What's the story on Leo Strauss?

December 12, 2003

Dear Cecil:

What's the story on Leo Strauss? My extremely limited knowledge of this guy is that he was a crackpot political philosopher given to perverse readings of Plato and Aristotle, who nonetheless attracted a cult following of students. Now I read in a recent issue of Newsweek that one of the Bush administration apparatchiks who fed information to Dick Cheney is a Straussian and that Strauss believed in the "noble lie," the implication being that the search for weapons of mass destruction was a pretext to drag Cheney, Dubya, and us into the war in Iraq. A quick search on the Internet reveals wide belief that a Straussian neoconservative cabal is pulling the strings in Washington. It sounds bizarre, but these are bizarre times. What's going on?

Bizarre is right, brother. This is beyond a doubt the strangest period in American history of which I have personal knowledge--and I lived through the Nixon administration. While I don't buy the idea that an Illuminati-like cult is behind our current adventures abroad, I'm sure that when the story of this era is written, Strauss and his disciples will merit a long footnote.

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was born and educated in Germany, relocated to the UK in 1934, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1937. After lecturing for several years at the New School for Social Research in New York, in 1948 he accepted a post at the University of Chicago, where he spent most of the rest of his career. A charismatic teacher, he attracted a coterie of brilliant students, many of whom became prominent neoconservative thinkers and polemicists; a sizable number of Strauss devotees have served in Republican administrations, starting with Reagan and continuing through Bushes I and II. (Abram Shulsky, the apparatchik you mention, works for the Office of Special Plans, currently under fire for cherry-picking intelligence during the buildup to the Iraq war. And maybe the name Paul Wolfowitz rings a bell?) Strauss's best-known protege is probably Allan Bloom, author of a best-selling critique of U.S. higher education, The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom's book, as dense as it is, has been described as a popularization of Strauss's thought, so if you've toiled through that volume you can extrapolate to the impenetrability of the master's work.

Some say Strauss was the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, but he didn't see himself as a groundbreaking theorist. Rather, he confined himself to what he saw as the proper explication of the great philosophers of old, starting with Plato and Aristotle and working up to the likes of Hobbes and Locke. He felt that the Greeks had found the proper balance between reason and religious belief, but that their post-Renaissance successors sent Western political thought off the rails by trying to arrive at an understanding of the good in terms of reason alone. Such efforts are futile, Strauss argued. We need to infuse reason with an intuitive sense of natural law--not an explicitly religious notion, but still more a matter of faith than inquiry.

Expressed in this broad way, Strauss's views seem relatively unobjectionable. The details are a little more problematic. Strauss's detractors say he was elitist and authoritarian; his defenders claim he thought democracy was the best system that could be hoped for. Even more troublesome was Strauss's method. Ancient texts, he argued, have two layers of meaning--the exoteric (i.e., ostensible) meaning and the esoteric or real meaning, which one can tease out only through patient study of hints and silences. Often the two meanings are completely at odds. The ancients were compelled to write in this opaque way, Strauss held, because vulgar minds would have rebelled at the plain truth. (Look what happened to Socrates.) What's more, dissembling wasn't just an occasional tactic for the great philosophers but their routine strategy.

You're thinking: This way to cuckoo land. Strauss's many critics emphatically agree. (For a few particularly blistering attacks, see M.F. Burnyeat, "Sphinx Without a Secret," New York Review of Books, May 30, 1985, and the more recent work of Shadia Drury.) Still, you can see the appeal of Strauss's approach: it partakes of a long and often disreputable tradition commonly called gnosticism, the search for hidden knowledge. Nothing is what it appears; only initiates can know the truth, and then only after arduous analysis--if you liked Freud, you'll love Strauss. Since Strauss was Jewish, there's a tendency to link him with the more arcane elements of Judaic tradition--the kabbalah, some features of the work of Maimonides, and so on. But it seems to me that the love of inscrutabilia is nonsectarian, and that what we see here is only a high-voltage version of the impulse that leads the common herd to embrace conspiracy theories, numerology, and tarot readings. In light of all this, the scary thing isn't that the government may have lied to us--it wouldn't be the first time--but that for most of the past 20 years our presidents have been lending an ear to adherents of a guy with such a shaky grasp of reality.

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