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The Truth about Leo Strauss
Political Philosophy and American Democracy
By CATHERINE ZUCKERT MICHAEL ZUCKERT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Return to the Ancients
AN OVERVIEW OF THE STRAUSSIAN PROJECT
Leo Strauss was born in 1899 in a town in rural Germany, north of Frankfurt. He was brought up in an orthodox Jewish home where, he reported, "'the ceremonial laws' were strictly observed, but there was very little Jewish knowledge." In the gymnasium (high school), he recounts, "I became exposed to the message of German humanism. Furtively I read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. When I was 16 and we read [Plato's] Laches in school, I formed the plan, or the wish, to spend my life reading Plato breeding rabbits while earning my living as a rural postmaster."
Things did not work out quite that way. Strauss went to university and at age twenty-two earned a PhD at Hamburg. He continued his studies for three years at Freiburg and Marburg, where he met some of the then and future giants of German philosophy: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Hans Georg Gadamer, and his lifelong friend Jacob Klein. In 1925 Strauss began working at the German Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin on an edition of the collected works of Moses Mendelssohn, one of the German Jewishhumanists. In 1931 a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to do research in France and England. When his grant ran out, he decided not to return to the newly established Third Reich. Instead he went to New York, where he obtained a position at the New School for Social Research. He stayed there until 1948, when Robert Maynard Hutchins brought him to the University of Chicago. As president of the university, Hutchins hired Strauss directly without consulting the department of political science. Contrary to what has been said in recent media coverage of Strauss, he did not found Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. In fact, although many of his students received degrees from the Committee, he never had an appointment on it. After retiring from Chicago, he taught briefly at Claremont Men's College in California and then ended his career at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The most significant part of his career, as it turned out, was spent not as a rural postmaster, but as the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago; rather than raising rabbits, he wrote scores of articles and books and became the much-admired teacher of a large coterie of students.
Strauss always described himself as a student-and teacher-of the history of political philosophy. He had an undeniably large impact on that field, contributing to a major revival of interest in a subject that had been increasingly held to be moribund. In retrospect it seems there were two main aspects of Strauss's work that led to his making as much of a mark on the field as he did. In the first place, political philosophy was under attack-or, even worse, being ignored and set to the side-within political science as a nonscientific or prescientific enterprise that had little to contribute to the effort to transform political science into a "real science." Strauss, while appearing to be an old-fashioned kind of political theorist who had not gotten the message, was instead a thinker who came to the American political science profession armed with the most advanced European thinking on the nature of science and its relation to the study of society. Strauss had studied under Ernst Cassirer, one of the leading neo-Kantians of the twentieth century, and had then gone to work with Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology represented an alternative to the positivism and empiricism characteristic of Anglo-American philosophy of science. His early contact with Martin Heidegger and his subsequent study of the latter's Being and Time, another great critique of, and alternative to, the reigning models of social science, also contributed to his reservations about the way in which American political science was attempting to transform itself. He thus launched a powerful counterattack on the scientism of postwar political science. He not only engaged in a strenuous and serious rereading of the great political philosophers of the past; he also went on the offensive, making a powerful case that the positivist scientific study of politics was a misguided effort to understand political life, because it inevitably missed the essential character of political life as the attempt to determine and achieve what is most important in human existence. Strauss's strong defense of the enterprise of political philosophy, especially his insistence on the necessarily normative character of political study (and thus his rejection of the fact-value distinction) was one source of his large impact.
The second source, we think, was the range, novelty, and depth of his presentation of the history of political philosophy. Strauss wrote and taught about political philosophers from Socrates to Heidegger, including, it seemed, almost every philosopher of note in between. His readings of the Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophers contributed to the reshaping of the study of those writers. His reading of Plato has had a large, often unrecognized influence on the study of ancient political philosophy. His readings of Locke and Rousseau, Nietzsche and Weber, have attracted great attention from other scholars. One reason his confrontation with past philosophers was so influential was the great novelty of what Strauss had to say about them. A large part of his charm arose from his repeated claim that we only presumed we knew what the tradition contained; it was, when read properly, much different from what it was believed to be. The result of his novel readings was a sense of finding great freshness and unexplored depths in thinkers who seemed to have gone stale and whose thought seemed to have been adequately captured and addressed in textbook or encyclopedia renditions. Strauss exploded such notions and led many of his readers and students to believe that there was nothing fresher, nothing more "cutting edge," nothing more worth pursuing than the reappropriation of the philosophical texts of the past.
Strauss's reinterpretation of the tradition has thus spawned a large, ever-growing, new scholarship on those thinkers. Many of his students, or those influenced otherwise by him, have gone on to become important scholars in their own right. There is a thriving "school" of Platonic studies influenced by Strauss, some of the leading members of which are Seth Benardete, Stanley Rosen, Allan Bloom, Joseph Cropsey, Christopher Bruell, Michael Davis, Ronna Burger, and Mary Nichols. Another subset of scholars have pursued the new paths in medieval philosophy that Strauss opened up. These include Mushin Mahdi, Ernest Fortin, Ralph Lerner, Joel Kraemer, Charles Butterworth, Miriam Galston, Remi Brague, Hillel Fradkin, Joshua Parens, and Christopher Colmo. Others, like Harvey Mansfield, Clifford Orwin, and Vickie Sullivan, have followed Strauss into the wilds of Machiavelli. Still others, like Victor Gourevitch, Richard Kennington, Hilail Gildin, Hiram Caton, Roger Masters, Thomas Pangle, Pierre Manent, David Schaefer, Nathan Tarcov, Robert Faulkner, Robert Kraynak, Jerry Weinberger, Arthur Melzer, and Christopher Kelly, have been spurred on by Strauss's readings to give new interpretations of early modern political philosophers such as Montaigne, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Yet others, like William Galston, Michael Gillespie, Susan Shell, Richard Velkley, Steven Smith, Laurence Lampert, Gregory Smith, and Peter Berkowitz, have approached later modern, especially German, philosophy with a perspective shaped to some degree by Strauss. He has, in other words, an undeniably large presence even now, more than thirty years after his death, in the study of the history of political philosophy.
Strauss's Philosophical Project
From reading the popular press (or, to speak more precisely, semipopular press) like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books in the thirty-some years since Strauss's death, one would think that he had attained prominence in the United States primarily as a conservative political ideologue. Although he was a Jew who emigrated from Germany to flee the National Socialists, Strauss has even been castigated as a Nazi. Despite the portrayal of Strauss as the intellectual source of the "neoconservative" foreign policy of the Bush administration, he said and wrote very little about American politics. He did express his opinion that liberal democracy was much better than the totalitarian alternatives confronting it in the twentieth century; but as an émigré, he often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics. Also, his chief concerns lay elsewhere, with the question of the character and fate of philosophy. "He rarely left the esoteric world of high thought, preferring to construct a history of political philosophy." And that, we maintain, is where Strauss's significance primarily lies. He presented a novel diagnosis of what is often called the crisis of the West but which could also be dubbed the end of philosophy. He tried not merely to revive but to reform this distinctive form of intellectual activity, which, he argued, defines Western civilization.
Strauss's signature idea was his call for a return to the ancients, his appeal for a reconsideration and reappropriation of the political philosophy of the classics: the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and so on-a group of writers Strauss thought of as "Socratics" because they followed the path of thought opened up by Socrates. Strauss did not begin with a commitment to ancient philosophy, although, as his youthful attachment to Plato indicates, he was seized by an admiration for them, or at least for Plato, from an early age. It was only when he was well along in life, sometime in his thirties, that Strauss concluded that a return to the ancients was both possible and desirable. Like most German students of philosophy of his day, he began as a student of modern philosophy. Having studied with Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, Strauss met and came to admire Martin Heidegger, who later became the founder of existentialism. He also read Friedrich Nietzsche very seriously in his younger days. His attempt to return to the ancients represented a break not only with these particular thinkers, but with modern philosophy in its entirety.
The important story about Strauss is the story of his call for this return-how he came to formulate it as a philosophic project, what he saw to be the barriers to such a return (barriers that made the very idea of return unthinkable to most of his contemporaries), what he meant by calling for return, and what the chief consequences of his call for return were. His main impetus for returning to the ancients was a growing dissatisfaction with the various manifestations of modern philosophy, including dissatisfaction with the great modern critics of modern philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In response to that dissatisfaction, he came to a new or at least very untraditional understanding of the ancients; he rediscovered an older and very nonstandard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy. It also opened up an understanding of ancient philosophy that was immune to the critiques to which it had been subjected by modern thinkers, from Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to Heidegger in the twentieth. Their criticism of ancient philosophy failed, he came to believe, because they never understood correctly the doctrines they were criticizing. The ancients to whom Strauss wanted to return were thus very different from the ancients as depicted in the textbooks.
The first and perhaps chief consequence of Strauss's recovery of the ancients was therefore a reconceiving of the entire philosophic tradition. Not only did he come to understand the classics differently from the way they had been understood, but he also radicalized a commonplace distinction between ancients and moderns. With the emergence of modern philosophy, Strauss believed, there had occurred a cataclysmic break with the older philosophy, a break of such magnitude that all that came after was simply a working out of the implications of that break. In the Straussian frame, the difference between ancients and moderns became decisive; Strauss sided with the ancients and traced the ills of modern philosophy and many of the ills of modern politics to that break with ancient philosophy and the consequences of that break.
Part of Strauss's new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, of politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. Another way to formulate Strauss's signature doctrine, then, is as a call for the rebirth of political philosophy. In this reborn political philosophy, a philosophy that took its bearings from Socrates, not Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss believed he had discovered a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics). The reconceptualization of the philosophic tradition was thus to be at the same time a reorientation of thinking about politics. Strauss's project was, to say the least, ambitious.
Although Strauss has recently become famous, if not infamous, the world was slow to take notice of him. One reason the significance of Strauss's work is only now coming to be properly or truly appreciated in the United States is that many American intellectuals became aware of the arguments against which he positioned himself, in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger, only after Strauss's death. Living and writing in America, Strauss wanted to respond to Heidegger, but he did not want to propagate Heidegger's thought by explicating his turgid prose. As a Jew who had fled Hitler's Germany, Strauss was all too aware of the unsavory political associations of Heidegger's Nazi-sympathizing thought. Strauss therefore directed his arguments against what he called "radical historicism," by which he meant Heidegger. Few of his American readers understood whom or what Strauss actually had in mind.
Strauss's Departure from Heidegger and Nietzsche
Strauss opposed Heidegger, at least in part, because, as he saw it, he and Heidegger had begun with the same philosophical problem or source-the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche. In classes at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, Strauss suggested that the best introduction to Heidegger's thought was to be found in his lectures on Nietzsche, first published in German in 1962. Whereas most others would look to Being and Time, Strauss thought Heidegger's confrontation with Nietzsche was most revealing of Heidegger's project.
Strauss himself had been enthralled at an early age with the author he had read furtively in gymnasium. Indeed, Nietzsche exercised a powerful intellectual influence on him for quite some time. In a letter he wrote to Karl Loewith in 1935, Strauss stated that "Nietzsche so dominated me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him." By the time he wrote to Loewith, however, Strauss had discovered that he agreed with Nietzsche only in part. Like Nietzsche, Strauss "wanted to repeat antiquity ... at the peak of modernity." Like Nietzsche, that meant, Strauss wanted to revive a truly noble form of human existence." But Strauss had come to believe that the polemical character of Nietzsche's critique of modernity had prevented him from realizing his intention. Strauss came, moreover, to have a very different notion of the peak of antiquity, or the most noble form of human existence. Whereas Nietzsche praised blond beasts and Caesar with the soul of Christ, Strauss tried to revive Platonic political philosophy and the Platonic hero, Socrates, who was not a great favorite of Nietzsche's. In contrast to Nietzsche, Strauss never praised ancient generals and statesmen such as Pericles or Caesar, nor their modern imitators such as Napoleon. He wanted to revive ancient political philosophy, not ancient politics.
Excerpted from The Truth about Leo Strauss by CATHERINE ZUCKERT MICHAEL ZUCKERT Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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