Impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to Stop the Guns of August, An Attack on Iran

Interview with Francis A. Boyle (Vita, PDF) who went to Chicago and studied with the neocon poli-sci peeps, whose godfather was Leo Strauss (as everybody ought to know by now; see first two Comments).

Went to Harvard Law with Elliot Abrams; knew Wolfowitz. Pretty much nails these fascists to the wall.
Summary: Professor Francis A. Boyle discusses the Neoconservatives in the Bush administration he met in college and explains their dangerous agenda. To prevent World War III he urges members of Congress to begin impeachment proceedings immediately, cut funds to Iraq, and use the War Powers Act to strengthen opposition to strike on Iran.


  1. Volume 51, Number 16 · October 21, 2004

    Leo Strauss: The European
    By Mark Lilla


    Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 1: Die Religionskritik Spinozas und zugehörige Schriften
    by Leo Strauss,edited by Heinrich Meier

    Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, Second edition, 460 pp., ¤44.90

    Gesammelte Schriften, ol. 2: Philosophie und Gesetz— Frühe Schriften
    by Leo Strauss,edited by Heinrich Meier

    Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 635 pp., ¤44.90

    Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 3: Hobbes' politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften—Briefe
    by Leo Strauss, edited by Heinrich Meier

    Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler. 799 pp., ¤49.90

    Leo Strauss: The Early Writings (1921–1932)
    translated from the Germanand edited by Michael Zank

    State University of New YorkPress, 238 pp., $68.50; $22.95 (paper)

    Tussen Athene en Jeruzalem: Filosofie, profetie en politiek in het werk van Leo Strauss
    by David Janssens

    Amsterdam: Boom, 336 pp., ¤27.90

    Die Denkbewegung von Leo Strauss: Die Geschichte der Philosophie und die Intentionen des Philosophen
    by Heinrich Meier

    Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 65 pp., ¤9.90 (paper)

    Das theologisch-politische Problem: Zum Thema von Leo Strauss
    by Heinrich Meier

    Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 86 pp., ¤9.95 (paper)

    Leo Strauss: Une biographie intellectuelle
    by Daniel Tanguay

    Paris: Grasset, 335 pp., ¤23.00


    The year 2003 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Leo Strauss, the influential German-Jewish thinker who spent half his life teaching and writing in the United States. Three superb studies of Strauss's thought were published last year in continental Europe, where his posthumous reputation has grown steadily in recent years. In Germany the first three volumes of his collected works have now appeared, revealing a young Strauss engaged in Zionist polemics and absorbed with what he called the "theological-political problem." They also bring him closer to the world of his better-known European contemporaries like Gershom Scholem and Karl Löwith, with whom he maintained a lively correspondence. All this publishing activity has helped to establish Strauss as one of the great minds to have emerged from the rich culture of Weimar.

    But that was not the Leo Strauss discussed and rumored about in the United States last year. In the lead-up to the recent Iraq war the attention of the press concentrated frantically on the neoconservative foreign policy establishment in Washington in hopes of finding its intellectual roots. As seems to happen whenever the mainstream press finally pays attention to conservative intellectuals, old pictures of the diminutive Strauss were extracted from the archives to accompany articles exposing him as the master thinker. Journalists who had never read him trawled his dense commentaries on ancient, medieval, and modern political thought look-ing for incriminating evidence. Find-ing none, they then suggested that Strauss never wrote what he thought, that his secret antidemocratic doctrines were passed on to adepts who subsequently infiltrated government. At the ideological fringes the term "cabal" was occasionally employed, in ignorance (one hopes) of its anti-Semitic connotations.

    The nadir of this episode was reached when the demagogue Lyndon LaRouche published a hysterical pamphlet on the Strauss–neocon connection that also made the rounds on the Internet. I encountered LaRouche's followers between classes one day on the campus of the University of Chicago, where Strauss once taught. They had a sound truck blaring an incomprehensible message into the quad, while acolytes passed out copies of the pamphlet, titled "Children of Satan." A wild-eyed young woman pushed one into my hands, demanding, "You're not a Straussian, are you?" Before I could respond she declared, "Leo Strauss was a fascist."

    Several of Strauss's academic disciples responded in print to these bizarre charges, trying to explain that his writings were concerned with the fundamental issues of political life— justice, modernity, virtue, authority—not with partisan matters. They were joined by Strauss's daughter, the classicist Jenny Strauss Clay, who in The New York Times expressed dismay that a simple scholar who "believed in and defended liberal democracy" and whose "heroes were Churchill and Lincoln" could be slandered in this way. "If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust," she wrote wistfully.

    Yes, if only. But that is not likely to happen soon because Strauss's achievement was a mixed one. When Strauss died thirty years ago, he left behind two legacies: that of a thinker and that of a teacher. His books are read all over the world today, but his pedagogical activity, and its effects, have been limited to North America. Over three decades in the classroom, Strauss managed to acquire a large, sometimes fractious, but deeply devoted following of American students, many of whom also became teachers. A "Straussian" school developed in universities, mainly in political science departments, and it is now three or four generations old. In recent decades younger members of the school have turned their attention increasingly to Washington, with many serving at the highest levels of government, almost exclusively in Republican administrations, and others play central roles in the neoconservative intellectual-political-media-foundation complex that has become so influential since the 1980s.[1]

    How and why has this happened? The new European books on Leo Strauss, which will be examined in this article, take us a long way toward answering this question. Because they are written by scholars who take Strauss with the utmost seriousness but are untouched by the pedagogical and political activities of the American Straussian school, they succeed in excavating his deepest philosophical insights without putting them to partisan use. They give us, for the first time, a Straussianism not mysterious. In so doing they make it possible to see the political drift of his American school, which grew up in a highly contentious period of our history, as an independent phenomenon. They help us to see that there is indeed a story here—about late-twentieth-century American political and intellectual life, if not about Leo Strauss. That story will be the subject of a subsequent article.

    Leo Strauss was born into a rural Jewish family outside Marburg, Germany, in 1899. His boyhood ambitions, he once remarked, were simple and pastoral: to become a country postman, raise rabbits, and read Plato. His family was observant but not educated, and after serving in the First World War Strauss drifted into Zionist circles and began writing for their political publications. (A number of these articles, reprinted in the Gesammelte Schriften, have now been translated in Michael Zank's edition of writings from Strauss's early years.) Strauss studied philosophy in several German universities, eventually writing his dissertation under Ernst Cassirer in Hamburg, though in his letters he maintained that Nietzsche was his only teacher in those years. The one encounter that impressed him was that with Martin Heidegger, whose lectures Strauss attended in Freiburg. Like many members of his generation he was deeply marked by Heidegger's debate with Cassirer at Davos in 1929, a debate that began over Kant and ended in deep disagreement over the nature and future of philosophy.

    From the start, however, Strauss was aware that the life of philosophy could never be a simple matter for a thoughtful Jew aware of his peo-ple's history. Late in life he addressed this theme in a semi-autobiographical essay that became the preface to the English translation of his book on Spinoza. This extraordinary document is a phenomenology of the modern Jewish spirit, describing from within the intellectual steps by which German Jews had moved from orthodoxy to liberal assimilation in the nineteenth century, then to Zionism and the "new thinking" of Franz Rosenzweig and other messianic writers in the early decades of the twentieth.[2] This story had been told before from a purely historical standpoint as a struggle between orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Strauss saw in it instead what he called a "theological-political problem."

    Strauss often remarked that although politics can address finite problems it can never resolve the fundamental contradictions of life. Those contradictions have their source in the human need to answer the existential question "How should I live?," a supra-political question giving rise to stark alternatives. In the West, those alternatives were seen in philosophy and divine revelation, the lives of Socrates and Moses. The tension between them was, in Strauss's view, the hidden wellspring of our civilization's vitality. But the thinkers of the modern Enlightenment, horrified by religious war and frustrated by the other-worldliness of classical philosophy, tried to reduce that tension. They mocked religion, advocated toleration, and tried to redirect philosophy toward more practical pursuits, whether political, technological, or moral. They imagined a world of satisfied citizens and shopkeepers, and nearly succeeded in creating it.

    But as the nineteenth century progressed it became abundantly clear that one problem, the "Jewish question," could not be dissolved. Not because of Christian prejudice, which was real enough, or Jewish stubbornness, but because the existence of the Jews as a people constituted by di-vine revelation was a challenge to the Enlightenment's hope that politics could be isolated from supra-political claims. The principle leading to emancipation—that, to quote from the debate in the French National Assembly of 1789, "the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals"—proved untenable; the call of revelation could not be extinguished from thought or politics. And that, for Strauss, meant that philosophy needed to reconsider the original "theological-political problem" afresh.


    The great virtue of the new European studies of Strauss is that they have put his scholarly writings convincingly within this larger setting. The books by Daniel Tanguay and David Janssens do so by following the step-by-step development of Strauss's ideas and writings, especially in the Thirties and Forties, a reconstruction that—remarkably, but tellingly—no American Straussian has thought to undertake. Both books rely heavily on the editorial and interpretative work of Heinrich Meier, the editor of the German edition of Strauss's writings, and the author of two concise, synthetic explications of Strauss's thought. Anyone who has tried to read Strauss unassisted will know how difficult it is to grasp the relations among his works, given the extraordinary range of his writings: studies of Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, as well as a book on Aristophanes; learned articles on medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers, such as Maimonides and the less well known Alfarabi; major books on Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spin-oza as founders of modern politi-cal thought, culminating in his best-known work, Natural Right and History (1953); and his scattered essays on Judaism, the "crisis of modernity," and the nature of philosophical writing. Meier, Tanguay, and Janssens have found a plausible way to make it all fit, and in doing so they distance Strauss from his more partisan American interpreters.

    Tanguay, who is French-Canadian but was trained in France, is particularly good at tracing Strauss's development in an accessible way. He begins with the Jewish question as a "theological-political" problem and Strauss's early conviction that one needs to find "a horizon beyond liberalism." That phrase, found in Strauss's youthful critique of the jurist (and later Nazi apologist) Carl Schmitt, is often quoted by critics who charge Strauss with being a partisan anti-liberal. Here the statement takes on its real significance, which is intellectual and existential. The problem with the Enlightenment's liberal aspiration to take religious issues entirely out of politics and thereby pacify human existence was, in Strauss's view, that it distorted our understanding of the human condition.

    In Plato's Republic Socrates likened that condition to our being in a cave transfixed by shadows projected on a wall, when we should be outside, gazing upon things themselves in the sunlight. The question human beings face in this cave is how to live: Do we remain shackled by convention, satisfied with the partial view of life endorsed by political and religious authority, or do we ascend to inquire into life under our own power? The answer provided in most societies in history has been one that mixes the theological and political: we are to obey the laws because they are sacred. The Socratic alternative to this obedience in the cave was the life of Socrates himself, a life of perpetual philosophical questioning beholden to no theological or political authority. Between these antagonistic ways of life, which Strauss sometimes called those of Jerusalem and Athens, there can be, he argued, no compromise; we must choose. Yet both share the assumption that the existential question can indeed be settled.

    What changes in the modern era, in Strauss's view, are both the understanding of this antagonism and the strategies for coping with it. In a powerful image he developed in one of his earliest writings and used repeatedly throughout his life, he posited the existence of a second cave created by modern Enlightenment, an "unnatural" one into which we have descended, distorting the natural condition of having to choose. Enlightenment thinkers were hostile to theological-political authority but failed to see that most people and societies need that authority; such thinkers as Voltaire and d'Alembert wanted to écraser l'infâme rather than simply distance themselves from it.

    In trying to reestablish societies on enlightened foundations, these thinkers blurred the distinction between the philosopher and the city and became ideological partisans—of democracy or anti-democracy, of technology or anti-technology, and so on. The situation deteriorated even more in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern thought descended into relativism and nihilism, and the fundamental existential questions that dominated classical thought came to be seen as mere products of their times or cultures. This "historicism," as Strauss called it, is now so deeply rooted that it prevents an honest examination of those fundamental questions as if genuine answers were possible, the kind of examination Socrates taught. If the philosophical life of Socrates were to be pursued again, the very idea of it would first have to be recovered from historical oblivion. That was Strauss's most fundamental ambition: to prepare a return to Socratic philosophy by first beating a path up from the second cave through the critical study of the history of philosophy.


    Seen in this light, Strauss's seemingly scattered historical studies and their unique approach take on coherent philosophical meaning. They are all based on the large assumption that we are living under some sort of spell in the "second cave" of Enlightenment illusions, and on the enticing thought that escape is possible. This is an unfalsifiable assumption, of course, as Strauss himself conceded by likening his work to that of restoring an older prejudice to counter the modern one. But along the way he also managed to open a new way of looking at philosophy in relation to its history.

    Tanguay follows the twists and turns of Strauss's scholarly studies to show how he tried to recover the original, Socratic understanding of philosophy, beginning with Spinoza and working his way back to Plato, then working forward again to trace philosophy's decline in the modern period. It was in these studies, especially those on Maimonides and Alfarabi, Tanguay suggests, that Strauss discovered the philosophical tradition he wanted to restore.

    That tradition was, to use Strauss's terms of art, "zetetic" and "esoteric." Zetesis is a Greek term meaning inquiry or question, and is associated with skepsis, which has a similar meaning. Strauss understood Socrates to be a zetetic thinker who unraveled problems and left them in suspension, which differs from some scholarly views of Socrates as promoting fixed doctrines about cosmology, nature, the city, and the soul. But Strauss went further to suggest that the ancient and medieval Platonic tradition that grew out of Socrates' activity practiced esotericism in political and pedagogical relations. The key figure here, as Tanguay demonstrates, is Alfarabi, the founder of medieval Islamic philosophy who also had a decisive influence on Maimonides, his medieval Jewish counterpart. The conventional view of Alfarabi and of Maimonides is that both tried to reconcile classical philosophy with revealed law and thereby reform their societies. When Strauss discovered Alfarabi he became convinced that this was just his exoteric, publicly accessible, doctrine, and that if his works are read more attentively a subtler, esoteric teaching emerges.

    As Strauss characterized them, Alfarabi and Maimonides were zetetic philosophers in the Socratic tradition who found themselves faced with powerful conventions sanctioned by revealed religions unknown to the classical world. They saw that revelation and philosophy could never refute each other or be intellectually synthesized without abandoning one or the other. But they also understood that philosophy's skepticism could pose serious risks, whether to the philosopher himself (witness Socrates' fate) or to the moral-legal foundation of the city, which rests at some level on unquestioned beliefs ("we hold these truths to be self-evident"). Philosophy lives with a permanently open horizon, leaving unsettled many basic questions regarding morality and mortality. Most people, and all societies, need settled answers to those questions. So how is the philosopher to behave responsibly in such a situation, while still remaining himself?

    According to Strauss's reading, Alfarabi and Maimonides wrote in such a way that the casual reader would take away the lesson that philosophy and revelation are compatible. This exoteric lesson is doubly beneficial. It permits the philosopher to live and teach free of suspicion from theological and political authorities; it also plants the idea publicly that those authorities must justify themselves before the tribunal of reason, thereby acting as a brake on superstition and tyranny. The attentive reader, however, will note that these texts are full of contradictions, lacunae, strange digressions, senseless repetitions, and silences. As the reader goes deeply into them he begins to learn a different, esoteric lesson, which is that philosophy and revelation are not at all compatible. This esoteric lesson is also doubly beneficial. It teaches the reader that genuine philosophy can and should be kept free from all theological and political conventions; it also teaches him by example how to establish relations that are both esoteric and exoteric with conventional authority and with potential students of philosophy. The achievement of Alfarabi was to have demonstrated how philosophy can be both free, if understood esoterically, and politically responsible.

    This was what Tanguay calls the "Farabian turn" in Strauss's thought. After making the turn Strauss then worked back in time, developing an idealized picture of an "ancient" or "classical" philosophical tradition that was also esoteric. The ancients, he claimed, sought a rational account of nature while simultaneously recognizing the less than rational character of political life, which is dominated by opinion and passion. He then moved forward to show, or claimed to show, how this understanding of the philosophical life disappeared in the modern era. Strauss's theory of exoteric writing and esoteric reading is extremely controversial among classicists, medievalists, and historians of modern thought, though few seem to have read his book on the subject, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952). Most find his interpretations and those of his students to be arbitrary, sometimes perverse, and, more importantly, flattening, since they all seem to arrive at the same lessons about the philosopher and the city, nature and convention, and the need for esotericism itself.[3]

    Many of these charges are just. What is unfortunate is that controversy over this subject has obscured Strauss's larger aim, which was to reread older works in order to challenge the way we conceive of ourselves today. His interpretations try to suggest that the truly radical nature of Socratic questioning had been domesticated and routinized by modern Enlightenment philosophy, and that this was a loss, not a gain. Through the new philosophy of the Enlightenment we have learned to master nature and partially master our political destinies, but in the process we have lost the genuine freedom of philosophy as a way of life. In the process of Enlightenment, we have forgotten ourselves.

    Talk of forgetfulness reminds one of Heidegger, and one does not distort Strauss by considering his entire oeuvre to be a long response to the challenge Heidegger laid down. Both were convinced that the history of philosophy makes up a coherent story that ends in the problem of nihilism stated by Nietzsche; both sought the "decisive" moment in that story when an earlier practice of philosophy was lost and the decay set in; both, if in different ways, tried to bring about the "destruction" of a mistaken philosophical tradition and the recovery of an earlier one. Countless questions can be posed about Strauss's efforts to accomplish these aims: about the "second cave" and the need to recover anything at all; about the Socratic ideal he advances; about the practice of esoteric reading; about the existence of a coherent "ancient" or "classical" philosophical tradition; about the "waves of modernity" that led from Enlightenment to nihilism; about the connection between the history of these ideas and concrete political history.

    All of his claims are questionable— in the sense that they deserve and repay serious questioning, and not the summary dismissal they so often receive in Anglo-American academic circles. The reason Strauss is becoming important in continental Europe is the dawning realization that he belongs to that extraordinary moment in modern German thought when the entire philosophical tradition, from the Greeks down to the present, suddenly seemed doubtful and a new beginning seemed necessary. Those who want to understand that moment and take its challenges seriously know they have to read Heidegger. The works under review give reasons to believe they also must read Strauss.

    But these works do something else, equally important. By returning our attention to the real core of Strauss's thinking, and to its development in Europe during the first half of his life, they help us to isolate it from his American school and their political activities since his death in 1973. This will be the subject of a subsequent article.

    —This is the first of two articles on Leo Strauss.

    [1] A useful list was compiled by Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, editors of Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). On it we find the following positions held over the past quarter-century by people "influenced by Leo Strauss and his students": chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, associate director of USIA, assistant deputy secretary of state for human rights, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, director of the National Advisory Board of Foreign Intelligence, as well as a large number of presidential and vice-presidential advisers, members of the National Security Council, defense analysts, advisers to cabinet secretaries, and others. It also includes one former presidential candidate, Alan Keyes. It is worth noting the paradox that most of these people served in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, when their presence was little remarked, and that there are probably fewer Straussians in the current Bush administration.

    [2] See my article on Rosenzweig, "A Battle for Religion," The New York Review, December 5, 2002.

    [3] One of the most stimulating critical articles on Strauss was M.F. Burnyeat's widely read "Sphinx Without a Secret," The New York Review, May 30, 1985. For an equally stimulating dissent by a non-Straussian classicist, see G.R.F. Ferrari, "Strauss's Plato," Arion, Fall 1997, pp. 36–65.

  2. Volume 51, Number 17 · November 4, 2004


    The Closing of the Straussian Mind
    By Mark Lilla

    The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now
    by Carnes Lord

    Yale University Press, 275 pp., $26.00

    Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire
    by Anne Norton

    Yale University Press, 236 pp., $25.00


    In a previous article I discussed a number of new European studies of the thought of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish thinker who spent the second half of his life teaching and writing in the United States.[1] Those studies reveal a very "European" Strauss, concerned with Zionism and the Jewish question, the legitimacy of the modern Enlightenment, the rival claims of philosophy and revelation, and most fundamentally the possibility of restoring the Socratic practice of philosophy as a way of life. This Strauss is very little known or understood among the wider public. Instead, his name has been associated in recent decades almost exclusively with the activities of his American disciples, many of whom are deeply involved with Republican and neoconservative politics. This has led to wild speculation about Straussian influence in American government, even the suggestion that Strauss's "esoteric" method of reading texts might lie behind a duplicitous foreign policy, especially in the recent Iraq war.

    Most of these charges are patently absurd. What is not absurd, and deserves reflection, is the genuine connection that seems to exist in the United States between Strauss's self-proclaimed disciples and a highly partisan faction in American public life. If the European interpreters of Strauss's thought are to be believed, he taught that there was a fundamental tension between the life of philosophy and that of the city, and while philosophers might have to behave responsibly in light of that tension, ideological partisanship was a temptation to be avoided.

    This is not the way many of Strauss's American followers see the matter today, as we see if we examine the essays collected a few years ago in Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime. In that book, Mark Blitz, a former associate director of the United States Information Agency during the Reagan years who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College, a Straussian stronghold, tries to isolate "the elements in Strauss that prepared and allowed an affin-ity with conservatives." He finds the following:

    anti-communism (and not amelioration), the virtue of individual responsibility (and not excessive social welfare), individual rights (and not affirmative action or feminism), market competition (and not excessive regulation or quasi-oligarchy), and educational and artistic excellence (and not "politicization" or self-indulgence).[2]

    While it is true that Strauss was opposed to communism, spoke of virtue, and was concerned with educational excellence, there is not a word in his works about such topics as welfare, affirmative action, feminism, and the like. Not a word, as Blitz himself admits. Why, then, do so many of his disciples act as if the political implications of his thought point them in one partisan direction? Why is it that his European readers, who study his books but have no connection with the pedagogical tradition Strauss began in America, find no such partisan drift? And who is right? To answer these questions we need to take a closer look at Leo Strauss in America.

    Strauss arrived in the United States in the middle of his life, at the age of thirty-eight. He had spent most of the 1920s as an itinerant German scholar, working and teaching at various Jewish research centers while writing books on Spinoza and Maimonides. His circumstances finally changed in 1932 when he received a Rockefeller grant to do research in Paris, where he remained until 1934, and then in England, where he lived until 1937. In view of what was unfolding in Germany, the grant may have saved his life. Strauss published a much-admired book on Hobbes while in England, a country he loved, and, to judge by his correspondence, where he would have preferred to remain. But he had no academic prospects there, or in Palestine, where his friend Gershom Scholem failed to secure him a position. In the end, Strauss looked to America, a country he had expressed no interest in until then. After spending a short time as a research fellow at Columbia University he obtained his first fixed teaching post at the New School for Social Research in 1938, where he spent ten obscure but intellectually productive years. In 1949 Strauss left the New School for the University of Chicago, where he would remain for the next two decades building the devoted student following that became "the Straussians."

    Strauss came to Chicago at a unique moment in the history of American higher education. The Second World War had just ended, Nazism had been defeated, and the cold war with Soviet communism had begun. The universities were expanding, both in size and in reach, by admitting people who had previously been excluded. In such a context one can imagine students' excitement when a short, unassuming foreigner with a high-pitched voice entered the classroom and began analyzing the great books, line by line, claiming that they treated the most urgent existential and political questions— and that they might contain the truth.

    The effect would have been intensified for Jewish-American students, who, at a time when cultural assimilation still seemed the wisest course, found themselves before a teacher who treated Judaism and the philosophical tradition with equal seriousness and dignity. Strauss's method was famous for its simplicity and directness. (We know this from tapes and transcripts of his later courses, which circulate among his disciples.) A student would be asked to read a passage from the work in question; Strauss would make a comment or two, noting contradictions or discrepancies with earlier passages; a student might then raise a question, which would lead Strauss to digress, taking it to a much higher level and illustrating it with often earthy examples. (He was particularly fond of examples from Ann Landers's column.) Then on to the next passage. And that was all. No attempt was made to force the work into an arbitrary historical context; nor were there appeals to disembodied streams of thought. The only relevant questions were: What did Aristotle, or Locke, or Nietzsche mean in this work? And, on a generous reading, could he possibly be right?

    In a charming memoir of his time at Chicago, Werner Dannhauser described the experience of studying with Strauss as "becoming naïve again."[3] For Dannhauser, Strauss's greatest pedagogical achievements were to have shown his students how to become attentive readers and to take their own experience seriously, free from preconceived notions or rebarbative jargon:

    We learned to trust the superiority of proverbs again; we learned to talk in simple words again. Instead of "values," we talked of good and bad; we discussed unhappiness rather than alienation, and things ceased to be dysfunctional—they just did not work.

    Recaptured naiveté is an old Romantic trope, as Strauss knew perfectly well. But it also bears some relation to the kind of open Socratic questioning he held out as a philosophical ideal in his Weimar years.

    As a response to the "low dishonest" atmosphere of the Thirties and then the monstrous total war in Europe and Asia, one understands its appeal. The problem proved to be that Strauss was teaching young Americans, for whom these developments were remote. Discovering Strauss, they were less like prodigals returning home from dissipations than young provincials just discovering the world beyond the city's walls. Had Strauss returned to continental Europe to teach after the war, his students already would have studied the history of philosophy, however superficially, in high school. That might have made them more difficult to reach, plunging them deeper into what he called the "second cave" of historicism and relativism. But in return they probably would have been more inclined—as are the authors of the new European studies of Strauss—to see him as a thinker exploring the philosophical tradition for his own purposes. His American followers have had difficulty seeing him in that light, as an original thinker whose example might help them down their own paths. They treat him less like Socrates than like Moses.


    Strauss's seminars were almost always devoted to single philosophical works, not to large swaths of intellectual history. But shortly after arriving at Chicago he was asked to deliver the prestigious Walgreen Lectures, which were finally published in 1953 as Natural Right and History. This work, his most influential, must be considered the founding document of the Straussian school. It was, so to speak, Strauss's application for citizenship and his way of accepting his academic chair in political science.

    In it he developed a number of original theses about the history of political philosophy, all directed against standard Whiggish accounts that described a steady rise from classical, to medieval Christian, to early-modern authoritarian, to late-modern democratic and socialist thought. Strauss claimed that, properly viewed, there was a coherent tradition of "classical natural right," running from Socrates to Thomas Aquinas, who shared more than one might think. The assumption of this classical tradition, ancient and medieval, was that there is a distinction between nature and convention, and that justice is what accords with the former, not the latter.

    Whether the rules of nature are discovered through philosophy or revelation, whether one account of nature is more persuasive than another, all this is less important, according to Strauss, than the conviction that natural justice as the highest human possibility is indeed the standard, and that without it we cannot understand or criticize the conventional arrangements in which we find ourselves. What Machiavelli represented, in Strauss's view, was a great rebellion against this standard— not only against Christianity but against the tradition of classical natural right as a whole. Once that break was made it was only a matter of time, Strauss argued, before modern thought—after making intermediate stops at Locke's liberalism and Rousseau's Romanticism—descended into historicism and nihilism.

    Natural Right and History, a dense and brilliant argument, is put forward with unusual panache yet without sacrificing Strauss's characteristic directness and irony. Although it treats the history of philosophy, it does so in a way that forces the reader to think hard about fundamental questions. Whether it convinces is another matter. Critics have charged Strauss with ignoring the very different contexts in which his authors wrote, with under-appreciating, if not ignoring, Christianity's break with the classical past and the Christian roots of early-modern discussions of human rights and limited government, and with many other errors. And even Strauss's students admit that his treatment of natural right might be difficult to square with his own treatment of Socratic philosophy, which he depicts as suspending all simple appeals to nature.

    But the real problems with Natural Right and History are not historical, they are pedagogical. Its effects on Strauss's American disciples have been stultifying. In a little more than three hundred pages, the book offers students unfamiliar with any other account of philosophy's history an epic, just-so version of it, tracing our intellectual decline from the golden age of Athens to the modern age of iron. It is a script. But unlike the script one might be taught in a European high school, along with others, this script gave the United States an important place in the unfolding of a single story.

    Strauss introduced the book with the words of the Declaration of Independence, "we hold these truths to be self evident," and then asked: Do we still? Does the contemporary West still believe in natural "inalienable Rights," or do we rather believe, as Strauss dryly puts it, that "all men are endowed by the evolutionary process or by a mysterious fate with many kinds or urges of aspirations, but certainly with no natural right"? If the latter, doesn't that mean that modern liberalism has declined into relativism, and isn't that indistinguishable from the kind of nihilism that gave rise to the political disasters of the twentieth century? "The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism," Strauss writes, "nay, it is identical with nihilism." As a rhetorical device for piquing interest in the apparently antiquarian task of recovering classical philosophy, this introduction succeeds brilliantly. But it also raises the peculiar thought that such an enterprise is wrapped up with American destiny.

    Strauss never wrote a single essay about American thought and only a few shorter pieces on "the crisis of our time," forgettable exercises in Weimar Kulturpessimismus that display little feel for American life. After Natural Right and History he spent most of his time at Chicago teaching courses on important European figures in the history of philosophy, concentrating mainly on their political works. Some of his students, though, perhaps inspired by that book, turned to American political thought in earnest, and their influence subsequently became large.[4] For the first two decades of his teaching, Straussianism remained a narrowly academic phenomenon. During the first two decades of his Chicago period, Strauss's American students were mainly interested in studying old books, in reviving la querelle des anciens et modernes, and adapting an aristocratic understanding of the philosophical life to the slightly vulgar American democratic setting. That had little to do with Socrates but it was roughly consistent with Strauss's own scholarly activity, the main difference being the missionary zeal and rhetoric of moral uplift that sometimes suffused their writings. There were odd examples of Strauss's students getting involved with contemporary politics (one wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater) and it is true that conservatives were drawn to him because of his skepticism toward modern ideas of progress and his hostility to communism. But so were cold war liberals who shared his admiration for Lincoln and wanted to have a clear understanding of liberal democracy's weaknesses in order to protect it. Most were probably Democrats in those years and supported the civil rights movement, but the school remained scholarly, not partisan.

    After 1968, all that changed. The universities imploded, and Straussianism took a new turn. It is difficult for those of us educated on the other side of that cultural chasm to imagine the trauma experienced by some of those teachers wedded to the pre-'68 American university, however sympathetic to their loss we might be. Their sense of betrayal is infinite; they cannot and will not be consoled. Straussians in the universities took the student revolts, and all that followed in American society, particularly hard. From Strauss they had learned to see genuine education as a necessarily elite enterprise, one difficult to maintain in a leveling, democratic society. But thanks to Natural Right and History, they were also prepared to see the threat of "nihilism" lurking in the interstices of modern life, waiting to be released, turning America into Weimar.

    This was the premise underlying Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and helps to explain why its genuine insights about American youth got buried in apocalyptic doomsaying. Bloom and several other influential Straussians spent the Sixties at Cornell, which had a particularly ugly experience with student violence, race-baiting, and liberal cowardice in the face of attacks on the university. Buildings were seized, faculty were threatened, the university's president assaulted. That moment seems to have been a revelation for Bloom, opening his eyes to the fact that "whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same" and that "Enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the sixties."

    In the wake of the Sixties, and after Strauss's death in 1973, one began to see a new, more political catechism developing among certain of his disciples. Some Straussians remained nonpartisan and to this day devote themselves to teaching old books for their own sake; many others, traumatized by the changes in American universities and society, began gravitating toward the circles of neoconservatives then forming in New York and Washington. The catechism these political Straussians began to teach their students is nowhere recorded, and not because there is a secret doctrine being passed around by esoteric means. Rather, the catechism so permeates the way they think about Strauss today, and therefore about themselves, that its philosophical and political tenets need not be articulated.[5] It begins with the assumption that the modern liberal West is in crisis, unable to defend itself intellectually against internal and external enemies, who are abetted by historical relativism. This crisis obliges us to understand how modern thought reached such an impasse, which takes us back to the break with classical thought. There we discover the prudently contrived character of classical philosophy, which trained its adepts directly, and statesmen indirectly, about the fundamental problems of politics. This practice, it is then suggested, deserves to be recovered, especially in the United States, which was founded self-consciously on the idea of modern natural right and therefore still takes it seriously. Such an exercise would not only shore up the American polity, it would contribute to the defense of liberal democracy everywhere.

    There are several noteworthy features of this catechism. Unlike the new European studies of Strauss's thought, which focus on the tension between philosophy and revelation, the catechism begins and ends with politics, specifically American politics. But it does so in contrasting styles. To speak musically, it begins to strains of Götterdämmerung and ends with "Stars and Stripes Forever." This contrast has even worked itself out geographically in what once was called "the crisis of the Strauss divided." Straussians in the South and West, in places like Claremont College, tend to be Sousa-ites, extolling the virtues of the American way of life, while in the North and East, in places like Harvard, Toronto, and Chicago, a Wagnerian "crisis of the West" style is preferred. Students drawn to Straussianism may not hear the disharmony; many are not particularly political, at least initially. They are simply captivated by their first experience in the classroom—Straussians are excellent teachers—and the frisson of having their basic presuppositions challenged. But given their lack of a previous education in philosophy, it doesn't strike them that the version of it they are hearing has an oddly political and parochially American focus.

    Those who then enter the Straussian orbit follow fairly predictable paths. They do not launch themselves directly into the philosophical inquiries that Strauss's historical works were meant to make possible again. They try vainly to catch up with their Gymnasium-educated teacher, reading all the works he read and trying to figure out how they fit into the story told in Natural Right and History. There is a set curriculum. Many learn Greek to study Plato and Aristotle, then Thucydides and Xenophon; the intrepid will work up enough Hebrew and Arabic to follow Strauss's studies of Maimonides or Alfarabi. A millennium and a half of Christian thought is pretty much ignored, taking Strauss's silence on this minor historical episode to be authoritative. Then they turn to the moderns, tracing the decline of political philosophy from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, whose daring they are taught to appreciate, while still disapproving. The writings of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists make up the American section of the reading list, supplemented by the ever-present Tocqueville.

    Given the state of American education it is hard to complain about a curriculum that encourages students to extend their thinking from ancient to modern thought. But so tied is the teaching to Strauss's own readings that it becomes a well-tailored straitjacket. More than anything, it kills students' intellectual curiosity and fills them with contempt for teachers and fellow students who aren't with the program. And for those who go on to graduate study, their lack of curiosity and independence blocks them at almost every turn. Straussians complain bitterly about their trouble finding academic work, attributing it to "a system of political screening as forbidding as any blacklist," as one put it.[6]

    There certainly is prejudice against Straussians in those universities where conservatives are still being treated like untouchables. But there is also experience with Straussians, and it has been mixed. At a time when university professors are often more interested in following academic fashions than in teaching students classic works on fundamental human problems, it can be refreshing to have Straussian colleagues who love teaching and have something to say about those problems. That certainly has been my experience. But in other, less happy places, the Straussian habit of forming dogmatic cliques with students and hiring one another has fractured professional and personal relations, making potential colleagues wary of hiring them. The kind of scholarship the Straussians typically produce also makes it difficult for them to advance. Their dissertations and books—which they have trouble finishing, given the weight of Strauss's example—range from impenetrable exercises in esoteric analysis to solid interpretations of well-known classics. Some of the latter are extremely useful but rarely display originality or a willingness to stray beyond convention; their introductions and conclusions can be tendentious, the remaining chapters thorough, somewhat pious, unsurprising. One puts most of them down thinking: just another brick in the wall.

    Studying the works of Leo Strauss and following his example—his curiosity, independence of mind, originality—should not be a recipe for intellectual stasis. But for young people brought up on the American Straussian catechism it has become one. Little wonder, then, that so many of them end up making the trip from Athens to Washington, where at least the political atmosphere is more congenial. In a sense, they have been prepared for that, too. From Strauss they will have learned that although philosophers should not try to realize ideal cities they do bear some responsibility for the cities in which they find themselves. For years they will have heard about the importance of defending liberal democracy against the threats it faces; they will have read a lot of cloying scholarship about the American founding, the glories of statesmanship, the burden of prudence, and the need for civic virtue. They also will think that America has been slipping into nihilism since the Sixties and that, however vulgar, right-wing populism contributes to our nation's "becoming naïve again" about basic right and wrong. So when the sword falls and their academic prospects are ended, their instinct is to turn to Washington as a second-best, "patriotic" alternative. And when they do, they find themselves welcomed with open arms by a neoconservative establishment eager for recruits.


    American neoconservatism exists in a beltway within the Washington Beltway. It is a world unto itself, intellectually and socially, sustaining foundations, think tanks, advocacy groups, magazines, and consulting firms, not to mention people in government who work as advisers, speechwriters, and mid-level bureaucrats. A number of books have been written about the movement, none of which quite captures its metamorphosis from a loosely connected network of professors and magazine editors into a well-integrated force shaping American public policy.

    The neoconservative impulse was originally a moderating one, arising from a sense that American liberalism needed a reality check. Great Society programs, it was said, were exacerbating problems they were meant to solve, such as poverty and urban blight; rising taxes were stifling economic prosperity; middle-class values were being vilified, driving voters to the right; the "Vietnam syndrome" was paralyzing American foreign policy. Over the past two decades these criticisms have become commonplaces in American politics; with the election of Bill Clinton it appeared that we were (nearly) all neoconservatives now. Except for the neoconservatives themselves, who in the interim abandoned the moderate liberalism they once championed, for a coarse provincial ideology giving them enormous influence in Washington.

    Neoconservatives used to give two cheers for capitalism; now four or five seem hardly sufficient. They once promoted a hard realism in foreign policy, to counteract the pacifist idealism they saw among Democrats in the Seventies; now they flirt with an eschatological faith in America's mission civilisatrice, to be fulfilled by military means. They once offered a complex view of bourgeois culture in its relation to economic and political life; now they are in the grip of an apocalyptic vision of post-Sixties America that prevents them from contributing anything constructive to our culture. How these eschatological and apocalyptic ideas about America can exist in the same breast, without some effort at reconciliation, remains a mystery to every outsider who glances at a neoconservative magazine today.[7] They appeal, though, to political Straussians, whose hearts beat arhythmically to both Sousa and Wagner.

    Traditional American conservatism was anti-intellectual; neoconservatism is counter-intellectual. That is the source of its genius and influence. Unlike traditional conservatives who used simply to complain about left-leaning writers, professors, judges, bureaucrats, and journalists, the neoconservatives long ago understood that the only way to resist a cultural elite is to replace it with another. So they have, by creating their own parallel universe, mainly in Washington but with satellites in universities, and by attracting ambitious young people who share their views. Some have edited conservative student newspapers or studied with politically engaged Straussians; others joined the conservative Federalist Society in law school. All hope to make the "long march through the institutions." Their intellectual life, such as it is, is conceived wholly as the making of strategies for retaking cultural and political territory. That is obviously easier when Republicans are in the ascendancy, but they are not dependent on elections. There are always jobs to be found editing magazines or writing speeches or working for foundations; the neoconservative world is, paradoxically, a benevolent welfare state in which loyal citizens are always cared for.

    Neoconservatism began as an intellectual movement. It is now an essential part of Republican politics, and therefore American life. But politics demands compromises and alliances. So it is not unusual in neoconservative Washington to find yourself at an event with a motley collection of people: older New York intellectuals, professors in exile from politically correct universities, economic visionaries, Teddy Roosevelt enthusiasts, home-schooling advocates, evangelical Protestants, Latin-mass Catholics, Likudniks, and personalities from shock radio. Sprinkled among them you are sure to find a young Straussian foundation officer who did his doctoral dissertation on, say, Lincoln's speeches but didn't get tenure. Another couldn't finish his thesis on the politics of Plato's Timaeus and now works as a defense analyst. Both will patiently explain to you the logical connection between ancient philosophy and the latest press release from the American Enterprise Institute. It would take a comic genius, an American Aristophanes, to capture the strangeness of this little world.

    Straussians have indeed become central to that world, but it is mistaken to think Strauss's ideas govern it. On the contrary, what we have witnessed over the past quarter-century is the slow adaptation of Straussian doctrine to comport with neoconservative Republicanism. A small monument to that endeavor is Carnes Lord's recent book on political leadership, The Modern Prince. Lord is a Straussian who began his career translating and writing about Aristotle, and his work in classics is widely respected. He then served on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council before becoming an adviser to Vice President Dan Quayle, and he is now professor of strategy at the Naval War College—an unusual parcours in any liberal democracy but our own.

    Lord clearly enjoys politics and administration, and knows much about them. His vocabulary may be abstractly Straussian—there is much talk of "regimes," "founding," "prudence," "honor," and "statesmanship"—but most of his concerns are quite concrete: the decline of parties, the shift of legislative initiative to bureaucracies and the courts, the challenge of managing intelligence. He is often wise and occasionally unpredictable when discussing the difficulty of leading complex modern democracies. But Lord is also worried and angry, and wants his readers to be, too. What disturbs him is how little room there is for bold leadership in contemporary America, and he blames this on many things. He blames the progressive "feminization" of politics (the decline of "manliness" is a Straussian-neoconservative obsession); he blames the press and the universities for diminishing respect for public officials (though he makes no effort to hide his contempt for former President Bill Clinton); he even blames the intelligence and military establishments, which are too cautious by half and constrain the more assertive foreign policy he clearly would like to see. Contempt for the CIA and the Pentagon is a central tenet of neoconservative orthodoxy in Washington, as the entire world has learned, to our chagrin, in the wake of the Iraq war.

    The book's final chapter, whose title, "Exhortation to Preserve Democracy from the Barbarians," is drawn from the last chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince, would seem to return us to higher Straussian ground. But no. Machiavelli's chapter was a patriotic call to arms demanding the expulsion of foreign invaders from Italy. Lord's informs us that "the real problem facing the modern prince is not the barbarians at the gate; it is the barbarians within." These are to be found not only in the press and universities, they are, in his view, being bred everywhere by "the multiculturalist mentality" that undergirds our overly lax immigration policies, by the decay of moral standards, and by the atrophy of America's "political religion of constitutionalism," among much else. All of this is sure to leave Lord's neoconservative readers satisfied, but most other Americans stupefied.

    Anne Norton, a professor of political theory at the University of Pennsylvania, is neither satisfied nor stupefied. In her new book on the political Straussians, the first of its kind (but surely not the last), she asserts that Lord and his kind promote a "troubling model of leadership" bordering on authoritarianism. These sorts of charges have been made before but have more weight in this case because Norton studied with some Strauss-ians at the University of Chicago and admires many of their intellectual achievements. She gets many things absolutely right about the school, such as the value of the close reading it teaches and the intensity of teacher-pupil relations. "Straussians adore their teachers," she writes, "they talk about them like young girls talk about horses and boy bands." She also sees how those intense relations can turn sour, harming students intellectually and psychologically. She punctures the myth of "secret teachings" by Straussians—"it was all done in the open"—and admits that academic prejudice against Straussians and conservatives is real. When Norton writes in an autobiographical vein, she can be charming and fair.

    When she turns to the Straussian connection with neoconservative politics, though, her grip becomes unsteady. She is disturbed by the political turn of the Straussians after 1968, less because it distorted the aims of an important thinker than because it aided and abetted the ascendancy of the Republican right. Her hostility occasionally brings out an Aristophanic wit, as when she remembers "tiny little men with rounded shoulders" and "larger, softer men, with soft white hands that never held a gun or changed a tire," delivering speeches on manliness when she was a student. But it also drives her to repeat slanderous rumors and academic urban legends about certain Straussians, as a way of scoring political points. One's confidence in her own political judgment is not enhanced by her rosy assessment of the academic benefits that rioting Cornell students allegedly brought to the university in the Sixties, nor by her likening Theodore Roosevelt to Osama bin Laden as a promoter of misogynist jihad. In the end, Norton cannot decide whether Strauss was responsible for the neoconservative turn of his school or not, perhaps because she is not entirely sure what neoconservativism is. But whatever it is, she's against it. That will make her book popular at the faculty club, just as Lord's will be welcomed within the Beltway, but not beyond it.

    To turn from Carnes Lord and Anne Norton back to the new European works on Leo Strauss is to breathe an altogether different air. Those studies of his thought remind us why he attracted devoted students and readers in the first place, and help us to measure the distance we have traveled since his death thirty-two years ago. The ironies in this short chapter of American intellectual history are almost too many to number. Where but in America could a European thinker convinced of the elite nature of genuine education find some of his pupils making common cause with populist politicians? Where but in America could a teacher of esotericism, concerned about protecting philosophical inquiry from political harm, find his views caricatured in the newspapers and weeklies? And where but in America could an admirer of Socrates, who spoke of his students as "the young puppies of his race," expect to see his students' students become guardians of an ephemeral ideology?

    It is a shame that Strauss's rich intellectual legacy is being squandered through the short-sightedness, provincialism, and ambition of some of his self-proclaimed disciples. But American life is hard on all European legacies. Fortunately, his books remain and they can be studied with profit without paying the slightest attention to those disciples or their polemical adversaries in the university and the press. The fact that he is finding new readers abroad who have no connection with the American school is encouraging, and one can only hope that the new European studies of his thought will eventually be translated and find an audience here. When the American press was in the middle of its Strauss fever last year a number of alarmist articles appeared in Europe as well. But there were also a few wise ones defending Strauss against Americans who would use him for their own political ends. One of the best was by an Italian scholar of Jewish thought. Her title simply ran: "Hands Off Leo Strauss!"[8]

    —This is the second of two articles on Leo Strauss.


    [1] "Leo Strauss: The European," The New York Review, October 21, 2004.

    [2] Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).

    [3] "Leo Strauss: Becoming Naïve Again," The American Scholar, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Autumn 1975).

    [4] See Gordon S. Wood, "The Fundamentalists and the Constitution," The New York Review, February 18, 1988.

    [5] The best distillation of it can be found in the essay on Strauss by Nathan Tarcov and Thomas L. Pangle, which serves as an epilogue to History of Political Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, third edition, 1987), the reader first compiled by Strauss and Joseph Cropsey in the Sixties and still in print.

    [6] Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime, p. 71.

    [7] I helped to edit one of those magazines, The Public Interest, in the early 1980s.

    [8] Irene Kajon, "Giù le mani da Leo Strauss," MicroMega (April 2003). See also Carole Widmaier, "Leo Strauss est-il néoconservateur? L'épreuve des textes," Esprit, November 2003.


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