Leo Strauss: Teacher and Philosopher

  • Shadia B. Drury


It is no exaggeration to say that the impact of Leo Strauss on the academic community in North America is a phenomenon. He is the founder of a movement, a school of thought and even a cult.1 Leo Strauss wrote some 15 books and 80 articles.2 However, his notoriety is due not so much to the evident superiority of his work,3 but to the fervent devotion of his unusually arduous and zealous followers. Universities in Canada and the United States now abound with these disputatious, dogmatic and vehemently defensive disciples known as Straussians. They occupy high positions in almost all the universities in North America,4 and have, without a shadow of a doubt, become a ‘force’ to be reckoned with.5


Political Philosophy Political Thought Great Book Good Regime Political Idea 
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  1. 1.
    Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984). Coser refers to Strauss as the only refugee scholar who managed to attract a ‘brilliant galaxy of disciples who created an academic cult around his teaching’ (p. 4).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The most recent and most complete bibliography of Strauss’s work can be found in SPPP. Other compilations of Strauss’s work can be found in Joseph Cropsey, ‘Leo Strauss: A Bibliography and Memorial, 1899–1973’, Interpretation, vol. 5, no. 2 (1975) pp. 133–47;Google Scholar
  3. Joseph Cropsey (ed.), Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (New York: Basic Books, 1964);Google Scholar
  4. David L. Schaefer, Jr, ‘The Legacy of Leo Strauss: A Bibliographic Introduction’, Intercollegiate Review, vol. 9, no. 3 (Summer 1974) pp. 139–48. The latter is an excellent and informative introduction to Strauss’s work.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    For some devastating reviews of Strauss’s books see Terence Irwin’s review of XS in Philosophical Review, vol. 83 (1974) pp. 409–13. One of Strauss’s claims to fame is having resurrected Xenophon by emphasizing his importance for understanding Socrates. Irwin comments that Strauss succeeds only in reminding us of ‘how unexciting Xenophon can be’. Worse than that, Strauss’s interpretation is a ‘tedious paraphrase’ that ‘reduces the amusing episodes to a uniform level of dullness’ (p. 409). See also Trevor J. Saunders’s review of Strauss’s AAPL, in Political Theory, vol. 4 (1976) pp. 239–42. Strauss is described as sailing ‘serenely across the surface of the text, skirting obvious rocks and crashing on submerged ones without knowing he is doing so’ (p. 242); see also J. W. Yolton, ‘Locke on the Law of Nature’, Philosophical Review, vol. 67 (1958) pp. 477–98. Yolton points to innumerable examples of careless scholarship and a tendency to quote out of context;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. see also Victor Gourevitch, ‘Philosophy and Politics II’, Review of Metaphysics, vol. 22, no. 2 (December 1968) pp. 281–328, which is the second part of a two-part study of Strauss’s work: the list of errors occurs on pp. 326–8; see also the criticisms of M. F. Burnyeat, ‘Sphinx Without a Secret’, a recent review of Strauss’s SPPP, in New York Review of Books, vol. 32, no. 9 (30 May 1985) pp. 30–6, a penetrating and comprehensive critique of Straussian scholarship and philosophy.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Werner J. Dannhauser, ‘Leo Strauss: Becoming Naïve Again’, American Scholar, vol. 44 (1974–5) pp. 636–42, esp. p. 637.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss, ‘A Giving of Accounts’, in The College, vol. 22 (April 1970) pp. 1–5. The College is a publication of St John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, where Strauss was the Scott Buchanan Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the time of his death. In this autobiographical piece, Strauss describes Marburg as a neo-Kantian center founded by Herman Cohen. He tells us that the school was ‘in a state of disintegration’ due to the increasing power of Husserl’s phenomenological approach.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    When he arrived from California to Annapolis in 1969 a ‘spontaneous champagne party greeted him, his wife and adopted daughter and son-in-law at the railroad station between trains’. This is reported by George Anastaplo, ‘On Leo Strauss: A Yahrzeit Remembrance’, University of Chicago Magazine, vol. 67 (Winter 1974) p. 35.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See, for example, ‘The Achievement of Leo Strauss,’ National Review, vol. 25 (7 December 1973) pp. 1347–57, contributions by Walter Berns, Herbert J. Storing, Harry V. Jaffa and Werner J. Dannhauser; Allan Bloom, ‘Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899–October 18, 1973’, Political Theory, vol. 2, no. 4 (November 1974) pp. 372–92, is an excellent intellectual biography; Schaefer, The Legacy of Leo Strauss’, is a concise introduction to his most famous works and their themes; Cropsey, ‘Leo Strauss: A Bibliography and Memorial’, is still among the most complete bibliographies available: Cropsey was a colleague of Strauss, and is his literary executor; Anastaplo, ‘A Yahrzeit Remembrance’, pp. 31–8, provides interesting descriptions of Strauss as a man; Dannhauser, ‘Becoming Naïve Again’, provides a detailed description of what it was like to be a graduate student at Chicago and to attend Leo Strauss’s seminar in political philosophy;Google Scholar
  11. see also Jacob Klein, J. Winfree Smith, Ted A. Blanton and Laurence Berns in ‘Memorials to Leo Strauss’, St. John’s Review (formerly The College), vol. 25, no. 4 (January 1974) pp. 1–5: Blanton tells us that he was ‘charmed’ by Strauss, and that in time he hoped to train his eyes to see in the texts what Strauss saw;Google Scholar
  12. Laurence Berns, ‘Leo Strauss 1899–1973’, Independent Journal of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1978) pp. 1–3;Google Scholar
  13. a very interesting and more detached article is Milton Himmelfarb’s ‘On Leo Strauss’, Commentary, vol. 58, no. 2 (May 1974) pp. 60–6.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Jaffa, ‘The Achievement of Leo Strauss’, p. 1353. See also André Liebich, ‘Straussianism and Ideology’, in Anthony Parel (ed.), Ideology, Philosophy and Politics (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), an outstanding work that attempts to come to grips with Strauss’s conservatism. Liebich is puzzled by the comparison of Strauss with Machiavelli. For reasons that will become apparent below, this comparison is by no means unwarranted; on the contrary, it is quite appropriate (see Chapter 6).Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    Leo Strauss, ‘An Unspoken Prologue to a Public Lecture at St. John’s [In Honor of Jacob Klein, 1899–1978]’, Interpretation, vol. 7, no. 3 (September 1978) pp. 1–3. This tribute was unspoken by Strauss since his death preceded that of Klein’s. It was, however, prepared for the occasion of Klein’s 60th birthday, and the editors of the journal above saw fit to publish it as a tribute to Klein upon his death. Strauss points to an interesting difference between himself and Klein. He says that Klein had an ‘idiosyncratic abhorrence of publicity’. When they were in their twenties, they worked together with a group of other young men in the Prussian State Library in Berlin and relaxed together in a coffe-house close by the library. Klein was eager not to appear as part of a group of intellectuals; ‘idle and inefficient young men of business or of the lucrative professions or any other kind of drones’ were, however, acceptable. In contrast, Strauss did not mind the publicity; he reports that on such occasions he used to derive enjoyment from exclaiming as loud as he could ‘Nietzsche!’Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Strauss frequently uses this expression particularly in connection with the work of Maimonides. See his ‘How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed’, an introduction to Shlomo Pines’s translation of Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1963) pp. xi–lvi.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    Eugene F. Miller, ‘Leo Strauss: The Recovery of Political Philosophy’, in Anthony de Crespigny and Kenneth Minogue (eds), Contemporary Political Philosophers (New York and London: Dodd-Mead and Methuen, 1975) p. 68.Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Yolton, ‘Locke on the Law of Nature’; Dante Germino, ‘Second Thoughts on Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli’, Journal of Politics, vol. 28 (1966) pp. 794–817;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr, ‘Strauss’s Machiavelli’, Political Theory, vol. 3, no. 4 (November 1975) pp. 372–83;Google Scholar
  20. J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Prophet and Inquisitor’, Political Theory, vol. 3, no. 4 (November 1975) pp. 385–401;Google Scholar
  21. Edward Andrew, ‘Descent to the Cave’, Review of Politics, vol. 45, no. 4 (October 1983) pp. 510–35; Burnyeat, ‘Sphinx Without a Secret’, takes Strauss’s interpretation of Plato and Aristotle to task; George H. Sabine, review of Strauss’s PAW in Ethics, vol. 63 (1952–3) pp. 220–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 47.
    James Steintrager, ‘Political Philosophy, Political Theology, and Morality’, Thomist, vol. 32 (July 1968) p. 309.Google Scholar
  23. 50.
    Nathan Tarcov, ‘Philosophy & History: Tradition and Interpretation in the Work of Leo Strauss’, Polity, vol. 16, no. 1 (1983) p. 10;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. see also Warren Harbison, ‘Irony and Deception’, Independent Journal of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1978) pp. 89–94; and Willmoore Kendall, review of Cropsey (ed.), Ancients and Moderns, in American Political Science Review, vol. 61, no. 3 (September 1967) pp. 783–84. Both Harbison and Kendall deny that Strauss has any teaching or political philosophy as such.Google Scholar
  25. Harbison pleads Socratic ignorance for Strauss and his followers; a similar view is expressed by von Hiram Caton, ‘Der Hermeneutische Weg von Leo Strauss’, Philosophisches Jahrbuch, vol. 80 (1973) pp. 171–82. I follow Strauss in regarding Socratic ignorance with a great deal of irony.Google Scholar
  26. 52.
    John G. Gunnell, ‘The Myth of the Tradition’, American Political Science Review, vol. 72 (1978) pp. 122–34; see also his ‘Political Theory and Politics: The case of Leo Strauss’, in Political Theory, vol. 13, no. 3 (August 1985) pp. 339–61. Gunnell regards Strauss as one of several contemporary political thinkers who use the history of political thought as a vehicle for understanding our modern political predicament and diagnosing its ills. Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin are among the most renowned. Gunnell has aptly named this genre ‘the myth of the tradition’ or ‘epic political theory’, and maintains that writers in this genre assume that Western political thought can be viewed as a continuous historical narrative that begins with the ancient Greeks and evolves in a discernible pattern that explains where our political ideas came from and how we have come to think as we do. There are as many versions of the narrative as there are writers within this genre. In Strauss’s version of the narrative, political philosophy was born with Socrates, developed by Plato and Aristotle and continued until the seventeenth century where it met a deathly blow. There is much truth in what Gunnell has to say, but we must be careful not to cast the debate between the ancients and the moderns in too historical a light, even though Strauss gives us ample reason for doing so. In principle the debate between ancients and moderns can take place in any historical period, and Strauss points to earlier versions of the debate. Gunnell has no doubt that Strauss sides with the ancients. He compares Strauss’s work with Aristophanes’s Frogs, an epic drama where Aeschylus is brought forth from the underworld to do battle with Euripides.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. In the dramatic confrontation, the old teaching is vindicated. Strauss himself invites a comparison with Swift’s Battle of the Books: see ‘The Crisis of Our Time’, and ‘The Crisis of Political Philosophy’, in Howard J. Spaeth (ed.), The Predicament of Modern Politics (Detroit, Mich.: University of Detroit Press, 1964) pp. 41–54, 91–103. Swift, with his characteristic wit and satire heaps praises upon the great ancients, whose very eloquence makes their modern opponents seem like a travesty of real humanity. Like Strauss, Swift heaps unspeakable insults on the moderns while showering the ancients with exorbitant praise. This is not to say that what is at issue between ancients and moderns is simple or obvious. Gunnell notes Strauss’s elusiveness (p. 122). 53. See, for example, Tarcov, ‘Tradition and Interpretation in the Work of Leo Strauss’. This is a response to Gunnell. Although this is an excellent article in many ways, it is unconvincing. Tarcov argues that Strauss does not wish to return to the ancients, which is true in the sense that Strauss does not think that such a return is possible. But Strauss surely thinks there is much that we can learn from the ancients; they can not only enable us to understand the source of our modern malaise, but also show us how we might postpone, if not avoid, the inevitable decline of our civilization. Tarcov goes too far in saying that Strauss does not necessarily prefer the ancients, that his wish is merely to ‘reopen the quarrel’ (p. 7);Google Scholar
  28. James F. Ward, ‘Experience and Political Philosophy: Notes on Reading Leo Strauss’, Polity, vol. 13, no. 4 (Summer 1981) p. 679: Ward argues that Strauss does not wish to replace modern with ancient science. This is certainly not true for political science, which for Strauss is always an integral part of any adequate understanding of science.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. See also Victor Gourevitch, ‘Philosophy and Politics: I’, and ‘Philosophy and Politics: II’, in Review of Metaphysics, vol. 22, no. 1 (September 1968) pp. 58–84, and vol. 22, no. 2 (December 1968) pp. 281–325, respectively. This is one of the best and by far the most comprehensive study of Strauss’s work as a whole. Gourevitch erroneously believes that Strauss departs from the ancients by taking a much more skeptical position than is characteristic of the latter. He fails to note, however, the extent to which Strauss’s understanding of the ancients is far more skeptical than they are generally believed to be (p. 325).Google Scholar
  30. See also Richard Kennington, ‘Strauss’s Natural Right and History’, Review of Metaphysics, vol. 35 (September 1981) pp. 57–86. Kennington believes that Strauss’s Natural Right and History is not a vindication of the ancients against the moderns, but merely a ‘disclosure of fundamental alternatives’ (p. 60). These authors are right in thinking that Strauss does not believe classical political philosophy will provide us with ‘solutions’ to our contemporary problems. But it must be added that Strauss does not think solutions are always necessarily available. Political philosophy enables us always to understand, but not always to solve problems. Chance and good fortune must coincide with understanding to make the latter possible. And in Strauss’s view, it is the classical understanding of the problems that alone can enable us to recognize the opportunities in which fortune might permit a partial ‘solution’; for human problems there are no final solutions.Google Scholar
  31. 54.
    Kennington, ‘Strauss’s Natural Right and History’ follows a complicated trail of misdirection and manages to write a commentary on Strauss that is more elusive than the original; Robert J. McShea, ‘Leo Strauss on Machiavelli’, Western Political Quarterly, vol. 16 (1963) pp. 782–97: McShea’s article is interesting but when it hits the mark it seems quite by accident;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. cf. Laurence Lampert, ‘The Argument of Leo Strauss in What is Political Philosophy?’, Modern Age, vol. 22, no. 1 (Winter 1978) pp. 38–46: this work does not use Strauss’s method to study his work, it simply takes into account that Strauss writes esoterically and therefore must be read with great care.Google Scholar
  33. 60.
    John H. Schaar and Sheldon S. Wolin, ‘Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics: A Critique’, a review essay of Herbert Storing (ed.), Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962), in American Political Science Review, vol. 57 (1963) pp. 125–60; the book under review includes Strauss’s famous ‘Epilogue’. Schaar and Wolin note that the ‘volume is of such uniform texture that it might have been written by one hand. In assumptions, method, style of argument, and even vocabulary, syntax and metaphor, the five essays are as one’ (p. 126). All the contributors except Leo Strauss received their doctorates at the University of Chicago where Strauss was teaching. The review is followed by responses from Strauss and his students. In recent years there have been cases where Straussians have dissented from the interpretations of Strauss. But where this is the case, they nevertheless maintain intact the Straussian assumptions and ideas to the very last detail. Their disagreement with Strauss is confined to whether a thinker in question was wise enough to think the things that Strauss taught them wise men ought to think.Google Scholar
  34. See for example Nathan Tarcov, Locke’s Education for Liberty (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Tarcov’s esoteric thesis consists in the claim that Locke’s wisdom ought not be underestimated since his liberal education is intended to create a sort of aristocracy in disguise. Following Strauss, Tarcov expresses himself with utmost caution and reserve. See my review of Tarcov’s book in Interchange, the Journal of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, vol. 17, no. 3 (1986). Another example is E. A. Goerner’s interpretation of Aquinas. See his ‘On Thomistic Natural Law: The Bad Man’s View of Thomistic Natural Right’, and ‘Thomistic Natural Right: The Good Man’s View of Thomistic Natural Law’, both in Political Theory, vol. 7, no. 1 (February 1975) pp. 101–22, and vol. 11, no. 3 (August 1983) pp. 393–418 respectively, and also discussed in Chapter 5 below, pp. 110–11.Google Scholar
  35. 61.
    I will not be concerned with the debates regarding the adequacy of Strauss’s method as a vehicle for understanding the history of thought. See J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975);Google Scholar
  36. Quentin Skinner, ‘The Ideological Context of Hobbes’s Political Thought’, Historical Journal, vol. 9 (1966) pp. 286–317; Nathan Tarcov has replied to Pocock and Skinner in a review of Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment, in Political Science Quarterly, vol. 91 (Summer 1976) pp. 380–2;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Nathan Tarcov, ‘Political Thought in Early Modern Europe, II: The Age of Reformation’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 54 (March 1982) pp. 56–65;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. see also Nathan Tarcov, ‘Quentin Skinner’s Method and Machiavelli’s Prince’, Ethics, vol. 92 (July 1982) pp. 692–709.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 71.
    Stanley Rothman, ‘The Revival of Classical Political Philosophy: A Critique’, American Political Science Review, vol. 56, no. 2 (June 1962) pp. 341–59, with a reply by Joseph Cropsey.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Shadia B. Drury 2005

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