Leo Strauss was born to Hugo and Jenny David Strauss on September 20, 1899, in Kirchhain, Germany, a rural town in Hesse outside the university city of Marburg. Hugo Strauss was a merchant in the grain and wool wholesaling business established by his father, Meyer, and a leading member of the local Jewish community. Strauss would later say that he was raised in a “conservative, even orthodox Jewish home” in which “ceremonial laws were rather strictly observed but there was very little Jewish knowledge.”
Strauss attended the Gymnasium Philippinum in Marburg, where he received a classical, German humanist education and “furtively read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.” Strauss later wrote that “Nietzsche so dominated and charmed me between my 22nd and 30th years that I literally believed everything I understood of him.”
In December 1918, after seventeen months of military service as an interpreter, Strauss entered the University of Marburg. Marburg had been the home of Hermann Cohen, an eminent neo-Kantian and scholar of Jewish thought, until his death earlier that year. Strauss would finish his doctorate at the University of Hamburg in 1921. His dissertation, “On the Problem of Knowledge in the Philosophical Doctrine of F. H. Jacobi,” was written under the supervision of Cohen’s former student Ernst Cassirer. Strauss later called the dissertation “a disgraceful performance.”
Although primarily interested in theology at the time, Strauss went to Freiburg in 1922 to study with Edmund Husserl. Strauss claimed not to have been “mature enough” to derive great benefit from Husserl, but it was at Freiburg that Strauss encountered Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s lectures on Aristotle’s Metaphysics—particularly his willingness to confront the roots of Greek philosophy free of the distortions of medieval and modern philosophical traditions—made a profound impression on Strauss. Next to Heidegger, Strauss wrote, “Max Weber, till then regarded by me as the incarnation of the spirit of science and scholarship, was an orphan child.” Also during these years in Germany, Strauss began his acquaintance and correspondence with Jacob Klein, Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Löwith, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Carl Schmitt, Gershom Scholem, and others.
Strauss claimed to have “converted to Zionism—to simple, straightforward political Zionism” at age 17. Although his views on Zionism would become more complicated over the years, much of his early writing focused on Zionist debates. Early in the 1920s, Strauss began writing on Hermann Cohen’s treatment of Spinoza and later on Spinoza, Hobbes, and Enlightenment critiques of religion more broadly. He published Spinoza’s Critique of Religion in 1930 while a research assistant at the Academy for Jewish Research in Berlin.
In 1931, Strauss applied to study with theologian Paul Tillich but was refused. Instead, he accepted a Rockefeller fellowship to study in Paris in 1932. There, Strauss continued writing on Hobbes and Spinoza. He also met Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève and sociologist Raymond Aron, and he married Miriam Bernsohn.
Unable to return to Germany after the rise of National Socialism, Strauss obtained a temporary position at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge in 1935. Strauss resumed his study of Hobbes, finishing The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Genesis in 1936. He also published his first full-length study of Maimonides, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors. In an obituary of Strauss, Allan Bloom later traced Strauss’ study of exoteric writing to this encounter with medieval philosophy:
Strauss turned to Maimonides. His first impression was bewilderment. It was not only that he could make no sense of it; he felt utterly alien to the manner of thought and speech. But it was always his instinct to look for something important in that which seemed trivial or absurd at first impression, for it is precisely by such an impression that our limitations are protected from challenge. These writings were distant from what he understood philosophy to be, but he could not accept the ready explanations based on abstractions about the medieval mind. He kept returning to Maimonides and also to the Islamic thinkers who preceded and inspired Maimonides. And gradually Strauss became aware that these medieval thinkers practised an art of writing forgotten by us, an art of writing with which they hid their intentions from all but a select few.
He had discovered esoteric writing. By the most careful readings, the texts become intelligible and coherent to rational men. This discovery, for which Strauss is famous and for which he is derided by those who established their reputations on conventional interpretations, may appear to be at best only an interesting historical fact, akin to learning how to read hieroglyphics. But it is fraught with philosophic significance, for the different mode of expression reflects a different understanding of reason and its relation to civil society. When one becomes aware of this, one is enabled to learn strange and wonderful things and to recognize the questionable character of our own view, to which we see no alternative. Out of this discovery emerged the great themes that dominated the rest of Strauss’ life: Ancients and Moderns, and Athens and Jerusalem. Real radicalism is never the result of passionate commitment, but of quiet and serious reflection.
In 1937, Strauss moved to the United States. Following a brief fellowship at Columbia University, Strauss held a position at the New School for Social Research from 1938 to 1948. His first writings in America included wartime lectures on German intellectual history, such as “On German Nihilism” (1941). Strauss further developed his study of exoteric writing in essays on classical thinkers, such as “The Spirit of Sparta and the Taste of Xenophon,” appearing in 1939, and On Tyranny in 1948. “Persecution and the Art of Writing” was published in 1941, and his first extensive studies of Plato and Machiavelli were printed in the mid-1940s.
In 1949, Strauss received a professorship at the University of Chicago. The publication of Natural Right and History (1953) brought lasting renown along with intense controversy. Strauss attacked the relativistic attitude of contemporary social science, finding it scarcely distinguishable from nihilism and an impediment to philosophic and even scientific knowledge. He further argued that the apparent impossibility of rational value judgments—the outcome of historicism and positivism—was not a crisis of philosophy itself, but rather a result of developments in modern political philosophy. Thus, like Heidegger, he returned to the roots of classical Greek philosophy, but in doing so sought philosophic alternatives to Heideggerian existentialism.
Strauss went on to write fifteen books, including Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), The City and Man (1964), Socrates and Aristophanes (1966), and Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968). He also cultivated a devoted group of students and followers, including Allan Bloom, Seth Benardete, Harry Jaffa, Stanley Rosen, Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Martin Diamond, who would make important contributions to the study of political philosophy and political science in their own right.
In 1969, Strauss, then the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science, retired from the University of Chicago. He spent a year at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) before being named a scholar in residence at St. John’s College in Annapolis in 1970. He died of pneumonia on October 18, 1973.
Strauss’ teachings on ancient and modern political philosophy, exoteric writing, historicism, and relativism remain subjects of debate. But there is no question that his work played a major role in reviving and transforming the study of political philosophy and re-established the importance of underappreciated authors such as Xenophon and Aristophanes.
For further reading on Strauss’ biography, see also:
Allan Bloom, “Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973.”
Eugene R. Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher.
Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography.
Leo Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts.”