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Reading Leo Strauss by Steven B. Smith

Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism
by Steven B. Smith
Chicago. 256 pp. $32.50

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) led a quiet life. A Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he taught political philosophy first at the New School for Social Research in New York City and then, until his retirement, at the University of Chicago. Though he made a great impression on his students and provoked much controversy among his colleagues, Strauss never addressed the broader public and rarely commented on public policy. In his lifetime, he was not deemed newsworthy, nor did he seek to be so.

Not all scholars find tranquil graves, however, and lately Strauss has enjoyed an astounding notoriety. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, and other leading publications at home and abroad have charted his alleged influence on key figures in the Bush administration. When the left-wing actor Tim Robbins staged an off-Broadway play about the war in Iraq, the villain whose portrait hovered over the stage was none other than Strauss. He is the supposed mastermind of what his critics understand by “neoconservatism”—critics, it must be said, who have seldom read any of his dense, erudite books.

Into this barrage of allegations steps Steven B. Smith of Yale, an authority on the history of political thought. Though Smith is too young to have known Strauss, he did study with Straussians (as Strauss’s students tend to be called). Smith knows that Straussians come in many varieties, and he rejects the notion that they represent some kind of conspiracy. His own aim is at once theoretical and political: to demonstrate not just that Strauss was no reactionary, as his detractors contend, but that he was a committed friend of modern liberal democracy. As Smith puts it, he wishes to show that “there is such a thing as Straussian liberalism.”

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In keeping with the basic divide in Strauss’s own work, Smith separates his book into two large sections—“Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The first of these concerns Strauss’s engagement with the Jewish tradition. The product of a household that was religiously observant but not learned, he was a profound (if controversial) interpreter of Jewish thought, as well as a commentator on Jewish issues.

At a practical level, Strauss focused his attention on what he called the “Jewish problem”—the problem, that is, of being a Jew in the modern world. In a chapter on Strauss’s rich relationship with Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, Smith shows that both men rejected assimilation as a solution to the dilemmas faced by their fellow Jews in Weimar-era Germany. For both, the answer most compatible with safety and self-respect lay not in accommodation with modern Europe but in Zionism, which Strauss embraced as a young man and staunchly supported throughout his life, even if, in contrast to Scholem, he declined to move to Palestine/Israel.

Still, to Strauss’s mind, Zionism was not a satisfactory solution to the “Jewish problem.” Noble and necessary as it was, it could never settle the deeper issue—namely, how to reconcile religious tradition itself with the claims of modernity. As Strauss put it, “finite, relative problems can be solved; infinite, absolute problems cannot be solved.” The “Jewish problem” was infinite because, ultimately, it concerned the question of man’s relationship to God.

Strauss rejected the notion, common among secularists, that modern thought had succeeded in refuting religious orthodoxy. Revelation, for him, remained reason’s rival, an abiding alternative to the arrangements of secular society. Though he devoted much of his prodigious interpretive talent to the writings of Spinoza, the first and greatest partisan of the atheistic Enlightenment, Strauss thought that modern philosophy had achieved at most a stand-off in its confrontation with the biblical tradition. By his lights, the sharpest insight into the tension between revelation and reason could still be found in the work of Maimonides, who in the 12th century had made the defense of Judaism his first priority even while acknowledging the power and reach of Aristotelian thought.

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As Smith demonstrates in turning to “Athens,” Strauss was preoccupied not just with reason’s limits but with the tendency of modern rationalism to devour itself. The same skepticism that the philosophers had unleashed on religion eventually drew their own claims into question as well, precipitating what Strauss called, in surveying his own era, “the crisis of the West.”

In Strauss’s analysis, this crisis was no less political than theoretical, and could be seen most clearly in the work of his greatest contemporaries. It was no accident, he argued, that the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger became an avid Nazi, or that Alexandre Kojève, the Russian émigré Hegelian, paid tribute to Stalin and Mao. Smith devotes a chapter to Strauss’s relation to each of these thinkers, stressing in each case how seemingly abstruse and theoretical issues provided a key to understanding their embrace of the bloody politics of totalitarianism.

As an antidote to Heidegger and Kojève, who in their different ways had pushed modern thought to its most dangerous extremes, Strauss returned to Athens itself—that is, to classical philosophy. There he hoped to find a form of rationalism that was more compatible with political moderation and decency. In a chapter titled “Strauss’s Platonic Liberalism,” Smith describes how Strauss’s resort to the supposedly illiberal Plato in fact served to bolster the case for liberal democracy.

In The Republic, which most contemporary scholars had dismissed as a blueprint for totalitarianism, Strauss discovered instead a profound meditation on the boundaries of politics. Unlike their 20th-century counterparts, Strauss suggested, ancient thinkers recognized the unbridgeable gulf between theory and practice. If they encouraged their readers to think radically, they also encouraged them to act moderately. Here, to Strauss’s mind, was the best answer ever devised to the aspirations of modern tyranny.

The climax of Smith’s attempt to rescue Strauss from his critics, especially those who consider him the progenitor of neoconservatism, lies in a final discussion offering a critique of the war in Iraq delivered in the name of Strauss himself. The discussion focuses on the Bush administration’s definition of its goal as the elimination of political evil. By contrast, Smith emphasizes, Strauss always considered evil a permanent aspect of the human situation, and just as he stood against liberal illusions on this score, he would have objected no less strenuously to the illusions of present-day neoconservatives.

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About the effort to pigeonhole Strauss as a neoconservative, Smith is undoubtedly right. But, to deal with last things first, his own effort to recruit Strauss to the anti-war cause is every bit as dubious. It is also an open question whether the current architects of American foreign policy have really been seized by the naive expectation of ending evil—as opposed merely to recognizing the need to fight it. Of one thing we can be sure: in politics, Strauss always insisted on calling things by their proper names. It is difficult to imagine that he would have objected to labeling 9/11 an act of evil; that is merely to call a spade a spade.

Still, as Smith is well aware, there is something futile in speculating about Strauss’s views on this or that policy. Far more important is the task of coming to terms with his thought. In this regard, Smith’s book is an excellent introduction, and can be read with profit by those already familiar with Strauss as well as by those coming to him for the first time.

As Smith makes clear, Strauss was not a political partisan in any usual sense. He viewed both liberalism and conservatism from above rather than from within. His real concern was with the broader question of how to preserve the constitutional polities within which alone such distinctions are meaningful. His pathbreaking return to ancient thought, which his enemies mistake for proof of his antagonism to modern liberty, was, as Smith shows, precisely the opposite.

Strauss understood that the dynamic of modern thought itself had left liberal democracies stranded and bereft, stripped of intellectual support as ever more “advanced” theoretical outlooks favored an ever more radical politics. He would go anywhere in search of allies to defend the political achievements of the West—and he found them among the ancient philosophers, with their irony, prudence, and moderation. As Smith writes, Strauss “regarded the freedom of an educated mind as the best antidote to the pathologies of modern mass politics.”

By opposing the complacent supposition that the wisdom of our own day had rendered obsolete the wisdom of past epochs, Leo Strauss challenged every vested interest in the modern academic world, and he paid the price in hostility and scorn. It would be a shame to compound that injustice by embroiling him in today’s political controversies, a fact that Steven Smith recognizes even as he himself does just that.

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About the Author

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science and director of the program in political philosophy and foreign affairs at the University of Toronto.




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