Leo Strauss

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Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899October 18, 1973), was a Jewish German-American political philosopher who has been greatly influential in America.



Strauss was born in Kirchhain (near Marburg), Hessen to Hugo Strauss and Jennie David.

He was a student at the famous Gymnasium Philippinum (from which also Johannes Althusius and Carl J. Friedrich graduated), and during student years he became a political Zionist, although this -- as well as his religious beliefs -- changed frequently during his youth and early adulthood. Strauss received his higher education within the German university system, notably at the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Hamburg, where he took his PhD under Ernst Cassirer.

In 1932, Strauss married Marie (Miriam) Bernsohn in Paris, France. In 1934, he moved to England where, in 1935, he accepted a position at Cambridge University. In 1937, Strauss moved to the United States, where he became a Research Fellow in the Department of History at Columbia University. Between 1938 and 1948, he lectured in political science at the New School for Social Research. In 1944, he became a US citizen and from 1949 until 1968, Strauss served as a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago, chiefly as a professor of political philosophy.

In Saul Bellow's quasi-biographical novel Ravelstein, (2001) the minor character Davarr is based on Strauss, while the central character of Ravelstein represents Strauss' proteg Allan Bloom.

Political ideology

Strauss, neither a liberal nor a democrat, admired the moralism of classical political philosophers such as Plato. He disparaged modern liberalism for its giving primacy to individual liberty at the expense of social cohesion.

A fundamental concept in Strauss's political ideology is the "Straussian text." This is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. Strauss holds that philosophy is dangerous—it calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends—it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men's attachment to their societies.

Strauss not only believed that the great philosophers of classical antiquity wrote Straussian texts, he approved of this. It represented a kind of class system of the intellect, paralleling those which governed the relationships between rulers and ruled, owners and workers, creators and audiences, which exist in politics, economics, and culture. Strauss believed that modern political philosophy tried to abolish this distinction, and he considered it as a kind of "Bolshevism" of the mind.

Strauss argued that contemporary liberalism was the logical outcome of the philosophical principles of modernity, as practiced in the advanced nations of the Western world in the 20th century. He believed that contemporary liberalism contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards relativism, which in turn led to the nihilism that he saw as permeating contemporary American society. As Strauss saw it, "good politicians" need to reassert the absolute moral values that unite society and this would overcome the moral relativism that liberalism had created. To do so, they needed to propagate myths necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose as to ensure a stable society. Modern liberalism had stressed the pursuit of individual liberty as its highest goal, and Strauss wanted government to take a more active role in promoting morality. Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical in Strauss's view because the populace needs to be led; they need strong rulers to tell them what is good for them.


Prior to discussing Strauss's philosophy it is helpful to understand his views on his relation to philosophy and philosophers. Strauss would not use these terms loosely, and would not, himself, deign to consider his contributions as more than an analysis of the previously existing philosophic canon. In his introductory essay on Heidegger he wrote that, "perhaps only the great thinkers are really competent to judge the thought of great thinkers." Here, he made the distinction between "scholars" and "philosophers". He wrote that he knew he was "only" a scholar, but that, today, most who call themselves philosophers are, at best, mere scholars. Scholars are cautious and methodic, not bold. Still, he argued that while the great thinkers are bold, they are in fact even more cautious inasmuch as they see pitfalls whereas the scholar sees sure ground. Finally, scholars become possible because the great thinkers disagree on fundamental points, and these disagreements create the possibility for scholars to reason.

Straussianism, as Strauss's philosophy has come to be called, is predicated on the belief that 20th century relativism, scientism, historicism, and nihilism have been responsible for the deterioration of modern society and philosophy. Some Straussians believe that "universal principles of right" exist and are knowable through careful study of those philosophers who believed in such principles, especially Plato and Aristotle. They reject the modern tendency to interpret the ancient philosophers within the context of the era in which they lived, believing that universal principles transcend historicity.

In "Natural Right and History" Strauss begins with a critique of the epistemology of Max Weber, and then goes on to discuss the evolution of Natural Right and Natural Law with an analysis of the thought of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. He ends with a critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. Throughout, the work of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Montesquieu are referenced and discussed. A selection of Strauss's essays published under the title, "The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism" offers an introduction to his thinking: "Social Science and Humanism", "An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism", "On Classical Political Philosophy", "Thucydides and the Meaning of Political History", and "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy" are topics discussed. Certainly much of his philosophy is a reaction to the works of Martin Heidegger, as Strauss and his erstwhile friend Jacob Klein had numerous encounters with Heidegger when they were young men. Indeed, Strauss wrote that Heidegger's thinking must be understood and confronted before any complete formulation of modern political theory is possible.

Strauss approached the ideas of Nietzsche (and Kierkegaard) from his understanding of the work of Heidegger which he placed under the general rubric of "existentialism"-a movement with a "flabby periphery" but a "hard center" (see his 1961 essay, Relativism and the Study of Man). He wrote that Nietzsche was the first philosopher to properly understand relativism, an idea grounded in a general acceptance of Hegelian historicism. Hegel postulated an end of history. Nietzsche, for his part, saw that "our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as relative as all earlier principles had shown themselves to be." In fine, "the only way out seems to be that one turn one's back on this lesson of history, that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth." It was Strauss's work to show a way out of relativism.

There exists a controversy surrounding Strauss's interpretation of the existing philosophical canon. Strauss believed that the writings of many philosophers contained both an exoteric (public) and esoteric (private or hidden) teaching. For instance, in "Natural Right and History" he contrasts the views of Locke both from a traditional perspective wherein the idea of Natural Law within a Christian theological ground is presumed, and another more radical view contrary to this usual interpretation. To support his contention he mentions Lessing's commentary on Leibniz, and Schleiermacher's Platonic studies. But, according to Strauss, generally this kind of exoteric/esoteric dichotomy became unused by the time of Kant.

Strauss had similar views on the writings of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moses son of Maimon). Maimonides stated that he had controversial esoteric views which were hidden from the masses. Strauss wrote an influential essay illustrating the way to read Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, allowing a reader to find his esoteric, true views.

Characterization of Straussianism

Straussianism is difficult to characterize, as it is more a loose group of scholars who analyze texts in the same manner and keep the same questions in mind while doing so. Primarily, Strauss is recognized for his rediscovery of a manner of writing employed by philosophers. In Persecution and the Art of Writing Strauss recognized that philosophy is ultimately political and that philosophers wrote with political intent. Given that philosophy is necessarily radical relative to common opinion it was necessary for a philosopher to conceal his intent from the majority of the populace, both for their sake (i.e. philosophical challenges to convention have led to many deadly social experiments) and for the philosopher's own sake (i.e. Socrates was put to death by the many for his radical criticism of public opinion).

In addition to what has been discussed above, Strauss constantly stressed the importance of two dichotomies in political philosophy: Athens and Jerusalem (reason vs. revelation) and ancient versus modern political philosophy. Strauss believed that the divide between modern and ancient philosophy, and the dilemma that permeates the modern era, is the relative weight given to the roles of reason and faith in human affairs. Strauss believed that the heavy stress on reason in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, which form the foundation of much of modern political philosophy inasmuch as they serve as the foreground for the notion that human beings more often than not act in rational self-interest, were inadequate bases on which to ground social interaction. Indeed, he believed that an overemphasis on reason led to the deterioration of society, and that what was needed was faith in a transcendent God who rewarded good and punished evil.

Straussian schools

Straussianism is generally divided into two schools: The East-coast and West-coast (the East-coast being represented by the late Allan Bloom and the West-coast by Harry V. Jaffa). This distinction, however, is overformal, an outgrowth of a personal debate between two individuals, rather than representing formalized sets of beliefs. Jaffa has criticized the interpretation of Strauss given by Bloom and the so-called "East-coast" school. In Jaffa's view this school saw Strauss's esoteric teachings as being similar to Strauss's interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Notable Straussians include: Allan Bloom, Seth Benardete, Thomas Pangle, Leon Kass, Harry V. Jaffa, Martin Diamond, Ralph Lerner, and George Anastaplo. Leo Strauss saw himself as a conservative, and for the most part, "Straussians" have become closely associated with certain factions within the U.S. Republican Party. There are, however, Straussians of all stripes: liberals, conservatives, philosophers, metaphysicians, and students of jurisprudence.

Straussian Sources

For a good introduction to Strauss read What is Political Philosophy from University of Chicago Press, and a good introduction to the Straussian approach to political philosophy read History of Political Philosophy edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (an anthology with contributions by various Straussian academics).

Bibliography (by Strauss)

  • The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Genesis
  • On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero
  • Persecution and the Art of Writing
  • Natural Right and History
  • Thoughts on Machiavelli
  • What is Political Philosophy?
  • History of Political Philosophy, co-editor
  • The City and Man
  • Socrates and Aristophanes
  • Liberalism Ancient and Modern
  • Xenophon's Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the "Oeconomicus"
  • Xenophon's Socrates
  • The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws
  • Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
  • Philosophy and Law
  • Spinoza's Critique of Religion
  • The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism

Writings about Maimonides and Jewish philosophy

  • "How to begin to study The Guide of the Perplexed", in "The Guide of the Perplexed" Volume One, Translated by Shlomo Pines, The University of Chicago Press, 1963
  • "The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed" in Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, 38-94.

Bibliography on Leo Strauss

  • "A Giving of Accounts," Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Kenneth H. Green. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997
  • Brague, Rmi, "Leo Strauss and Maimonides," in Leo Strauss's Thought, ed. Alan Udoff, Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 1991, 93-114.
  • Drury, Shadia B., "Leo Strauss and the American Right". Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
  • Green, Kenneth, Jew and Philosopher The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.
  • Ivry, Alfred L., "Leo Strauss on Maimonides" in Leo Strausss Thought, ed. Alan Udoff. Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 1991, 75-91.
  • Kochin, Michael S., "Morality, Nature, and Esotericism in Leo Strausss Persecution and the Art of Writing." The Review of Politics 64 (Spring 2002):261-283.


  • Ted V. McAllister. 1996. Revolt Against Modernity : Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin & the Search for Postliberal Order. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
  • Leo Strauss. 1958. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

External link

Dr. Shadia Drury is an expert on Straussian Neoconservatives.

fr:Leo Strauss ja:レオ・シュトラウス no:Leo Strauss


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