An overview of Leo Strauss by two of his former students who reject the widespread conception that Strauss was a conservative or reactionary whose ideas derived from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Instead, they assert that Strauss’ animating idea was for a return to the ancients, since the relativism and, ultimately, the nihilism of modernity undermined the possibility not just of politics but of philosophy itself.
Strauss’s Philosophical Project
From reading the popular press (or, to speak more precisely, semipopular press) like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books in the thirty-some years since Strauss’s death, one would think that he had attained prominence in the United States primarily as a conservative political ideologue. Although he was a Jew who emigrated from Germany to flee the National Socialists, Strauss has even been castigated as a Nazi. Despite the portrayal of Strauss as the intellectual source of the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush administration, he said and wrote very little about American politics. He did express his opinion that liberal democracy was much better than the totalitarian alternatives confronting it in the twentieth century; but as an émigré, he often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics. Also, his chief concerns lay elsewhere, with the question of the character and fate of philosophy. “He rarely left the esoteric world of high thought, preferring to construct a history of political philosophy.” And that, we maintain, is where Strauss’s significance primarily lies. He presented a novel diagnosis of what is often called the crisis of the West but which could also be dubbed the end of philosophy.
He tried not merely to revive but to reform this distinctive form of intellectual activity, which, he argued, defines Western civilization. Strauss’s signature idea was his call for a return to the ancients, his appeal for a reconsideration and reappropriation of the political philosophy of the classics: the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and so on—a group of writers Strauss thought of as “Socratics” because they followed the path of thought opened up by Socrates. Strauss did not begin with a commitment to ancient philosophy, although, as his youthful attachment to Plato indicates, he was seized by an admiration for them, or at least for Plato, from an early age. It was only when he was well along in life, sometime in his thirties, that Strauss concluded that a return to the ancients was both possible and desirable. Like most German students of philosophy of his day, he began as a student of modern philosophy. Having studied with Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, Strauss met and came to admire Martin Heidegger, who later became the founder of existentialism. He also read Friedrich Nietzsche very seriously in his younger days. His attempt to return to the ancients represented a break not only with these particular thinkers, but with modern philosophy in its entirety.
The important story about Strauss is the story of his call for this return—how he came to formulate it as a philosophic project, what he saw to be the barriers to such a return (barriers that made the very idea of return unthinkable to most of his contemporaries), what he meant by calling for return, and what the chief consequences of his call for return were. His main impetus for returning to the ancients was a growing dissatisfaction with the various manifestations of modern philosophy, including dissatisfaction with the great modern critics of modern philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In response to that dissatisfaction, he came to a new or at least very untraditional understanding of the ancients; he rediscovered an older and very nonstandard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy. It also opened up an understanding of ancient philosophy that was immune to the critiques to which it had been subjected by modern thinkers, from Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to Heidegger in the twentieth. Their criticism of ancient philosophy failed, he came to believe, because they never understood correctly the doctrines they were criticizing. The ancients to whom Strauss wanted to return were thus very different from the ancients as depicted in the textbooks.
The first and perhaps chief consequence of Strauss’s recovery of the ancients was therefore a reconceiving of the entire philosophic tradition. Not only did he come to understand the classics differently from the way they had been understood, but he also radicalized a commonplace distinction between ancients and moderns. With the emergence of modern philosophy, Strauss believed, there had occurred a cataclysmic break with the older philosophy, a break of such magnitude that all that came after was simply a working out of the implications of that break. In the Straussian frame, the difference between ancients and moderns became decisive; Strauss sided with the ancients and traced the ills of modern philosophy and many of the ills of modern politics to that break with ancient philosophy and the consequences of that break.
Part of Strauss’s new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, of politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. Another way to formulate Strauss’s signature doctrine, then, is as a call for the rebirth of political philosophy. In this reborn political philosophy, a philosophy that took its bearings from Socrates, not Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss believed he had discovered a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics). The reconceptualization of the philosophic tradition was thus to be at the same time a reorientation of thinking about politics. Strauss’s project was, to say the least, ambitious.
Although Strauss has recently become famous, if not infamous, the world was slow to take notice of him. One reason the significance of Strauss’s work is only now coming to be properly or truly appreciated in the United States is that many American intellectuals became aware of the arguments against which he positioned himself, in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger, only after Strauss’s death. Living and writing in America, Strauss wanted to respond to Heidegger, but he did not want to propagate Heidegger’s thought by explicating his turgid prose. As a Jew who had fled Hitler’s Germany, Strauss was all too aware of the unsavoury political associations of Heidegger’s Nazi-sympathizing thought. Strauss therefore directed his arguments against what he called “radical historicism,” by which he meant Heidegger. Few of his American readers understood whom or what Strauss actually had in mind.
Strauss’s Departure from Heidegger and Nietzsche
Strauss opposed Heidegger, at least in part, because, as he saw it, he and Heidegger had begun with the same philosophical problem or source—the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche. In classes at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, Strauss suggested that the best introduction to Heidegger’s thought was to be found in his lectures on Nietzsche, first published in German in 1962. Whereas most others would look to Being and Time, Strauss thought Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche was most revealing of Heidegger’s project.
Strauss himself had been enthralled at an early age with the author he had read furtively in gymnasium. Indeed, Nietzsche exercised a powerful intellectual influence on him for quite some time. In a letter he wrote to Karl Loewith in 1935, Strauss stated that “Nietzsche so dominated me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him.” By the time he wrote to Loewith, however, Strauss had discovered that he agreed with Nietzsche only in part. Like Nietzsche, Strauss “wanted to repeat antiquity . . . at the peak of modernity.” Like Nietzsche, that meant, Strauss wanted to revive a truly noble form of human existence. But Strauss had come to believe that the polemical character of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity had prevented him from realizing his intention. Strauss came, moreover, to have a very different notion of the peak of antiquity, or the most noble form of human existence. Whereas Nietzsche praised blond beasts and Caesar with the soul of Christ, Strauss tried to revive Platonic political philosophy and the Platonic hero, Socrates, who was not a great favorite of Nietzsche’s. In contrast to Nietzsche, Strauss never praised ancient generals and statesmen such as Pericles or Caesar, nor their modern imitators such as Napoleon. He wanted to revive ancient political philosophy, not ancient politics.
Strauss came to question not only the adequacy of Nietzsche’s understanding of the ancients, but also his analysis of the modern crisis. The date at which Strauss says that he ceased to believe everything he understood of Nietzsche coincides roughly with the publication of his own first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1930). Strauss’s study of Spinoza led him to conclude that the early rationalist modern critics of scriptural religion had failed in their effort to prove that revelation was false, because revelation had never claimed to rest on, or be available to, human reason; and human reason had never been able to generate a comprehensive account of the whole that left no room for the biblical God. “If one wished to refute orthodoxy,” Strauss maintained, “there remained no other way but to attempt to prove that the world and life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of an unfathomable God. . . . Man had to establish himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of his life; the world created by him had to erase the world merely ‘given’ to him.” Merely showing, as Spinoza had done, that statements in the Bible were contradictory or anachronistic did not prove that they were not the word, or accurate depictions of the acts, of an omnipotent and unfathomable God. To show that miracles were impossible, modern rationalists had to give a systematic explanation of everything that had occurred or could occur. Unable to do so, Enlightenment thinkers had attempted by means of mockery “to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or by reason.” By the twentieth century modern rationalism in the combined form of natural science, progressive politics, and industrial technology had shown that it could not describe or remake the world in completely rational form. In Nietzschean terms, Strauss’s study of Spinoza had convinced him that God was by no means necessarily or evidently dead, either as a philosophically disposed-of entity, or as an object of human attachment and belief.
Nietzsche had insisted that the denial of God was a requirement of intellectual honesty, or probity, which, he thought, was our last virtue. Probity constituted a kind of spiritual courage or, in Heideggerian terms, resolution to face the utter meaninglessness of human life and the world. But, Strauss objected in his 1935 book Philosophy and Law, if the world is utterly meaningless, if there is no truth, then there is no basis for Nietzsche’s obligation to declare it or to live by it. According to Nietzsche, the intellectual probity that required him to posit and declare that God is dead was a product of the Christian conscience turning against itself. However, Strauss again pointed out, if there is no God, there is no ground or reason to have, or to listen to, such a conscience. Nietzsche’s own philosophy was based on the same scripturally derived morality he himself had declared to be invalid once the ground of that morality, faith in God, was eroded. Strauss thus attempted to move beyond Nietzsche, for Nietzsche’s philosophy was paradoxically grounded or generated by the very commitments he renounced. Nietzsche was, in this sense, deeply incoherent.
The antagonism to religion characteristic of modern philosophy that Nietzsche had made manifest was not a result simply of the demands of reason, Strauss concluded. The late modern philosophical critique had established, if anything, the limits of reason, and that conclusion made even more incredible the claims of reason to disprove revelation. Rather than constituting a logical conclusion, modern philosophical atheism rested on an act of will. Modern philosophers, even those prior to Nietzsche, had insisted that there was no superhuman, independently existing order or source of morality, because they wanted to improve the human condition. To improve that condition significantly, Strauss maintained, they thought it would be necessary to manipulate nature, even to transform it entirely. But nature would not and could not be manipulated so long as it was regarded as the product of a divine creation. To remake the world, modern thinkers were led to deny the Creator God.
Strauss thus began to suspect, as Heidegger was to argue later, that the core or essence of modern philosophy was technological. But, whereas Heidegger argued that the technological grasp of beings was a necessary result of a fateful dispensation of “Being” itself, Strauss saw it to be the result of a fateful choice. The crisis of modernity was not so much scientific in origin as it was moral and political. The modern attempt to improve and elevate human life threatened to end, as Nietzsche had so powerfully shown, in the utter degradation of human life in the “last man” or in mass society. Once human beings ceased to recognize any superhuman goals or standards by which their efforts could be judged, they stopped striving for anything beyond comfortable self-preservation. As a consequence, their lives lost all nobility. The early modern political philosophers had made the acquisition of power a means to the end of relieving the general human condition; the acquisition of virtue was no longer viewed as an end in itself, and the ancient conception of human excellence as the form of human life worth living had been lost.
Strauss’s Analysis of the Contemporary Crisis
The point of departure for Strauss’s call for a return to the ancients was the congeries of ill effects of modernism that he called “the crisis of our time.” The crisis was both announced and partly provoked by Nietzsche and his successors such as Heidegger. As Strauss understood it, the crisis was constituted by the triumph of “radical historicism,” which he thought to be ultimately another name for nihilism. Radical historicism was radical not merely in reductively insisting that all thought reflected its age, or that no thought could escape the limitations inspired by its historical situation. It was radical also in denying that there were any permanent realities whatever. The consequences of this denial were very grave, Strauss thought. On the one hand, there was the contention we now identify with postmodernism: the denial of “foundations” for knowledge or truth. That denial meant the end of philosophy as it was known from Thales to the twentieth century. The “end of philosophy” meant the replacement of the quest for truth with the positing of conventions, or the consensus of “communities” of “knowers,” or mysterious dispensations of fate, or poetry, or pragmatic effectiveness as the measure of a “truth” that could only be written in quotation marks. On the other hand, Strauss thought, the “crisis of our time” was more narrowly political and moral; because it heralded the “end of philosophy,” it also produced a deep-going relativism, denying the possibility of trans-historical truth with respect to moral phenomena. The loss of faith in moral and political truth had two apparently opposite but intimately connected and unfortunate consequences, as Strauss saw it. One was that it encouraged a kind of decisionism, such as is found in many continental philosophic movements of the twentieth century, existentialism for example. In the face of the groundlessness of moral and political choice, what counts is “commitment,” the decision itself, not the substance of what is decided for. Intrinsic merits of political and moral choices were held to be beyond debate: justice, moderation, and sobriety, traits once held to be sine qua nons of responsible action, were not merely no longer favored; they were positively disfavored as signs of lukewarmness or weakness of will. Understanding them to be responding in this way to “the crisis of our time,” Strauss was not surprised to see great thinkers at the “end of philosophy,” like Heidegger, support Hitler and the Nazis.
The other political and moral outcome of radical historicism was loss of faith in any moral truths and the adoption of a passionless lack of commitment to anything but toleration. Strauss never denied that toleration was a virtue, but he shared, in this case, Nietzsche’s revulsion against the “last man,” who said “we invented happiness” but who knew nothing of striving, of the search for excellence, of sacrifice or commitment to anything beyond reality T.V. or Monday Night Football. This lack of commitment, which Strauss’s student Allan Bloom called “flatness,” not only emptied human life of its higher callings, but also endangered the societies that fell prey to it, because life poses challenges not well met by those who look no further than comfort and entertainment.
Strauss came to see that this crisis, in both its philosophical and its political aspects, derived from modern philosophy’s great act of rebellion against classical philosophy and biblical religion. The founders of modernity, thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, set mankind on a path that, via an almost inexorable dialectic, produced the end of philosophy and the “last man” as announced and diagnosed by Nietzsche. If modernity was at the bottom of the problem, then, Strauss concluded, the proper response was a retreat or a return to premodernity. Strauss’s first efforts at return were to call for a return not to the ancients themselves, but to the “medieval enlightenment,” as developed by the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, to whom he paid abiding and recurrent attention throughout his long scholarly career. Strauss’s turn to Maimonides proved, however, to be a step on his way to Plato and Socrates.
—from Catherine H. Zuckert, Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, (2006), pp 30-36.