Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899-October 18, 1973

"Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899-October 18, 1973," Political Theory, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Nov. 1974), pp. 372-392.  


Thus, the books of his ripeness are almost as alien to us as are the books with which he dealt. I recently re-read Thoughts on Machravelli and realized that it is not at all a book as we ordinarily understand a book. If one sits down and reads it as one reads a treatise its contents are guarded by seven seals; it provides us with a few arid generalizations that look like oases in a sandy desert. But the book is really a way of life, a sort of philosophy kit. First one must know Machiavelli’s text very well and have it constantly in hand. And as soon as one gets acquainted with Machiavelli one sees that he cannot be understood without knowing Livy’s text very well. One must first read it on its own and try to form a Livian interpretation of Livy, and then let Machiavelli act as one’s guide in order to arrive at a Machiavellian interpretation of Livy. It is in our coming to the awareness of the difference between these two interpretations that one gets one’s first inkling of what Machiavelli is about. On the way one is forced to become involved in concrete details that take time and reflection. For example, Machiavelli’s shockingly witty remark about Hannibal’s “inhuman cruelty and other virtues” only takes on its full significance from the fact that it a based on a passage in Livy where he discusses Hannibal’s strange mixture of virtues and vices; according to Livy Hannibal’s major vice was his “inhuman cruelty.” This is only a sample of an infinity of such charming and illuminating details which, when put in order, constitute a concrete, as opposed to an abstract, consciousness of the political phenomenon. Then one realizes that Strauss’ book bears the same relation to Machiavelli’s book as does Machiavelli’s book to Livy’s book. The complexity of Strauss’ undertaking is mind-boggling; it is not a complexity born of the desire to obfuscate; it is a mirror of reality. One must come to know Machiavelli’s enormous cast of characters-Brutus, Fabius, David, Cesare Borgia, Ferdinand of Aragon, and so on-and be interested in their action and see the problems they represent. One must care about them as one cares about the persons in a novel. Then one can begin to generalize seriously. And Machiavelli and Livy will not do, for Machiavelli points us to Xenophon, Tacitus, Cicero, the Bible, and many other writers. One must constantly stop, consult another text, try to penetrate another character, and walk around the room and think. One must use a pencil and paper, make lists, and count. It is an unending task, one that continually evokes that wonder at what previously seemed commonplace which Aristotle says is the origin of philosophy. One learns what it means to live with books; one is forced to make them a part of one’s experience and life. When one returns to Strauss’ book, after having left it under his guidance, it suddenly becomes as gripping as the denouement of a drama. As one is drawn through the matter by the passion to make sense of what has involved one for so long, suddenly there appears a magic formula which pierces the clouds like the sun to illuminate a gorgeous landscape. The distance between the appearance of this book and its reality is amazing. It is a possession for life.

Joseph Kenney [pdf]