Tension Ridden Thinker


Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss:

Political Philosophy and American Democracy 

            In 2003, the year of the United States’ fateful invasion of Iraq, the anti-war opposition’s search for the culprits responsible took an odd turn, going well beyond the usual suspects, Rumsfeld, Chaney and their boss, President George W. Bush. Media reports in 2003, both before and after the invasion, were pointing to an obscure, deceased (since 1973) professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust, one Leo Strauss. Strauss was fingered as the thinker whose ideas had inspired a cabal of ambitious young policy wonks who left the University of Chicago to take positions of influence in Washington. These “Straussians” were grouped together as “neo-conservatives,” and, as the popular wisdom still holds, neo-conservatives were the driving force behind the 2003 Iraq invasion.

            Professor Strauss was said to be an adherent of a strong-willed approach to foreign policy which the authors associate with Woodrow Wilson, advocating regime change as a means to implant liberal democracy throughout the world. While this certainly suggests neo-conservatism, Strauss was also portrayed in a somewhat contradictory vein as a resolute Machiavellian who espoused a “very hard-edged realism” that was “unabashedly elitist” (p.6), in which the end justifies the means and “[o]nly philosophers can handle the truth” (p.7). The elite must therefore “lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them – arguably for their own good” (p.7).

            In The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, the authors, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, a husband and wife team at the University of Notre Dame and both former students of Strauss, seek to show that the views attributed to Strauss are at best caricatures, the result of a failure to dig deep enough into the man’s “complex and tension ridden” views about America and liberal democracy (p.20). As to those former students who could be termed Straussians, they are mostly academics like Strauss, with strong but by no means consistent views about the United States and basic American principles. Straussians are “far more interested in exploring the history of political thought than in acquiring or exerting direct and immediate influence on American public policy. The differences among the Straussians are principled and philosophical more than they are partisan or personal” (p.258), the authors contend. The common thread they see to today’s Straussians is a distaste for much of what transpired in American intellectual life in the 1960s.

* * *

            The Zuckerts’s opening chapter, cleverly titled “Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington,” explores how the notion that Strauss’ thinking was behind Bush-era neo-conservatives gained traction in the first place. This part of their story constitutes a good lesson in how mainstream media can get stories wrong (the Iraq war and run up to it are filled, unfortunately, with far more consequential instances of media missing the proverbial boat). The genesis of the notion, the Zuckerts argue, can be traced primarily to an otherwise little-known scholar, Shadia Drury. In 1988, fifteen years after Strauss’ death and fifteen years prior to the second Iraq war, Drury produced what the authors consider a generally sound, objective account of Strauss’ thinking, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. This book established Drury’s credentials as a Strauss scholar. But sometime in the 1990s, the authors argue, Drury lost her objectivity and began to impute dastardly qualities to Strauss’ writing in an effort to tie Strauss to the American right.

            In this phase, Drury found Strauss to be a partisan of “tyrannical teaching,” which holds that there is “only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise over the vulgar” (p.158). Drury even compared Strauss to Adolph Hitler:

Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses – the same that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fuhrer. Strauss’ political philosophy advocates the same solutions to the problems of the recalcitrant masses. (p.17)

             Drury’s more polemical ideas gained traction in the mainstream media, inexplicably aided in no small part by Lyndon Larouche and his followers, whom the authors describe, with considerable restraint, as a “fringe if not quite lunatic group” (p.12). Larouche echoed Drury’s views and led his own drumbeat of anti-Strauss rhetoric. Larouche’s involvement should have been a warning that something fishy was afoot. But Larouche at least as much as Drury provided the mainstream media with its Straussian talking points. The New York Times was an early leader in linking Strauss to the darker side of American conservatism. In November 1994, Brett Staples wrote “Undemocratic Vistas: The Sinister Vogue of Leo Strauss,” followed by Richard Bernstein’s “A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero),” published in the Times in January 1995.

            In 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, the Times ran articles on Strauss bearing the titles “Leo-Cons, A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders” and “The Real Strauss.” The French daily Le Monde weighed in with an influential piece, “Strategist and Philosopher.” Other 2003 articles about Strauss included “Selective Intelligence” (The New Yorker); “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” (International Herald Tribune); “Philosophers and Kings” (The Economist); “ConTract: The Theory Behind Neo-Con Self Deception” (Washington Monthly); and “Neo-Cons Dance A Straussian Waltz” (Asian Times). Those whom the media mistakenly labeled Straussians included Richard Perle, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork (“not a shred of evidence to support these claims,” p.264); Thomas Sowell (“nothing to do with Strauss;” p.10); and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In some accounts, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore were characterized as Straussians. The only neo-conservatives outside academia whom the authors consider to be genuine Straussians are commentator William Kristol and Bush Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, along with Leon Kass, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

              The story of Strauss’ rise as the Darth Vader of the Iraq war seems in one way very European, more French or German than American, with a long deceased scholar of the abstractions of philosophy exercising a direct influence over those in power. That just doesn’t seem like the United States where, as Richard Hoftstadter reminded us a half century ago, anti-intellectualism dominates our public life. But perhaps the Strauss story underscores Hoftstadter’s point: when we Americans repair to abstract philosophy to explain current events, we often get it badly wrong.

              The easy part of the Zuckerts’ book is that devoted to how Strauss came to occupy such a prominent place in the post-Iraq debate, more than forty years after his death. Unfortunately, this story constitutes a relatively small portion of their book. A far larger portion is an effort to help us understand what Strauss was really saying, which necessitates a deep dig into his political philosophy. Readers not already familiar with the arcane debates that dominate the field may find this portion slow going.

* * *

           Strauss’ signature idea was that philosophy should be reconstituted on the thinking of the ancients, especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Strauss “rediscovered an older and very non-standard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy” (p.31). Strauss considered Machiavelli the first philosopher of modernism who, in that capacity, had taken philosophy away from its Socratic and Platonic roots and provided impetus to the idea of reinventing political and social life around the passions. Although the Strauss who appeared in the anti-Iraq War debates was often portrayed as a Machiavellian who believed that elites were justified in doing just about anything necessary to stay in power, Strauss the philosopher was decidedly anti-Machiavelli. He drew the ire of his scholarly peers in the 1950s by describing Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil,” then a very retrograde view of the Florentine, but one that Drury and others would subsequently level at Strauss himself.

            The authors devote much time to Strauss’ “esotericism,” which has a particular meaning in philosophy sharply removed from its everyday use. In the philosophic sense, esotericism involves the hiding of meaning, somewhat akin to what we often refer to today as “speaking in codes” — “first and foremost a device whereby thinkers of the past concealed some part of their thought for the sake of guarding themselves against persecution” (p.120). Strauss wrote about thinkers who wrote “cautiously” because they believed that there are “basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they do harm to many people” (p.126). Strauss called this a “noble lie.” Strauss’ critics pounced on this pronouncement to conclude that Strauss meant to justify political leaders lying to the citizens they serve.

             Strauss was, the authors concede, fascinated by the practice of esotericism, and playfully employed it from time to time. But Strauss was fascinated by this manner of communication primarily because it was effective in societies where writers were not free to say explicitly what they believed. Esotericism is “first and foremost a method for historically understanding writers in the past who lived in illiberal societies, not a prescription for writers living in liberal societies” (p.121). In free societies, Strauss believed, the need for esotericism should not arise. Rather than reinstating esotericism, the authors conclude, “Strauss exposed it” (p.133).

           Strauss was a secular Jew with unorthodox views of religion. Revelation cannot be disproved by reason, he contended. For Strauss, the “core, the nerve of Western intellectual history [and] Western spiritual history,” was the conflict between the “biblical and the philosophical notions of the good life” (p.45), which he sometimes referred to metaphorically as “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The inherent tension between revelation and reason – between Jerusalem and Athens — was for Strauss the secret to the “vitality of Western civilization” (p.45), and exposure of this tension marked the “hallmark of Strauss’ philosophic activity” (p.154).

               In his efforts to go “back to the basics” in philosophy, back to the foundations of the ancients, Strauss was often portrayed as “anti-modern” and “anti-Enlightenment.” The Zuckerts do not disagree with this characterization. But if Strauss was “anti-modern,” and if the United States is the ultimate modern country, wouldn’t that make him anti-United States? Not necessarily, reply the authors. The Zuckerts argue in a syllogistic manner that Strauss found the United States good relative to the alternatives available within modernity; that he found modernity not wholly or uniformly bad; and that he considered the United States not wholly or uniformly modern. The United States’ modernism was tempered by the political thinking behind the United States Constitution, which Strauss found to be a reflection of the ancient philosophers whom he revered (contrary to just about everyone else, Strauss discounted the Enlightenment influence on the Constitution). Strauss adopted the Madisonian view that since the wise will not necessarily rule, government should be limited, and the limits should be established by law. For Strauss, tyranny was the absence of the rule of law.

          The ineffectiveness of Weimar Germany in withstanding the Nazi surge to power in his native Germany heightened Strauss’ reservations about liberal democracy. Democracy’s failure in Germany was for Strauss far more than the product of factors unique to German history and culture. Rather, it was an episode in what he came to call “’the crisis of our times,’ a crisis compounded of extremist ideologies . . . and a congenital weakness of liberal (modern) theory,” which made the “moderate, centrist, liberal order particularly vulnerable to attack from the extremes” (p.189-90). Much like a 20th century de Tocqueville, the authors argue, Strauss nonetheless provided a “restrained but genuine endorsement” of liberal democracy, reminding us that its freedom and openness to virtue can push democratic regimes to be “overly democratic” (p.78). The freedom of modernity opens human beings to the “insidious and powerful challenge of freedom in the phenomena of conformism and mass culture” (p.67). Having been driven from his home country by the Nazis, and having seen the damage of which ideological systems are capable, Strauss preferred individualistic, liberal governments like that of the United States. Strauss probably would have agreed with the quip attributed to Churchill that democracy is the worst of all systems of governance, except for the others.

            But the authors note the irony of Strauss becoming, after his death, a guru for a certain political viewpoint in the United States. Although an American citizen for much of his adult life, Strauss rarely spoke out on political or public matters, and there is virtually no record of his views on the major issues that the United States addressed during his day. Living in the midst of a modern liberal democracy, Strauss did not think he had to promote religious and intellectual toleration so much as self-restraint on the part of intellectuals and philosophers, particularly in criticizing and opposing the religious beliefs of others.

* * *

          After their effort to clarify Strauss’ philosophic views, the authors finish with a chapter on the Straussians, Strauss’ students. Although Strauss himself had little to say about the United States, three of his students made their mark in academic circles in the 1950s by addressing key issues concerning fundamental American principles: Walter Berns advanced a quirky view of freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; Martin Diamond challenged the Progressive view associated with Charles Beard that the framers of the Constitution sought principally to protect their own property interests; and Harry Jaffa wrote what the authors consider still among the greatest works on Abraham Lincoln’s political efforts to bring the United States back to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

              These authors’ work pre-dated what the Zuckerts term the “circus” of the 1960s, a decade which “aroused almost uniform opposition among Straussians on the basis of Straussian principles. Sixties ideals were utopian through and through, and the main theme of Straussian political philosophy was anti-utopian” (p.230). Allen Bloom, probably the best known of the Straussians, published a best seller in the 1980s, The Closing of the American Mind, which the authors describe as “largely a polemic against the sixties” (p.231). From the 1960s onward, the authors contend, all branches of Straussism were attempts to come to terms with the charged political culture associated with that decade. To this extent, Strauss’ approach to philosophy probably gives more comfort to what we would understand as conservatives today than liberals.

             Yet, the admiration of those influenced by Strauss “have not prevented them from thinking through the problems of political philosophy for themselves or coming to disagree . . . with each other and with Strauss himself” (p.253). Among Straussians, there is a “deep going debate and serious division of opinion about the character and meaning of American political principles at the time of the founding and at present” (p.258-59), a debate which Strauss himself only barely touched upon, but one in which his former students were and, in some cases continue to be, passionately engaged. But the authors stress that there is no single Strauss perspective; no sect attempting to impose the rule of philosopher kings by lying to the American public or its elected leaders; nor any cult seeking to implant American democracy around the world through any means necessary.

* * *

                  Setting the record straight as to what Strauss did and did not espouse is a formidable task. But the Zuckerts do a credible job of explaining this complex and elusive thinker for general readers. Although not easy to read, the Zuckert’s book is assuredly worth the effort.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 10, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory

5 responses to “Tension Ridden Thinker

  1. Chanh X. Nguyen

    Leo Strauss seemed to be an apologist for and a frequent practitioner of “esoteric” writing. But esoteric writing, if intermingled with “exoteric” one, is precariously close to doublespeak.
    While this propensity for ambiguity may have contributed to what is known as the phenemenon of the Strauss cult this inevitably implied a high risk that some of his thoughts might be seriously misconstrued.

  2. Chanh, Interestingly, the Zuckerts make the point somewhere in their book that more than most political philosophers, Strauss is easy to misconstrue, essentially your point above. In retrospect, I probably should have put that point into the review. Thanks, as always, for keen insight. Tom

    • Chanh X. Nguyen

      Tom, you are right about Leo Strauss’s writings being open to interpretation. But so are most sacred scriptures, aren’t they ?

  3. Chanh, sure. Many in the media who were going after Strauss in 2003 could have made much of your insight: Leo was to the neo-conservative sect what Moses was to the Jews, Muhammed to the Muslims, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Christians.

  4. Pingback: Stopping History | tomsbooks

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