Strauss, Leo

views updated May 18 2018


Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was the most influential political philosopher of the twentieth century as well as its most extraordinary teacher. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Kirchain, Hessen, Germany, on September 20. Strauss completed a doctorate at Hamburg in 1921 and immigrated to the United States in 1938. He taught at several American universities and attracted many gifted students. Their respect for his thought has led to those students being called disciples or Straussians. He died on October 18 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Philosophy and History

Like many scholars who left Germany in the 1930s, Strauss believed that a philosopher's work must be understood in the light of a political situation. Perhaps uniquely, he thought that all philosophers are in the same situation. Every regime, every society that sustains a government, is founded on certain shared opinions about what is noble and sacred, what is just, and what is in the common interest. Philosophers want to replace those cherished opinions with knowledge. This means that philosophy is by definition potentially subversive and is always likely to arouse the hostility of the regime. The story of Socrates' trial and execution is the best expression of this problem.

Strauss's view of philosophy is closely connected to his doctrine of esoteric writing, which is elaborated inPersecution and the Art of Writing (1952). When philosophers write books, they must take pains both to protect philosophy from the hostility of citizens and to protect political life from subversion by philosophy. Their complete teachings can be communicated only by hints and clues. For example, a philosopher may write in one place that nothing should be taken seriously unless it is founded on experience and write in another place that religion is not founded on experience; only an attentive reader will be able to tell how seriously the author takes religion.

Because he read philosophy in this way, Strauss rejected the historicism that was prevalent in his time. According to historicists, person-to-person communication is not possible across historical boundaries; it is necessary to study past thinkers as objects in their historical context rather than as persons trying to talk to their later readers. Strauss taught that it is possible to understand Aristotle as he understood himself, for at least in the respect discussed above his situation is not fundamentally different from that of his modern readers. Strauss's most important book, Natural Right and History (1953), presents a sustained challenge to historicism. It is likely that the title implies a challenge to the philosopher Martin Heidegger's (1889–1976) Being and Time (1927). For Strauss, it is possible to arrive at a grasp of being that is not radically dependent on the flow of history.

Quarrels in Philosophy

Philosophy is the desire for wisdom, not the possession of wisdom. It may never amount to more than a clear grasp of the most fundamental questions. Strauss organized those questions into a number of historical quarrels. One of the most important is that between Athens and Jerusalem. Jerusalem stands for the concept of biblical revelation: Everything human beings must know is revealed to them in God's law. Athens stands for reason: Human beings can find out what they want to know by means of relentless questioning. Strauss taught that this quarrel was the most important source of intellectual vitality in Western civilization. However, although Strauss wrote extensively about Jewish philosophy and theology, his students disagree about how seriously he took biblical revelation.

With the power of revelation fading in modern civilization, Strauss sought to revive another quarrel: the one between the ancients and the moderns. The ancient thinkers, classical and medieval, looked to an authority higher than the human (nature or God) as the standard of truth and justice and based their political teachings on duties and virtues. The moderns began with a more or less explicit rejection of ancient thought. They viewed humankind as independent of any higher authority and based their teachings on rights rather than duties and on frank appraisals of human nature. Strauss argued, against the scholarly orthodoxy, that classical political philosophy had to be taken seriously as an alternative to the modern version. It is not clear whether he believed that ancient thought is superior on the whole.

Political Philosophy and Science

Strauss did consider classical social science to be manifestly superior to its modern counterpart. Social science in Strauss's time aspired to be "value-free." It sought to explain social facts the way a physicist explains the momentum of particles, without contaminating the explanation with historically conditioned expectation or judgment. However, the clarity the scientific method secures for physics induces a dangerous blindness when it is applied to human things: "A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks of cancer cannot understand social phenomena for what they are" (Strauss 1991, p. 177). Classical social science recognized that human communities may flourish or fall victim to decay, and so it had something useful to say.

However, classical social science seems to rest on the strength of Strauss's analogy between the science of medicine and the sciences of politics and ethics. The physician not only can describe human biology but can prescribe remedies because medicine distinguishes what is naturally healthy from what is not. Can a knowledge of human nature similarly allow a philosopher to identify what is just and what is unjust, what saves and what destroys families and cities? The Platonists argued that it could, and Strauss refers to their teaching as classical natural right.

Classical natural right is concerned with articulating a hierarchy of natural ends. Thus, the perfection of human capacities, which the ancients called virtue, is primary and provision for survival, comfort, and freedom is secondary. Early modern political philosophy rejected the former and concentrated on the latter. That was largely a consequence of the rejection of Aristotelian teleology by modern science. Aristotle ascribed goals and purpose, or teloi, to nature. Modern thought recognizes only mechanical forces as natural; goals are products only of human will.

According to Aristotle, the issue between the mechanical and biological accounts of nature turns on how one interprets the motion of heavenly bodies. On this count the victory of modern science seems complete: There is no teleology on a cosmological scale. Because a value-free social science is useless, it becomes necessary to accept a dualism consisting of nonteleological physical sciences and social sciences that allow teleology. In a letter Strauss ascribes to Plato the view that this dualism cannot be reconciled. Strauss seems to have accepted this limitation for the most part, confining himself to political questions and largely ignoring not only modern natural science but classical biology and physics as well.

However, Strauss was choosing not the ancients over the moderns but Plato over Aristotle. Aristotle believed that biology could bridge the gap between "knowledge of inanimate [nature] and knowledge of man" (Strauss 1991, p. 279). His biology gives full weight to matter and momentum but recognizes a role for formal and teleological explanations. If Strauss had lived a bit longer, he would have witnessed some rehabilitation of Aristotle as a philosopher of biology, and that might have led him to reconsider the question.

Philosophy and Moderation

Although Strauss ignored contemporary science, he was attentive to its roots in modern thought. The early moderns proposed the unlimited conquest of nature for the purpose of the eventual satisfaction of all human desires. That project would include the conquest of human nature by some state, and that state would have to become universal and homogeneous if it were to eliminate all contradictions between states or between citizens. Such a state would need technologies of manipulation and coercion beyond any previously available to a government. Once the state accomplished its goal, perhaps it would whither away. Why would it be necessary to govern those whose every desire is satisfied?

However, if, as Strauss suspected, the complete satisfaction of human desires is impossible, the last state would in fact become a pervasive and immortal tyranny. This would mean the end of freedom and hence of philosophy. Strauss preferred Socratic philosophy to its modern counterpart at least insofar as it combined the pursuit of wisdom with moderation. It would be far better to settle for a decent form of government than to risk everything for one that is perfect. Of course, the philosopher will, because of the nature of this choice, be especially aware of its imperfections.

Accordingly, Strauss was both a supporter and a critic of modern liberal democracy. Although democracy is almost certainly the best viable form of government, Strauss had witnessed the weakness of the Weimar Republic in Germany and was concerned that a similar failure of nerve would affect Western democracies in their confrontation with communism. Moreover, democracy seemed problematic for philosophical reasons. Philosophers must stand apart from their fellow citizens and put more confidence in what reason tells them than in what the majority says. Philosophy is therefore elitist by necessity. Finally, because it is difficult to combine wisdom and political power, Strauss distrusted radical politics in any form. Anticommunism, elitism, and an insistence on political moderation have not endeared Strauss or the Straussians to their more orthodox colleagues in the universities.


SEE ALSO Aristotle and Aristotelianism;Democracy;Plato.


Deutsch, Kenneth L., and John Murley, eds. (1999). Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the Study of the American Regime. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Deutsch, Kenneth L., and Walter Soffer, eds. (1987). The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press. Includes essays by students and other persons influenced by Strauss. Especially interesting are a number of arguments about the meaning and depth of Strauss's allegiance to political interests in general and modern liberal democracy in particular.

Drury, Shadia. (1988). The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St. Martin's Press. This polemic is the best known critique of Strauss and his ideas. Drury sees no mysteries or ambiguities: Strauss was simply antiliberal.

Strauss, Leo. (1952). Persecution and the Art of Writing. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Strauss, Leo. (1953). Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Strauss's best known work; includes a critique of historicism and a profound exploration of classical and modern natural right.

Strauss, Leo. (1959). What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A good general collection of Strauss's essays.

Strauss, Leo. (1991). On Tyranny, rev. and expanded edition, including the Strauss-Kojève correspondence, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth. New York: Free Press. First published in 1963, this collection includes the famous debate between Strauss and the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève as well as their letters to each other. It may be the clearest introduction to Strauss's view of philosophy.

Strauss, Leo. (1997). Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Kenneth Hart Green. Albany: State University of New York Press. An excellent collection of essays on Jewish philosophy and theology, including the important "Jerusalem and Athens."

Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey, eds. (1987). History of Political Philosophy, 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. First edition, 1963; second edition, 1972. A collection of essays by Strauss and his students, with each essay focusing on a different political philosopher.

Leo Strauss

views updated May 23 2018

Leo Strauss

One of the most controversial thinkers of modern times, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), a German Jew, was a Socratic political philosopher. As he considered the civic duty of a Socratic to be to question and criticize reigning dogmas, he aroused bitter opposition from established academic and intellectual authorities.

Leo Strauss was born to a rural, orthodox family living in the village of Kirchhain in the province of Hesse, Germany, on September 20, 1899. He graduated from the Gymnasium Philippinum in Marburg in 1917 and served until the end of World War I in the German army of occupation in Belgium. With war's end, Strauss entered upon the study of mathematics, natural science, and, above all, philosophy at the Universities of Marburg, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, and Hamburg. In 1921 he received his doctorate from Hamburg, with a dissertation on the theory of knowledge of Friedrich Jacobi, written under the supervision of the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer.

By this time Strauss had moved far from his orthodox roots. But the shattering power of Nietzsche's critique of rationalism in all its forms led Strauss away from his initial philosophic position as a neo-Kantian and compelled him to acknowledge the as yet unmet challenge of religious faith. Strauss' subsequent encounter with Martin Heidegger and Franz Rosenzweig confirmed the deep inadequacy of Kantian thought. On the other hand, post-doctoral study under Edmund Husserl at Freiburg fueled Strauss' consuming need to seek the possibility of a "philosophy as rigorous science" that could withstand Nietzsche's great critique and meet the challenge posed by faith. Meanwhile, in his early twenties, if not before, Strauss became convinced of the political unviability of the existence of Jews in Germany and became an active leader of Zionist youth. He thus found himself in the grip of a total dilemma: he could not simply accept traditional Jewish faith but he could not find in modern rationalism (science) and in modern liberal society a foundation for moral and civic life. The mature Strauss came to see the problem of being a Jew as a clue to the insolubly problematic character of all political life.

The abiding theme of Strauss' mature philosophic reflection was what he called, following Spinoza, the "theologico-political problem." This problem has several facets. First and foremost is the question whether or not God exists, and, in the second place, what difference God's existence or nonexistence makes, above all for our understanding of justice or the common good. Does justice, and hence the good society, ultimately require divine support, and faith in that support, or is there a natural, purely rational basis for justice? Does justice rest ultimately on divine right and law; and, if so, how does one decide between the various competing religions; or, alternatively, does justice rest ultimately on natural right and law, and, if so, how does "philosophy as rigorous science" discover the principles of natural right? By insisting on these questions, Strauss set himself in radical opposition to almost all the reigning dogmas of the 20th century, which try to avoid or ignore or suppress these questions by such dodges as relativism, pragmatism, existential commitment, religious faith, or ideology of one sort or another, including uncritical acceptance of the basic norms of modern liberal-democratic culture.

To begin to deal with the theologico-political problem, the young Strauss undertook a study of the original foundations of modern science in the critique of religion carried out by Spinoza and Hobbes. As a research assistant in the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin (1922-1935), Strauss published his first book, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1930), and helped edit the collected works of Moses Mendelssohn. Dissatisfaction with Spinoza led Strauss back to Spinoza's great antagonist, Moses Maimonides, the preeminent exponent of Aristotelian and Platonic or classical rationalism in the Middle Ages. Through Maimonides and his Islamic philosophic teachers, especially Farabi, Strauss re-discovered what he came to believe to be the decisive superiority of classical rationalism as epitomized in Socrates and the Socratic way of life. Strauss' second book, Philosophy and Law (1935), announced this discovery to the world and set the agenda for all Strauss' subsequent work, elaborated in some 13 other books, the most important of which are Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953), The City and Man (1963), and Xenophon's Socratic Discourse (1970).

When the Third Reich began persecuting Jews Strauss found refuge from the Nazis first in France and England and finally in the United States, where he settled permanently in 1937. He was professor of political philosophy at the New School for Social Research from 1938 to 1949, and then at the University of Chicago from 1949 until 1967. In America he mounted a searing critique of relativistic social science and of democratic dogmatism. He insisted, in his words, that "precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy we cannot be its flatterers." The highest civic duty of the Socratic, he insisted, was to criticize the reigning dogmas, and in a liberal democracy this means the duty to criticize democracy, liberalism, individualism, and egalitarianism. Like Socrates, he aroused, and continues to arouse even after his death, bitter opposition from all established academic and intellectual authorities. He was an extraordinarily influential teacher and left behind scores of students, numbering in the hundreds and perhaps thousands, some of whom are prominent and influential not only in the university but in journalism and the national government.

Further Reading

For an introduction to Strauss, see Thomas Pangle, editor, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (1989) and the "epilogue" to Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, editors, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd edition (1987). Strauss' autobiographical essay was published as the preface to the English translation of Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1965). □

Strauss, Leo

views updated May 23 2018


STRAUSS, LEO (1899–1973), philosopher and political scientist. Born in Germany, Strauss began his association with the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin in 1925, and ended it with Hitler's rise to power. On arriving in the U.S. he taught at the New School for Social Research, New York, from 1938 to 1949, and then joined the University of Chicago, where he was professor of political science until 1968.

Strauss's scholarship encompasses the tradition of Western political philosophy. Of particular interest is his work on the reception and adaptation of Greek philosophy by medieval Jewish and Muslim writers. He sees the most profound and intransigent confrontation as that between Athens and Jerusalem, between philosophic doubt and faith. In examining that conflict he studies ancient and modern texts with a presumption of their vitality, seriousness, and thoughtful composition. His wish to understand past authors as they understood themselves – explicit even in his earliest books, Die Religionskritik Spinozas (1930; Spinoza's Critique of Religion, 1965), and Philosophie und Gesetz (1935) – led him to investigate carefully those philosophers' manner of writing. Strauss revived the distinction (familiar from antiquity until the 19th century) between exoteric and esoteric speech – public orthodoxy, be it political or religious, and private heterodoxy. Through studies of Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza in Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), he explicates the art of "writing between the lines" by illustrating the art of reading between the lines. In teaching and writing, Strauss has used these arts to restate for contemporaries the insights and relevance of classical political philosophy against prevailing modes of thought, and has attempted to state a systematic political philosophy in defense of classical natural law. In doing so he has rendered problematic much that was noncontroversial, because unexamined, in modern political science.

The range of Strauss's general and Jewish scholarship is shown in his On Tyranny (1948, 1963); Natural Right and History (1953); Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958); What Is Political Philosophy? (1959); his introduction to Pines' translation of Maimonides' Guide (1963); Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (1968). His writings are listed in J. Cropsey, Ancients and Moderns (1964), 317–22.


Momigliano, in: Rivista Storica Italiana, 79 (1967), 1164–72.

[Ralph Lerner]