Guide for the Perplexed

Steven J. Lenzner, "Guide for the Perplexed," Claremont Review of Books, 23 August 2007.


In recent years, as the name of the political philosopher Leo Strauss has grown increasingly familiar, his teaching has become increasingly misunderstood. Indeed, the portrait painted sometimes of Strauss as the posthumous mastermind of the Bush Doctrine does not even rise to the level of caricature—for a caricature, however distorted, bears some resemblance to its model.

Strauss was born in Germany in 1899, emigrated as the Nazis rose to power, and came at last to the United States in the late 1930s. While teaching at the New School and at the University of Chicago, he founded a “school” whose members seek to further his aim of restoring true liberal education. By far Strauss’s most important legacy is his books—such works as Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), and Socrates and Aristophanes (1966). In those books he succeeds not simply in reviving the serious study of political philosophy and its history, but in according to political philosophy an unprecedented prominence. No less important in his rediscovery of the philosophic arts of reading and writing, which provide us access to virtually every great work written prior to the 19th century.

These achievements, however, have been temporarily eclipsed by ascriptions to Strauss of an imaginary political influence—one that he neither sought nor would have welcomed. When the frenzy was at its peak, we were regaled with accounts of how the evil genius’s disciples employed noble lies to manufacture the war in Iraq—a fairy tale repeated in such publications as the New Yorker, Newsweek, and Harper’s. The breathless jeremiad in Harper’s—”Leo Strauss, George Bush and the Philosophy of Mass Deception”—intoned that “there appears to be no end to the damage that is being done in the name of Leo Strauss.”

Strauss’s students and friends have come to his defense, and in these three new books, intended for a general audience, the authors easily lay to rest the worst of the canards spread by his enemies in the academy and the media (two realms that seem increasingly as one). Still, as welcome and useful as these books are for introducing Strauss to a wider audience, they fail to provide an account of him that does justice to his twin arts of reading and writing. Such an account would free readers from some common misperceptions, and inoculate them against some misunderstandings that even Straussians are heir to.

Claremont Review of Books