Political philosopher Leo Strauss was born on this day in 1899. For his 120th birthday, we look back on this essay that the Forward published about Steven Smith’s 2006 book “Reading Leo Strauss.”
During his lifetime, the German émigré political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was barely noticed, except by students at the University of Chicago and an elite cadre of scholars. But beginning with the sensational appearance in 1987 of Strauss disciple Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” and intensifying since the emergence of the Bush administration’s interventionist foreign policy, Strauss has been made a symbol for a particularly nasty version of neoconservatism. Somehow, this quiet, unassuming philosopher, who rarely took a stand on any of the political issues of his day, has become the object of obsessive liberal loathing, to the point where the warmongers in actor Tim Robbins’s anti-war Broadway play, “Embedded,” are depicted as regularly shouting “Hail to Leo Strauss!” to one another.
I was warned about the treachery of the “Straussians” almost three decades before Strauss became demonically associated with the architects of the war in Iraq, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. The late Isadore Twersky of Harvard regularly warned his students against Strauss’s methods and ideas. But the academic anti-Straussianism to which we were exposed in the mid-1970s had nothing to do with American foreign policy. Instead, it was directed against Leo Strauss’s interpretive approach to a Jewish work composed in Arabic more than eight centuries ago in a far saner Middle East: Maimonides’s “Guide for the Perplexed.”
Dissatisfied with the vanities of modern rationalism and liberalism and their unbridled confidence in secularized Western humanity — an arrogance whose origins he traced back to Spinoza — Strauss turned to the medieval religious rationalism of Maimonides as a model of theological and political probity. Strauss held
Maimonides’s “Guide” up as a masterwork of esoteric writing, in which the author manages to convey the deepest and most potent truths only to his elite readership, while artfully concealing them from the unsophisticated masses. In Strauss’s view, Maimonides composed an entirely different kind of book for the unwashed Jewish rabble: his 14-volume code of Jewish law, or Halacha, the “Mishneh Torah,” a utilitarian work of legislation that Strauss believed to be essentially devoid of philosophical merit. In other words, the “Guide,” according to Strauss, contained Maimonides’s ideal doctrines, while the “Mishneh Torah” conveyed his systematic rendering of normative Jewish practice, which he viewed as merely instrumental in maintaining Jewish life.
Among Twersky’s greatest scholarly achievements was his learned refutation of this bifurcated view of Maimonides. Twersky documented the philosophical content that subtly saturates the “Mishneh Torah,” which synthesized Maimonides’s rationalist philosophy with the vast corpus of normative rabbinical law. The irony of Strauss’s treatment of Maimonides is that his mastery of the esoteric “Guide” was not matched by a comparable facility with rabbinical literature needed to appreciate the original philosophical content in Maimonides’s popular code, composed for the widest readership.
Such anti-Straussian criticism from scholarly circles is omitted from Steven Smith’s fine new collection of essays, “Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism.” Instead, Smith’s goal is to explicate the contemporary relevance or, more often, irrelevance of Strauss’s thought, which, he argues convincingly, “did not bequeath a single legacy but a number of competing legacies.” A professor of political science at Yale and the author of two previous books on Spinoza, Smith focuses on what Strauss himself referred to as the “theologico-political problem” — that is to say, the centuries-old, unresolved tension between the dictates of human reason and the doctrines of divine revelation.
Like most collections of essays written over a long period, “Reading Leo Strauss” is a somewhat uneven work. Smith divides his essays into two sections: “Jerusalem” and “Athens,” corresponding to the respective horns of Strauss’s lifelong theologico-political dilemma. The five pieces in the latter section — especially those on Strauss’s version of political liberalism and his views on ancient and modern tyranny — will prove most rewarding to those who keep hearing Strauss’s name invoked but have difficulty understanding his deeply complicated thinking and forbidding literary style. (As Smith puts it, Strauss was a “great master of suspicion” who both read and wrote with the assumption that “the great writers often hide or conceal their most profound thoughts from all but the most careful and persistent readers.”) In demonstrating the complexity of Strauss’s thinking, Smith succeeds admirably in rescuing the philosopher from what he calls “the hostile takeover” of the neoconservatives, particularly by dissociating him from President Bush’s simplistic view of the world. As such, this clear and lucid presentation represents an important corrective to the contemporary distortion of Strauss’s legacy — and not a minute too soon.
Despite Smith’s reverent presentation of his ideas, Strauss emerges as a somewhat maddening, and not terribly sympathetic figure. Smith is almost certainly correct in insisting that Strauss cannot easily be classified in the terms of today’s political discourse, not least because of his lifelong personal reluctance to become a public intellectual. Strauss always saw himself as an academic political philosopher and not as a political activist.
But, more interestingly, Strauss’s life story is filled with the agonies of his many unresolved tensions. A Revisionist Zionist since his teens, Strauss praised the creation of Israel as “the greatest blessing for Jews everywhere,” yet he criticized its secularization of Jewish political life as “a dangerous game.” Zionism, Strauss insisted, could not solve the problem of diaspora, which he viewed as the eternal condition of the Jews. In 1950, Strauss turned down a generous offer from Martin Buber, of a professorship in political philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, preferring to remain a “lifelong Zionist” in Chicago.
This same oscillation, the inability to commit comfortably to any ideological position, and the attraction to eternally unsolved problems and unresolved dialectics, also characterized Strauss’s defense of religious Orthodoxy against the claims of secular rationalism that animated his critique of Spinoza. Strauss insisted that rational philosophy failed in its quest to disprove the supernatural claims of revelation, and that a transcendent faith in the irrational was the most precious possession of the Jews. He was, therefore, a persistent critic of all modern philosophies of Judaism that dispensed of irrational supernaturalism. Yet, Strauss himself was far from Orthodox and had to conclude that “the victory of orthodoxy through the self-destruction of rational philosophy was not an unmitigated blessing.” His critique of Spinoza and rationalism notwithstanding, Strauss was very probably an atheist — though he never clearly confessed to that either.
Two anecdotes about Strauss recounted by Smith, in a book rich with delightful details, well capture Strauss’s essential inability to take a stand. The first relates to Gershom Scholem’s reaction to Strauss’s failed bid for a chair in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University (15 years before he declined Buber’s even more attractive offer). In a letter to his friend Walter Benjamin, Scholem wryly observed that “only three people at the very most will make use of the freedom to vote for the appointment of an atheist to a teaching position that serves to endorse the philosophy of religion.”
The second is what Smith calls “an amusing anecdote” from Strauss’s youth: “I was myself a political Zionist in my youth, and was a member of a Zionist organization. In this capacity, I occasionally met Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionists. He asked me: ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, we read the Bible, we study Jewish history, Zionist theory…we keep abreast of developments, and so on.’ He replied: ‘And rifle practice?’ And I had to say, ‘No.’”
He never fired a shot, yet Strauss does seem to have suffered from a severe allergy to peaceful resolutions, and a corresponding, disturbing attraction to political conflict. And it is in this darkest corner of Strauss’s thinking that one might glimpse — despite Smith’s best efforts at concealment — why so many of his disciples went on to become leading voices of American neoconservatism.
In one of the most fascinating discussions in the book, Smith discloses the profound, lasting influence that German reactionary thinker Carl Schmitt had on Strauss. Schmitt believed that politics thrived only in the context of conflict, going so far as to despise those who dedicated their careers to ending war. As Smith points out: “The very idea of a League of Nations… designed to put an end to war was to Schmitt the very negation of the political. It was from Schmitt that Strauss learned that conflict… between states and peoples is the core of political life.” Like Schmitt, Strauss thus dreaded the very idea of a world without conflict in which, in Schmitt’s words, approvingly cited by Strauss, “there would be culture, civilization, economic life, morality, law, arts, entertainment [Strauss’s own emphasis], and so on, but there would be neither politics nor the state.” Thus Strauss bizarrely warns that “what the opponents of the political have in mind is to bring into being a world of entertainment, a world of fun, a world devoid of seriousness.”
His abhorrence of “entertainment and fun” may provide a psychological key to understanding Strauss’s inability to identify completely with any political or theological camp. Finding comfort in an ideological home might, after all, prove to be — perish the thought — enjoyable. In the introduction to this book (which is, despite Strauss, a most enjoyable read), Smith points to its central concern as addressing the question of whether Strauss was a citizen of Athens or Jerusalem, i.e. “where he stood on the theologico-political problem.” The apparent answer is that Strauss never managed to get off the hyphen.