On Leo Strauss
LEO STRAUSS died in October 1973, at the age of seventy-four. His name is known chiefly to two groups of scholars whose interests do not normally converge, political scientists and specialists in medieval Jewish thought. For political scientists he was the man who challenged what “everyone” knew was the first requirement of science-that it should be, in Max Weber’s language, wertfrei, value-free. A scientist-an astrophysicist, say-does not ask whether the things or processes or relationships he studies are good or bad, noble or base, desirable or undesirable. A social scientist is a scientist. He has a choice: on the one hand, objectivity, freedom from or neutrality about values, science; on the other, subjectivity, value preferences, not science. When, inevitably, the scientist thinks of good and bad, he thinks of them not as a scientist but as a human being, or citizen.
To the scientific study of politics Strauss opposed the philosophical study of politics. He had no objection to empirical political science-the study of voting preferences, for instance, and similar humble but useful inquiries. It was against social or political science understood as value-free that he waged battle. He held that what the social or political scientist studies is so entangled with good and bad, better and worse, that value-freeness is impossible. All social scientists deal with values, only some social scientists know they do and others do not know, or say they do not know. Since the ancients taught this, and since the moderns have obscured or denied it, the beginning of wisdom-not the end, the beginning-is to take the ancients seriously again, to entertain the possibility that they were not defeated once and for all in the 17th-century war of the moderns against the ancients. Strauss did not persuade anything like a majority of his profession, but his followers include a number of impressive people. For them, it was he who restored political philosophy from death to life. Beyond that, for them he was a great political philosopher in his own right. Among themselves his followers rank him if not quite so high as Plato and Aristotle, then at least as high as Locke or Burke.
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