Fame is a form—perhaps the worst form—of incomprehension.
—Jorge Luis Borges
In recent years, as the name of the political philosopher Leo Strauss has grown increasingly familiar, his teaching has become increasingly misunderstood. Indeed, the portrait painted sometimes of Strauss as the posthumous mastermind of the Bush Doctrine does not even rise to the level of caricature—for a caricature, however distorted, bears some resemblance to its model.
Strauss was born in Germany in 1899, emigrated as the Nazis rose to power, and came at last to the United States in the late 1930s. While teaching at the New School and at the University of Chicago, he founded a "school" whose members seek to further his aim of restoring true liberal education. By far Strauss's most important legacy is his books—such works as Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), and Socrates and Aristophanes (1966). In those books he succeeds not simply in reviving the serious study of political philosophy and its history, but in according to political philosophy an unprecedented prominence. No less important in his rediscovery of the philosophic arts of reading and writing, which provide us access to virtually every great work written prior to the 19th century.
These achievements, however, have been temporarily eclipsed by ascriptions to Strauss of an imaginary political influence—one that he neither sought nor would have welcomed. When the frenzy was at its peak, we were regaled with accounts of how the evil genius's disciples employed noble lies to manufacture the war in Iraq—a fairy tale repeated in such publications as the New Yorker, Newsweek, and Harper's. The breathless jeremiad in Harper's—"Leo Strauss, George Bush and the Philosophy of Mass Deception"—intoned that "there appears to be no end to the damage that is being done in the name of Leo Strauss."
Strauss's students and friends have come to his defense, and in these three new books, intended for a general audience, the authors easily lay to rest the worst of the canards spread by his enemies in the academy and the media (two realms that seem increasingly as one). Still, as welcome and useful as these books are for introducing Strauss to a wider audience, they fail to provide an account of him that does justice to his twin arts of reading and writing. Such an account would free readers from some common misperceptions, and inoculate them against some misunderstandings that even Straussians are heir to.
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To his credit, Thomas Pangle, in Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy, recognizes that engaging Strauss's media critics directly would be worse than an exercise in futility: why dignify—and thus perpetuate—a "debate" that can only serve to obscure further Strauss's thought? Instead, Pangle seeks to use that controversy as an opportunity to provide "an accurate, brief and nonpolemical introduction to Strauss's mature thought and intellectual legacy." The book consists of four chapters, three devoted to explicating aspects of Strauss's thought, the final and most extensive chapter exploring "writings that exhibit the extension of Strauss's influence into the more practical, ‘empirical,' and subphilosophic fields of social and political commentary."
Pangle, who holds the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, brings to his task remarkable erudition, and his volume may be said to have succeeded in restoring, and perhaps even deepening, the more sober view of Strauss's intention that prevailed in his lifetime and for a decade or so after his death. According to that opinion, Strauss sought to revive "the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns," a quarrel in which he championed the "ancients" or, as he preferred to call them, the "classics." Such is the view, for example, that Alexandre Kojève seemingly took for granted in his famous debate with Strauss in the early 1950s. By Pangle's account, Strauss's recovery of the genuine Socratic teaching enables us to encounter political philosophy at the moment of its greatest self-awareness, when it is most awake to its preconditions and its precariousness.
Pangle's intention, stated in his somewhat clotted prose, is to offer "a guide to Strauss's writings that approaches them from the perspective of an attempt to answer the question of their significance for our understanding of the deeply problematic roots of the contemporary political world in which we find ourselves historically situated." One wonders whether this perspective is congruent with that of the Strauss who spoke of our urgent need for "an understanding of the genesis of historicism that does not take for granted the soundness of historicism." At the very least, one must say that Pangle's prominent use of such terms as "human existence" gives his writing resonances absent in Strauss.
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In Reading Leo Strauss, Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University, brings together five essays published over the past 15 years, all under the rubric of Strauss's relation to American liberal democracy. This question directly informs the book's introduction and two concluding chapters, which appear in print for the first time.
Smith justly objects to ugly distortions of Strauss as a subverter of liberal democracy and, more generally, to any attempt to make hay politically by the invocation of Strauss's name. He makes the case for Strauss "as a friend of liberal democracy—one of the best friends democracy has ever had." And Smith rightly, if too cautiously, notes that "although [Strauss] has come to be associated with conservatism, it is probably more accurate to say that he saw politics from neither the Right nor from the Left but from above."
Nevertheless, in opposing the political misuse of Strauss, Smith occasionally falls victim to the same temptation. He markedly overstates Strauss's affinity and concern with modern liberalism. Smith asserts: "Strauss's politics, such as they were, had more in common with cold-war liberals of his generation—Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Trilling, Walter Lippmann, Raymond Aron—than with any of the major conservative figures of the same period"—a statement belied by Strauss's recently published correspondence with Willmoore Kendall, a senior editor of National Review. Nor would Strauss likely have been grateful for Smith's attempt to associate him with John Stuart Mill: "For those surprised to see Strauss in this company," writes Smith, "see ‘Liberal Educational Responsibility' [sic]...where Strauss endorses Mill's scheme for proportional representation." Strauss's characterization of that scheme, however, falls far short of an endorsement: "For reasons which are not all bad, Mill's remedy has come to be regarded as insufficient, not to say worthless." Though Strauss certainly was appreciative of the American Founders' accomplishment, one would be hard pressed to find in his work evidence to support Smith's claim that Strauss "treated the American founding as an important philosophical moment in the development of modernity."
Given his focus on Strauss and modern liberalism, the division of his book into two sections titled "Jerusalem" and "Athens" may seem strange. But he has a certain idiosyncratic understanding of Strauss's concern with these two symbolically timeless cities. For Smith, however, Strauss's concern with these themes is more timely than timeless. In the section on "Jerusalem," Smith doesn't explicate Strauss's writings on the Bible, Maimonides, and Halevi, but examines how Strauss's deep engagement with the Jewish tradition enabled him to confront the problem of being a Jew today. Hence Smith treats us to such chapters as "How Jewish Was Leo Strauss?" and "Gershom Scholem and Leo Strauss: Notes Toward a German-Jewish Dialogue." For similar reasons, Smith's chapter on "Strauss's Spinoza" focuses on Strauss's "Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion"—the so-called "autobiographical preface"—rather than on "How to Study Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise," which is the mature Strauss's only sustained interpretation of Spinoza. Despite these quirks, Smith's conclusion that Strauss deserves to be regarded as a Jew at once loyal and non-believing has much to recommend it.
No less worthy is Smith's desire to show in the section on "Athens" a Strauss whose recovery of classical political philosophy was made in a spirit wholly free of dogmatism. Yet almost all of Smith's "Athenian" chapters are firmly rooted in the 20th century. Thus Smith articulates Strauss's recovery of the classics in terms of Strauss's implicit critique of Martin Heidegger, his celebrated debate with Alexandre Kojève, and his understanding of America. By such an approach, Smith prevents himself from asking whether the presentation of the classics that Strauss thought useful and proper for his contemporaries corresponded to his own genuine understanding of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Though it would be unjust to say that Smith falls into the error of treating Strauss "primarily as a contemporary among his contemporaries," he nonetheless seems to regard Strauss chiefly as a great contemporary among his great contemporaries.
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Catherine and Michael Zuckert's The Truth about Leo Strauss is disappointing, especially given the good work its authors have done before. The Zuckerts, the husband-and-wife team who are both Nancy R. Dreux Professors of Political Science at Notre Dame, present a Strauss who is formulaic, doctrinaire, and, worst of all, uninteresting. Their book consists of two parts. The first and more extensive is devoted to setting forth their view of Strauss and his teaching; the second examines some of the more prominent debates among Straussians concerning "the character of American democracy."
A notable virtue of their book is that it makes the question of how to read Strauss—in particular, whether Strauss should be read as he read the greatest authors of the past—a matter of central concern. One can be confident that in years to come scholars will increasingly recognize how important this question is for the right understanding of Strauss.
The Zuckerts take a tack opposite to Pangle's: they expend considerable energy to trace the popular distortions of Strauss to their proximate academic source. They identify as the culprit Shadia Drury's 1988 The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, the book treated most extensively in The Truth about Leo Strauss. Indeed, the bulk of their treatment of Strauss is an explicit response to Drury's various misrepresentations of him as a champion of the amoral and the immoral. In responding to Drury's fictions, however, they obscure what Strauss taught concerning the necessary tension between philosophy and society. Though the Zuckerts' Strauss formally acknowledges that tension, his practice gives the lie to his teaching. For their Strauss tells the truth—and nothing but the truth—and he is so far from corrupting the young that he restores the prejudices of the old. Antiquity is good. Modernity is bad.
The Zuckerts' interest throughout is not so much in how and what Strauss thought, as upon what, or whose, side he came down. They see nothing problematic about describing Strauss as "a partisan of the ancients." So far from being a disinterested lover of truth, the Zuckerts' Strauss can only grudgingly acknowledge an opponent's grasp of the obvious: "Strauss was open minded enough to concede that Machiavelli hit a correct chord when he emphasized the necessary; it is not always possible, Strauss admitted, to achieve the good or the best."
A no less serious problem with the volume is the authors' carelessness. A few examples will suffice. They correctly take Stanley Rosen to task (as others have done) for reading with insufficient care Strauss's famous sentence from the Introduction to Thoughts on Machiavelli: "The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things." On the same page the Zuckerts then misquote twice that same sentence, speaking first of "the problem in the surface of things" and then of "the problem inhering in the surface of things."
On the next page, they contort an even more well-known passage from Natural Right and History (1953). That passage, in which Strauss articulates the chain of thought that led Max Weber to despair of the possibility of philosophy, concludes: "The mere fact that philosophy and revelation cannot refute each other would constitute the refutation of philosophy by revelation." According to the Zuckerts, the sentence in question reads: "The mere fact that philosophy and revelation cannot refute each other would constitute the refutation of the life of philosophy by revelation" (my emphasis). Then—immediately upon having censured a scholar for failing to attend to "what Strauss actually said"—they offer an interpretation that emphasizes the very words they saw fit to add.
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Whatever the relative merits of the three volumes under review, none of them adequately addresses a question of central importance: how Leo Strauss should be read. Pangle's statement that his book "speaks as much as possible in the terms and even in the very words of Strauss himself, doing so with a meticulous attention to the authentic context of whatever I quote," shows that he is alive to the question. One must immediately add, however, that his actions fall short of his words; else, to give one important example, he would not use "ancient political philosophy" and "classical republican political theory"—terms not to be found in Strauss's writings—as synonymous with "classical political philosophy."
As befits its title, Smith's Reading Leo Strauss is graced by a general statement on how to read Strauss that shows rare insight: "Strauss wrote as he read, that is, with an awareness that there are multiple kinds of readers with different interests and different needs and that like any good teacher it is necessary to address them in different ways." Smith rightly recognizes that in order to substantiate his observation, it is necessary to show Strauss employing the kind of literary devices he discovered in other authors.
But is Smith's execution equal to his insight? The work that Smith devotes the most attention to is Natural Right and History's subchapter on John Locke, but Smith's own concern with Strauss's view of American liberal democracy appears to blind him to certain peculiarities of Strauss's Locke. The question of Strauss's understanding of Locke the philosopher is of little interest to Smith, especially relative to what he regards as Strauss's literary coronation of Locke "as America's philosopher-king." "It is not an exaggeration to say that Strauss's judgment on Locke is his judgment on America." Tempting as it may be to argue with Smith's claim, one only has to grant it to see the limits of his reading of Strauss. For contrary to what Reading Leo Strauss suggests, Strauss's judgment on Locke is anything but straightforward. Locke appears in a number of strikingly different guises in Strauss's writings, and it is only by seeing how Strauss's partial Lockes fit together to form a single whole that one could discern Strauss's "judgment on Locke."
In Natural Right and History one finds three distinct Lockes. The first is almost classical in character and conception (pp. 202-214). He teaches no characteristically modern doctrines. Moreover, he speaks and writes in a manner that closely resembles that of "the typical premodern philosopher" presented in Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing: a thinker can legitimately employ "cautious speech" to achieve a "noble work," to avoid persecution, and to help maintain public order. The central Locke is modern but moderate (214-234). And the third and final Locke is the famous modern revolutionary (234-251): the clear-eyed hedonist who set out to emancipate material acquisitiveness and, by so doing, almost single-handedly affected a moral revolution.
To discover Strauss's judgment on Locke one would have to consider, in addition, Strauss's other substantial treatment of Locke, the later essay "Locke's Doctrine of Natural Law." In reading the two side by side, one is bewildered by the disproportion between their respective conclusions. Natural Right's famous summary of Locke's teaching—"Life is the joyless quest for joy"—is perhaps the most dismissive sentence to be found in Strauss's writings. "Locke's Doctrine of Natural Law," however, concludes by elevating the English philosopher to almost the heights of philosophic understanding: "In quoting the beginning of that passage of the Nichomachean Ethics which deals with natural right, Locke apparently made a slip (112 n.3); he certainly understood the passage in exactly the same way in which it had been understood by Averroës." What is one then to make of Strauss's judgment on Locke?
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But if Pangle's and Smith's efforts to grapple with the question of how to read Strauss are incomplete, those of the Zuckerts are positively misleading. On no point are the Zuckerts more insistent than that Strauss did not write "esoterically"; indeed, they devote their central chapter—"The Man Who Gave Away the Secrets: On Esotericism"—to this contention. According to them, and their Strauss, avowed esotericism would be an absurdity: "Esoteric writing is a way, Strauss tells us, to convey secrets. The way to write esoterically is not to call attention to esotericism. One must announce one's esotericism esoterically." Had Strauss shared this view he would not have devoted the central chapter of Persecution and the Art of Writing to Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed, and especially to its general Introduction, in which Maimonides speaks emphatically about the kinds of secrets the Guide contains, even going so far as to inform the reader what kinds of contradictions he will encounter in its pages. Far from regarding avowed "esotericism" as an exercise in futility, Strauss highlighted Maimonides's open pronouncement of his literary practice.
"On the face of it," the Zuckerts argue, "Strauss would seem the anti-esoteric, not the devotee of esotericism in his own writings, despite his dictum that a man writes as he reads. This dictum applied to writers in the past who did not make esotericism centrally thematic to their writing and thereby preserved it as an option for themselves" (emphasis added). Had the Zuckerts quoted this "dictum" in context—or even provided a citation to it—their readers could judge for themselves whether its application was limited to writers of the past; but they do not. The statement occurs towards the outset of the concluding chapter of Persecution and the Art of Writing:
In order to know what degree or kind of exactness is required for the understanding of a given writing, one must therefore first know the author's habits of writing. But since these habits become truly known only through the understanding of the writer's work, it would seem that at the beginning one cannot help being guided by one's preconceived notions of the author's character. The procedure would be more simple if there were a way of ascertaining an author's manner of writing prior to interpreting his works. It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written. We may therefore acquire some previous knowledge of an author's habits of writing by studying his habits of reading. The task is simplified if the author in question explicitly discusses the right manner of reading books in general, or of reading a particular book which he has studied with a great deal of attention.
Not only does Strauss fail to restrict the application of his maxim to "writers in the past," as claimed by the Zuckerts, but he emphatically states it in the present tense.
Let me try to bring out more clearly what is lost by the failure to read Strauss with adequate care by making some observations on the widespread belief that Natural Right and History is Strauss's greatest book. To most scholars of Strauss it is almost an article of faith that his great work is Natural Right and History. So widespread is this opinion that one peruses the scholarship in vain for an argument justifying it. Thus Smith asserts that Natural Right and History is Strauss's "most important work." The Zuckerts speak of "Strauss's major work Natural Right and History," and throughout their book take it for granted that an essential part of Strauss's "return to the ancients" is his championing of "natural right." Is this common opinion true?
Strauss's method for ranking other writers' works can be profitably employed in ranking his work. In Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss employs Machiavelli's epistles dedicatory in order to demonstrate that the Prince and the Discourses on Livy were Machiavelli's two great works. Strauss pays minute attention to the author's brief and apparently offhand statements as to his motivations and reasons for writing the respective works. Strauss did not, of course, write epistles dedicatory. He did, however, at least for some of his books, write brief prefaces that speak to the status of the works themselves within Strauss's corpus. Consider the parallel prefaces to three books that originated as lecture series—Natural Right and History, Thoughts on Machiavelli, and The City and Man (1964).
At first glance all three prefaces seem inconsequential, little more than acknowledgments. On closer examination they reveal each book's respective rank in Strauss's corpus. Both Natural Right and Thoughts were originally presented as Walgreen lectures, and Strauss employs almost verbatim the same formulations in both to thank the Walgreen foundation for its sponsorship; the differences, however, deserve attention. In the original preface to Natural Right, Strauss thanks the foundation and its chair for "inducing me to present coherently my observations on the problem of natural right." The parallel in Thoughts thanks the foundation and its chair "for giving me the opportunity to present my observations and reflections on the problem of Machiavelli." Strauss had to be induced to present coherently his observations on the problem of natural right; it was not something he did, as it were, on his own accord. On the other hand, he needed no inducement to present his observations and reflections on the problem of Machiavelli; the Walgreen foundation simply afforded him with a convenient opportunity to do what he would have otherwise done. One might say that the two problems stand in the relation of necessity to choice, and "necessity and choice are related to each other as the low and the high." Natural Right is a bow to necessities imposed by his times; whereas with Thoughts Strauss freely seizes the opportunity to philosophize.
The preface from The City and Man indicates that that book stands somewhere in between Natural Right and Thoughts. There he expresses gratitude to the lectures' sponsor "for having given me the opportunity to develop my views on a rather neglected aspect of classical political thought more fully than I otherwise might have done." Though Strauss did not need to be induced to develop his views on this neglected aspect of classical political philosophy, he may not have done so without the opportunity in question.
Though Pangle does identify Natural Right and History as Strauss's most important book, he suggests that it is "his most synoptic work." Given that Natural Right seems to cover the entire ground from Homer to Strauss's day, this seems a reasonable enough description; but if one places it side by side with Persecution and the Art of Writing, one sees just how much Natural Right doesn't contain.
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Though Natural Right and Persecution were published within a year of one another, they seem to have little in common. Natural Right devotes only a handful of pages to the philosophic art of writing, and it has almost nothing to say about the medieval thinkers discussed in Persecution. Natural Right makes thematic "the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns." In Persecution Strauss focuses instead on the continuity of the philosophic tradition: the work's preface states that Spinoza, typically classed with the moderns, "has been called, not altogether wrongly, ‘the last of the medievals'"; and in the Introduction Strauss delineates a "tradition" of philosophic anticlericalism that elides the premodern-modern divide. In short, there is for Strauss what one may call a medieval complication to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, one that calls into question the adequacy of that distinction.
Strauss's understanding of the relation between pre-modern and modern thought is complicated even further by his infrequent statements on that theme in Persecution. The most basic of these occurs in the title essay, where Strauss suggests that the chief difference between the respective approaches stems from "what they think about popular education and its limits." Modern writers, generally speaking, "concealed their views only far enough to protect themselves as well as possible from persecution," whereas pre-modern authors held that "philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of ‘the few.'" Such men believed "that public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times." What then are we to think of such modern writers as Montesquieu or Machiavelli whose works by that standard clearly fall into the pre-modern camp? Strauss would not have written that "[w]hat Montesquieu's private thoughts were will always remain controversial"—and this in the concluding sentences of his chapter "Classic Natural Right"—if Montesquieu's artistry were of the "modern" variety.
Attending with care to Strauss's literary art is not, as The Truth about Leo Strauss asserts, a barren exercise in self-confirmation. Careful reading of a careful writer yields results that are reliable and often unexpected. Such results can—and at the outset should—be at once modest and far-reaching. If scholars had been aware of the relative ranks of Natural Right and History and Thoughts on Machiavelli as indicated by their respective prefaces (and confirmed by the works themselves), would not the scholarship on Strauss have a very different cast? And perhaps even a new character?
One cannot say that the interest in Strauss generated by the recent storm has thus far proven to be a boon to the understanding of his thought. Of the plethora of books either spawned by or coinciding with this controversy, only Heinrich Meier's outstanding Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem has shown a satisfactory awareness of the demands Strauss's literary artistry places on the reader. And those demands are considerable, for Strauss's artistry is at once graceful and perplexing. Though the books by Pangle and Smith stand far above that of the Zuckerts, none supplies a reliable guide that, by argument and example, can teach students how to begin to navigate the beautiful labyrinths that are Strauss's writings.