You're not the first to say that his work is nearly inpenetrable. I've heard that from several folks, including Jonah Goldberg, who apparently studied his thought in depth at the University of Chicago. I admit frankly that I have not read him, although I have read a few long articles about him and his ideas.
I don't know of any book length summaries of his work by other authors. But it would be nice to find one, you're right.
No one would read him today (Along with accusing someone of being a fraud, that is the put-down du jour).
You might consider Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin & the Search for a Postliberal Order. Birds, a stone, and short lives.
That may be the culprit rather than Strauss. Literacy is not a guarantee of a flourishing society. I can only presume that the charge of incomprehensibility is leveled at Strauss for political reasons, having never read Hegel, or having forced to read aphorisms of Heraclitus in Greek.
Hands up, Straussians! By Bret Stephens
If all values are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste. --
Leo Strauss -- about whom you've probably never heard -- has been dead for 30 years. You've probably never heard of him because he was a sickly and obscure professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago who wrote Xenophon's Socratic Dialogues, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, The City and Man, and other volumes that now mostly gather dust in library stacks. And even if you have heard of him, you've almost certainly never read him, because his fixations were abstruse and his prose was dense, to say the least.
For all that, I confess Strauss left a pretty considerable mark on my own way of thinking. By "confess," I mean it in the guilty sense: Strauss has been accused of being an anti-democratic elitist, a "Jewish Nazi," and -- what's worse -- the patron saint of neoconservatives who now are said to dominate Beltway thinking. "The Bush administration is rife with Straussians," James Atlas writes in The New York Times, pointing a finger at Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, erstwhile Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. And writing in the International Herald Tribune, William Pfaff sums up Strauss's teachings this way:
"[Strauss] believed that Greek classical philosophy, notably that of Plato, is more true to nature than anything that has replaced it.... He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to 'virtue' as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself....
"The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order."
ALL THIS sounds terribly sinister. It is also very far from the Strauss I read as a student at the University of Chicago.
Chicago is a school that tends to attract a larger than usual quota of geeks and oddballs. So you can imagine my enchantment with a man who wrote that "there exists a very dangerous tendency to identify the good man with the good sport, the cooperative fellow, the 'regular guy,' i.e., an overemphasis on a certain part of a social virtue and a corresponding neglect of those virtues which mature, if they do not flourish, in privacy, not to say in solitude: by educating people to cooperate with each other in a friendly spirit one does not yet educate nonconformists, people who are prepared to stand alone, to fight alone.... Democracy has not yet found a defense against the creeping conformism and the ever-increasing invasion of privacy which it fosters."
At the time -- I was 17 -- this did not strike me as a neoconservative insight: plenty of kids that age, Right-leaning, Left-leaning, or apolitical wage their own little struggles not to conform, to "stand alone." But what did strike me was the way in which Strauss dignified this impulse and brought it to bear on the boring-sounding titles I was being made to read: Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, Hobbes's Leviathan, Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, and so on. As a result, I began to pay attention. And in paying attention, I realized that what these books had to offer was more interesting, more important, more stimulating and indeed arousing than anything I had previously encountered.
This was Strauss's first gift. It was not a straightforward one. Contrary to Pfaff's claim, Strauss was not so much a Platonist as he was a Socratic. In other words, he was not chiefly interested in a doctrine, but in a premise, a method and a purpose. The premise was the philosopher's knowledge of his own ignorance. The method was a dialogical form of investigation which moved forward by sincere, not sophistical, questions. And the purpose was to discover what is "right by nature" -- that is, the things that are permanently, not provisionally, true.
The second gift followed from the first. Strauss was not doctrinal but he was a debunker of doctrine. If there were things in life that could be said to be true for everyone, then cultural or moral relativism was nonsense. If there were things that could be said to be true always, then historicism -- the conceit that what was once thought to be true was merely the product of a given historical situation -- was not only false, but self-contradictory: Wasn't "historicism" itself the product of its times?
Strauss was equally contemptuous of some of the other great intellectual fads of the day: the fact-value distinction on which modern social science rests, and which turns out to have so little explanatory power; and behavioralism, which attempts to explain human activity without reference to reason or free will. His turn to classical political philosophy was thus informed by the fact that it was free of these blinders; whatever their own limitations, the ancients, Strauss believed, saw politics "with a freshness and directness which have never been equaled."
In itself, this was not an endorsement of the ancient philosophers. Strauss perfectly appreciated the fact that the political science bequeathed to us by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke had brought into existence functional, humane and prosperous regimes such as the United States. They had done so, moreover, by rejecting the classical idea that the highest purpose of politics was to mold virtuous souls; instead, they settled on the more limited, but realizable, ambition of fashioning a politics in which one might hope in some sense to be "free." This was an immense historical achievement, and Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, knew it very well.
Strauss also knew, however, that the "moderns" of political philosophy -- from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Friedrich Nietzsche -- had also been the inspirations for Jacobinism, communism and Nazism, and thus were in some sense responsible for all the blood shed in their respective names. And he knew that even liberal democracies, the most benign of the modern regimes, were susceptible to a corrosive egalitarianism that, left unchecked, could corrode all standards, lead to a soul-deadening conformity, and pave the way to what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as "the tyranny of the majority."
Strauss's resort to the ancients, then, was never intended as an effort to overthrow the moderns, much less hold up Plato's "city in speech" as a worthy political model. His aim, rather, was to deploy the ancients as a sort of counterweight to the moderns who had tilted too far in the direction of radical skepticism, relativism and nihilism. Strauss feared that the moderns had gone too far in discounting the potential truthfulness inherent in the things people say, see, feel and believe. He feared, too, a certain smugness in the way modern regimes -- communist and liberal democratic equally -- thought of themselves: as the culmination of History with a capital "H," as regimes which did not depend on anything prior to them for their own preservation.
"It is not self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism," he wrote, "nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of classical antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West."
As Strauss saw it, it was his duty as a friend and beneficiary of liberal democracy -- and the duty of academia in general -- to preserve some critical distance from liberal democracy. This distance could only really be gained by having some sense of the entire catalogue of political alternatives available. This was a comparative politics in the broadest sense, one that included not just existing regimes but also vanished and imaginary ones. In the teachings of the ancients, Strauss found some of the ingredients he believed modern regimes lack: A Socratic concern for human excellence, a Periclean sense of grandeur, an Aristotelian insistence on moderation.
At the same time, Strauss believed that there were dangers involved in this rediscovery of political alternatives. The foundations of liberal democracy may, upon close inspection, not be quite as solid as liberal democrats would like to believe. The trick was to examine and strengthen the foundations without causing the edifice above it to collapse and -- no less importantly -- without causing it to collapse on top of those (like Strauss) who examine the foundations.
In other words, prudence was required. If the result of unfettered philosophical inquiry in a liberal democracy was to bring the house down, neither philosophy nor democracy would be well served. Strauss, though in some ways a quiet radical himself, had no patience for the brash academic radicalism that came into vogue in the late 1960s, with its sharp challenges to the moral, cultural and political orthodoxies of the day. Even if liberal democracy was based on nothing but enabling fictions (and Strauss did not believe that at all, only that it was based on incomplete truths), these were fictions that today's academics have a duty to defend. Failure to do so would only invite more oppressive regimes -- communism, in Strauss's day -- in which the freedom of inquiry would be much more severely restricted.
WRITING ABOUT Strauss in the Boston Globe, Jeet Heer argues that "if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind.... [he] emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity."
I can hardly describe myself as a scholar of Strauss, nor do I consider myself a Straussian. But I've read enough of Strauss (and of Machiavelli) to know this is the sheerest nonsense. There is no such thing as "Straussianism": not as an ideology, much less as some kind of conspiracy. There was merely a man named Leo Strauss -- a Jew, a Zionist, a classicist, a man who engaged profoundly and forcefully with the greatest issues of his day -- who taught his students that "we cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy," chiefly by "listening to the conversation between the greatest philosophers."
For bringing me into that conversation, I'm in his debt. And having spent three decades in the grave, the least Strauss deserves is to be read before he is condemned.
And then there's this piece in the NYT by his daughter:
Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a "cabal" (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles.
My father was not a politician. He taught political theory, primarily at the University of Chicago. He was a conservative insofar as he did not think that change is necessarily change for the better.
Leo Strauss believed in the intrinsic dignity of the political. He believed in and defended liberal democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best form of government that could be realized, "the last best hope." He was an enemy of any regime that aspired to global domination. He despised utopianism in our time, Nazism and Communism which is predicated on the denial of a fundamental and even noble feature of human nature: love of one's own. His heroes were Churchill and Lincoln. He was not an observant Jew, but he loved the Jewish people and he saw the establishment of Israel as essential to their survival.
To me, what characterized him above all else was his total lack of vanity and self-importance. As a result, he had no interest in honors within the academy, and was completely unsuited to political ambition. His own earliest passion, he confessed, was to spend his life raising rabbits (Flemish Giants) and reading Plato.
He was first and foremost a teacher. He did not seek to mold people in his own image. Rather, he was devoted to helping young people see the world as it is, in all its misery and splendor. The objects of his teaching were the Great Books, those works generally recognized as the foundation of a liberal education. But that alone was not a sufficient reason for reading them.
He began where good teachers should begin, from his students' received opinions, in order to scrutinize their foundation. At that time, as is still true today, academia leaned to the left; hence such questioning required an examination of the left's tenets. Had the prevailing beliefs been different, they too would have been subject to his skeptical inquiry.
Among the received opinions of the time was an unquestioned faith in progress and science combined with a queasiness regarding any kind of moral judgment, or "relativism." Many young people were confused, without a compass, with nothing substantial to admire. My father's turning them to the Great Books was thus motivated not merely by aesthetic or antiquarian interest, but by a search for an understanding of mankind's present predicament: what were its sources and what, if any, were the alternatives? The latter he found in the writings of the ancient Greeks.
Furthermore, he insistently confronted his students with the question of the "good life." For him, the choice boiled down to the life in accordance with Revelation or the life according to Reason Jerusalem versus Athens. The vitality of Western tradition, he felt, lay in the invigorating tension between the two.
My father saw reading not as a passive exercise but as taking part in an active dialogue with the great minds of the past. One had to read with great care, great respect, and try, as he always said, to "understand the author as he understood himself." Today this task, admittedly difficult and demanding, is dismissed in fashionable academia as impossible. Rather, we are told, each reader inevitably constructs his own text over which the author has no control, and the writer's intentions are irrelevant.
The fact is that Leo Strauss also recognized a multiplicity of readers, but he had enough faith in his authors to assume that they, too, recognized that they would have a diverse readership. Some of their readers, the ancients realized, would want only to find their own views and prejudices confirmed; others might be willing to open themselves to new, perhaps unconventional or unpopular, ideas. I personally think my father's rediscovery of the art of writing for different kinds of readers will be his most lasting legacy.
Although I was never a student of my father's, I sat in on a class of his in the 1960's; I think it was on Xenophon's "Cyropaedia." He was a small, unprepossessing and, truth be told, ugly man (daughters are their parents' worst critics), with none of the charisma that one associates with "great teachers." And yet there was something utterly charming. One of the students would read little chunks of the text, and my father would comment and call for discussion. What marked this class was a combination of an engagement with questions of the highest seriousness (in this case, what is the best form of government) with the laughter of intellectual play.
It was magic. If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust.
Jenny Strauss Clay is a professor of classics at the University of Virginia.