Commentary Magazine


Leo Strauss

To the Editor:

I write to express my appreciation for Milton Himmelfarb’s essay, “On Leo Strauss” [August 1974]. . . It is thoughtful, gracious, and altogether fitting, composed with a mixture of attentive respect and quesioning or doubt which I believe Strauss would have wished and which it seems to me we should all try to imitate. I was moved, and it seemed to me for all the right reasons.

Thomas Pangle
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

In his article, “On Leo Strauss,” Milton Himmelfarb writes that Strauss “forbade his students to have anything to do with [Heidegger].” Having been privileged to know Strauss for twenty-five years, I am almost certain that if he had done what Mr. Himmelfarb asserts him to have done, I would have heard of it; but in fact the very idea of it is amazing to me, and to others who knew him well. Could Mr. Himmelfarb say what evidence there is for attributing to Strauss so extraordinary a proscription?

There are several inaccuracies in this generally well-disposed appraisal (for example, in the bibliography, in Strauss’s professorial title at Chicago, in the reason for the “Mr.” in “Mr. Strauss”), but they are not serious. Rather more serious is a point contained in Mr. Himmelfarb’s reflection on Straussians and Straussianism. Noticing that there are manifest Straussians but that Straussianism is more elusive, he writes, “Perhaps the Straussians are constituted not so much by a unifying doctrine as by the direct personal influence of an extraordinary man,” Mr Himmelfarb’s conjecture is tentative and, as stated, is surely inoffensive. I am sensitive to it nonetheless because it is reminiscent of the charge, sometimes heard, that Strauss’s students fell under a “charismatic” influence. To themselves—and on the whole they are not less intelligent than their critics while invariably they are more familiar with Strauss than are those critics—it appears simply that they came under the influence of persuasive reasons. Mr. Himmelfarb’s formulation does not contradict this, and I mean neither to quarrel with what he said nor to insinuate that he meant more than he said, but only to express a hope that his untendentious conjecture will not be misunderstood.

Joseph Cropsey
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Milton Himmelfarb’s article does not set forth a clear description of Strauss’s position. . . .

Strauss, like many others, believed that the denial of natural right, although accurate, had had a disastrous political consequence, Nazism. His attempted solution to this most serious problem was a return to what he correctly identified as the position of Plato and other early political philosophers: the masses must be taught that natural right is real; only the most intelligent, who hopefully are also the most virtuous, can be allowed to find out that natural right is false. That is the covert message. The overt text is that natural right is real.

Mr. Himmelfarb writes that Strauss may be more favorably received now than he was in 1954. That is unlikely. In the wake of the President’s resignation, the appeal of a political philosophy of cover-up can be expected to be quite small.

David Schwartz
Glastonbury, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

I do not wish to take issue with Milton Himmelfarb on Leo Strauss, but on Hans Kelsen. . . . In Mr. Himmelfarb’s judgment Leo Strauss demolished Kelsen in “a blandly lethal footnote” on Kelsen’s leniency toward despotism. . . . Mr. Himmelfarb then proceeds to desecrate the corpse further through a procedure one might characterize as indictment by association, namely, by paralleling the moral standards of Kelsen with those of Heidegger. . . . But Kelsen, whose lifetime extended from laying the foundations of the Austrian Constitution in 1920 to suggesting during the closing years of World War II a covenant for a permanent organization to maintain world peace, is the very antithesis of Heidegger.

It seems the main target of both Mr. Himmelfarb’s and Strauss’s attack is Kelsen’s Algemeine Staatslehre (1925), which contains that ominous passage describing despotism as one form of government as legitimate as any other. . . .

Now the basic misapprehension about Kelsen as a philosopher of law is to assume that for him everything legal would also be equally moral and desirable. . . .

To Kelsen legality was certainly not an absolute value without reference to underlying morals. If everything Mr. Himmelfarb finds fault with in Kelsen’s legal relativism were true, one would not be able to find in Kelsen’s writings the proclamation of any self-evident truths, such as those laid down in the Declaration of Independence or elsewhere. But Kelsen said in his 1944 preface to The Pure Theory of Law: “There are truths which are so self-evident that they must be proclaimed again and again in order not to be doomed to oblivion. Such a truth is: that war is mass murder, the greatest disgrace of our culture.” . . .

I think the immense effort and the ethical concern Kelsen dedicated to the task of establishing world peace gives the real measure of the man. It is, of course, irrelevant to point out how many of Kelsen’s propositions actually entered into the framework of the United Nations. On a larger scale, Kelsen repeated here what in his younger years he had successfully accomplished for his homeland, Austria. . . .

If I were allowed to make a proposal to Mr. Himmelfarb—with whom I raise no issue other than my defense of Kelsen—it would be to rank this most creative spirit among the “founders” of whom he speaks so eloquently, instead of pairing him with a shady Nazi philosopher.

Erwin Adler
Seattle, Washington

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To the Editor:

In his article, “On Leo Strauss,” Milton Himmelfarb seems to overlook another basis for desiring equality and liberty. Granted that we have pretty much dropped the notion that a supreme Being endows us with these rights, it is still too much to say, as he does, that our current strong desire for such rights lacks “a reasoned basis,” that without belief in a Creator “we have nothing left,” and that we might therefore just as easily develop a liking for despotism.

For many individuals, myself among them, it is very plain that values arise from a concern for others and from respect for life, not from some outside source. We desire equality and liberty because we believe that these concepts when practiced ennoble human life. True, a democratic people without belief in “a Creator” could choose a lesser way of life, but this would only show its decline of vision, nothing more. In fact, we select a different kind of life simply because our independent human intellect perceives that equality and liberty mean freedom. . . .

I think Mr. Himmelfarb shows a species of contempt for the intellect of mankind by implying that it cannot find a good reason for preferring equality and liberty over despotism. After all, why did the authors of the Declaration of Independence pick the best instead of the worst for the new nation? Of course they invoked a Creator, but probably largely because the king of England considered himself close to God in power. By invoking the sanction of God, the authors were telling the king that a higher power was at work here.

Today, however, we no longer have any need to maintain such a position. . . . We do not require religious invocation for support of our desire to have equality and liberty.

Instead, we seek these rights because they result in the spread of humanism and freedom, whereas despotism tends to reduce the overall quality of life. Our natural reason can demonstrate this. And that is all we need to believe despotism worse than equality and liberty.

C. E. Burbee
Whittier, California

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To the Editor:

This is to express deep admiration for Milton Himmelfarb’s essay on Leo Strauss. I heard Mr. Strauss lecture at the University of Chicago, but never met him. The essay performs a very rare, difficult feat: it brings to life the craft of what must have been a great teacher. . . .

George Steiner
Churchill College
Cambridge, England

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Milton Himmelfarb writes:

I learned from a student of Strauss’s that Strauss ignored Heidegger’s overtures after the war. I also learned from him that, taking-leave of Strauss before going to Germany, he was told to avoid Heidegger. I assume that as the occasion arose, Strauss must have told others the same thing. As to the “charismatic” interpretation of Strauss’s influence, I said in so many words that it does not account for the second and third generations of Straussians.

For David Schwartz, let me recall the reason why I thought that Strauss might be more favorably received in 1974 than earlier: “. . . he was always skeptical of the fundamental modern project (as he called it), first set forth by Bacon: the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate. . . . In the last quarter of the 20th century the conquest of nature is less axiomatically desirable than Strauss could have imagined when he began to question the fundamental modern project.”

Erwin Adler stops short of giving us the passage from Kelsen’s Algemeine Staatslehre that Strauss quotes (Natural Right and History, p. 4, n. 2). Here it is, in English:

It is altogether senseless to assert that no legal order exists in a despotism, but that the despot’s arbitrary will holds sway . . . after all, the despotically ruled state, too. represents some sort of ordering of human behavior. . . . This ordering is, precisely, the legal order. To deny it the character of law is only an instance of the naivete or presumption of natural-right thinking. What is interpreted as arbitrariness is merely the autocrat’s legal ability to assume the power of making every decision . . . and to abolish or alter . . . previously established norms. . . . Such a condition is a legal one, even if felt to be disadvantageous. As a matter of fact, it also has its good points. This is shown quite clearly by the not at all unusual call for dictatorship in the modern stale ruled by law.

C. E. Burbee’s reconstruction of the Founding Fathers’ motive for invoking Nature’s God—to counter the God by Whose grace George was king—is imaginative. So is his central proposition: “our independent human intellect . . . the intellect of mankind . . . our natural reason . . . is all we need to believe despotism worse than equality and liberty.” I take it that his “intellect” is the same as his “natural reason,” but not the same as the “right reason” of the natural-law tradition. He must mean a high IQ. He must think, therefore, that Heidegger, the pro-Nazi “giant of contemporary thought,” had a low IQ—together with such other ninnies as Lenin, Trotsky, and Lukács.

Once, in COMMENTARY (November 1963) the late George Lichtheim admiringly described Alexandre Kojève as France’s leading Hegelian. The Cornell Paperbacks edition of Strauss’s On Tyranny includes Kojève’s response, “Tyranny and Wisdom” (as well as Strauss’s “Restatement . . .”). Kojève refuses to let “tyrant” and “tyranny” intimidate him. Toward the end of his essay he says: “. . . if the appearance of the reforming tyrant is inconceivable without the prior existence of the philosopher, the coming of the wise man must necessarily be preceded by the revolutionary political action of the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous State).” In its penultimate sentence, “Tyranny and Wisdom” affirms “the right of the statesman to select those of them [sc., the intellectuals’ theories] which he judges actualizable under the given circumstances and discard the rest—even ‘tyrannically.’” Strauss abhorred this sort of thing, but it did not occur to him to think Kojève stupid—or to think Hegel and Marx stupid, for that matter. It would be nice if Mr. Burbee’s confidence were warranted, and the clever were also, necessarily, the children of light.

Finally, let me correct a mistake. I said that Xenophon’s achievement and significance have always been seen as rather limited. Rather than “always,” I should have said “for the past two hundred years or so.”

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