate in such a conversation precisely because the great thinkers disagree with one another. Is Being one or many? Does it exhibit permanence or change? It thus becomes necessary for us to try to understand and to judge between rival teachings, to determine which among them is closer to the truth. The reader is thus invited to participate in a conversation in which the outcome is far from predetermined, but which remains, in Strauss's term, an open question.
Strauss was, above all, a reader. He taught his students how to read and how careful writers, like himself, wished to be read. Strauss expanded the scope of our reading to include forgotten figures and others who had been overlooked by the canon of political philosophy. Not only did he breathe new life into familiar figures and texts; he introduced new and unfamiliar writers like Al-Farabi, Judah Halevi, Maimonides, and Spinoza to the attention of political philosophers. He pioneered the study of politics and literature by focusing on the literary character of texts and highlighting the "old quarrel" between philosophy and poetry in his reading of thinkers like Plato and Nietzsche. He inquired into the rhetoric in which philosophical arguments are cast long before it became fashionable to talk about "speech acts" and the performative function of language. He paid special attention to ironies, jokes, and puns even in the most serious works and devoted one of his last books to a study of the comedies of Aristophanes. Strauss's most important legacy was teaching his readers how to read. No one can be a Straussian who does not fundamentally love to read.
Excerpted from Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism by Steven B. Smith Copyright © 2006 by University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He is the author of four books, most recently Spinoza’s Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in the “Ethics.”
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