Thoughts on Strauss
SODOM & GOMORRAH: Due to his unique style of writing, the late Dr. Leo Strauss is associated with everything from neoconservatism to anti-democratic subversion.
If one is to take the popular opinion, Leo Strauss is either a bumbling idiot or the mastermind of the neoconservative movement. Strauss is a careful reader, and it’s doubtful that a careful reader can be an idiot (though he can be bumbling). So perhaps Strauss is a mastermind. I possess one book that can claim to be neoconservative, which is The Neocon Reader, compiled by Irwin Stelzer. Stelzer claims of his book that it is a collection of writings by a “loose-knit band of intellectuals and politicians” so one would expect to find major neoconservative intellectuals within its covers. And it should be noted that this is not a polemic text, but is one compiled by a self-proclaimed neoconservative. What the neoconservative claims is neoconservative should be given more weight than what the non-neoconservative says is.
Leo Strauss is not the author of any of the 24 essays therein. What we do have is one author, Irving Kristol, who reportedly studied under Strauss and we have mention of Strauss on page 317 where he is listed as one of the “Scholars and Others Mentioned.” It says there of him, “Political philosopher and teacher at the University of Chicago after escaping Nazi persecution.” Other mentions of Strauss occur on pages 22, 35, 51, 203-12, and 245-9. Let us examine each.
On page 22 we are told by Stelzer that Strauss’s views were not important in the development of neo-conservatism. Immediately following we are told that “The political roots of neo-conservatism may fairly be said to lie on the left of the ideological spectrum.” Strauss would then be important if his teaching was on the left of the ideological spectrum.
On page 35 Irving Kristol tells us that “The favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to Professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.” What we have are a few key ideas from this text, one of which is “patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment, and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions.” What we must take from this is that Strauss would be important for neo-conservatism if he agreed with the Athenian argument that national interest trumps other concerns and that patriotism is healthy.
On page 51, Max Boot shows us a few things. He says that critics of neo-conservatism charge that “the spirits of philosopher Leo Strauss and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky” guide the neocon movement and promote “contempt for the democratic masses.” Boot claims that Strauss believed in American ideals and thought them worth defending at home and abroad. He describes Strauss as “A largely apolitical Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago” and that “He was a firm believer in U.S. democracy.” “Strauss’s views inspired some early neocons; few read him today” he concludes. One must therefore say that Strauss is only marginally important to neo-conservatism if he defended the democratic masses and was a firm believer in democracy. But even so, he only apparently inspired first generation neocons.
On 203-12, we have an essay by Kenneth R. Weinstein discussing “Philosophic Roots, the Role of Leo Strauss, and the War in Iraq.” After the War in Iraq, western press agencies attacked Strauss as the force behind the war, since he apparently supported the Socratic notion of a noble lie (a falsehood aimed at societal cohesion). As Weinstein pointed out, Strauss has been dead since the 70’s and had no opinion on Saddam Hussein. Most of the ideas about Strauss being the godfather of neo-conservatism come from Lyndon LaRouche who “paraphrases the work of Shadia Drury, a professor of political theory […] who has made it her life’s work to attack Strauss.” The author lists several of Strauss’s students in Democratic and Republican administrations. Strauss, according to Weinstein, was devoted to liberal education and offered no political program; he simply read books. The last reference to Strauss again is in connection to LaRouche.
We can take away a few things from this. First, the neoconservatives deny that Strauss was a major influence. If we should disbelieve them, we would argue that Strauss was an influence only if he met the above criteria. If that was his true teaching, then he was an influence.
The Introductionto Persecution and the Art of Writing presents us with Strauss’s purpose. Interpreting texts belongs to the sociology of knowledge, and no one today is able to engage in a correct study of old authors because their methodology is off. Modern historians attempt to understand authors better than they understood themselves, Strauss seeks to understand them as they understood themselves. The Introduction shows us that philosophers are one class of people and that surface-level differences between different authors disguises that they are all individual links in a chain of tradition that spans centuries.
Strauss presents his book according to the methodology of Jewish scholars, perhaps because Strauss was Jewish or his interest touched on Jewish medieval philosophy. The recognition of Strauss as a Jewish author is not meant to cast doubt on his claims by appealing to anti-Semitism, nor is it to believe that Strauss is not important because of his religious connection. In order to understand Strauss’s teaching, one needs to be aware of his connection to Jewish thought.
Strauss appears then to view philosophic works as authored by individual authors, just as he points out that Spinoza viewed books of the Bible as being written by individual authors. Each author contains a particular message that may contradict other authors and it is important to understand that message as the author understood it. The three primary authors discussed in Persecution – Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza, all believed that Biblical teachings could contain a surface-level and a deeper message. The surface-level teaching serves the purpose of conveying a particular truth as well as covering up the esoteric teaching from the unlearned. Maimonides in particular uses the recognition of an esoteric message to examine the Bible in an esoteric way. Likewise, Strauss continues the tradition by examining Maimonides in an esoteric way. One is always presented with an esoteric interpretation of an esoteric text, which on occasion is an esoteric interpretation of another esoteric text. By paying attention to internal contradictions one can reach an understanding of the true messages contained in all of these works.
Each of the three authors Strauss examines at length (as well as Al Farabi, who he talks about in the Introduction) attempt to grasp the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, which is to say Philosophy and Faith. This conflict is approached by each author in a particular esoteric fashion since they all lived in times where they might be persecuted for their thoughts. It therefore becomes clear that each author is reaching conclusions that contradict the common opinion of their times. Each reconciles philosophy with faith, though some have argued that they have subordinated faith to philosophy or philosophy to faith. The reader must pay attention to Strauss’s own illuminations before understanding the intent of the authors, and even then the reader ought to understand the differences between Strauss’s quotations from the text and the actual text that’s quoted.
Strauss is not light reading. Persecution provides a manual for understanding his other works. Any review of his work has to, according to the restraints he places on readers and the nature of his messages must be just as circumspect.