Athens on the Midway: Defending Leo Strauss

December 16, 2014 Topic: HistoryForeign Policy

Athens on the Midway: Defending Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss is often depicted as a sinister neocon guru whose ideas led directly to endless wars in the Middle East. Robert Howse’s worthy, academic Leo Strauss: Man of Peace correctly argues that this is bunk.


IN HIS own contribution to this discussion, Howse seeks to understand Strauss as Strauss understood himself (to borrow a venerable Straussian precept). He is thus preoccupied with Strauss’s writings, lectures and letters. Like previous authors plowing these fields, however, Howse is also interested to some extent in the phenomenon of the Strauss “cult”—that is, the fervent, often-cliquish group of Straussian teachers and students whose devotion to the Straussian “project” has now stretched over several generations.

About that peculiar, contradictory, edifying project, I can speak from personal experience, not from membership in the Ravelstein “set” so memorably evoked by Saul Bellow (I never knew Allan Bloom or attended the University of Chicago) but from the years in the early 1990s during which I got my PhD at Harvard studying with Harvey Mansfield, perhaps the best-known Straussian still active today (a teacher and scholar maligned by Howse as a “noisy right-wing public intellectual” for whom Strauss is “a kind of mascot or warhorse of conservative Kulturkampf”).

Howse is a professor of international law at New York University, and his chief concern is to describe Strauss’s views on three subjects related to his own field: the role of violence in statecraft and relations among states; the possibility and desirability of international governance or a world state; and the viability of international law, especially as a constraint on how and when states wage war. These may sound like narrow technical issues, but as Howse emphasizes, they require delving into Strauss’s relationship with the often-radical thinkers at the center of his thought—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, the existentialist and Nazi collaborator Martin Heidegger, and the Hegelian Marxist Alexandre Kojève.

Critics of Strauss find in his elusive, opaque writings about these figures a troubling readiness to provide, as Howse writes, “forceful articulations of extreme, antiliberal positions,” often accompanied by qualifications and critiques that seem muted or inadequate by comparison. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss showed that, as a historical practice and perhaps as an ongoing necessity, some philosophers have engaged at times in esoteric writing, concealing their true meanings amid reassuringly conventional “exoteric” views. For Strauss, the fate of Socrates was decisive in explaining the origins of esoteric writing: philosophy was potentially threatening to both the city and the philosopher himself; it had to be practiced with care. In reading Strauss, it is thus difficult to suppress the suspicion that his own deepest thoughts sometimes lurk beyond his stated views. Which are we to credit as more fundamental, Strauss’s avowal in an early letter that Nietzsche “so dominated and bewitched me between my 22nd and 30th year, that I literally believed everything I understood of him,” or his later insistence, consoling to liberal sensibilities, that “wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism”?

Howse tries to resolve such tensions by reminding us that Strauss was, in addition to everything else, a penetrating scholar of Jewish thought and a refugee from the world destroyed by the Nazi war against the Jews. As Howse sees it, the young Strauss shared to a degree the discontent with liberal principles among Weimar intellectuals on the right, many of whom belonged to what is known in Germany as the Konservative Revolution of the 1920s, a movement that prepared the way for a broader intellectual acceptance of Nazism. As Strauss wrote in an essay on the corrupting influence of Nietzsche, Schmitt and Heidegger, part of their appeal to high-minded young Germans (himself presumably included) lay in their “sense of responsibility for endangered morality”—morality robbed of its heroism and nobility by petty calculation and self-interest.

For Howse, Strauss’s mature thought involves certain concessions to the allure of these thinkers—to his younger self, as it were—while at the same time presenting an alternative in the chastened, worldly wisdom of classical political thought, most of all in Plato and Thucydides. Howse calls this an instance of t’shuvah—that is, of return or repentance as understood in traditional Judaism. It involves, he writes,

a pulling back from the extreme through critique, often internal, of the extreme—a deeper, more radical level of philosophical reflection that . . . has the result of reestablishing the case for moral-political limits and for legality, hence moderation in Strauss’s sense. T’shuvah . . . is accomplished not through pious shame or remorse but through an even greater philosophical Redlichkeit [honesty, probity].

This is an appealing interpretation of Strauss, though Howse has no direct evidence for it and does little more than assert it. Strauss certainly never endorses it. But it does capture the tone of the material that Howse cites at great length to show that Strauss’s later views, on the questions of most concern to Howse, were far from radical. Strauss did fear the “Universal and Homogenous State” envisioned by Kojève—not because Strauss prized struggle and conflict, however, but because he worried about freedom of thought and preserving the full variety of human types. And there can be no doubt of Strauss’s impatience with grand schemes for perpetual peace—not because he despised peace but because he saw no foundation for such utopian hopes. As Howse summarizes this balanced view, Strauss affirmed “the rightfulness of international law as a constraint on brutality or gratuitous violence while questioning international law as a narrative of human progress or a guarantee of such progress.”

Much of Howse’s evidence on these issues derives from transcripts and recordings of Strauss’s lectures and seminars that have become available in recent years through the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. That these materials exist in such abundance—Howse cites just a few of the many recorded courses, including seminars taught between 1958 and 1967 on Xenophon, Thucydides, Grotius, Kant, Hegel and Marx—is a testament to the spell cast by Strauss’s teaching. For me, having read Strauss’s books many years ago and written a doctoral thesis on Straussian themes, the recordings on the Strauss Center’s website are an astonishing find. There you hear the man himself, holding forth in surprisingly quick, lyrical, German-inflected English—and demanding attention. The master’s voice, indeed!


WHAT, THEN, makes Strauss so compelling? What explains the allure of Straussian teachers and teaching? Many of the same things, I suspect, that have made Strauss and the Straussians so inviting a target for their critics inside and outside the academy. There is, among Straussians, the sense of initiation into an elite, an elect few whose distinction lies in seeing what others fail to see, in knowing truths that others lack the courage to confront. Among the graduate students in political theory in my own day, Straussian and non-Straussian alike, the imposing doorstop-size History of Political Philosophy that Strauss edited with Joseph Cropsey was popularly referred to by combining the color of its cover with the authority of its pretensions: it was, simply, the Purple Bible.

That all of this amounts to some flavor of cultural conservatism is obvious, but it is hard to detect in it a particular conservative politics. In my own experience of the “cult,” such as it is, dogmatism is considered gauche, intellectually and politically shallow. There are Straussians, but there is no telling, even at this late date, what Straussianism might be. The books of Strauss and of my own teacher, Harvey Mansfield, are tough going, so even from a straightforward careerist point of view, graduate students of a Straussian bent must struggle to figure out how to distill and reformulate the ideas of the teachers whom they wish to please and follow.

What was clear in my own training—and here the magnetic charm remains in all its force—was that the old books we read were not just of antiquarian or scholarly interest. They weren’t interchangeable “content” against which to test our “critical skills.” They were the great alternatives, the important human possibilities in all their variety. A student of Allan Bloom once insisted to me that a character in a Bellow novel was an American Alcibiades—an eye-opening thought, with more to come, I found, in the novelists whom Bloom loved and taught: Stendhal, Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy. It was all very heady and liberating; it felt universal, cosmopolitan.

But it was provincial too. Straussians are certainly excluded and disdained in much of the academy, but the sentiments are mutual. Dismissing colleagues or thinkers as benighted or politically correct becomes a ready excuse not to engage with them, inducing a certain lazy complacency in thought. And there is, finally, something jarring, especially in today’s academy, about the insistent, sometimes intentionally provocative delight that Straussians take in holding out the possibility that Plato or Machiavelli or Nietzsche might be not just interesting but, in some way, right—while at the same time hesitating to acknowledge what modernity has achieved by “lowering its sights” (another Straussian term of art) from the noble to the merely humane. This is not a program calculated to make nice with today’s fashionable advocates of “inclusiveness” (a notion that Strauss would have treated with contempt).