The Studies of Leo Strauss: An Exchange

Letters, New York Review of Books, October 10, 1985.


Before I met Strauss this is what I had been taught, and had never been given any reason to question. I had spent five years at Yale in the 1930s, as undergraduate and graduate student, where no one, so far as I knew, had ever doubted this orthodoxy. To study the Declaration of Independence—or Plato’s Republic—meant to study the “climate of opinion,” “the spirit of the times,” the “weltanschauung” out of which the work came. Strauss however declared that we must understand the great works of the human mind as their authors understood them, before we try to understand them differently or better (although—contrary to Burnyeat—Strauss never hesitated to make such judgments when he believed he had sufficient grounds for doing so). None of the great writers of the past had believed, either in the fact-value distinction, or in the historicist fallacy that the genesis of an idea was the key to the truth about it.

Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration—as embodying an eternal, and eternally applicable truth—was precisely the kind of reading that I had learned from Strauss. Thus Strauss taught me to read with ever growing wonder and gratitude, both Lincoln and the tradition of political philosophy within which Lincoln had his life and being.

New York Review of Books