On Leo Strauss



Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan published an article in The Daily Dish about Leo Strauss, the eminent German political philosopher who immigrated to the United States during the time of Hitler’s rise to power. After his arrival in New York City, Strauss taught with other academic immigrants at the University in Exile (The New School for Social Research), and then spent most of his remaining years teaching in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. During those years, other noted immigrant scholars at the University included Hans J. Morgenthau and, later, Hannah Arendt. Sullivan’s article about Strauss began by observing:

“What a relief to read something sane [a recent New York Times book review] about the great philosopher, Leo Strauss. I was taught by a “Straussian,” have known many and read more, and I could never understand the idea how the great man could be reduced to some kind of secret guru to “neoconservatism”. There’s a section in my forthcoming book that makes this point about the inherent skepticism, mischief and seriousness of Strauss as a thinker – qualities that make him particularly ill-suited for being a secret mastermind to anything, let alone a total transformation of American conservatism into something like its opposite. So it’s good to see a review about a book that seems to be based on the actual reality of his fascinating, dense, precise, often funny, and always curious study of the greatest texts in our civilization.”

Today, Sullivan posted a number of short commentaries sent in by his readers, which both agreed with and expanded upon his position that over time the writings of Strauss have been profoundly misunderstood and that those distortions have been used to bolster today’s nationalistic form of neoconservatism. I felt extremely complemented that Sullivan chose to reprint part of an article that I published many months ago, addressing the very same issue:

I’m not the only one to be struck by the difference between what Leo Strauss actually wrote and what some have inferred from it – both on the paranoid left and the triumphalist right. Here’s a post written almost a year ago on the same theme:

“The power of Leo Strauss’s students, and those who have in turn studied under them, upon the growth and direction of the Republican Party in Washington is a well-documented fact. His followers have been credited with providing American neoconservatism with its distinctive qualities: its emphasis upon crisis, its aversion to liberal tolerance, its rejection of pluralism, its insistence upon nationalistic superiority, its religiosity, and more.

However, far less is known about the degree to which these Straussian power brokers have misunderstood his teachings and distorted his legacy. Strauss actually had little to do with promoting a particular political party, nor any model of political ‘crusade.’

For Strauss, being conservative implied, more crucially, that optimal political actions depend upon proceeding with a kind of thoughtfulness characterized by careful introspection and depth, as well as being deliberative, cautious, attentive to detail and non-impulsive. He was not known to teach adherence to one American political party or another. Strauss was more interested in examining the great political writings of the past and teaching his students a ‘new’ way to read important texts. He was well known for repeatedly appearing in front of his classes and venturing to minister to his own as well as to his students’ ignorance by simply asking, ‘What does this mean?’

Dr. Strauss’s openness to the virtue of prudence was accompanied quite naturally by a sense of wariness: keenly cautious, attentive and watchfully prudent. A testimonial to this sense of wariness was the copy of Durer’s famous watercolor, ‘A Young Hare,’ that he had on his office wall. He particularly liked the picture, he said, ‘because the hare sleeps with its eyes open.’

It has been said that great minds are often, if not always, as great in their simplicities as in their complexities. Strauss greatly admired Winston Churchill’s historical work, ‘The Life and Times of the Duke of Marlborough.’ In line with this, Strauss revealed his capacity for simple directness perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in his eulogy of Churchill: ‘The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant – this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.”

Sullivan followed my comments with the observation that, “One way in which conservatism can be guided back toward sanity is perhaps by revisiting the great conservative minds of recent times. Oakeshott and Strauss are the two central figures in this endeavor – which is why they both feature in “The Conservative Soul.”

One Response to “On Leo Strauss”

  1. st leo university Says:

    […] of Chicago. This article discusses how the writings of Strauss have been profoundly misunderstoodhttps://disembedded.wordpress.com/2006/06/27/on-leo-straussSaint Leo University Home Page – Education, Online Learning …The Saint leo university Home Page […]

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