The Real Leo Strauss
An interview with Robert Howse
Philosophers have never been immune to controversy. Connecting intellectuals to dangerous thinking is a problem as old as Socrates, and the last century, with its proliferation of extreme and reactionary ideologies, has only led to additional negative associations. For examples, one need look no further than Martin Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies, or Foucault’s vocal support for the Islamist movement during the Iranian Revolution. However, rarely has there been a thinker of modern times more maligned by their political associations than Leo Strauss.
Strauss, a German-Jewish exile and familiar specter around the University of Chicago of the ’50s and ’60s, is now known less for his philosophical output than for the intellectual legacy he left behind. Following his death in 1973, many vocal former students of his—William Kristol, Harvey C. Mansfield, and Allan Bloom among the best-known—have constructed their own public personas, leading to Strauss‘s portrayal as a paragon of American neo-conservatism and right-wing reactionary politics. Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, has been depicted as a protégé of Strauss, from whom he acquired the theoretical motivation behind the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Seymour Hersh, in an article called “Selective Intelligence” in The New Yorker, sees Strauss as a looming figure in American politics, mentoring a secretive clique of intelligence collectors and policy makers who ended up orchestrating a hawkish foreign policy in America following 9/11.
At the outset, Howse’s book, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, tries to reverse this misunderstanding. Looking at Strauss’s core texts, as well as transcripts from Strauss’s lectures, Howse builds the case that Strauss was undoubtedly a pacifist, albeit a qualified one. Strauss, a reclusive figure, preferred to confine debates to the written word. Through correspondences between his contemporaries—German jurist Carl Schmitt, who became part of the Nazi apparatus early on in the Third Reich, and Alexandre Kojève, a Hegelian advocate for European unity—we can see what Strauss’s real concern is. The nihilistic tendencies of modern philosophy have led to a normlessness in which the only possible moral choices are absolute, culminating in the sort of violent ideology we saw in Hitler’s Germany. Instead, Strauss sends the message that we must strive against conformism, and build for ourselves a vibrant, free society. Seeing modern philosophy as corrupted, he preferred to look for answers in ancient and medieval writings, developing an idiosyncratic style of close reading, and building a dialogue with the authors he studied. Rather than engaging in an explicit refutation of Strauss’s detractors, Howse offers his own close reading of the author’s difficult works, so that we can see for ourselves this real version of Strauss, as a perennially questioning, sensitive reader, always in search of a new perspective on political philosophy.
Your book puts Strauss in dialogue with his contemporaries (Schmitt, Kojève) and philosophers of the past (Machiavelli, Thucydides, etc.). That was Strauss’s MO for most of his academic life, but those who write about him rarely take this course when examining his work. Do you see advantages to that method over a straightforward reading of Strauss’s texts?
In a way, one of the major premises of the book is a certain view of Strauss’s own way of philosophizing, which is the construction of dialogues between thinkers of the past over different periods of time. For example, asking how Aristotle would respond to Machiavelli on the limits of moral virtue, or how Aristotle and Plato would respond to Nietzsche about the significance of suffering and cruelty to human greatness.
One of the reasons I think a lot of Strauss’s works are so misunderstood is because they are not straightforward treatises, or even commentaries or interpretations. They’re actually constructed conversations, where we have Strauss himself posing questions to, for instance, Machiavelli. If you look at the footnotes of Thoughts on Machiavelli, it’s clear Strauss is hosting an intellectual talk show, bringing in Aristotle, Aquinas, or other thinkers of earlier periods to push Machiavelli, to make his arguments seem questionable or less self-evident. That’s a particular kind of writing which I find very rich because it has a kind of openness to it, in that—as he puts it in Liberalism Ancient and Modern—we become judges. Judges with a certain modesty, because we’re interacting with these great ancient thinkers, but also boldness, by virtue of the fact that they disagree with one another. That is, if we think in a subtle and rigorous way about the nature of these disagreements between intellectuals, we start to be able to think for ourselves.
In my mind that is very much his distinctive philosophical methodology. But that hasn’t been widely appreciated, and people have read very different agendas into his way of writing, such as that he was hiding secret sympathies for nihilism or Machiavellianism, or engaged in intentionally obscure writing in order to found a cult. But I think I have a strong textual basis for my understanding of what he’s doing, because he says explicitly what this project is in these key texts.
While Strauss might discount a thinker’s historical background when looking at their work, how did Strauss’s coming of age during the rise of Nazi Germany come to influence what he envisioned for politics and society?
First of all, I’m not sure he would discount it. It wasn’t an accident that Strauss put an autobiographical essay in his English edition of his book on Spinoza, which really rooted the sources of his own thought and intellectual development, and his experiences as a Jew in the Weimar Republic. If I’m suggesting that there’s a personal or biographical dimension to Strauss’s intellectual or philosophical journey, I don’t think that’s something he would deny. He put that essay out there so that people in the Anglo-American sphere might get a sense of the atmosphere of the world in which he grew up as an intellectual. When Strauss was very young—before the age of 30—he was attracted to the philosophical or intellectual Right in Germany. He said that he agreed with almost everything he read in Nietzsche, but this started to change around 1930. There were two developments; one was his confrontation with the fascist political thinker Carl Schmitt, who in 1933 joined the Nazi party at Heidegger’s urging. Partly through that confrontation, Strauss became disillusioned with the anti-liberal polemics of the Weimar Right. I think what he grasped in it was a kind of emptiness; it offered no positive solution, only hatred and rejection of liberalism and to some extent civilization itself, as he would later write in his 1941 lecture “German Nihilism.” Around 1932 or so, he increased his interest in ancient and medieval thought, in Plato, Maimonides, and Al-Farabi. He was searching for a perspective beyond the extreme political divisions of the Weimar republic, as were other thinkers of the period. In Walter Benjamin’s works, for example, you can see that kind of search for a different view, by going to Jewish or classical sources to try and get beyond the polarized world of post-World War One Germany.
Why was Strauss so preoccupied with violence? Naïve as it may sound, isn’t there room in his philosophy for a world that is still heterogeneous and dynamic, but where disagreements never turn into war and killing?
One of the most misunderstood parts of Strauss’s thought comes from the place that he finds for intellectual or philosophical disagreement, which is very important in his work. On the other hand, what he means by intellectual disagreement is not ideological warfare, contrary to what I think some of his enemies—and followers—have thought. One of the most important departure points for his particular way of writing and teaching is the idea that philosophers of the past have always disagreed with each other about the answer to basic human questions. One of his main concerns is whether the existence of that kind of disagreement somehow proves that the ambition of philosophy, to arrive at an adequate, rational account of the whole, is a futile ambition. Strauss’s answer is, no, you might never get there, and that kind of disagreement will probably always be a part of philosophical life, but through conversation between different positions we can at least illuminate the human condition to a considerable extent and know what the basic alternative answers are to these questions. This way, we can understand ourselves better, and know the possible, reasonable options we have for politics and society.
What is it about Strauss that gives him such a dubious legacy? In comparison with other thinkers, who, one can argue, were associated with their own controversial positions°, how come Strauss became saddled with this bad reputation while others got off easy?
There are several dimensions to it. One is contextual; when Strauss taught at the University of Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, it isn’t surprising that he attracted students who were conservative. Now, one of the nice surprises in listening to his lectures and reading the transcripts is that, actually, most of the students in his classes weren’t conservatives. It was a surprise to me that they only made up a small group, and many of the students to whom he’s responding were people on the Left, Marxists, and religious Jews and Christians; he had priests and rabbis in his classes. And none of these people were part of the “Straussian cult”. But he did attract conservative students; I think the reason is an understandable one, and it goes to technology. The truly conservative dimension in Strauss’s thought, and it’s definitely there, is a challenge to the dogmatic belief in progress. At the time in American political culture, virtually every liberal and progressive—it’s even in the word “progressive”—believed, not only in the desirability, but in the inevitability of progress. And Strauss questioned whether you can have progress without significant cost, or whether the societies of the future would be necessarily better than the societies of the past in all respects.
But he also attacked conservatives for a dogmatic distrust of change. There is something good about progress, and Strauss says this too because we want a world that’s more just. But we can’t always be sure that there’s a direct, costless route to such a world. So this distrust of progress, and also, such a great concern with the thought of the past—ironically by giving it vitality, and not through a conservative or antiquarian reading of that thought—probably attracted students of a conservative disposition.
I think it’s also about luck. Strauss himself would talk about Alcibiades being perhaps the most famous, and infamous, of Socrates’ students. It’s a matter of luck who the face of your teaching is in the next generation: Strauss got Allan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield; Socrates got Alcibiades. But this also relates to something I engage in a critical way in the conclusion of my book. Strauss was very reticent to speak forcefully in public about political matters. This might have been a part of the experience of exile. I also think it was partly alienation from what I would call mainstream, fashionable intellectual culture in America. I think that’s one of the differences between him and Arendt. She’s sort of assimilated into the modern Republic of Letters, and Strauss was standoffish and very unwilling to cater to intellectual trends in New York or on the East Coast. He guarded an independence and inner freedom, and that made him a less attractive and lovable figure, as well as a suspicious one. On the one hand you had some very loud and notorious right wing students, on the other hand he himself was very unwilling to come out and speak about political questions in public fora.
Have you gotten any response from the people you might be directly or indirectly referring to in your book, like Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, etc.?
I haven’t gotten any response from Kristol or Wolfowitz. In the case of Wolfowitz I make no criticism on how he's dealt with his association with Strauss. In fact I think that he tried to correct the mistake of trying to attribute his views to Strauss by explaining that, while it’s true that he had taken a couple of classes with Strauss and that he was exposed to Allan Bloom while in Telluride House at Cornell, his mentor was actually a “Dr. Strangelove” figure at the University of Chicago, Albert Wohlstetter. Wohlstetter was a technological optimist, and one of Wolfowitz’s fundamental presumptions was that one could win wars through high-tech, something very much taught to him by Wohlstetter. But, of course, Strauss was a technological pessimist, and he would have thought that a form of deluded modernism, to think that technology could solve as complex and old a human problem as violent combat. So Wolfowitz cleared the record, though he didn’t persuade everybody, and there are people who still suspect him of being a Straussian. But I have no criticism in the sense that he’s misappropriated Strauss.
Now Kristol is another matter, and I do criticize him for that, but I haven’t gotten a response from him. I have had a few intense, angry emails from people who are orthodox Straussians, and my responses to them have been quite straightforward. I am happy to have debates and exchanges in print, and I welcome them to respond critically to the book, but so far they like to pretend it doesn’t exist.