An Introduction to the Work of Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1969. He also held posts at the New School for Social Research, Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College), and St. John’s College in Annapolis. Born and educated in Germany, he studied and corresponded with some of Europe’s leading intellectual figures of the time. He lived in Paris and later England after the Nazis took power, and he emigrated to the United States in 1937.

Strauss’ work covers a broad range of subjects spanning the entire history of political philosophy. He wrote extensively on Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Maimonides, Al-Farabi, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and others from across the classical canon, which he to some extent redefined. Persistent themes throughout Strauss’ work include the conflict between reason and revelation or “Athens and Jerusalem,” his controversial “rediscovery” of exoteric writing, the differences between ancient and modern political philosophy, and his critiques of historicism, relativism, and Heideggerian existentialism.

The Theologico-Political Problem

Strauss identified “the theologico-politcal problem” as “the theme of [his] investigations” from the 1920s onward. Whatever this ambiguous phrase means, it certainly entails in part the conflict between philosophy and revelation. Strauss examines the difficulties in resolving this conflict, for both philosophy and religion claim to provide the one thing most needful for man. Either everything must be open to philosophical questioning, or certain truths must be taken as revealed. Philosophy’s rivalry with religion is a defining quality of philosophy; and how any one philosopher approaches this conflict—as well as the conflict between philosophy and political or social life more broadly defined—is an important window into the character of his teaching.

In early writings such as Spinoza’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Law, Strauss examines the relationship between philosophy and established religion, particularly the ways in which Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes and Spinoza introduced critiques of the religious orthodoxy advanced by Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. In particular, Strauss explores how the independence of philosophy, achieved during the Enlightenment, entailed profound changes in modern philosophers’ understanding of the relationship between philosophy, religion, and politics.

Read More: Athens and Jerusalem, Maimonides

The Art of Writing

Through his study of religious orthodoxy and various critiques of it, Strauss observed that the public or exoteric presentation of pre-modern philosophers often disguised—although it pointed to—their true teaching. According to Strauss, they used these methods to protect themselves from religious and political persecution and because they recognized that philosophy, in subjecting everything to questioning, was inherently dangerous to any political and religious order, for all regimes depend upon the acceptance of certain truths. Exoteric methods, such as evident contradictions, may also awaken the attention of those inclined to thought; it is a form of education. By writing in a way that only philosophers and those inclined to philosophy are likely to understand, the exoteric writer hoped to address them, while diminishing the likelihood that such subversive arguments would be abused by others.

As Allan Bloom and other scholars of Strauss have noted, the significance of Strauss’ rediscovery of esotericism and exoteric writing has broad implications. The possibility of exoteric writing requires much more care in reading and interpreting classic texts than had become the norm since the Enlightenment. For example, the writings of medieval philosophers may advance certain opinions contrary to religious orthodoxy, hidden within expositions of religious law. Seeming contradictions in those texts may reveal subtle arguments. Likewise, Locke’s apparent criticisms of Hobbes may obscure important areas of agreement.

Although classical philosophers such as Plato and Xenophon did not know monotheistic religion, they were deeply concerned with the the tension between philosophy and the ancient city. Thus, Plato’s dialogues are not simple vehicles in which Plato speaks as Socrates, but deeply layered literary works in which Socrates converses with the citizens of the community that ultimately sentenced him to death. The reader must interpret the full breadth of the dialogue, the speeches of all characters as well as the action, to understand Plato’s full meaning. Authors not generally regarded as political philosophers, such as Aristophanes, may similarly need to be reconsidered.

Moreover, whether an author writes exoterically reveals his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and politics, an essential aspect of any philosophic doctrine. The abandonment of exoteric writing from Kant forward, according to Strauss, indicates an important shift in modern thought, linked to the effort to base political community on reason rather than opinion.

Read More: Art of Writing, Persecution and the Art of Writing

Ancient and Modern Political Philosophy

Related to his study of the art of writing, the difference between classical and modern philosophy became a major theme of Strauss’ work. According to Strauss, “modernity” was initiated by Machiavelli and sought the conquest of fortune and nature by human reason. One essential element of this project and its break with classical and medieval philosophy was its elevation of the vita activa over the vita contemplativa—that is, the subordination of philosophy (and science and mathematics generally) to political and economic life.

Modern philosophic doctrines came to understand human nature not in light of the possibility of ethical and philosophic virtue, which were considered dangerous and impractical guides in ordinary political life, but rather on what Strauss called the “low but solid ground” of man’s ordinary and universal instincts and passions, such as the desire for self-preservation. By following Machiavelli in taking men as they are, not as they ought to be, modern philosophy sought to achieve hitherto unknown material prosperity and security. The perfection of man was not located in philosophic questioning and rare virtues, but in the scientific manipulation of human and physical nature.

Strauss was not alone in seeing this distinction between ancient and modern, but he drew from it the important implication that the crisis of Western rationalism visible in the relativism, historicism, and tyranny so widespread in the twentieth century was not a crisis of reason simply, but of modern thought. He thus turned to classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle not as ancient curios, but with the possibility that the direction and implications of their thought might be in important respects true. Their understanding of happiness, of ethical virtue, of the political importance of justice and the form of government (or “regime”), and of the ceaseless questioning that marks the philosophic life itself is a worthy alternative to modern thought.

Read More: Ancient vs. Modern, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Plato

Liberalism and Democracy

Strauss never published a formal or systematic analysis of American political history or contemporary affairs. Nevertheless, Strauss’ understanding of modern thought and his bringing attention back to the significance of politics in classical philosophy led many of his students to engage in a careful examination of the grounding of liberal democracies like the United States. His students applied and developed upon Straussian themes in their own work on topics such as the American founding period, the Federalist, Abraham Lincoln, and constitutional law, and contributed to the effort of some within the discipline to limit the dominance of behavioral and formalistic approaches.

Historicism, Relativism, and Heideggerian Existentialism

Strauss wrote that “a social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.” His critique of relativism, however, is not based on a novel demonstration of universal values. It is instead based on an attempt to reinvigorate the possibility of classical philosophy.

Strauss argues that the historicist and relativist social science of, for example, Max Weber, while emphatically emphasizing its own positivism, is in fact based on its own dogmatic assumptions. By seeking to understand the great philosophers of the past better than they understood themselves, this social science fails to understand itself. In particular, it does not acknowledge the reliance of its principles, such as historicism and the fact-value distinction, on the claims of modern political philosophy. It further confuses modern political philosophy with all philosophy. Thus, even if modern political philosophy is unable to establish universal or eternal values according to its own criteria, that may not preclude the ability of ancient philosophy or ancient “political science” to define such eternal values.

For if a careful study of classical philosophy reveals that ancient philosophers had much that is compelling to say about basic intellectual, moral, and political issues, would that not call into question the doctrine of historicism? Would it not raise the possibility that ancient philosophers, who could speak intelligently of tyranny, have something to teach modern man?

Strauss approached the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger differently from other versions of historicism, for Nietzsche and Heidegger also returned to the classical origins of political philosophy in order to uncover its true ground. Strauss considered Heideggerian existentialism the most radical and fully developed version of historicism. Heidegger helped make possible a serious retrieval of classical thought, but his view of the connection between philosophical and political life, and of the importance of the theologico-political problem in the origin of modernity, differs from that of Strauss.

Read More: Heidegger, Historicism, Relativism

The Philosophic Life

A recurring and central—if not always explicit—theme of Strauss’ writing is the philosophic life, which receives its original and most powerful expression in the Platonic writings and in other accounts of the life of Socrates. Socrates, in Cicero’s words, “called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove it to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.” For Strauss, this meant that political philosophy seeks to understand the whole through the part of life which, though only a part, comprehends the whole—politics. Political philosophy seeks to ascend from common opinions of the marketplace to the highest philosophic discussions. This also means that political philosophy—all philosophy—in its concern with the universal, the whole, is fundamentally concerned with “values,” with the question of what is to be done in one’s life.

Thus political philosophy is inextricably connected with, and in some respects dependent upon, politics. It may even set the goals of politics. But it is in other respects independent, because it is the highest end of man and his fullest happiness.

Read More: Philosophy and the City, Plato

For further introductory reading, see:

The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, ed. Steven Smith, Cambridge: 2009.

Thomas Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy, Baltimore: 2006.