‘Reading Leo Strauss’
Steven B. Smith
NYTimes, June 25, 2006The essays contained in this volume are all intended as a contribution to the understanding of the philosophy of Leo Strauss. They do not purport to provide a comprehensive overview of Strauss’s life and work, much less an evaluation of the influence of his teaching and the creation of a school of political thought bearing his name. They do attempt to examine what I consider the central and most enduring theme of Strauss’s legacy, namely, what he called the “theologico-political problem,” which he also referred to metaphorically by the names Jerusalem and Athens.Who was Leo Strauss? Strauss was a German-Jewish émigré, the product of the pre-World War I Gymnasium who studied at several universities, finally taking his doctorate at Hamburg in 1921. He was a research assistant at an institute for Jewish research in Berlin before leaving Germany in 1932 to settle first in England and later in the United States, where he taught principally at the New School for Social Research in New York and later the University of Chicago. It was during his period in Chicago that Strauss had his greatest influence. He was, by most accounts, a compelling teacher, and like all good teachers everywhere he attracted students, many of whom came to regard themselves as part of a distinctive school. By the time of his death in 1973 Strauss had written (depending on how one counts them) more than a dozen books and around one hundred articles and reviews.Strauss’s works were highly controversial during his own lifetime. When he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago he was the author of two books published in Germany that were long out of print: a slim monograph on the political philosophy of Hobbes, and an even briefer commentary on a minor dialogue by Xenophon. The future trajectory of his life’s work would by no means have been obvious. In the autumn of 1949 he gave a series of lectures under the auspices of the Walgreen Foundation, titled Natural Right and History, that was to set his work on a new and distinctive path. It was, literally, his way of introducing himself to the world of American social science from the seat of a major university. The book of the same title was published four years later, in 1953. What exactly did Strauss set out to do?
Strauss offered a deliberately provocative account of what might be called the “modernity problem” that had been widely debated in prewar European circles, but which was still relatively unknown to Americans of that era. Prior to Strauss, the most important current of twentieth-century American political thought was John Dewey’s “progressivism.” Against the view that the advance of science, especially the modern social sciences, was bringing about the progressive triumph of freedom and democracy, Strauss rang an alarm bell. Strauss argued by contrast that the dynamics of modern philosophy and Vertfrei, or value-free social science, were moving not toward freedom and well-being but to a condition he diagnosed as nihilism. In Strauss’s counternarrative of decline, the foundations of constitutional government as understood by the American framers were gradually being sapped and eroded by the emergence of German-style historicism according to which all standards of justice and right are relative to their time and place. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy
Catherine and Michael Zuckert
Chicago, University of Chicago, 2006
The below is an excerpt from the book
Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington?
A specter is haunting America, and that specter is, strange to say, Leo Strauss. Dead more than thirty years by now, Strauss was a self-described scholar of the history of political philosophy. He produced fifteen books and many essays on his subject. Although well known and very controversial within his discipline, he never achieved public fame. For example, during his lifetime he was not reviewed in places like the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books. He was not accorded the kind of public notice that other philosophic figures of our age, such as Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, or Richard Rorty, acquired. Although Strauss’s books covered a broad range of topics in the history of philosophy—ancients like Plato and Xenophon; medievals like the Arab philosopher al Farabi, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, and the Christian philosopher Marsilius of Padua; and moderns like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Heidegger—he gained little acclaim because nearly his entire corpus consisted of studies of figures from the history of philosophy and because he himself therefore rarely spoke out in his own name on issues of political life.
Moreover, the character of his studies had limited appeal; they were distant from the concrete issues of politics. He wrote detailed, almost Talmudic interpretative studies, dedicating more space to questions like how often Machiavelli cited the Roman historian Livy than to the substantive discussion of Machiavelli’s principles of realpolitik. Such interpretative practices not only excluded Strauss from that broader public recognition attained by an Arendt—whose shared interest in the history of philosophy did not prevent her from pronouncing on issues like the Vietnam War—but it also cut into the acceptance of his work within the more specialized scholarly community to which it appeared to be primarily addressed. Many scholars found his books nearly unreadable, and many others considered them so drastically misguided in their substantive readings of the history of philosophy that he was often dismissed by fellow scholars as an eccentric or, worse, as a willful and distortive interpreter of the philosophic tradition.
Thus, James Atlas observes that “Strauss’s work seems remote from the heat of contemporary politics. He was more at home in the world of Plato and Aristotle than in debates about the origins of totalitarianism.” Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet point out that “Strauss never wrote about current politics or international relations. He was read and recognized for his immense erudition about Greek classical texts, and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sacred writings. He was honored for the power of his interpretive methods.” “Strauss,” two other commentators conclude, “did not write books in such a way as to be immediately relevant to the policy debates of his day or ours. Rather the reverse.” Nearly a decade ago, Richard Bernstein wrote a piece about Strauss titled “A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero).” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
What Was Leo Strauss Up To?
Steven Lenzner & William Kristol
National Affairs, Fall 2003
The only way to begin to understand Leo Strauss’s political thought is by studying his writings. This may seem a simple rule of common sense. Yet a glance at the current controversy over Strauss’s supposed influence on contemporary American politics and foreign policy suggests that this rule is easily ignored. The controversy turns on a legitimate question: “What was Strauss up to?”–or, more precisely, “What was Strauss’s intention?” But it would be misleading to attempt to understand Strauss by ascribing to him an influence, whether beneficial or nefarious, on current policy debates, and then inferring from the alleged influence what his aims really were. It makes far more sense to turn first to Strauss himself–that is, to his writings–in order to understand his political teaching. Then one might evaluate his intentional as well as inadvertent influence on today’s policy debates.
Strauss was born in Germany in 1899 and settled in the United States in the late 1930s. He taught at several schools, most notably the University of Chicago. By the time of his death in 1973, he had written 15 books, most of which comment on the great texts of political philosophy, including the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Locke. But Strauss did not restrict himself to the narrow road of a single discipline: His works include interpretations of Thucydides’ history, Aristophanes’ comedies, and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Successful as Strauss was as a teacher, it is above all his books–works such as “Natural Right and History” (1953), “Thoughts on Machiavelli”(1958), and “Socrates and Aristophanes” (1966)–that constitute his legacy. His extraordinary body of work makes Strauss more than just one learned voice among many in scholarly debates, worthy of respect perhaps, but not serious engagement. Indeed, it is no doubt some vague sense of Strauss’s status as a thinker that has aroused so much passion both in and out of the academy. His thought is of such a character that it defies indifference.
Strauss set himself a remarkable task: the revival of Western reading, and therefore, of philosophizing. Strauss claimed that he had rediscovered “a forgotten kind of writing,” and that for almost two centuries the proper manner of reading the greatest works of the past had apparently disappeared. If Strauss in fact rediscovered the art of writing, then he made possible the revival of Western letters. If Strauss’s work is sound, he made it possible for us today to appreciate great books in the spirit and manner in which they were written. And the almost universal vehemence with which his rediscovery was initially denounced and ridiculed by the scholarly world demonstrated just how completely this art had been lost. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides: Kenneth Hart Green: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013
Reviewed by Daniel Rynhold
Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Oct. 17, 2015
When studying individuals from the history of philosophy, scholars can either analyze their subjects in historical context at the expense of contemporary relevance or approach their subject as a philosophical interlocutor, anachronistically plundering the text for its significance to their own concerns. While each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, for decades those working in the field of Jewish philosophy were firmly ensconced in the first camp, focusing on the history of ideas almost to the exclusion of any consideration of their conceptual worth.
Moses Maimonides figured more prominently than any other individual in this scholarship, and no one is more responsible for revivifying the academic study of Maimonides in the twentieth century than Leo Strauss, who prima facie approached it in precisely the historical mode that so dominated the field. Yet, in his latest monograph, Kenneth Hart Green, one of the foremost contemporary Strauss scholars, argues that rather than reading Strauss on Maimonides as “an achievement of historical scholarship,” we should instead see him as “primarily and perhaps most significantly, a thinker . . . [and] only secondarily a historical scholar, albeit a masterly one” (87). While his two dominant and intimately connected questions, therefore, are “Who was Strauss’s Maimonides?” and “Who was Strauss?”, in this impressive and tightly-written book, Green similarly engages philosophical questions of import in the course of his own historical study.
According to Green, Strauss’s approach to the medievals was “almost unprecedented, certainly peculiar, and surely singular for a modern scholar,” (94) in its insistence that the greatest of thinkers, such as Maimonides, “attain a view of things that is never entirely limited, as most of us are, to our time and place” (42). Green’s main argument is that Strauss’s initial search for the historical Maimonides would result in the unanticipated discovery of a philosopher who could help him find a way through his own modern dilemmas. Methodologically, therefore, in a challenge to the either-or of my opening sentence, Green argues that for Strauss, to understand great thinkers historically is to understand that they believed that they were searching for the truth, for the answers to perennial philosophical questions. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy (1954): YouTube, Apr 23, 2019 — Leo Strauss gives a 1954 talk entitled “What Is Political Philosophy?”. After distinguishing political philosophy from various other things, professor Strauss goes on to discuss challenges to the very possibility of political philosophy from the side of positivism and historicism (relativism).
Harvey Mansfield on Leo Strauss and the Straussians: Conversations with Bill Kristol, YouTube, May 10, 2015 — Harvey Mansfield discusses the political philosopher Leo Strauss and the school of philosophy he founded.
UnCommon Core | Leo Strauss on Liberal Education: YouTube, University of Chicago, Aug 4, 2011 — n 1959, Leo Strauss delivered a commencement address to the University’s Basic Program entitled, “What Is Liberal Education?
Stephen Harper, Leo Strauss, and the Politics of Fear: Scott Staring, Center for International Policy Studies, May 2015 — This paper compares the political ideas of Stephen Harper and the controversial philosopher, Leo Strauss. It focuses specifically on these thinkers’ shared fear of the United Nations, using Strauss’ more penetrating and systematic thought to clarify the deeper assumptions underlying Harper’s attitude toward the institution.
Historicism and Revelation in Emil Fackenheim’s Self-Distancing from Leo Strauss: Martin D. Yaff, Semantics Scholar — In what follows, I look at the strictly philosophical component in Emil Fackenheim’s Jewish thought.1 I ask: What does Fackenheim say we need to know—or can in principle come to know—about God and the world and human beings by our own unaided efforts, as distinct from what we are told or seem to be told about these things by the Torah or by Jewish tradition? In other words, what are his strictly philosophical views, as opposed to his Jewishly derived or Jewishly inspired views?
Interview with Victor Gourevitch April 25, 2011: Stephen Gregory: This is Stephen Gregory sitting with Victor Gourevitch, the William Griffin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. We’re here at the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. Victor, welcome.
This week’s Communiqué Isranet is Communiqué: Quelles sont les implications des élections américaines pour Israël et la région?