Mark C. Henrie, "Straussianism," First Principles, 5 May 2011.


Straussianism is the term used to denote the research methods, common concepts, theoretical presuppositions, central questions, and pedagogic style characteristic of the large number of conservatives who have been influenced by the thought and teaching of Leo Strauss (1899–1973). Straussianism is particularly influential among university professors of historical political theory, but it also sometimes serves as a common intellectual framework more generally among conservative activists, think tank professionals, and public intellectuals. Currently, Straussianism is associated in the public mind with neoconservatism, but the precise nature of this relationship is controversial.

Least controversially, Straussianism is defined by its method within the academic discipline of political theory. Straussians engage in a “close reading” of the “Great Books” of political thought; they strive to understand a thinker “as he understood himself”; they are unconcerned with questions about the historical context of, or historical influences on, a given author; they seek to be open to the possibility that in any given Great Book from the past, one may come across something that is the truth, simply. Two things may at once be said about this approach, which resembles in important ways the old New Criticism in literary studies. First, the method is powerful, and the effort of intellectual discipline that it requires cultivates a particularly focused kind of discursive intelligence: Straussians, like the old New Critics, are often among the most penetrating readers of texts. Second, like the New Criticism, the Straussian method may be reproduced with relative facility. It does not require field research, extensive contextual historical investigations, technical skills such as paleography, or the acquisition of multiple foreign languages. All that is necessary is a properly trained mind and a Great Book. These two facts may help explain, on the one hand, the intellectual prestige of Straussians, and on the other hand, the widespread success of Straussianism as an academic “school.”

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