Leo Strauss

In 1899-1973, American philosopher, b. Hesse, Germany. Strauss fled the Nazis and came to the United States, where he taught at the Univ. of Chicago (1949-68). Strauss is known for his controversial interpretations of political philosophers, including Xenophon and Plato. Strauss wrote an influential critique of modern political philosophy, i.e., philosophy since Machiavelli, arguing that it suffers from an inability to make value judgments about political regimes, even about obviously odious ones. As a model for how political philosophy should proceed, Strauss held up the work of the Ancients, i.e., Xenephon and Plato. He defended the ant historicist position that it is possible for a person to grasp the thought of philosophers of different eras on their own terms. Strauss then wrote a book Natural Right and History (1952), Thoughts on Machiavelli. This Strauss, like his namesake Levi, was a German-Jewish emigre who brought to his adopted country tools and techniques to tailor the frayed fabrics of American garb. The vestments with which Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was concerned, however, were intellectual rather than mall-type paraphernalia. Specifically, he may have been this century’s most profound critic of the adornments of modernity. There is, he argued, a fatal flaw concealed in the rationalistic optimism of the Enlightenment project, and its ramifications have been made manifest by the twin scourges of National Socialism and Leninism. Diagnosis of the malady was his life’s work – diagnosis and intimations concerning appropriate therapy. But although politics was Strauss’s passion, his pursuit of the political was indirect and abstruse. He had no time for party pronouncements or the policy scuffles of the day. Rather, his method was to offer exceedingly close readings of classic philosophical and theological texts and to attempt to elicit from them the political prerequisites necessary for human beings to live well together.Strauss is best known – indeed, notorious in various academic circles – for claiming that the great philosophers of antiquity and the medieval world wrote in a sort of code so as to disguise their real meaning. They did so, he argued, for two reasons. First, they might thereby hope to escape persecution for views deemed harmful or heretical by those possessing a power to impose penalties (think of Socrates’ cup of hemlock). Second and more fundamental, these evasive prose maneuvers were designed to transmit truths to those capable of advantageously knowing them without simultaneously planting in the less able ideas which would bear pernicious fruit. The classical thinkers, said Strauss, deemed the philosophical task to be not merely the construction of ever more refined chains of syllogistic reasoning but rather the doctoring of souls. Complicating this task, though, is the fact that people are a disparate lot. The wise and the good are few, the unwise and morally mediocre many. As with a physic for the body, a potion restorative to one sort of patient can prove deadly to another.The dilemma thereby posed is not so acute within the realm of oral transmission of knowledge; the master can impose a selective student admissions policy. Even there, however, it is impossible to control completely who might be eavesdropping and to whom secondhand reports of one’s remarks might be transmitted. (Recall again the case of Socrates, who, though not publishing, nevertheless perished.) But when doctrines are reduced to writing, access is virtually impossible to control. The solution, argued Strauss, was to write in a way that would allow entry into the heart of the argument only to those who possess virtues of intellect and character adequate to the gravity of the issues broached therein. On the Straussian account, classical philosophical writing is a sword in the stone, a childproof medicine bottle cap designed to keep out the unworthy.