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By Paul Gottfried


The Montréal Review, May 2012


"Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America" by Paul Gottfried (Cambridge University Press, 2011)


"Paul Gottfried gives us the most knowledgeable and balanced analysis yet published of the thought of Leo Strauss and of his disciples, the famous and controversial Straussians. Like Strauss himself, Gottfried is deeply grounded in the great traditions of both German and Jewish scholarship. The resulting book is a rich, deep, and wise interpretation of the most important American political theorist of the mid-twentieth century."

-James Kurth, Swarthmore College

"Paul Gottfried's crisp and incisive study offers a fresh perspective on the subject of Strauss and his students. A gifted intellectual historian, Gottfried brings a breadth and density of knowledge, both of fin-de-siècle German Jewish culture and of post-World War II American conservatism, which he draws upon to challenge much of the conventional wisdom about his subject. The resulting book is a must-read for all serious students of American intellectual history and American conservatism."

-Wilfred M. McClay, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


German Jewish refugee Leo Strauss (1899-1973) exercised as much influence on his discipline and on American society as any other political thinker in the second half of the twentieth century. His works on ancient and modern "philosophers," which is the appellation he conferred on those who grappled with the purpose of political life, has by now shaped the academic study of political classics for decades. It is hard to think of Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, Machiavelli's Discourses, Hobbes's Leviathan, Locke's Two Treatises, Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Rousseau's Social Contract, or Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, without noting what Strauss said about the relevant text. One need not agree with his distinctive interpretations (and I often don't) to recognize the impact Strauss and his followers have had on the field of political thought. As a young man in the 1960s it would have been hard for me to imagine any politics department at a first- or even second-rate university that did not have its complement of Straussians. Although not often in their good graces, I did seek the company of some of these intellectuals because of our shared intellectual interests.

There are two features of Strauss's life and work that should be stressed within the limited space of this essay. One, Strauss's rise to fame took place entirely in the United States; whither he fled in 1938 by way of Paris and Cambridge, England. In his adopted land, and especially at the University of Chicago where he taught for more than twenty years, he achieved a fame that had totally eluded him in Germany. There he had lived and worked in an almost entirely Jewish world. His works on Maimonides and Spinoza did not gain their author much esteem. Indeed Strauss had trouble finding a credentialed professor who would oversee his Habilitationsschrift, the completion of which would have allowed him to acquire academic employment. Outside of very small, predominantly Jewish circles, in which he was known for his strong Zionist views, Strauss achieved no promising professional profile. One of the few prominent German scholars who assisted him was the authoritarian conservative jurist Carl Schmitt (1887-1985). Strauss wrote a distinguished commentary on Schmitt's Concept of the Political, which Schmitt had appended to the second edition of that work in 1932; and he obtained for his young, socially awkward admirer a Rockefeller Foundation grant that got him out of the country, on a Hobbes-project, just as the Nazis were taking power.

In the US Strauss's rise was truly meteoric, and presumably he impressed influential academics even before 1949, when he was asked to deliver the prestigious Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago, which were published in 1953 as Natural Right and History. With the exception of the anthology of essays that he and his collaborator Joseph Cropsey put into History of Political Philosophy (1963), a work that has now gone through multiple editions and is sold in Spanish and French translations as well as in English, no other publication contributed to Strauss's fame as much as Natural Right and History. It contains most of what became Strauss's signature positions as a moralist and intellectual historian, assailing the relativism and historicism that Strauss viewed as the pitfalls of the modern age, praising the classical rationalism that he associated with Plato and Aristotle, and stressing the decent modern character of American liberal democracy. Those who heard these lectures viewed the speaker as a champion of the American way of life, who was standing against the totalitarian dangers of the time. A view later heard among some of Strauss's critics, that the lectures glorified antiquity at the expense of modern democratic life, hardly surfaced among the initial reactions to the lectures and book.

Two, Strauss had a distinctive way of interpreting texts; and it became increasingly characteristic of his long American period and took an even more noticeable form in some of his more famous students. There is a huge distinction assumed here between ancient and modern political thinkers in terms of how they understood a desirable regime. Whereas the Ancients aimed at the fulfillment of the highest human moral and intellectual fulfillment by trying to envisage a truly "just" regime, the Moderns, since the rise of Renaissance science with its accompanying epistemological materialism, have grounded government in the ideals of safety and physical comfort. Despite his sometimes condescending attitude toward the "modern enterprise," Strauss and to a greater degree, his disciples praised the moderateness of Anglo-American democracy, which they ascribed to the influence of John Locke and his social contract theory of government. Good modernity, from the Straussian perspective, comes to prevail with the victory of the US as a superpower. In any case the Lectures indicate a much greater concern with the dangers of certain forms of modernity, and particularly amoral historicists and antidemocratic German thought, than with the dullness of quotidian American politics.

Strauss and his students have identified philosophy with rationalism, which means that those who are considered to have been the best political thinkers shared the interpreter's rationalist perspective. Tradition and religious experience are not seen as having contributed to the "philosophical" basis of political thought, although it seemed necessary for thinkers in past ages to pay homage to non-rational sources of authority. Authors had to fall back on myth and superstition in order to get those in non-liberal societies to support their projects. These figures were forced to clothe their real purpose in the language of the times. Moreover, if one looks below the surface, it is often apparent that the thinkers being examined do not really mean what they seem to be saying, according to Strauss. The writer avails himself of "secret writing" in order to suggest to the truly intelligent what circumstances would have not allowed him to express openly.

This may in fact be the most controversial side of Straussian hermeneutics, namely the claim to be able to divine what thinkers meant but were hesitant to declare. This brings us to the question of whether one is able to discover "authorial intention" in a way that most non-Straussian readers of political texts do not think can be done. And this problem is complicated by another factor, which is that Strauss and his students seem to be reading their own liberal, secularist values into those whom they praise as "philosophers." Here one feels impelled to to ask: Were there no practitioners of secret writing who were sectarian Christians or devout Catholics living in Protestant countries or pious Protestants residing in Catholic ones? Why do all "philosophers" seem to replicate the cultural mindsets of their Straussian interpreters? It may surprise some to learn that Strauss treated Plato's references to the purification of the soul and to the divine source of our being and our ideas as a purely heuristic device. Such references are there to exercise our minds or to supply myths to those who are unable to grasp philosophical truths, which are always linked to rational thought. This approach indicates a boundless confidence that one's own rationalism and skepticism have characterized all true philosophers. It also reflects the belief that one descends into relativism and historicism, by conceding the time-conditioned aspect of human knowledge.

We might also ask whether Strauss and his followers deal fairly with what they condemn as "historicism" and "value-free inquiry." Sometimes they seem to be finessing their definitions in a manner that allows them to go after straw-men. The Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov is particularly useful in this regard because of his qualified defense of Max Weber against Strauss. Todorov examines Strauss's assertions in Natural Right and History that Weber with hiding behind a pseudo-scientific façade in order to avoid recognizing his own moral judgments. Like the economist Ludwig von Mises who also crossed swords with Strauss precisely on this issue, Todorov stresses the necessity of separating facts from values in order to do serious scholarship.

The alternative would be to strike moral postures, by telling the reader repeatedly what one disapproves or approves of; or else by constantly mixing into the fruits of research one's personal moral sentiments. Strauss correctly notes that Weber was not consistent in abjuring cultural judgments, particularly in his voluminous study of the world's religions. The famed social theorist clearly colored his language to suit his belief in the superiority of Western belief systems over what he considered to be the thinking of "primitive" cultures. But that inconsistency, according to Todorov, would not justify a leap into the opposite corner, which would be to declare facts and values to be the same or so intertwined that one could not distinguish between them.

The inseparability of scholarship from moral judgment often reaches such a degree among Strauss's disciples that it becomes hard to distinguish their examination of a political text from ideological intention. Part of this problem is having someone's cultural perspective, which often goes unrecognized, being imposed on a long dead thinker, the secret thoughts of whom are being supposedly revealed. This is attributable to the failure to recognize historical distance, where it actually exists; and this defect is not addressed by treating the required recognition as a manifestation of the evil of "historicism." There are also other persistent problems with the Straussian hermeneutic as currently practiced, for example, arbitrary or underdetermined conclusions about the alleged meaning of numerical combinations that Straussian interpreters come up with in attempting to elucidate certain texts. One finds this habit especially at work in expositions of Machiavelli's Discourses on Titus Livy or in Straussian studies of other intricately numbered works. What were occasional tics in the master become annoying eccentricities in his students and students' students.

This leads to what may be the most controversial argument in my recently published monograph. It is for me inconceivable that anyone would be sufficiently attracted to Strauss's hermeneutic, particularly as pursued by his disciples, unless that person is also drawn to certain political concerns. This of course is different from saying that one couldn't admire a particular work by Strauss (I myself am enormously impressed by his early works on Schmitt and Hobbes and by entire chapters of Natural Right and History) without buying into the whole hermeneutic package. It is also possible to adopt some elements in the interpretive apparatus without taking them all. But what we are describing is a willingness to adopt and defend all of the integral parts of the designated hermeneutic. It takes a special personality to do that-or so I argue in my monograph. Most Straussians I have known are Jewish and preoccupied with the lessons of the Holocaust. These biographical facts, taken alone, wouldn't necessarily turn one into a Straussian, but combined with certain other concerns, they might lead one in that direction.

Among the shared characteristics I have in mind is a belief that only a well-armed "liberal democratic" power can protect the world, and especially Israel, against a recurrence of the unguarded moment that led to Hitler's rampage across Europe. Other strands in the belief cluster are that scholarship becomes nihilistic once separated from moral concerns; and that although religion is for the weak-minded (here a growing number of Catholic Straussians might disagree), democratic patriotism will see us through the present cultural wars in our evolving and generally improving society.

Among the Straussians there are practicing Catholics as well as agnostic Jews. But on the whole the Catholic devotees seem less perceptive than their Jewish counterparts about the contents of the package. Most of them are looking for philosophical respectability and wrongly imagine that Strauss in Natural Right and History was defending medieval Catholic natural law. (I've never figured out how they could come to this conclusion, since Strauss's statements about this moral concept strongly suggest that he thought it was based on an archaic, Aristotelian cosmology.) Catholic followers also seem delighted that Strauss went after "relativism," which the Pope has also recently denounced. Unfortunately it's hard to figure out whom in the world of thought or politics would meet Strauss's standards as a relativist. Almost all relativists I've read are conspicuously inconsistent. They are loath to "relativize" their values, as opposed to those of their opponents. Moreover, illustrations of relativism and historicism cited in Natural Right and History usually indicate methodological choices rather than the rejection of moral standards on the part of the thinkers in question. It is perilous to conclude that the argument is over because of what Strauss says about Weber, Hans Kelsen and other German scholars whom he takes to task in his Walgreen Lectures.

It is precisely the weak points in Strauss that have allowed his disciples to become what many of them have now become, which is political journalists of a certain recognizable stripe. Although Strauss may have shared some of their political attitudes, as a liberal internationalist and intense Zionist, he was far more than those labels would describe. He was a learned student of ancient languages and someone so conversant with so many political classics that one has to wonder where he found time to read as much as he did. As someone whose interests overlap, I feel deep admiration for what Strauss managed to master. Those who have refused to mention, let alone look at, my book because they think I have dishonored their cult figure would be astonished at how little their preconceived notions jibe with textual realities. Although I generally have low regard for his major disciples, my book includes praise for their master.

But alas his disciples have become slogan-mongers, who are making reputations for their belligerent foreign policy more than for scholarly debate. They also seem determined, with few exceptions, to ignore their scholarly critics, limiting their responses to denying accusations that they're fascists. Of course Straussians are hardly fascists but liberal Democrats harking back to the Second World War and Cold War era but they seem to have fallen in love with wars against "antidemocrats," whom they are always likening to Hitler. Those who oppose their plan they dismiss as "relativists" or worse. It is one thing to spend one's life like Strauss, among ancient texts and such academic scholars as his lifelong friend, the mathematician and classicist Jakob Klein. It is another thing to be running from one political event to another and authoring and signing affirmations of support for waging "democratic" crusades against some Middle Eastern despot.

I end my book by contrasting two scenes, featuring the Straussian persuasion at different points in its development. The first scene is of Strauss sitting with Klein and other colleagues at the University of Chicago discussing the theory of numbers that they find in Plato's dialogue Meno. The other scene is of a Straussian political activists forty years later, calling for the American government to take a hard line against China, Russia, Syria or some other country viewed as dangerous to the democratic way of life or Israel's security. Although there are Straussians who remain fulltime scholars, the second scene is certainly much more prevalent now than it was fifty years ago.


Paul Gottfried is Horace Raffensperger Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of numerous books, including Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right and The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium and After Liberalism.


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