Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Letter

Scott Horton

Was Leo Strauss democracy’s best friend? In a letter written at the time of his emigration, Strauss describes his political principles - Fascist, Authoritarian, Imperialist

“We believe that failing to call a spade a spade is not scientific.”
— Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958)

In the last several months, the New York Times has run four pieces defending Leo Strauss from his critics. By comparison, the Times has run no pieces in which Strauss is actually criticized, which suggests an odd editorial posture. Indeed, the Times seems to have mounted a veritable campaign for the defense of the beleaguered Leo Strauss, which seems strange considering that he has been dead for over thirty years.

These pieces are remarkably consistent. For one, each turns the very serious criticism of Strauss and his relationship with the American Neoconservative movement into a point of ridicule. The criticism is grossly distorted and key elements are misstated. For another, they present Strauss as a “liberal democrat,” not in a domestic political context, but rather as a defender of the tradition of liberal democracy we associate with Locke, Hume and J.S. Mill.

The Liberal Critique of Strauss
The key criticisms of Straussian political thought are complex and difficult to summarize. There are a great number of liberal critics, but three seem to take the leading position: Shadia Drury, Stephen Holmes and Anne Norton (though Norton’s work may more accurately be called a criticism of Straussians than of Strauss himself, a point which is true to some extent of all three). Of these, Holmes does the most convincing job of contrasting Strauss with the thinking of the liberal tradition, and his critique can be summarized as follows:

(1) Strauss rejects the fundamental liberal idea that wide-open, uncensored public disagreement is a creative force, mobilizing decentralized knowledge and bringing it to bear on issues of public importance. Liberalism, above all, insists that the factual premises of the use of force must be tested in an open adversarial process, but Strauss’s entire philosophical posture is a sarcastic rejection of this idea. For Strauss, knowledge belongs to a few - we know ahead of time who can and who cannot contribute something serious to a discussion. This “closed club” view of knowledge and debate with its essentially anti-democratic premise contributed to the atmospherics of the Bush drive to war against Iraq.

(2) Strauss believed that the liberal-Enlightenment tradition was naïve, and in particular the notion of Enlightenment thinkers that “revelation” (religious myths and dreams) could be banned from politics (as noted below, this was the crux of Strauss’ dissertation done under the great Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer). For Strauss, this is impossible; the repressed will return; hence it is crucial for the secular few, the men of science, to bring religion into politics on their own terms. The American Neocons' bizarre alliance with America’s Religious Right follows directly from this analysis.

(3) One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the king or Executive, stands above the law. For Strauss this idea was foolishness. Strauss’ critique can be seen in his writings on Plato and Xenophon, but their origin clearly lies with the Nietzschean criticism of Christianity as a slave morality designed to trick and “tie down” the natural geniuses. Strauss applies this criticism to law; law spells weakness; law is a trick of the weak to tie down the strong. Hence, Strauss applauds the decisive leader who acts outside of the law to achieve his goals. Nevertheless, the consequences of Strauss’ dismissive attitude towards the Rule of Law can be seen today in the Neocon advocacy of jettisoning traditional norms of the law of armed conflict and in allowing the president to operate outside of clear criminal statutes (like FISA) as an aspect of his war-making powers.

(4) Strauss always said that liberalism was unable to defend itself; that it must be defended, if at all, by non-liberals, willing to go outside the rules. This argument again has a firmly Nietzschean aspect. While Strauss seeks to cast it in terms of writers of classical antiquity, it is hard to read much of his writings without having an image of Carl Schmitt come to mind. Strauss would present himself as a “savior” of liberalism, but in the end, like Schmitt, one must fear that he would “save” liberal democracy by putting it to death.

See Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993).

Put simply, Strauss takes firm target at the core values of liberal democracy, and particularly the American variant. Before his arrival in America, Strauss was blunt in these criticisms. After his arrival, he adopted a far more circumspect approach. After all, he was in America and writing in English, and his own philosophy would demand that he flatter or indulge national prejudices and write as if he believed in them. Like his mentor, Ernst Cassirer, Strauss had concluded by the mid-thirties that Europe, and even Britain, was simply unsafe. Only America, with its formidable resources and protected by expansive oceans from its potential adversaries, offered the prospect of safe haven.

These aspects of Neocon thought are extremely important to Americans today. While the Bush Administration cannot really be cast as a bearer of pure Neocon thought, it does appear to have embraced many of these ideas with gusto, and has scored astonishing successes in implementing them.

Both the Rothstein review and the Smith book attempt to present Strauss as a person right at home with the land to which he emigrated and its Enlightenment tradition. This is extremely doubtful. But it is an act of serious deception to present Strauss as “democracy’s best friend” (to quote the last, a review essay by Edward Rothstein published on July 10, in turn quoting Steven Smith’s new book, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism) without at least making clear the deep-boring criticism that Strauss directs at American democracy.

Strauss’ Intellectual Milieu
One thing consistent among these defenses of Strauss is either a remarkable ignorance of Strauss, the intellectual milieu from which he came, his life and his thinking, or conscious dissembling about them. Strauss is a fascinating figure, well worth reading today. His scholarship had a strong focus on a handful of texts from classical antiquity – principally Greeks such as Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. This approach seems quaint to Americans, but for those who emerged from the academic milieu of the German-speaking world in the first decades of the twentieth century (think of novels such as Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat [The Blue Angel] or Hermann Hesse’s Unterm Rad [Beneath the Wheel]) it is actually typical. Strauss contemporaries like Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, who like Strauss were close to Heidegger, had a focus on many of the same texts, though they do not adopt Strauss’ at times quite eccentric interpretations.

Strauss’ writing at the time he went into emigration and started the series of moves that led, ultimately, to the United States, serves powerfully to show just how doubtful the current efforts to rehabilitate Strauss are. Two contemporaries weigh heavily in Strauss’ writing and thinking: Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. Strauss’ thinking and attitudes towards the politics of this seminal era make sense when seen against this background, but otherwise can be confusing. There seems little doubt that Strauss saw himself as an acolyte of Heidegger’s, and the thrust of his criticism of modern society (and his intellectually arrogant supposition to be the leader of a tiny clan of intellectuals who are fully cognizant of the depth of “the crisis of modern times”) and his fascination with texts of antiquity reveals a Heideggerian hallmark. Carl Schmitt was likewise a critical influence on Strauss’ concept on the state, and Schmitt’s own positive assessment of Strauss’ work on Hobbes enabled Strauss to secure a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study in Paris, and thus exit the disintegrating remains of Weimar Germany. As reflected by Strauss’ comments on Schmitt’s Der Begriff des Politischen (The Concept of the Political), there were few barbs hurled in this love fest. Like Diogenes Laërtius’ Pythagoras, Strauss puts his faith in the philosopher to salvage mankind from the cruel degradations of modern society. Schmitt, on the other hand, counts on the man of action. We might call it a guild distinction between an academically inclined lawyer and a philosopher tout court.

The Löwith-Strauss Relationship
Karl Löwith was another Heideggerian who was close to Leo Strauss in this period. Like Strauss, Löwith faced the dilemma of being a Jew anchored in the German academic community. By 1933 it was clear that Jews had no future in this system and that emigration was essential to those who wanted to pursue a livelihood in the academy. It was against this background that, on May 19, 1933, Strauss penned a letter that he consciously marks as a political confession.

The Letter
I attach below my translation of the letter, which I am posting in blog form to solicit comments and corrections or improvements. This is a document of great importance to understanding Strauss and his politics, and it’s important to get this right. My translation should at this point be viewed as a work-in-progress. The letter has a number of ambiguous turns of phrase, and ripped from its historical context it may be difficult to understand (I say this in part with irony because of Strauss’ fierce opposition to an analytical approach that puts writers in the historical framework of their times, but with respect to correspondence, I have no doubt that Strauss would agree with me). Moreover, whereas to one of Strauss’ contemporaries, anyone who did not master classical Greek (much less Latin) would be considered a hopeless rube, few serious scholars today have such linguistic tools. I have therefore incorporated annotations which provide necessary explanations, as well as translations of the non-German phrases (which I leave untranslated in the text) with some musings on the thoughts that I suspect they are designed to evoke.

In this letter, Strauss looks at the fate he faces in consequence of the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. He admits that it is impossible for him as a Jew to live under their regime, since they have adopted anti-Semitism as a keynote of their rule. But while expressing abhorrence at their anti-Semitism, Strauss consciously refuses fully to repudiate Nazi fascism. To the contrary, he accepts fascism as a legitimate bearer of “the principles of the right,” and he embraces them, namely: fascism, authoritarianism and imperialism. He then proceeds to ridicule the Enlightenment values of inalienable rights, quoting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789 (though he could just as easily have quoted the American Declaration of Independence), and he quotes a passage of Virgil’s Aeneid, a passage which Carl Schmitt was also fond of quoting.

I am convinced that this is a very candid statement of Strauss’ politics at the time he wrote it, a reading signaled by his confessional closing. Indeed, anyone who carefully reads Strauss’ book on Hobbes (Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft in ihrer Genesis, 1936, but largely complete in 1933; translated in English as The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis) or his dissertation, written on the anti-Enlightenment writer Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, would suspect these sentiments.

Was Strauss a fascist?
It seems almost impossible to imagine a German-Jewish refugee in France, a man who describes his religious upbringing as “Conservative, if not Orthodox” actually embracing the political philosophy of his persecutors. On the other hand, we should be cautious about projecting postwar sensibilities back into the thirties. Strauss was a Middle European intellectual living in a period where liberalism looked exhausted and unable to function, and many of his contemporaries, and indeed many of Strauss’ mentors, were engaging with fascist thought. Specifically, we should consider that the two contemporary thinkers who appear to have exerted the greatest influence on Strauss at this time – Heidegger and Schmitt – were each entering into a dalliance with fascism. In their respective Faustian pacts, one emerged as the rector magnificus of one of Germany’s most famous universities, while the other (indeed, the week of this letter) became a Prussian State Councillor and key legal advisor to the Reich-Chancellor. This situation no doubt contributed to Strauss’ inability to make a clean break.

It seems fair to say that fascist thought was appealing to Strauss, otherwise why would he be willing to toy with the label? At the same time, the aspect of fascism that most appealed to Strauss is also evident from the letter: it is the reliance on thoughts of classical antiquity, particularly of the early imperial era of Rome, as they were distorted in the political mirror of the thirties - most effectively by the Italian fascists. We should take care to note the time of the letter: it comes a year before the famous Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer), the point at which the Nazi regime first revealed its fangs by summarily executing Ernst Röhm and roughly a hundred figures associated with him, including a former chancellor and other prominent persons. There can be no doubt but that this and later events would have produced a more resolute turn by Strauss against the Hitler regime.

Nevertheless, the Löwith letter is profoundly revealing of the nature of Leo Strauss’ conservatism. It places his conservatism outside of the Anglo-American tradition that links to figures like Locke, Hume and Burke. Instead, it springs from a traditional Continental European variant which is deeply rooted in religion and in the notion of a benevolent (though sometimes not particularly benevolent) authoritarian leader legitimized by religion.

I note that Andrew Sullivan, in his forthcoming book, The Conservative Soul, takes a different view, putting Strauss in the tradition of conservatism of doubt. Andrew’s book is a significant accomplishment, and his dissection of trends in conservative thought in the last generation is little short of dazzling. However, I disagree with him about Strauss, and am particularly confident of my conclusions as to the young Strauss.

Strauss, Lessing and the Spinozastreit
For Strauss, the Enlightenment and its embrace of reason over faith as a political lodestar was a monumental wrong turn in European intellectual history. Moreover, Strauss was particularly convinced that the American Republic was built on a shaky foundation. In his dissertation, Strauss dwells at length on the so-called Spinozastreit that erupted in late 18th century Germany, involving Jacobi, Samuel Reimarus and the shining twin stars of the German Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn. Considering Lessing’s towering position in the period as an advocate of tolerance (and notably also as an aggressive and convincing advocate for the emancipation of the Jews), Strauss has a hard time assailing him – but he attempts instead a bizarre and completely unconvincing posthumous conversion, suggesting that at the end of his life, Lessing had come back to religion and understood once again its proper role in society as a tool for those who govern. The particular vehicle that Strauss chooses for this purpose is reinterpretation of a less well known, but nevertheless important Lessing work. Ernst und Falk: Gespräche für Freimauer (1781) are the “Masonic Dialogues” in which Lessing quotes Benjamin Franklin and hails the American Revolution and the values it announced as the beginning of a new era for politics premised on reason and tolerance. The technique of dialogue introduces a hint of ambiguity to the work – ambiguity that Lessing felt he needed for a number of reasons, largely relating to his position as a public servant. However, Lessing’s preference for reason over faith, and particularly, his enthusiastic embrace of the American Revolution, lie at the undeniable center of the work. And they form precisely the perspective that Strauss struggles to debunk throughout his dissertation. All of which helps explain Strauss’ homesickness for Germany, and his lack of enthusiasm for the English-speaking world in general, and America in particular, at this snapshot point in 1933.

Strauss between Athens, Jerusalem… and Berlin
While Strauss appears alarmingly willing to accept the Nazis as the carriers of his Conservatism in May 1933, this certainly does not mean that he views fascism, or much less Nazism, as his political ideal. A close reading of his works at the time suggests a different perspective. He clearly had no love lost for the Weimar Republic and the values it embraced. He eagerly adopts Carl Schmitt’s critique of those values. While it is easy to cast Strauss in terms of the distant juxtaposition of Athens and Jerusalem, if we look for models of more immediate application, it seems clear that Strauss saw in Wilhelmine Germany a close approximation of his conservatism: an authoritarian state with a strong military tradition, a prodigious academy and flourishing art, and also a formal role for religion. Curiously, it’s precisely those elements of Wilhelmine Germany against which Strauss’ suspicions are turned – the left and the advocates of bourgeois liberalism - that seem to present something redeeming in an otherwise disturbing, if not suffocating intellectual landscape.

It may be argued that during his forty years in emigration, Strauss’ political views changed – that the horror of the Second World War, which clearly touched him deeply, caused a reassessment of his conservative principles. Strauss’ writings after the war present some basis for such argument. But they also are filled with passages that suggest straight-line continuity with the thinking he expressed in his letter to Löwith of May 1933. One example would be Strauss’ 1948 book On Tyranny, a study in Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero, in which Strauss embraces the concept of the philosopher-tyrant “who has committed any number of crimes” in the pursuit of the interests of his polis. The work and many of the thoughts expressed it in resonate with fascism, and particularly the Italian variant – and this resonance seems more closely linked to Strauss than to Xenophon.

I don’t ultimately consider Strauss a fascist, though I believe his writings fuel legitimate suspicion. I am troubled by the extent to which he is prepared to play with fascist thoughts, which now belong on history’s dust heap. But conversely, Strauss does not by any stretch of the imagination embrace democracy as the American Founding Fathers saw it. He is a clear critic of their project, and his criticisms seem remarkably consistent with the tactics that Neocons have used to come to power and hold on in the face of withering public criticism and rejection. All of which should suggest to the would-be guardians of America’s democratic traditions the wisdom of Isaiah Berlin’s words:

“I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views. What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defenses.”


The Letter: An English Translation

Paris, May 19, 1933

Dear Mr. Löwith,

On your behalf I have in the meantime made the necessary overture to Groethuysen, who is in London. Besides this I had occasion to speak with Van Sickle, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, and informed him about you, your situation, your work and your interests. He made a note of your name, so I am sure he will remember it when he comes across it in Fehling’s letter.(1)

As concerns me, I will receive the second year. Berlin recommended me, and that was decisive.(2) I will also spend my second year in Paris, and I will attempt in this time to undertake something that will make my further work possible. Clearly I have major “competition”: the entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat is assembled here. It’s terrible - I’d rather just run back to Germany.

But here’s the catch. Of course I can’t opt for just any other country - one doesn’t choose a homeland and, above all, a mother tongue, and in any event I will never be able to write other than in German, even if I must write in another language. On the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility of living under the swastika, i.e., under a symbol that says nothing more to me than: you and your ilk, you are physei(3) subhumans and therefore justly pariahs. There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, “men of science,” - as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves - non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus…(4) And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme(5) to protest against the shabby abomination.(6) I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.(7) There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.

I do not therefore fear the fate of the émigré - at most secundum carnem:(8) the hunger or similar deprivations. - In a sense our sort are always “emigrants”; and what concerns the rest, the fear of bitterness, which is certainly very great, and in this sense I think of Klein(9), who in every sense has always been an emigrant, living proof for the fact that it is not unconquerable.

Dixi, et animam meam salvavi.(10)

Live well! My heartiest greetings to you and your wife

Leo Strauss

My wife sends her thanks for your greetings, and reciprocates heartily.


Published Source: Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 3: Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften, Briefe (Heinrich Meier, ed.), Metzler Verlag 2001, pp. 624-25.



(1) In 1934, Karl Löwith, another Heideggerian, received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabling him to leave Germany for studies in Italy; he subsequently traveled to Japan, and then to the United States, where he taught at the Hartford Theological Seminary and the New School in New York. He returned to Germany in 1952 with an appointment as professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg.

(2) Strauss had received notification that the Rockefeller Foundation was giving him a second year’s scholarship for post-graduate work in Paris.

(3) Greek in original, “by nature.” The following term, rendered here as “subhumans” is the Nietzschean expression Untermenschen.

(4) Latin, “We don’t have a lasting place, but seek…” The key phrase locum manentum appears repeatedly in the Vulgate Bible. Strauss’ sense would appear to be a conflation of Maimonides and Nietzsche – something like this: deterritorialized, uprooted, men of science cannot in good conscience identify with any exclusive group; that is for lesser men. On the other hand, identifying with diaspora Judaism may be a useful bridge.

(5) French, “inalienable rights of man” - quoted from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Aug. 26, 1789.

(6) In the original: “das meskine Unwesen,” the word “meskine” may be a Germanization of the French “mesquin” or Italian “meschino,” meaning “mean” or “shabby.”

(7) “Romans, be this thy care - these thine arts -/… to spare the humbled and/ to wear down the proud!” Virgil, Aeneid, lib. 6, line 851. In this quotation, Strauss characteristically elides the most famous portion of this passage, which relates to the obligation to “uphold the law of peace.” The passage is often quoted by Carl Schmitt.

(8) Latin, “with respect to the body.”

(9) Jacob Klein, another Heideggerian and friend of Strauss, with Strauss an advocate of the esoteric/exoteric approach to the study of classical texts, Klein emigrated and taught at St John’s College.

(10) Latin, “I have spoken and saved my soul.” A phrase associated with confessions, especially before the Holy Inquisition, though used ironically by Karl Marx and other political writers.


I want to thank Alan Gilbert, Stephen Holmes and Fritz Stern for their many kind thoughts, suggestions and comments on the text. Any errors, however, are strictly the author’s.


I have no argument with Scott's remarkable post. I am particularly sympathetic with ihs emphasis on Carl Schmitt, whom I continue to see as the brooding omnipresence behind the Bush Administration's view of executive power. I would not, though, that Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, in a January essay in The Weekly Standard defending the NSA surveillance, explicitly evoked Machiavelli in articulating a view of the Constitution that required that the executive go beyond what Mansfield believes to be a shallow "republic" (note the little "r") understanding of limited government. He could, of course, also have mentioned the Lockean notion of "prerogative" when necessary to serve great public aims.

What is becoming clearer is that the Bush Administration forces us not only to go back to constitutional fundamentals, but also to return to basic political theory.

Thank you, Scott.

I recently came to very similiar conclusions, on less evidence, after reading the two books in English about Strauss and Schmitt. The clincher for me was Strauss's request for an introduction to Maurras -- a collaborator with the Nazis after 1941 who was very lucky to escape execution. (Of course, Strauss did not know for sure that Maurras would collaborate, but no one was at all surprised that he did.)

Decades ago in HS I met some of the eventual Straussians, and I even became friends with one of them. I've always been interested in political theory, and by now I have read between seven or eight books by or about Strauss and his school. It's absolutely clear that Strauss could never have had more than an opportunistic, self-serving appreciation of liberalism and democracy -- which he did not dare openly oppose since liberals and democrats were the ones who had saved his sorry ass.

Schmitt, Strauss, Benjamin, and their friends did their best to ruin Europe, and I'm very sorry to see anyone taking lessons from them.

My Shorter Strauss: "Anti-Nazi by accident of birth". That's intended as a smear, but it's far too true.

John Emerson writes: Schmitt, Strauss, Benjamin, and their friends did their best to ruin Europe, and I'm very sorry to see anyone taking lessons from them.

Why is Walter Benjamin on this list?

None of those guys had any respect for any form of liberal democracy. They were engaged in this trialogue on revolutionary violence, the state of exception, etc., which excluded the possibility of liberal democracy, and all were speaking on the behalf of worse systems.

I am not learned about the rise of Hitler, but what has astonished me in what reading I've done was the lack of support for the Weimar Republic, even among centrists, and the degree of committment to antiliberal forms.

As I've said a bunch of times, the 1932 German Left has to be regarded as one of the most unsuccessful political movements in history. Someone pointed out to me that they did ultimately play a hand in the Ulbricht regime in E. Germany, but I don't find that argument very cheering. They were tremendously cocky, and they failed beyond their wildest dreams.

"Why is Walter Benjamin on this list?"
Because he was a romantic who flirted with fascism.

I am certainly no expert on Benjamin. But I would be curious to know the evidence that he "flirted with fascism" in the way, say, that Schmitt did (where "flirted" should be replaced by 'climbed in bed with").

Also, to pick up from another poster, I think it must be acknowledged that there is much to be learned, none of it good news, from reading Schmitt, particularly with regard to the decay of parliamentary democracy. Also, I do believe that his arguments about "the exception" and "emergency powers" must be carefully read and attended to.

Thanks for the many useful comments posted here and sent to me independently by email. A number of writers have requested the German text. I will have it scanned on Monday so it can be sent to you as a pdf file. If you would like to have it, please send a note to with the notation "Strauss-Loewith Letter" in the re line, and I will send the text back by return.
A couple of further comments:
(1) I'm with Sandy - I don't see how Walter Benjamin gets into the list. He is a fascinating read, and he carries a different set of problems in my book. He did engage with Schmitt, and Strauss, but I don't see him as a member of their "club."
(2) "No criticism of liberalism" - no, I believe that willingness to accept criticism and encourage open debate is an essential element of liberal democracy. There is no question in my mind that legitimate criticisms can be directed against the American liberal democratic ideal. To put it simply, the question back is this - is Strauss raising criticisms because he wants to make the liberal democratic order stronger, or because he wants to subvert that order and replace it with something else? It's a debatable point, but questioning the motives of writers like Strauss (and equally, Schmitt) is a vital exercise. In my take accepting any German conservative of the 20's and 30's who cheered the destruction of the Weimar Republic as a member of the "liberal democratic club" is an exercise in foolishness.
(3) Thanks for picking up the typo, which is a result of MS-Word's irritating autocorrect function, which I finally succeeded in disabling this afternoon (it makes work in foreign languages a nightmare).

The relevant things I've seen by Benjamin are "Critique of Violence" and a few related pieces. I haven't read them carefully and maybe I'm wrong, but he seemed to me to be on a left version of Schmitt's anti-liberal track, and some things cited by Agamben were entirely unintelligible.

I like Benjamin better than the others, especially his non-political writings, but I've become increasingly hostile to the Weimar left as I've learned more about it.

This letter has previously been cited and discussed in an online article by Nicholas Xenos: Make sure, too, to look out for Eugene Sheppard's forthcoming book on Strauss, in which this letter figures:

What appalled me about Germany leading up to 1932 was no the questioning of liberal democracy, but a widespread left/right rejection of liberal democracy which seemed to be automatic and unquestioned. And even those who supported the Weimar government seem to have done so grudgingly and half-heartedly.

Schmitt and Strauss (and many others) seemed too eager to get down to the deep fundamentals and stay there. If you look at the deep fundamentals of state-formation you have the imposition of violence, and if you examine liberal democracy according to deep thought you find weak spots and vulnerabilities.

In my opinion their conclusion could have been something like "Liberal democracy is fragile and vulnerable and needs all the help it can get", but to them vulnerability was something to attack. Of course, they didn't like anything about liberal democracy anyway.

If you look at the problems 1914-1932, some came from unregulated capitalism and some from a collapsing international system. Liberal democracy was implicated in these, but wasn't itself the primary cause of the problems, though many were quick to conclude so.

"For Strauss, knowledge belongs to a few - we know ahead of time who can and who cannot contribute something serious to a discussion."

That's simply not true. In fact, Strauss' life was educating people from the lower-middle-class or middle-class (rich WASPS didn't tend to go to the New School for Social Research or the University of Chicago or Franz Rosenzweig's school).

You're conflating class or wealth elitism with educational elitism - Strauss was perhaps an educational elitist, but one within a system within which education was either cheap or free (Franz Rosenzweig's school, the German university system, the doctoral progams at the University of Chicago, etc).

Re: Walter Lippman: "It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy, that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach." Public Opinion, p 158, 1922.

Lippman's ideas about the role of journalism as a Holy Calling in purging democracy of the diseases that democracy acquires in an era of mass communication are, I think, completely orthogonal to Strauss's.

I am right now trying to think these issues through, and failing, at

Lots of people hoped for better from Hitler, but we don't honor them for that. There's no reason to give Strauss a free pass based on some kind of intellectual statute of limitations. In my reading I've seen no evidence of a change of heart, but mostly evasions of the question which lend one to think that any supposed change of heart was quite minor.

It would have been very hard to have engage Strauss's criticism of liberal democracy, since he didn't explicitly make it after he found refuge here. It was there for careful readers, hidden behind a cover story.

The Starussians of today admire Lincoln, primarily because of his statism and his suspension of habeus corpus. I'd love to see a Straussian expoansion of "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

I would propose "overthrow" or "topple" as translations for "debellare." Was "wear down" intended to be "war down"?--which would be sort of literal, but not very idiomatic English.

I have to say, not to denigrate Strauss's classical scholarship, but this letter doesn't rise above the level of the AP exam in its level of classical erudition.

"Strauss believed that the liberal-Enlightenment tradition was naïve, and in particular the notion of Enlightenment thinkers that “revelation” (religious myths and dreams) could be banned from politics (as noted below, this was the crux of Strauss’ dissertation done under the great Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer). For Strauss, this is impossible; the repressed will return"

First, simply historically, this is the actual reality. The repressed revelation has consitently reappeared, often in ferocious and brutal ways, throughout the history of Enlightenment (or modern) politics.

Second, it was Rousseau, not Strauss who began this line of thought.

"hence it is crucial for the secular few, the men of science, to bring religion into politics on their own terms."

I would argue that Enlightenment thinkers tried to do this already - they tried to neutralize religion (it's clear that Hobbes and Locke try this) and reconstitute it into a form that's most useful to the Enlightenment state.

"One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the king or Executive, stands above the law. For Strauss this idea was foolishness."

Except that liberal democracy is a revolutionary regime: the nations that are now liberal democracies were once monarchies. Of course, in a monarchy, it is not legal to kill or depose the king. The founders of liberal democracies had to, naturally, act outside of law.

So, there's a revolutionary moment inherent in the founding of every liberal democracy - the deposing of the king. Which is necessarily violent (in fact, the founding of the major liberal democracies were all within the contexts of large civil wars or bloody revolutions).

Second, classical philosophers all respect the law (as does Strauss, following them): we all would prefer that we be ruled by the wisest and best humans without law. Because law only covers the general cases and not the specifics (i.e., the man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving children is a criminal under law, but would be excused by the wise ruler ruling without law). Unfortunately, because the wisest and best humans are very rare and difficult to pick, all classical authors recommended using a set of laws written by the wisest people available. I.E. precisely the Constitution model used both by ancient and modern republics.

"We all would prefer that we be ruled by the wisest and best humans without law."

If we do, I don't think we should. Strauss fetishizes True Philosophers as a kind of all-knowing superhuman being. Confucians also preferred personal rule by the wise. But there are multitude of reasons to prefer the rule of law, one of them being that we don't have to try to read the wise man's mind before knowing what is permitted and what is required.

I don't think that all-wise, all-good True Philosophers of the Straussian wish are just rare. They're actually impossible.

Next, I'm going to attack the basis of Horton's argument that Strauss is a teacher of evil because of his intellectual milieu.

Horton carefully avoids telling us that many of the best minds in the world were all in Heidegger's master seminars: along with Strauss and Arendt, Lowith, Gadamer, Klein and Levinas all were concurrently students of Heidegger's. Satre, though not physically in Heidelberg, was equally involved in reading Heidegger's books at the same time (as was Ricoeur, Jaspers, etc).

Horton doesn't want to talk about Arendt - because Arendt was Heidegger's lover - and more importantly: defended Heidegger's political involvements to the end of her life. But Horton doesn't want to taint Arendt's deserved democratic lustre. Strauss severed all relations with Heidegger - and the problem of Heidegger (i.e. how can a great philosopher be evil?) was one of the most important questions for Strauss. In terms of Heidegger, Strauss had a much better relationship with that part of his past than Arendt did.

Third, the political beliefs of these students of Heidegger varied all over the place: there was no one single position that can meaningfully tie all of them together. We would expect that: these are the greatest minds of the time. Rather, great minds do transcend their times (which is why all of these thinkers have very profound, yet profoundly different politics). I.E. the milieu (which Horton misrepresents anyway) was not determinative of their thought.

"But there are multitude of reasons to prefer the rule of law, one of them being that we don't have to try to read the wise man's mind before knowing what is permitted and what is required."

As the ancients would have said: "the wise ruler cannot be in all places and times, even in the smallest of cities". You and the ancients (and Strauss) are in agreement.

Was that a non-denial denial, Won Joon? My understanding of the point of view of the Straussians is that they agree with Strauss that liberal democracy is fatally flawed, but that they need to work within liberal democracy because it's been institutionalized and because most Americans prefer liberal democracy. (Sort of like the IWW, "boring from withing".) Am I wrong?

Is it "darkness" to raise questions about Strauss's political opinions in 1932-1933?

Do you think that the lesson of Hitler, or part of it, is that liberal democracy is no good? My reading of the post-war p[eriod is that a lot of the people who had ruined Gemrany came over here to propagate their wisdom in the US.

At a certain point in the Italian civil wars the Guelphs and the Ghibellines had split and switched enough times that it was hard to tell who was who any more.

A lot of us left-liberal democrats here in Bushworld are actually wondering whether it's true that democracy is no damn good -- our elected President is an adventurist, Know-nothing, populist demagogue who uses the Revelation of John as a handbook for predicting the future.

But when we decide to surrender and submit ourselves to re-education, we find that our former Straussian friends are all errand-boys for Dubya now.

"My understanding of the point of view of the Straussians is that they agree with Strauss that liberal democracy is fatally flawed, but that they need to work within liberal democracy because it's been institutionalized and because most Americans prefer liberal democracy. (Sort of like the IWW, "boring from withing".) Am I wrong?"

Yes, you are wrong. One, there's no real agreement among "Straussians" that there's any coherent thing such as "Straussian(ism?)". There's almost every concievable opinion within what's labelled "Straussianism" (if you want to see a flame-war, go to "Straussian" internet discussion groups. The flame-wars have been ongoing on them for over 10 years).

There are no definitive group opinions on what Strauss meant. There are some "Straussians" who hold intepretations of Strauss directly contradictory to that of others.

Jaffa's intepretation of Strauss is that American liberal democracy is not a perfect copy of Enlightenment theoretical democracies, and incorporates many elements of classical thought, thus creating a generally good regime (as regimes go). Other "Straussians" very much disagree with Jaffa's thoughts. There is no fixed ideological position here.

given that it appears to me that there is ground for believing that Locke got his idea of the prerogative chiefly from Machiavelli

Could you expand on this? The royal prerogative was a common item of debate in England during pretty much the whole 17C. What do you think Locke got from Machiavelli that he didn't get from English sources?

Whenever I really dislike a tendency, everyone accused of belonging to that tendency denies that the tendency exists. Postmodernism, neoclassical economics, analytic philosophy, Straussianism, "Theory" -- no such thing. Just erroneous labels wrongly attached to heteregeneous collections of miscellaneous entities.

Is it ever possible to tell whether someone is NOT a Straussian? Are we all Straussians, really? Me too?

If there are any Straussians at all in this fallen world, does any significant proportion of them believe what I said Straussians believe about liberal democracy?

won joon choe:

Thanks. Is the Smith essay available online? I'd like to read it (and yours). My interests are the complement of yours: I have a good background in English history, especially the 17C, but am no expert in Machiavelli. I'd always assumed Locke's sources were native and would be interested in a connection to Machiavelli.

"Is it ever possible to tell whether someone is NOT a Straussian?"

Yes, it would generally be fairly difficult to square very materialistic philosophies (Marxism-Leninism, Skinnerism, biological physchiatry for some examples) with Strauss. Economic determinists (hardcore libertarians, Marxist-Leninists again, neoclassical economists) are also fairly difficult to square with Strauss. Georges Sorel and all his progeny - pretty tough to square (Lamprecht might think otherwise).

Of course, in hermeneutics solely, most hermeneutic theories are not Straussian.

"But as a thinker? There's just no there there--there's no coherent, comprehensible theory or doctrine that one can identify and assess. And that's what his supporters say in his defense"

Oh bullshit. That's the same critique the analytical philosophers have of EVERY other philosophic school. They say the exact same thing of Plato, Rousseau, Machiavelli, Xenophon, and just about everybody except for their own little clique and the handful of philosophers they can actually read - and we shouldn't forget that the analytics made a very serious effort to try to expel Arendt from the APA.

Real philosophy doesn't work like you think it does (essentially: "give me a paragraph of true statement I can play logical sets with").

Al Farabi and Han Fei Tzu were writing in societies where overly-frank philosophers were subject to death by dismemberment, and something like that in fact did happen to HFT. Strauss and his later disciples did not, so that particular motive for concealment and coded writing is invalid in their cases.

Was Strauss frank about his actual political opinions when he came to the US in 1937? Were they the same as they had been four years earlier? If he changed his opinions, what eveidence is there for that.

If he had been more frank, he might not have gotten a position at one of America's top schools, but but he would not have been imprisoned or killed.

Within a liberal-democratic society which does not persecute dissidents, I think that it's quite reasonable to ask a few questions. In 1937 and thereafter, were Strauss's political opinions more or less the same as they had been in 1933? And if so, was he right? If Strauss has fubdamental criticisms to make of our form of government, shouldn't we know what they are?

In my youth I did meet some of the now-famous Straussians, and I can say that their tact and discretion not only saved them from political persecution, but allowed them to butter their bread very nicely.

"Strauss and his later disciples did not, so that particular motive for concealment and coded writing is invalid in their cases."

We are talking about the twentieth century here - a time when the wrong opinions got you sent to a camp in numerous instances. If anything, the twentieth century was probably worse for free thought than most other centuries.

"Within a liberal-democratic society which does not persecute dissidents"

You've read McCumber's Time in the Ditch and you think liberal-democratic societies don't (sometimes) persecute dissidents?!?

"If Strauss has fubdamental criticisms to make of our form of government, shouldn't we know what they are?"

Go read the books, they're all readily available on Amazon. Your refusal to buy or borrow Strauss' books are not a failure on Strauss' part.

Alex -- I have read five or more of the books, and my understanding is that Strauss's respect for liberal democracy is minimal, grudging, and opportunistic. With my question I was trying to draw out Strauss's defenders.

The persecution mentioned in McCumber consisted mostly of shortened careers, and the victims were mostly accused of being Communists. (If you want to say that Straussians are like Communists, go ahead). My interpretation of that era is more like Mirowski's than McCumbers -- apolitical technocrats, administrative liberals, and Straussians crowded out everyone else.

Strauss's article is titled "Persecution and the Art of Writing", so I do not think that I was wrong to stress excaping persecution as a motive.

Won Joon Choe:

"Han Fei anticipates Strauss' Machiavelli by using philosophic rhetoric to trick the unwitting to get what YOU want them to do while they think they are doing what they themselves desire.

This strikes me as a classically undemocratic practice. HFT was talking about advising rulers -- but the applcation of this principle to democratic politics would be pretty dodgy.

I have never claimed that the Straussians are a homogenous group. There's a family resemblance, and there's also an old boy network, and there are internal feuds too.

If I had been prudent enough to be able to seem like a Straussian back in 1963, my life probably would have progressed much more happily. Talk about the possible victimization of poor Straussians makes me laugh. They won, I lost. I deny them any form of the victim card.

"Regarding a unified "neocon" Straussian front, perhaps someone should post the infamously nasty public exchange between Harvey Mansfield and Harry Jaffa"

Don't know anything about it, to be honest. I don't remember whether Harry was in evidence when Harvey and Nathan Tarcov came to Claremont for their Discourses on Livy booktour 1995. The rest of the usual suspects were there however. No fistfights broke out as I recall.

I think that Strauss's criticism of Nietzsche was that you should not write in such a way that dangerous truths become too exciting, too persuasive, and too easy to understand. This seems like a reasonable criticism. Nietzsche was not a German patriot or an anti-Semite, but his extreme anti-egalitarianism and penchant for cruelty would seem to tend toward unwholesome sorts of authoritarian rightism.

"The persecution mentioned in McCumber consisted mostly of shortened careers, and the victims were mostly accused of being Communists."

If anything, Strauss was more vocal about McCarthyism, calling Joseph McCarthy one of the greatest threats to civilization, than the entire analytical philosophy gang put together (who generally acquiesced in having the Commies purged). You don't think having your academic career ended, and ending up working as a gardener (which happended to one victim of McCarthyite purges of philosophy) is persecution? OK.

"My interpretation of that era is more like Mirowski's than McCumbers -- apolitical technocrats, administrative liberals" - very similar to the interpretation that Strauss had (nor was it unique to Strauss). Of course, the technocrats had their own political ideology (though they didn't want to recognize it as such) and could be quite brutal if one violated that ideology.

"and Straussians crowded out everyone else." Straussians crowded out.....who precisely? "Straussians" maybe have a tenth or a quarter (I think a quarter's probably too high an estimate) of political theory professorships. In other fields outside political science, there's such a small smattering of "Straussians" that it's irrelevant.

Small experiment: the American Political Science Assoc's most relevant organized section is the Foundations of Political Theory section....which currently has NO "Straussians" (that I'm aware of) on it. The overall board of the APSA has a single "Straussian" on it - Harvey Mansfield. The journal APSR does have 3 "Straussians" on its editorial board - but none on it's executive board. The journal PS has no "Straussians" on its board. The journal Perspective on Politics has 1 "Straussian" on its board - Ruth Grant, who's also on the APSR board.

Perhaps the Straussians have been displaced, or perhaps they moved up to higher positions elsewhere. Anti-Straussians (Wolin) have claimed that Straussians work as an old-boy network, though that's so pervasiv ein academia that it may be foolish to complain about it.

Strauss contrasted exoteric interpretations - to mislead many of his readers, including wouldbe philosophers, many of his own followers (i.e., Steven Smith and many others, like George Anastaplo) who did not become rightwingers, lurking around the Reagan and Bush administrations - and esoteric interpretations. On this, the original version of Natural Right and History takes back, if you read the introduction closely, any affection for American style natural rights (just as in the 1933 letter to Loewith) - it sees such rights only as contributors to "American prosperity and power" and not good in themselves (he does not value most individuals, just "philosophers"). By the end of the third chapter, he has an hilarious, incoherent presentation of what egalitarian natural rights means, preceded by his own endorsement of "classical natural right: inequality." In slogan form, what Strauss teaches is not philosophy but cryptography (if anyone wants to cite that, its from me - to be in my book Worse than any of us could imagine).

On Mansfield on Machiavelli, Harvey is the teacher of Bill Kristol, the man who wants war everywhere. Harvey's view is that Machiavelli teaches the prince how to act. Likewise, Carnes Lord, The Modern Prince, an advisor in the Reagan administration, pushes Machiavelli hard. Strauss's exoteric message: Machiavelli leads to the modern world, unlike the wisdom of the ancients. One more covert message: Machiavelli blurts out in life what Xenophon On Tyranny recommends (this is perhaps subtly the point that Kristol inherited from Mansfield his teacher, in recommending On Tyranny as the work of Strauss which one must consult in "What was Leo Strauss up to?" (National Interest, 2003). Esoterically, Machiavelli is another modern proxy for Strauss.

Nietzsche did not use the term Untermensch as the letter points out. But he did found European fascism (as Struass said, distinguishing him from Nazis - the Kaufman translations have in this respect saved Nietzsche for an American readership but disarmed seeing just what he prefigured in Europe), and propose the story of the "last men" to condemn the bourgeois - now anyone who likes peace since if the neocons are not bourgeois, who is?) who look at each other and blink - and praise undending war. This is Schmitt and Strauss's response to him - the message of The Concept of the Political. It is also the boring catch phrase of Strauss and the political Straussians. I wish Scott's last remark about Strauss were true (that he played with fascism), but I am afraid he - and a group among his followers though what any of them actually get from Strauss is another interesting mystery except a love of war and "Commander in chief power" - "mainline" fascism. This is another way of reading the comments related to Steve Holmes in Scott's piece.

One last thought. This issue is now a public matter. This group of deceivers has become a lot of the foot-soldiers of Cheney (i.e. Shulsky and others who manufacted the lies about Iraq in the Defense Department); it is equally at work in Commander-in-Chief powers (for instance, Clarence Thomas is a Straussian as were his two undersecretaries at the EEOC - John Marini and Ken Masugi). It is time to ask the question forcefully - what was it that Strauss needed to hide, in esoteric writing - when he came to a parliamentary-democratic America (which had free speech for the Right)? What is the sect he sicked on rightwing administrations in America about? And it is time for
lots of us - the New York Times notwithstanding - to stand up for decency and democracy, since, after all, it - as opposed to Strauss's idea of tyranny - is under attack here.

A note: Nick Xenos said some very good things about the letter in his article in Logos but worked with it only in a translation by someone else. Scott has done a great public service in translating every word of this letter with exactness. Getting it widely known about however is another matter.

Alan Gilbert;

"Perhaps the Straussians have been displaced, or perhaps they moved up to higher positions elsewhere. Anti-Straussians (Wolin) have claimed that Straussians work as an old-boy network, though that's so pervasiv ein academia"

John, can you name any specifics? Who moved where? There's really not that many "Straussians" to be able to give specifics.

And, everybody in academia works through an old-boy network, and so do Sheldon Wolin's students (I know for a fact that they do). And there's really nothing wrong with that.

Rumor has it that a lot of Straussians seems to have advanced into government positions. Perhaps they failed to protect their rear and saw interlopers move in. Perhaps they have their own association now.

I'd like to see some pretty good evidence that Strauss would have supported liberal democracy but reluctantly concluded that in the actual situation only authoritarian conservatives could effectively oppose Hitler.

What I've seen seems to tell me that Strauss was an authoritarian conservative pure and simple, and that he was more worried about the Communist threat than the Nazi threat until realities forced his hand. I think that probably he reluctantly supported the Weimar Republic on prudential and legitimist grounds, but never believed in it. Besides the fact that 2/3 of Germany voted for anti-democratic parties, even a lot of the centrists really seemed to utterly despise the way liberal democracy works.

To me the lesson of Germany 1932 was that Germany rejected the liberal democracy forced on it in 1918. Hitler was a problem with Germany, not a problem with liberal democracy. But practically none of those, left or right, who watched the Weimar Republic die seem to have asked themselves about their part in it. "Liberal democracy has failed" seems like exactly the wrong lesson to have drawn.

Political philosophy is definitely out of my league, but for anyone interested in the reaction of German Jews to Hitler there is an interesting letter from German Orthodox Jewish communal leaders to Hitler translated in Marc Shapiro's excellent book on R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy . I am unable to get to the library this week, jury duty of all things, so I can't give more details as to what is in the letter or Shapiro's discussion of it.

At the time Strauss was writing, liberal democracies had, in the past twenty years, engaged in a war that took four years and killed twenty million some people, followed by a period that was economically feeble, especially compared to the pre-1914 period, followed by a world wide economic collapse.

If one doesn't have a sense of the world in which Strauss was writing (in fact, existing as we do now in a world that is, in many ways, very different from any expected or predicted by any single figure in the thirties or forties -- read 1984 to find out how wrong future projections can be), one can't really do intellectual history. It becomes a mockery of history, a battle of the books. Myself, I don't find Strauss to be particularly fascinating -- I have no parti pris for him or his method of doing philosophy, which I find antiquated. However, I do find it astonishing to judge the thirties solely on what came after it, and without any mention of the elements that came before it, or the meaning of democracy as embodied by the actions of the democracies, so called, in the 1900-1930 period, that would explain why a man of Strauss' intelligence might have good reason for not liking liberalism.

Strauss was coming to an America that both embodied 'democracy' and had a more rigid apartheid system than South Africa's at the time -- a state of affairs that didn't seem to bother many of its 'political philosophers,' save perhaps John Dewey. Yet I have never seen a discussion of the way the Harvard Philosophy department, for instance, responded to the widespread, state sanctified racism endemic in the U.S.

Why do you think that is?

Rob Howse pretty much summarizes my own thoughts on the subject. Nice piece in Dyzenhaus' volume, by the way, Rob.

I do have my disagreement with the following, however:

"a permissive egalitarian liberal democracy would have the backbone to stand up to its enemies and thus defend itself adequately"

Liberal democracies don't seem to have too much problem fielding very large armies and propagandizing their masses against their enemy of the day. What they're not successful at is dealing with the extremisms generated from within liberal democracy itself.

Roger: There were others than Strauss who responded to the crisis of the times in some other way than affiliation with fascism, authoritarianism, and imperialism. Furthermore, there's no evidence that Strauss's opinions in 1933 were different than they had been in 1918; in the Loewith letter he shows quite a bit of stubbornness about refusing to let events influence his ideas. Strauss himself, of course, rejected this kind of historicist / relativist contexting.

In any case, I'm not doing intellectual history. The big question for me is how much his ideas had changed by the time the neocons studied under him (early sixties) and whether his teaching, as received by them, was good for democracy. I say that he hadn't changed much, and that his teaching wasn't good for democracy. It certainly would seem to have been a good idea for him to have announced that he had abandoned some of his earlier ideas, if he really had done so. There seems to have been no "road to Damascus" event.

Won Joon Choe: Well, I don't really think that Strauss deserves the respect that Plato and Macchiavelli get. I've done a bit of homework -- I'm not doing a driveby on Strauss, whether or not someone else did one. I don't "opine authoritatively" -- I give my opinions and my reasons for them. The topic is "Strauss and democracy", and I think I am right in thinking that Strauss's affirmation of democracy was only prudent, relative (to Communism) and opportunistic.

Strauss's affirmation of esoteric / exoteric teaching makes this kind of thing futile. Straussians to not publicize their fundamental critique of democracy much, whatever it is, so it's hard to argue against it. Because it's an esoteric doctrine, direct questions about the teaching on democracy are threats, and are thus evaded and fudged. Because I cannot be trusted to keep security, I cannot know for sure what these esoteric doctrines really are, and though I can guess what they are, my good guesses cannot necessarily be verified by insiders. (Probably not even if I guess rightly about the real Straussian teaching and loudly affirm it to the public).

The reason I claimed to have read five or so books by Strauss is that I have read five or so books by Strauss: "The City and Man", "Natural Right and History", "On Tyranny", "What Is Political Philosophy?", and the two Schmitt-Strauss books in English. (Confession: I did not finish NR&H -- I think that it was probably the best of the bunch, but I was interrupted.) I have also read Bloom's version of the Republic, Bloom's pop book Closing of the American Mind, Dannhauser on Nietzsche, and chapters of the History of Political Philosophy.

And my conclusion is that Straus was a very reluctant and limited democrat, though when we saved his ass he may have decided that natural-rights democracy is not "despicable", as in the Loewith letter, but just wrong.

In response to Alex: rich WASPs were the student base for the University of Chicago, from its founding into the post-WWII era. The qualified Catholic population of Chicago went to Notre Dame; Chicago was considered Protestant and suspect.

Strauss was there at a transitional time (1949 to 1968) for the university, after the abolition of intercollegiate football, and at a time when the university maintained a liberal view towards Jewish admissions. But he was still mostly educating the establishment.

Anyway, you're missing the point. The "few" to whom knowledge belongs aren't necessarily the wellborn or the well-connected. It's more like a natural intellectual elite.

But the fact is that you have to read everything to see the whole and how each seemingly discordant parts fit into the whole.


Sorry, Won Jun Choe. Marxists say that. Freudians say that. Derridists say that. Lacanians say that. Althusserians say that. I could go on indefinitely.

I don't claim to understand the whole body of Strauss's work -- just his relation to democracy. If there were a frank Straussian statement about democracy available, maybe I'd agree with it. Probably not, but the question is moot, because Strauss's teaching on democracy is esoteric. People tried to wheedle it out of himn a few times, and he was always tactfully evasive.

If I thought I really did need to read the whole oeuvre in order to understand any of it, I'd have to decide whether Strauss was worth it. I'd decide that he wasn't, and I would conclude that have in read what I did read had been a complete waste of time. As it is, I have a pretty good idea of what he was up to, at least with regard to the particular question in play here.

Once we were allowed to know what Strauss actually meant, we could think about whether we agreed with him or not. But we're not allowed.

The understanding of Strauss that seems most reasonable to me is that he was a conservative German who resented the Weimar constitution, very grudgingly accepted the Weimar Republic, and was happy to blame Hitler on liberalism. After being forced to leave Germany he went to the US and taught his esoteric / exoteric teaching. I see no evidence that he ever developed any respect, except relatively, for the American tradition.

Chicago undergrads in Strauss's time (including an appalling number of my cousins, none of whom studied with Strauss) were heavily midwestern, and disproportionately Jewish.

Strauss was far from the only German Jew on the anti-democratic right. Plenty of Jews, including Jewish academics, supported the various extreme nationalist parties, and a large group called the Bund Deutsches Judentum (sp?) tried to make an alliance with Hitler.

In seventy years it will be interesting to see what is made of the large number of Jews on the anti-Zionist left...

See Matt Yglesias' comments on this post:

The letter to Loewith is striking because it reveals Strauss not as just a "conservative authoritarian" but as in the context of the 1920s and early 30s, a European reactionary, a self-described fascist. As no one has noticed so far, he endorses the Roman empire. It is interesting that his "love for the ancients" led him covertly not to "Athens" but to this. What he liked about Athens was actually the Athenian empire (see his butchering of
Thuycidides in the City and Man). In America he liked the Vietnam
War and would have gone for the Dolchstoss theory here (that the
antiWar movement helped make America unprepared to be nasty
imperialists - the theme song of the "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" as
Laurence Wilkerson aptly so names it). I initially thought Don
Kagan was responsible for the neocons (the family lineages,
notably Robert and Frederick); I was going to write 10 pages
defending Jenny Strauss Clary's letter to the New York Times on her father. I didn't think very much of Strauss but I thought I knew that he agreed with Socrates about justice against Thrasymachus - and was critical intelligently of value-free social science. Sadly, neither of these clains is what he really meant. I wouldn't have gotten into the controversy, except that as I started to read over this stuff last year, it became clear that Strauss, both in Germany in the 20s and in the cryptography of his hidden writings, is sadly if amusingly the most grotestque of the political Straussians (a praiser of tyrants who become with the aid of a "reasonable man" "philosophers").

One letter claims that Strauss is a Heideggerian and Heidegger's students - he could have emphasized Heideggers Jewish students are often famously not Heideggerians. More strikingly, Heidegger's studetns are their own people. No one thinks of Hannah Arendt or Herbert Marcuse as a Heideggerian nor do they name themselves such. In this respect, the Straussians - despite the occasionally obnoxious sect-differences among them - are a narrow and more troubled sect. Alone in Germany as a "German Jew" against the Nazis, Strauss needed a sect.

But Strauss happens to have agreed with all of Heidegger's
politics except "anti-Jewish prejudice". Further, he lerened his method of reading and fascinating students from - Heidegger.

The claim that Strauss was someone trying to save Germany for reaction (one could put this in terms of Wilhelmine reaction in
Scott's article and therefore try to annex Scott's formulation to it) has two essential problems. First, this is a private letter to a German Jew who was also a "reactionary" (Loewith). What Loewith says in response, more intelligently is: "I think it does count very much against the principles of the Right that they hate science and German Jews." (Note that they both are quite willing to forego worry about lesser, i.e. nonGerman Jews if needed). Strauss spoke his mind when he praised Rome and fascism, even though the leading operative word, in his sharpening of Schmitt, was authoritarian. Second, it disregards Strauss's writings in the 20s.

But Strauss on Schmitt - Schmitt later said "Strauss x-rayed me" -
makes the latter's argument Nietzschean politically (without of course N's psychology of which Strauss got little). One needs
enemies. One needs fear. One needs war. (Plato warns how
tyrants do this in book 8 of the Republic)

9/11 as Newt Gingrich said over the weekend is losing its steam. We need "World War III" and Israel with Bush's feeble backing is proceeding on towards it. One of the worst things about Strauss -and his followers - is that for all their knowitallism among
themsdelves about texts (they have cryptic readings), their politics
is uninformed and unwilling to be informed on a massive level.
Wolfowitz et al knew nothing about Iraq - the Iraqis would "greet
our troops with roses" (as invaders who don't speak the language and come with missiles and torture, are of course greeted by populatiions subjected to them). The whole crowd lives in a
fantasy world (why the entire foreign policy establishment which
largely suppoted aggression in Iraq has moved away them,
including former fanatic supporters of the invasion like the Straussian Fukuyama and apparently even admiral Woolsey). It is interesting in the era when the US is the new Rome, an unparalleled great power with no serious enemy, that Straussianism/neoconservatism internally has led to near tyranny (fascsim) and unending war. Perhaps it has nothing to do with Leo, but read on Tyranny carefully as Bill Kristol recommends and you may feel

George Anastaplo, one of Strauss's first students, was barred from practicing law because he refused on Lockean/Declaration of Independence grounds to sign the loyalty oath for the bar in
Illinois. Strauss sent him a note praising what he had done. This is to Strauss's enormous credit. If there is additional evidence that he opposed McCarthyism, I would be very interested in it. But two
points: Anastaplo denies Strauss can have been interested in
Nietzsche as some other traussians say. That is, he read Strauss without getting the core, the barely hidden. Second, he actually read Thucydides, took it as a message about the decline of
empires, and resisted Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Zuckert I
gather was also a critic of the second Gulf War and opposes the
Patriot Act. But this is not Strauss. Third, Strauss could be taken as opposing neo-con/Straussian (the Straussians are the life of the neo-con party, the "intellectuals" and "Ph.D.s" in the most anti-
intellectual administration ever) crusades against intellectuals like Joseph Massad, Oneida Meranto and Ward Churchill. This would be
a very good thing and one real difference. But can one have
religious-based tyranny abolishing the separation of powers and
checks and balances ("the unified executive" or il Duce-power)
without this sort of thing. Did Strauss perhaps bring on this and
many other unlovely if unwanted consequences from his very
unlovely affection for the philosopher-king/tyrant/"leader"?

A note - some Stassians tend to sect life, hence the blanket dismissals of Anglo-American philosophy. John Rawls, for example, is a great democratic theorist. The article written by
Harvey Mansfield on Rawls (he read it to a group I was part of) "Cool as a Cucumber Liberalism" is perhaps the most unintentionally funny thing Harvey has ever done (I include in this his appearance about his book Manliness on the Stephen Colbert show). Perhaps one can talk about the variety of people, some of whom are very intelligent, who have differing (even quite "sect-like views). Anastaplo seems very intelligent and decent about many matters. Strauss could have had that kind of influence, as his the main thrust of what he did. It could be that, as the Alper review of Smith in the Times said, that the Straussians in and around Reagan and Bush really are off on a kick which is an eccentricity in Strauss.
Sadly, it isn't the case - and what we are dealing with, in Mr.
Cheney and his foot-soldiers holds the real possibility of
destroying - in an era where America has no great power enemy -America and the world.

Alan Gilbert

How ironic that a close reader of books receives so many comments with so little reading.

At least here we have a letter.

(Incidentally, Shorris' article in Harper's did not cite a single line by Strauss. There are few quotations among these comments (one that I counted). A "what I've seen seems to tell me" is enough to form a strident opinion).

Strauss: "liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the premodern thought of our western tradition" (The Three Waves of Modernity). Strauss is no more an authoritarian for searching for the grounds of liberal democracy than Nietzsche was a nihilist for diagnosing and searching for a solution to the problem of nihilism.

But of course, today no one need read Strauss; he is guilty by association. The failure to cite words Strauss actually published is a measure of the failure to find the needed evidence (and in fact, by searching you will just find plenty of evidence to the contrary). Then the task is to find at least one personal item that convicts him. This type of conviction by innuendo is (again ironically) a hallmark of the tyrannical impulses that prevail in humanities academia, where there is nothing to limit the dominant intellectual fad other than thrasymachian political alliances.

Strauss was concerned with the fact that even a liberal democracy will historically have a violent and authoritarian beginning (something with which many on the left, including me, including by the way Chomsky, readily agree); that liberal democracies are typically in danger of imploding into tyranny, as in Nazi Germany, and that their very permissiveness can be self-undermining; that even liberal nation states tend to act illiberally towards their neighbors (witness the United States!); that certain questions are relevant here, including the problem of reason vs. revelation (Adorno is not as vilified for such concerns). Liberal democracies are preferable but stand in a tenuous and potentially self-undermining position (we may permit anti-liberal speech in the United States lest we become anti-liberals in practice, yet enough anti-liberal speech is just what is needed for a transition to anti-liberal practices).

Though thinking about these kinds of questions is no longer a popular way for an academic professional to get tenure (to have any credibility, he must limit himself to a very narrow shell game in virgin intellectual territory), the friends of liberal democracy dismisses such questions at its peril. These are very interesting and real paradoxes, and they are the kinds of questions we ought to ask BECAUSE we value liberal democracy, rather than reacting as if a religious heresy is upon us when someone dares point out that there are internal tensions to these cherished beliefs.

I would be far more convinced by an analysis that draws a line from the irresponsibility of American intellectuals on the left to the current situation in Iraq (the connection to Strauss is simply unconvincing). Relativist dogma, after all, is the real underpinning of fascism (and the United States clearly is moving in the direction of fascism after a time when such dogma dominated the university).

Wes, a straightforward debate of those questions would be a good thing, but Strauss didn't want to be an outsider critic, which honesty would have required him to be, and neither did his students and grandstudents.

As I've said, I've done a fair amount of reading of Strauss over several decades, though I didn't cite chapter and verse here. I came away from the reading convinced that Strauss was unenthusiastic about democracy and also, as far as that goes, about secularity and modernity. I would have been willing to debate the question, but I wasn't willing to join the cult and keep discipline.

The evidence available says that Strauss in 1933 was an antiliberal "fascist, authoritarian, and imperialist" of a type quite normal in Germany. No one has brought forward evidence that he changed much. Is this innuendo?

The fact that Strauss advocated dissimulation and coded writing makes suspicion even more reasonable. (Why he openly advocated dissimulation, I don't know; what's the coded message in that?)

I had a lengthy response to this post, so I put it up on my own blog, under the title On Not Reading Leo Strauss. The topic of the post is (what I see as) the basic underlying epistemological issue here, namely, that the interpretation of Strauss put forward by his critics predicts that his defenders will try to paint a picture of him as harmless, since lying about his true views (to the masses, not the elite) is a fundamental part of his philosophy (under this interpretation). I'd be interested in anyone's thoughts, there or here.

Sorry I didn't have the time to read all comments. Perhaps someone already made this point.

The letter was written in 1933. Now, I'm no historical buff. But this was before the extent of the Nazi horror was fully realized.

Strauss no doubt was imbibed in Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Heiddeger.

Perhaps Strauss LEARNED something since that letter was written after 1933.

My understanding of Strauss (very Bloom influenced) was that he and Bloom (and the East Coast Straussians) believe that Nietzsche and Heiddeger were right as to the ultimate nature of reality. But DID NOT think that this "Truth" was fit for the masses or one that "set the people free." Rather it was a Truth with horrific implications.

Heiddeger's flirtation with Nazism and perhaps Strauss's own flirtation with the politics of fascism, and the resultant horror that these wrought, if anything, showed Strauss and his followers that you can not found political orders on nihilism, in its Nietzschean form which led to these "right wing" fascist orders, or its left wing post-modern form, that liberal democracy -- though that system had its problems -- was the only viable political order. And the doctrine of natural rights/the rights of man was a useful fiction salutary to the political order.

"Power is gained and held, not to be ever given up."

Ohmygawd, it's hilarious! You do realize that one of Strauss' most controversial claims is that the city of philosophers (in The Republic) is proven by Socrates within the dialogue to be impossible and a fantasy (this is the claim that Burnyeat thinks he conclusively disproved)- thus making the question of whether the philosopher can or should or even might rule a very ambigious one. The debate over the question has been raging for literally years - with the bulk of "Straussians" coming down on the side that the philosopher cannot rule outright. The philosopher can occasionally advise, but there's a low likelihood that his advice will have any real concrete consequences (in the short term, and in any direct sense).

I think the reason that Strauss was ambivalent about liberalism is that he, like Neitzsche and Schmitt, had a mistakenly negative view of human nature.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama prescribes to the view from Neitzsche, Hegel (Kojeve's interpretation), Hobbes and others that humans have only selfish fundamental motivations, namely material desires and a drive for recogntion from others.

Fukuyama presents Anglo-American liberalism as having the same view. Actually, those philosophers believed, as do most Americans, that human beings also have a whole variety of pro-social, unselfish motivations, as Adam Smith explained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And indeed, human society would simply be impossible without these pro-social motives.

If you think that humans are simply selfish, then democracy is not going to seem like a very workable idea, and in constant danger of collapse into authoritarianism. With a fuller view of human nature, democracy, while certainly not perfect, seems like a much better idea.

Now the question is who is right about human nature. As it happens, the various relevant sciences such as anthropology, biology, developmental psychology, brain science, and evolutionary psychology, have investigated this issue in great detail, and they have determined that the Anglo-American view is largely correct. See for instance Steven Pinker's book, The Blank Slate.

Larry Arnhart, who runs in Straussian circles, has a book that applies the findings of the evolutionary psychology to political theory. The title is Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).

He also has an article arguing for this point of view in Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime, eds. John Murley and Kenneth Deutsch. However, my impression is the Straussians are too emotionally attached to the Neitzschean view of human nature to be persuaded by mere scientific evidence. In addition, I think Strauss holds implicitly metaphysical views that discount the empirical in favor of philosophical speculation.

I had been unsure whether Strauss was as dangerous as this before. After all, his proteges have all turned out to be monsters: Rumsfeld, Pearle, etc. However, now we have it in black and white: even Strauss agrees he is a fascist son of a gun.

If ever there was a reason for saying his work lacks merit, this is it. Of course, I've published work against his ridiculous reading of Plato, too.

Mark Halverson-Wente: "In fact, Strauss was critical of liberal democracy, in part because of its foundation upon systematic theory--the Modern Project and the Enlightenment, which Strauss believed to be fundamentally flawed."

This is one place Strauss went wrong as a philosopher. He is correct that the Continental version of the Modern Project and the Enlightnment was based on systematic metaphysical philosophy, with the pretensions to total, perfect knowledge that entails.

What he doesn't seem to have grasped, as far as I can tell, is that the Anglo-American version of liberalism is anti-metaphysical, at least once you get past Hobbes and Locke and get to philosphers such as Hume and Locke. They quite consciously rejected metaphysical systems, and instead based their ideas on careful observation of individuals, institutions, and society.

The Anglo-American philosphers reject the idea of perfect knowlege or utopian society. They thought that democracy and the free market were not perfect, simply better than any alternative. Democracy is based on the idea that there cannot be a philospher king, and so decisions need to be made as a consequence of open dicussion. The free market, as Hayek explained, works best because it is impossible for any central experts to make economic decisions on pricing, but a vast number of individual economic actors can act through the market to achieve action often close to optimal.

Hume, Smith and the other Anglo-American philosophers were post-metaphysical in their practice, but they didn't have the critique of metaphysics that was worked out by later philosphers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, and Wittgenstein.

Strauss was right in the middle of this philosophical revolution, but then took a wrong turn. My understanding is that he was torn between metaphysical philosophy and religious revelation, both of which rest on supernaturalistic views of reality and the path to truth. He never realized that the correct course of action is to abandon the search for transcendent metaphysical truth and return to experience, as the various post-metaphysical philosphers have done (Neitzsche is a transitional figure here. He realized there is no metaphysical truth, but he retained the belief from metaphysics that there could be no other type of truth).

"isn't denying liberalism's original emphasis on its assertion of the discovery of the "right method" (e.g. Hobbes' politicization of Descartes) by emphasizing thinkers who came after Hobbes or Locke is, well, a bit disingenous?"

No, I am just saying that Hume and Smith decided Hobbes and Locke were wrong about certain things, in particular metaphysics. Strauss came to that conclusion, why couldn't Hume and Smith? And the practical significance here is that Americans are basically Smithians, both in their view of human nature and their rejection of metaphysics, and are not Hobbesians.

"If you abstract the two towering, most important founders from a philosophic system (with apologies to Spinoza), are you saying anything substantive about that system?"

When you say 'that system' you are implying it is a single system. I am saying the Humian-Smithian version of liberalism is a different philosphy. In some ways it is the same, but in other equally important ways it is different. Is there some rule that a philosopher can't develop a significantly new system? Or is the rule that if he does, you have to pretend that the system is essentially the same as one that preceeded it?

Besides, you are ducking my criticism of Strauss as still being tied up in metaphysics, inspite of his loud insistance that he had escaped it.

back to Strauss, he sounds pathetic.

I would like to say some more about why Strauss goes wrong on human nature and democracy. It has to do with the question of the original state of the human race.

Aristotle said that humans have always been social. Hume and Smith had a similar view, and in particular thought that humans originally lived in foraging societies. As such, they had the sort of inborn motives and instincts needed for such an existence, including both cooperative and competitive drives.

Strauss, on the other hand, believed that humans originally lived an asocial existence. In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama pushes Hegel's idea that history started with two grown males fighting each other for recognition. He also discusses Hobbes' idea of a war of all against all, and Rousseau's idea that humans were originally solitary. He makes no mention whatsoever of the view that humans have always been social.

The question, again, is who is right, and science has established beyond any doubt that Hume and Smith were correct, and the various philosphers Strauss follows on this matter were wrong.

This is directly relevant to the question of democracy. As it turns out foraging societies are informal democracies, with major decisions being made through group discussion. As a consequence, human beings have democratic instincts, though of course they also have drives that run the opposite direction.

The reason that democracy was unknown in most of the world for thousands of years was not due to human nature, but rather that agriculture lead to warfare which in turn lead to authoritarian government (see The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution, by A. B. Schmookler). In the modern era developments in areas such as military technology and economics have made it possible to return to democracy, albeit in forms much different from the original.

In the solitary-original-man view, in contrast, society is unnatural and democracy more so, and you can make people support democracy only through force and the use of a good deal of philosopical mystification. And those who hold this view therefore believe that, as Fukuyama argues, democracy is highly unstable, and liable to collapse at any moment into authoritarianism or chaos.

Now the question is, if science clearly proves that the Hume-Smith view is correct, why do Straussians nonetheless cling to the old mistaken idea that humans are basically asocial? Part of the reason is metaphysical philosophy (more correctly, foundationist metaphysical philosophy).

Science bases its search for the truth on empirical data from the material world. Most foundationalist metaphysical philosophies, in contrast, hold that the material world is at least in part an illusion, and the really real is a world of pure supernatural ideas (see for instance Plato's allegory of the cave). The truth is therefore reached through pure thought on the part of the philosopher, who can know the realm of pure ideas because he himself is in his essence a pure, supernatural mind. In this view, when science and philosophy are in conflict, it is certain that philosophy is right and science is wrong.

The anti-foundationalist metaphysical view (what I called "post-metaphysical" in the post above) holds in contrast that our knowlege of reality is through our experience, and that our experience has various modes that includes the empirical, and therefore empirical evidence and in particular modern science, must be taken very seriously. Major anti-foundationalist philosophers include Pierce, Dewey, James, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Wittgenstein, Austin, Bernard Williams, and Charles Taylor (I think Derrida and Rorty are mixed cases). Of special note here is Isaiah Berlin, who was a liberal and explicitly anti-foundationalist metaphysical in the area of political theory.

Anti-foundationalist philosophers tend to be pro-science. They also tend to be pro-democracy, though not all are. As I said in a previous post, Hume and Smith were anti-foundationalist philosophers, though they could not explain their position on this very well because philosophy in their day had not yet worked out a thorough critique of foundationalist metaphysics and a general alternative.

Strauss never really understood anti-foundationalist metaphysics. He instead follows Neitzsche, who was only half way out of foundationalist metaphysics. Neitzsche argued there is no realm of supernatural reality, complete with the Form of the Good. However, he nonetheless agreed with foundationalist metaphysics that the realm of the material is a realm of illusion, and therefore concluded there is no truth except what one creates through a free act of will. Strauss is torn between Neitzsche's position and the religious view, which is similar to foundationalist metaphysics in that truth and ultimate reality are up in the realm of the supernatural, in this case the biblical God.

Since he was still half in foundationist metaphysics, Strauss felt comfortable discarding scientific truth, no matter how well founded, in favor of foundationalist metaphysical views on matters such human nature, the original state of the human race, and democracy. In particular, since he thinks that humans are by nature anti-social and anti-democratic, he teaches that democracy must be based on foundationalist metaphysical delusions as from Hobbes and Locke. He apparently couldn't even imagine that Hume and Smith had abandoned such arguments, and instead based democracy on empirical arguments about inborn human nature.

Finally, let me add that American democracy and culture (including those of the Founding Fathers) are based largely on views pretty similar to Smith's regarding human nature and metaphysics. On the latter, I think that it is no accident that the first modern major anti-foundationalist philosophical school, namely pragmatism, developed in this country.

As you might have guessed, I am seriously thinking of writing a book on this subject. Any communication would be much welcome.

lkbrunswick -at-

“Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.”

~ Donald Rumsfeld [paraphrasing Winston Churchill and co-opting "the noble lie"]

Leo Strauss and the Noble Lie:
The Neo-Cons at War

by John G. Mason

Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception

By Jim Lobe

Killing Democracy The Straussian Way
Shadia B. Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right

by Michael Doliner

The New Macchiavelli? Leo Strauss and the Politics of Fear

Michael Enright interviews Shadia B. Drury

Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq

by Danny Postel

"Two grown males fighting each other for recognition...."

My knowledge of Hegel is not good, but while the "battle to the death" does not describe the origin or society, I think that it does describe the origin of the state. I mean this in a real historical sense -- for example, it precisiely describes the rise of Genghis Khan.

Non-social hemans do not exist, but non-state societies are historically common. They are violent societies, but do not consist of every-man-against-every-man death struggles, but of continual warfare between unstable clans and alliances of various sorts.

I have seen a Straussian deny the state-society distinction, because it seems to make the state partly alien to the society it governs, and seems to justify anti-state activity more easily than Straussians would wish. Schmitt and Strauss, and possibly even Arendt, seem to fetishize the state.

We're getting far afield.

Just a tiny comment on one leetle, leetle aspect of Drury's interview:

Drury says that "Straussian" professors discourage their students from studying with other professors. Not only did I personally (and I was a student in Claremont and at the University of Chicago) find that not to be true, the CONVERSE was actually the truth. There was no effort to discourage me from taking courses with non-"Straussian" professors, and in fact specific encouragement to take courses rarely taught by any "Straussians" anywhere (epistomology courses taught by analytic philosophers, for example).

Though of course I didn't interact with all "Straussian" professors, it's pretty hard to take Drury's claim seriously when neither professors at Claremont nor the University of Chicago behaved like that (and those are perhaps the most "Straussian" of any US universities).

"I'd like to see some pretty good evidence that Strauss would have supported liberal democracy but reluctantly concluded that in the actual situation only authoritarian conservatives could effectively oppose Hitler."

sounds like a good place to start. thank you, John.

alex? would you care to cite a few pages for us, please.

In fact, specific encouragement to take courses rarely taught by any "Straussians" anywhere.....

I think that what was in question was whether Straussians encourage their students to take courses comvering the same topics Straussians cover, but from a non-Straussian point of view.

John: "My knowledge of Hegel is not good, but while the "battle to the death" does not describe the origin or society, I think that it does describe the origin of the state. I mean this in a real historical sense -- for example, it precisiely describes the rise of Genghis Khan"

I should have said I was following Fukuyama's presentation of Kojeve's controversial interpretation of Hegel.

From what I have read -- see Schmookler above -- states arose not out of Hegel's man-to-man battle, but rather general warfare.

"Non-social hemans do not exist, but non-state societies are historically common."

Hobbes argues that human psychology is such that society is impossible without a state. That such societies have nonetheless existed and been common proves that Hobbes' psychology is erroneous.

"They are violent societies, but do not consist of every-man-against-every-man death struggles, but of continual warfare between unstable clans and alliances of various sorts."

According to Lawrence Keeley's Warfare Before Civilization, hunting and gathering societies have raiding, but not real battles. That doesn't come about until agriculture. Also, hunting and gathering societies are stable in their organization. It is only in some versions of agricultural society that you get unstable clans and alliances.

Let mention that it is a common error to lump hunting-gathering societies and primitive agricultural tribes together under one lable of "the primitive." Actually, they differ from each other enormously.

"I have seen a Straussian deny the state-society distinction, because it seems to make the state partly alien to the society it governs, and seems to justify anti-state activity more easily than Straussians would wish. Schmitt and Strauss, and possibly even Arendt, seem to fetishize the state."

That's a very interesting observation. It makes sense that if you have the (mistaken) view that humans are basically asocial, then like Hobbes preached, the only two options are chaos or a state. Of course the latter, whatever its disadvantages, is preferable. Hence state worship.

"We're getting far afield."

I think this is all directly relevant. Scott's post was about Strauss and facism, which is a version of state worship based on endless violence.

My guess -- and I could be wrong --is that Strauss in his later years did not support facism. However, it is quite clear that he continued to support a view of human nature pretty similar to the one that underlies facism, in contrast to the view of human nature that underlies American democracy.

***Coming Attraction***

The discussion is continuing, so Sunday I am going to put up another chunk of my critique of Strauss and defense of American-style democracy. This one is going to explain some more about metaphysics, especially the all-important question of finitude and reality, and how they relate to social history, human nature, and democracy.

Won Joon Choe:

Thank you for the link. I found it very informative.

According to Lawrence Keeley's Warfare Before Civilization, hunting and gathering societies have raiding, but not real battles.Also, hunting and gathering societies are stable in their organization. It is only in some versions of agricultural society that you get unstable clans and alliances.

This is overstated. Hunting and gathering societies were incapable of any long-term highly-organized effort (because of low population density and the lack of storable surplus), but they were not less violent on a per capita basis.

The tendency of these societies was to organize in small bands which were somewhat ad hoc (depending on what was happening at a given time in terms of hunting, childraising, etc.) These small bands frequently split and merged. Because there was no real property or title to land, but only portable property, permanent social groups and authority structures were not needed.

From what I have read, the different bands in a hunter-gatherer society did not fight each other in an organized manner, rather the violent raiding was between different h-g tribes.

As to man-to-man murder, I do understand it was quite high within h-g tribes. The point here is this sort of violence, contrary to what Hegel said, is not what lead to the state. Rather it was organized intergroup violence (among other things) that did, and this was not possible, as you imply, until agriculture.

"Because there was no real property or title to land, but only portable property, permanent social groups and authority structures were not needed."

There still was need for the social organization within each band, and also the social organization of the tribe as a whole. It is just that the social organization was not at either level in the form of a permanent oppresive centralized state.

As to the question of land ownership, that can lead to a centralized government. However, what generally leads to its becoming opperssive is chronic warfare. States with strong governments that can order everyone to fight or pay taxes, do a lot better in warfare than ones that only have the power to keep land ownership straight. What happens when there is chronic intergroup warfare is there is a selective process in which the groups with a strong, oppressive governments defeat and absorb the ones with weaker governments. This in turn has all sorts of social impacts, one of which is the powerful leaders invariably use their governmental power to take most of the wealth in the country. You should check out Schmooklers book on all this, it is very insightful.

John, I am emphasizing all this because Strauss and the philosphers got it all wrong, and it is a key reason for all their other errors. They don't understand that you first had non-state h-g societies, then agriculture that lead to warfare which in turn lead (though not the only cause) the state. They instead have other historical theories, and all of them assume that human beings are at bottem asocial, and so society is an imposition. The question of human nature and the question of early history are all tied together, and if you get the history wrong, then you get the view of human nature wrong too, with disasterous consequences for social and political philosophy.

We don't disagree by much. The h-g societies were stateless and had their own degree of political order. But they were pretty violent.

Agriculture was a prerequisite for the state, because, first, storable grain could feed armies and support cities, and second, peasants were tied to their plot of land and could not flee without losing everything, so they were subject to extortion, and could only hope for a relatively low, normalized level of extortion.

One of the Chinese philosophers, Han Fei Tzu or Hsun Tzu, noted that the state power becomes absolute when there's no more good land to flee to -- the state power becomes absolute.

To me, The State is inevitable now, and a good state is a good thing, and good state does good things and makes good things possible, but Strauss and the others seemed to make the State or "The Political" a good in itself and the main source of good. Whereas some good things are only tolerated or allowed, or at best enabled by the state, and The State often stands in opposition to its people.

You're right, we do pretty much agree.

One reason I am harping on this topic has to do with human nature and violence. There is an idea around, and Strauss and Neitzsche. seem to hold it, that there is a strong drive for violence in human nature. If you believe that, then the only way to have any order is to have a strong oppressive state. It also means that regular warfare is inevitable.

I want to argue that there isn't any such drive, or at least not a strong one, and violence is mainly a means to ends that, if society is structured appropriately, people can instead achieve by non-violent means.

That is why I don't like statements like, "h-g societies were pretty violent." and "h-g societies lacked a state," Maybe you don't mean it that way, but it sounds like you are endorsing the violent drive idea and the only solution being an oppressive state. To get away from this set of ideas people need to accurately analyse what sorts of violence occured under what circumnstances, and then you can get down to how it was means, not an end.

"but Strauss and the others seemed to make the State or "The Political" a good in itself and the main source of good. Whereas some good things are only tolerated or allowed, or at best enabled by the state, and The State often stands in opposition to its people."

I wasn't aware they held that position, but it makes sense, given their overall philosophy. If you hold with Neitzsche, Hobbes et al that human nature is basically selfish and violent, then if you don't have a state, you will just have a war of all against all. Hence you need a state as a source of all that is good.

Ok, here is that post on metaphysics I promised.

Part I Metaphysics and Foundationism

(professor in academic robes walks to the podium, starts to lecture, coughs, takes a drink of water, then starts up again.)

I am covering this matter of metaphysics because Strauss goes wrong in his political views in part because he is tangled up
foundationist metaphysical philosophy, but mistakenly believes he has escaped it.

To start, let me say that metaphysics is the area of philosophy that concerns the nature of reality. So for instance, are values real? are souls real? are typical metaphysical questions. Everyone has metaphysical beliefs, and they have a big impact on behavior. So for instance, if you believe there are spirits that cause illness, you will treat illness by doing something like voodoo, where as if you believe that spirits don't exist then you will believe that illness is caused by natural forces, and instead use modern medicine.

A metaphysical system is a set of ideas that describe all the basic aspects of reality. There are many different Western metaphysical systems, including Platonism, materialism, and Cartesian dualism.

However, the many different Western metaphysical systems fall into two classes: foundationalist and anti-foundationalist. The difference has to do with a set of basic beliefs about the relation between experience and reality.

We experience many things, such as objects in space, our bodies, emotions, thoughts, and desires. In foundationalist metaphysical systems, it is held that reality is radically different than what we experience. A classical example of this is Plato's allegory of the cave.

Furthermore, foundationalist metaphysical systems hold that the differences are of a certain type. What we experience is very complex, of many types, changing, often uncertain, and never completely known. So for instance in the experience of object perception you see only some things, and sometimes you are not certain what you are seeing. And besides that you have other sorts of experiences like feelings, logical deductions, and ethical judgements, each of which requires a completely different vocabulary to discribe, and which also are often incomplete, uncertain, and changing in time.

Foundationalists hold that the really real, in contrast, can be completely known to the mind of the philosopher and described by a limited number of completely clear concepts.

If you have studied Euclidian geometry, then you have the model for foundationalist metaphysics. In Euclidian geometry, you have a limited number of completely and clear and certain concepts, like point and line. You also have a limited number of completely clear and certain principles. On the basis of these concepts and principles you then describe everything possible, like various geometric shapes, and also use logical deductions to arrive at all possible truths (or at least that is the claim).

Foundationist metaphysical philosophies hold that you can do something similar for all of reality, including the material world, the mental world, and ethics and politics. The different foundationist metaphysical systems disagree as to what are the basic concepts, and what are the true principles, but they all agree that such a system is possible.

Part II Anti-Foundationalist Metaphysics

For most of Western history, philosophy has been dominated by foundationalist systems. However, starting in the late part of the nineteenth century, there has been a revolution which anti-foundationist philosophies have come to the fore.

This has been the case in all three main branches of philosophy: Pragmatism (which was anti-foundationist from the start), Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and continental philosophy. This has happened in part because the various anti-foundationalist philosphers have presented very strong arguments that foundationalism as such is impossible and in many ways mistaken (however, many philosophers today nonetheless remain foundationalist)

Where foundationism regards experience as illusory, for anti-foundationalist philosophies it is the one and only path to the truth. Instead of trying to construct a perfect conceptual system, they attend to reality as we experience it and try to describe it in all its clarity and confusion.

Different anti-foundationalist philosophers have concentrated on different aspects of experience. For instance, Heidegger focused on being, Merleau-Ponty on mind and body, Bernard Williams on ethics, Isaiah Berlin on political philosophy, and Wittgenstein on Language. For a long time these were seen as separate enterprises, but in the last few decades it has become clear they all fit together fairly well in one general anti-foundationalist view.

In the anti-foundationalist view, we know reality but never completely. There are different aspects of reality, but they all relate to each other. There is logical coherence, but also contradiction. So for instance, Berlin writes that there are universal values on which to base society and politics, but they are often in contradiction and there is no clear and perfect hierarchy among them.

***coming Tuesday**

Tomorrow: foundationalist philosophy tends to support authoritarianism, while anti-foundationalism tends to support democracy.

Part III Metaphysics and Political Philosophy

Which sort of metaphysics one holds has a great impact on ones beliefs about government. Foundationalist philosophy tends to support authoritarianism, while anti-foundationalism tends to support democracy.

There are two levels to this connection. The first is direct and obvious. In foundationalist metaphysics, the belief is that there is a set of pure, certain concepts that determines everything, including what the rules for society should be. Furthermore, most metaphysical philosophies hold that only a tiny fraction of the population is capable of the sort of pure rational thought that is needed to understand and apply the metaphysical system. The obvious conclusion is that society should be run by a philosopher king, and that king should have coercive powers to make everyone else obey.

The situation is completely different for anti-foundationalism. Understanding comes from experience, and everyone has experience of reality, including the reality of society. Furthermore, everyone is partly different in which parts of reality they understand. What is needed then is for a general discussion in which people share their understandings and critique each others errors (experience can be wrong, but it can be corrected by other, more convincing experience) and finally arrive at decisions for society. In other words, democracy, at least as ideally practiced. And indeed anti-metaphysical philosophers have tended to be liberals (in the classical sense), good examples being Berlin, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty (Heidegger was a noted exception, for a reason I shall explain later).

However, there is also another level here that has to do with how the two different types of metaphysics envision the basic organization of reality. Most foundationalist systems claim that reality is divided into two radically different realms. One is the realm of the material, which means physical objects in space, including animals and, most importantly, the human body. The other fundamental type of reality is an alleged realm of ideas that are non-material and outside of space (also referred to as mind or spirit) and ultimately also eternal. The most familiar modern version of this view, of course, is Cartesian dualism. In such dualistic metaphysics a human being is a very odd amalgam of two completely different types of realities. It is impossible to figure out how this would work, as anyone who has taken introductory philosophy and learned about the profound contradictions of Cartesian dualism is aware.

In anti-foundationalist philosophies, in contrast, matter and ideas are instead seen as different aspects of one reality. And this is in fact how we experience things. We don't seem to be minds floating out in Platonic space who ocassionally notice the world and feel we are somehow are contected to a body. Rather we think and feel ourselves as bodies that are part of the world, with our thoughts and feelings being in and about the world. Merleau-Ponty focused on how we are thinking bodies in a world we feel in his book, The Phenomenology of Perception. All of the other anti-foundationalist philosophers make a similar point.

Now all this is directly to the issue of authoritarianism versus democracy. In most foundationalist dualisms the body is seen as wild, selfish, and completely amoral, while rationality and morals are up in the non-material realm of mind and ideas. That means foundationalists believe there is a continual war going on in the human soul between the lower animal part and the higher spirit. The only way to get good behavior, and hence the only way to have a good society, rather than a war of all against all, is for people to be trained so that their moral spirits will take full control and completely suppress their animal parts. But very few people, namely true philosophers, have the ability to achieve this state, and so you need to have an authoritarian government that keeps people under control and averts the chaos that foundationalist believe always lurks just under the surface.

Anti-foundationalism views the matter quite differently. Yes, human beings have various different impulses, but they do not divide up into two neat metaphysical categories as the dualistic foundationalists maintain. The body is not a random chunk of matter, but is in fact equisitely organized, as science tells us, and evolution has made it wisely adaptive in its behavior (see Dewey and Merleau-Ponty). And far from being simply selfish, human beings have evolved as social animals and so also have pro-social instincts, such as a sense of justice a concern for the welfare of others, and a conscience. Anti-foundationalism thus portrays human beings as not needing an authoritarian government to force them to be good, though it does think that humans need social norms and institutions that help guide people along constructive lines (Heidegger was authoritarian in spite of being anti-foundational at least in part because he had a mistakenly negative view of human nature). Democracy is thus possible.

Now Strauss gets all caught in the middle here because, following Neitzsche, his philosophy was a confusing and inconsistent combination of foundationalist and anti-foundationalist assumptions. But before I explain that, I need to discuss four more matters: history, finitude, religion and science.

Human history is essential to political thought because it tells us about the various ways people can live. An especially important question here is the original state of the human race, as it tells a great deal about human nature and what is natural to it. Dualistic foundationalists see humans as by nature selfish animalistic beasts, and so they believe that humans originally lived an asocial existence, as in Hobbes' war of all against all, or Rousseau's idea that humans originally lived a soliary existence. Society comes about through some sort of process that goes contrary to basic human impulses and so is a necessarily oppressive affair, hence the need for a strong authoritarian government.

On the other hand, if you believe that human organism include a good deal of inborn sociality, then you will expect that humans have always lived in society. That means that society, whatever its problems, is natural and, if organized correctly, quite rewarding. If society becomes oppressive, it is due to unfortunate particular dynamics, not something basic to human nature.

The second issue is finitude. Our ordinary experience is that we are finite in many ways, including intelligence, knowledge, power, and ability to know what is right and wrong. And furthermore these different types of finitude interconnect, so that for instance, the fact our body is limited in size means that our reach is limited, the fact that our brains are limited produces limited intelligence, and so on. And so anti-foundationalist assume that reality consists of a network of finite aspects of existence.

The dualistic foundationalists, in contrast, believe that knowledge is basic unlimited, since it consists of a set of totally knowable ideas that are up in the infinite, non-material realm of ideas. And, as Plato argued, if the mind of the philosopher can know perfect, eternal non-material ideas, then it must itself be perfect, infinite, and eternal -- that is, immortal. Indeed, dualistic foundationalists invariably hold the infinite realm of ideas is more real than the realm of matter, and furthermore for that reason it has the ultimate power.

This matter is relevant to the question of politics and society. If you believe that reality consists of finite humans in a finite world, then imperfection and conflict will be inevitable, and you can never have a perfect society, though of course some types of societies are better than others. On the other hand, anti-foundationalism seems to hold out the possibility that the perfect spirit will someday exercise its ultimate power and produce utopia. The political philsophies of Hegel (at least its earlier version) and Marx are examples of dualistic metaphysics producing this belief.

Talking about finitude and the infinite naturally takes us into the realm of religion. And in fact, orthodox Christian religion has largely the same basic structure of underlying assumptions as dualistic foundationist metaphysics, with a God who is a perfect, omnipotent spirit, and the body being purely evil (this is in part because early Christian theology was greatly influenced by Greek foundationalist metaphysics). There are two differences, however. One is that in Christianity the truth is known through inspiration from God, either personally or through the Bible, rather than rational thought. The other is that unlike pure dualistic metaphysics, the soul of man, even in heaven, still remains in important ways finite and less than God. (Cartesian dualism is actually a religious philosophy in that Descartes was a Catholic who believed that both matter and the human mind were created and continually maintained by God, who is the ultimate reality.) And not surprisingly, orthodox Christianity has a certain tendency toward authoritarian theocracy. An anti-foundationalist approach to religion, such as the more liberal versions of Christianity, addresses the experience of the boundless, but refrains from holding it has the final and total word from God.

Finally there is science. In dualistic metaphysics, the ultimate reality is the realm of sprit which is known through pure philosophic reason. The material realm that science studies is at best superficial, at worst a misleading illusion. That means that when dualistic metaphysics and science are in conflict, one can conclude with certainty that dualistic metaphysics is right and science is wrong (and of course we have the same sort of argument between fundamentalist Christians and Darwin's theory of evolution).

In contrast, anti-foundationalists see the empirical as an essential aspect of experience and hence how we know reality, and so they place a high value on modern science, though they see it as only route among many to knowing the world. So for instance, Merleau-Ponty makes extensive use of findings from biology and psychology in The Phenomenology of Perception. And two of the founders of pragmatism, namely James and Peirce, were professional scientists, while the third, Dewey, supported it strongly.

This is again relevant to political theory. Modern science has found the anti-foundationalist views of history and human nature are essentially correct, that evolution, which in philosophical terms is an example of the operations of material finitude, has produced humans who have social instincts as part of their character and have always been social. And beyond that the original societies, namely hunter-gatherer tribes, were informal democracies and so democracy is in a certain sense natural to humans (See The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, Darwinian Politics by Paul Rubin, and The Scientist in the Crib by Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl). Science has also learned both how the original democracy was lost (see The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution) and a good deal about why it has more recently become possible to restore it in many areas of the world.

Dualistic metaphysians, on the other hand, consider such scientific findings totally unpersuasive, because they believe they are in direct touch with a deeper, truer reality. They think they can determine history and human nature through pure philosophic thought, and feel perfectly comfortable maintaining rejecting contrary scientific discoveries.

To summarize, foundationalist metaphysics tends towards authoritarianism because it believes the truth for society can be known only by a tiny elite, and also because reality is divided into a realm of amoral matter, including the human body, and a realm of perfect truth. This goes with a view of history as starting with humans being asocial and society being imposed on them. The ultimate reality is ideal, which leads to the possiblity of utopia, and the overall view of reality is similar to orthodox Christianity. Science is seen as a lessor, often illusory form of knowledge, and set aside when it conflicts with pure foundationalistic metaphysical thought.

Anti-foundationalism, in contrast, bases knowledge of reality in experience as such, and so tends to think social decisions should be made through open discussion. Humans are seen as including natural sociality in their inborn makeup, so government and society need not be imposed, and humans have lived in society from the begining. Existence is finite, so utopia is not possible, though societies can be better or worse. Religion should not be absolutist, and science is highly valued as a route to the truth, and indeed modern science has confirmed the correctness of the anti-foundationalist view of history, human nature, and the possibility and desirability of democracy.

With all this laid out, we are now in a position to look at how and why Strauss went right and wrong, and so that will be the topic of my next comment.

I am planning to put the next piece up Thursday.

Part IV Neitzsche and Metaphysics

Strauss is basically a Neitzschean who teaches that the classical philosophers were also Neitzscheans, so next I will discuss Neitzsche.

However, I want to first add in a few clarifications of the material I covered in the first three parts. I explained in Part III that foundationalist metaphysical systems generally assume an absolute duality between the material and the ideal. I want to add in that one reason for doing this has to do with the requirement that all of reality be described in a single, completely clear conceptual system. As we experience them, mind and body are intertwined and interdependent in many ways, with the result they cannot be fully described. As Derrida explains, foundationalist metaphysical systems overcome such problems by assuming absolute binary oppositions that simplify thinking by dividing reality up into two pure sides, and matter-idea dualism is an example of this.

Regarding anti-foundationalist philosophies, their view of the body is not that it is disorganized, but that it is organized in a manner that is different than a conceptual system, more of a network of many inexact components acting simultaneously on each other than a string of pure logical throughts. This idea is central to Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, and also that of Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher who introduced me to anti-foundationalist thinking (see his book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning).

Also, in general anti-foundationalist philosophies don't hold that reality is just incomprehensible confusion. Rather they think it is comprehensible and organized, only there are many different organization schemes, each covering a different aspect of existence, and only partly translatable between each other. Wittgenstein's idea of language games is perhaps the best known example of this way of looking at things.

Now to Neitzsche. Neitzsche was severly critical of foundationalist metaphysics. He preached quite loudly that he completely escaped from it, and Strauss and many others (including the post-modernists) agree. However, this is not at all true. He actually was a transitional figure, half-in and half-out of foundationalism.

Neitzsche argued quite persuasively that the foundationalist attempt to, through philosophical reason, find a realm of pure and certain truth was simply impossible. There is no such realm, and in particular no perfect, transcendent values by which the human race should guide itself. All we have is human bodies living and dieing in the world, struggling with each other and the confusions of living.

This sounds thoroughly anti-foundationalist, but in many ways Neitzsche remained within traditional throught. First of all, foundationalist metaphysics is based on the idea that the only real truth is up in the transcendent realm. If you reject that belief then you should return to where you as a human being started out, namely experience of the world, and proclaim that to be the source of truth. And indeed we do find there much truth, including much that peoples of all different societies can affirm. However, Neitzsche, while he rejected the idea of foundationalist truth, still accepted the foundationalist doctrine that foundationalist truth is the only possible valid kind. As a consequence he concluded there is no objective truth at all, and what we hold to be truth is just invented. To put it another way, he held on to foundationalism's dualism, but then decided that our minds, as outside the world, could know nothing about it, and hence we had no reason to think the world had any definite character.

Neitzsche also rejected anti-foundationalism's finding that human beings, as a social biological species include within their nature pro-social motives. He instead held onto the foundationalist doctrine that human bodies, as material, must be utterly selfish and wildly irrational. As a consequence he also held to a foundationalist view of human society being an unnatural imposition held in place by power and mystification. And of course he rejected science as having any ability to over-rule his foundationalist views. All of this is expressed in his existentialism, and while he affirmed human finitude, at the same time he is clearly trying to set himself up as a god (see Thus Spake Zarathurstra), though he had the honesty to see that this effort must fail.

Why did Neitzsche criticize foundationalism but still in many ways remain within it? My guess is there were a number of reasons. One would be that getting out of metaphysics is a very complex project, taking a number of geniuses, and as a mere human being he was able to get only so far in rethinking the assumptions he had been taught. In addition, Neitzsche was raised as an orthodox Christian, a religion which, as I explained in Part III, has strong similarities to foundationalist philosophy. He rejected Christianity when he was an adolescent, but it is obvious that he still operated out of much the same world view, and continued to long for a God he could believe in. A third matter is that he grew up in Germany, which was an authoritarian, non-democratic country, and so from his culture absorbed its views of human nature (an authoritarian usually is someone who honestly believes human nature is irrational and selfish, and so a good society requires a strong hand in the government).

Later philosophers were more thorough-going in their anti-foundationalism. For instance, Heidegger's response to the foundationalist dualism of mind and world was simply to throw it away and explain that Dasein (roughly speaking, his term for human being) is being-in-the-the-world. Strauss was right in the middle of this philosophical revolution, and in fact took at least one class from Heidegger. Alas, Strauss apparently never understood how Neitzsche was still stuck half stuck in foundationalism (even though Heidegger explained this quite clearly). He decided that Neitzsche was the last word in modern philosophy, and never clearly saw how Heidegger and others had moved beyond him to a pure anti-foundationalism. In particular, he thought Heidegger was basically Neitschean, and didn't understand how he had developed a radically different metaphysics.

I think the reasons for this were in at least some ways similar to Neitzsche's. Like Neitzsche Strauss was raised in authoritarian Germany and so had a negative view of human nature. Also like Neitzsche he had a strong religious bent. No doubt Heidegger's support of the Nazi's turned him against looking deeply enough at Heidegger's philosophy to understand it. Also, Heidegger wrote his first great book, Being and Time, in 1929 using an existentialist set of concepts, and it wasn't really clear to many readers until his Letter on Humanism written in 1947 that Heidegger was making a thorough break with foundationalism.

Strauss, then, remained a Neitzschean. However, he was not content to remain with Neitzsche's nihilism. He desperately wanted some philosophical guidance for the good life. So he turned back to the classical philosophers. My guess is there were two reasons for this. One is that they were, of course, so brilliant. The second was that he was raised in an aristrocratic culture and so I am guessing had aristocratic values, and so was naturally attacted to the similarly aristocratic values of the classical writers.

So Strauss read the classical philosophers in order to find an answer to his Neitzschean problems. Now the problem, of course, is that the classical philosophers explicitly rejected nihilism. Think of Plato's foundationalist theory of the form of the Good, and his arguments against the Sophists. And if that is true, then they were not what Strauss was looking for. However, some of the things the classical philosophers said might be interepreted as arguing in the right direction. So Strauss decided that the classical philosophers really were Neitzscheans underneath, but had decided to conceal it out of fear of prosecution.

This is an odd idea. After all, if nihilism waw so dangerous to preach back in those days then the Sophists, who rejected both values and truth ("it is always possible to argue otherwise") would have all been put to death, instead of being so successful. I think Strauss insisted on this because he was desperate to find some sort of answer for Neitzscheanism, not a rejection of it, but a doctrine that affirmed it but then told you how to nevertheless live a good and responsible live. The only place he knew of to find it was the classical philosophers, and so he just assumed they were what he was looking for, all evidence to the contrary.

I think it is clear that the classical philosophers were not Neitzscheans, but even if they were, the more important point is that Neitzscheanism, even if the classical philosphers held it is simply mistaken. Strauss and the Straussians, however, can't see that, and are quite emotionally attached to a semi-foundationalist philosophy, with all the mistakes and internal contradictions that entails.

To take just one example of how this works out, in foundationalism the philosopher can reach perfect truth, while in anti-foundationalism philosophers are just finite human beings and so will inevitably fail to get the whole truth and furthermore inevitably will make mistakes. And so anti-metaphysical philosophy took, as explained previously, a number of geniuses each working at things from a different angle, to really work out its ideas. But Straussians (at least the orthodox ones), in a foundationalist manner, regard Strauss as both treating everything of importance and as right in every way, a sort of god-man, even if he modestly claimed he was only interpreting what the true god-men, the great classical philosophers, had taught.

Next part: Strauss and American democracy.

Tancredi, thank you very much for the material from Strauss.

The next post in my series of mini-essays should be up Sunday.

Tracy, since you seem to know a lot about Strauss, I was wondering what you thought of my critique of him?

Make that Monday for the next section.

Part V Strauss and American Democracy

Now we can understand how Strauss partly misunderstood, misrepresented, and misvalued American Democracy. But first a few notes about nomenclature. I have been using the term "metaphysics" to refer to any set of ideas about the overall nature of reality, and dividing it up into two types, "foundationalist metaphysics" and "anti-foundationalist metaphysics." However, there is no standard vocabulary in philosophy for these notions. So for instance, when Dewey or Heidegger use the term "metaphysics" they mean what I am calling "foundationalist metaphysics." Also, often what I am calling "foundationalist metaphysics" is referred to as "speculative metaphysics." And what I have been calling "anti-foundationalist metaphysics" goes under various names, including "pluralist metaphysics" and, for Heidegger, "thinking." However, once you understand the basic distinctions, you can figure out how a particular philosopher is labeling them.

All right, back to Strauss. With what I have presented, we can see that Strauss simply couldn't understand American democracy due to three interconnected sorts of errors, namely his half-foundational, half-anti-foundational metaphysics, his view of human nature, and his view of history. In Strauss' view, human nature is basically selfish, and so democracy must be a historical imposition. And he believed the only two metaphysical options are pure foundationalism and Neitzschianism. The latter is of course highly anti-democratic, so in his view democracy must be founded on some sort of foundationalist mystification. And it is just this that he critiques in Natural Right.

This misunderstands American democracy because it actually is based on a more positive view of human nature that sees humans as having always been social and as having certain natural democratic tendencies. And American democracy is based at least in part on the more truly anti-foundationalist views of Hume and Smith. And, as I have explained, all of these have been found by subsequent science and philosophy to be largely correct.

All this is not at all to say that Strauss was simply mistaken in his ideas about politics. Besides his Neitzschean metaphysics, he also had a practical, insightful side that did not try to establish society on a foundationalist metaphysical theory or on nihilism, but instead looked carefully at what had been learned through experience and observation about how societies work. Hence Strauss' emphasis on the importance of wise judgement.

This is relevant to the question of metaphysics because practical philosophy is anti-foundationalist, in that it looks at the complexities and uncertainties of life as it is actually lived, instead of trying to see it through the procrustian bed of a foundationalist system. So there seem to be two different view of reality fighting it out in Strauss, one the semi-foundationalist Neitzschean and the other the anti-foundationalist practical philosopher. In addition he was greatly influenced by religion, which, as I have explained, is foundationalist in a number of ways.

These different competing views about the basic nature of life and reality lead to a great deal of ambiguity and tension to Strauss' writings, and I think it is much of the reason that there are such wild disagreements among Straussians. I think what happens is most Straussians are understandably looking for a coherent system. Each one has his own set of views that lead him to stress some of Strauss' ideas that hang together, and throw out the other ones that contradict them. Different Straussians discard different ideas, and hence endless disagreement.

Other, wiser Straussians stress that he was always searching for the truth and opposed a set system, but they don't realize that many of his contradictions are because he was caught between foundationalist and semi-anti-foundationalist views, and did not understand more fully anti-foundationalist philosophy.

Next: What Straussians Need to Do

Won, perhaps you could respond to my critique of Strauss. It would certainly be informative to hear what a well-informed Straussian thinks of it.

I am critiquing Strauss' assumptions, not his vocabulary. Strauss makes foundationalist metaphysical assumptions, as I define those terms, whether he uses those terms or not.

Identifying unlabled assumptions is an essential part of the philosophical method. My understanding is that Strauss did this himself.

"Mr. Brunswick may want to consider the reason why, as he said, there is no standard definition in philosophy for such a term." The fact that there is no standard definition is why I defined my terms. Doing so is normal philosophical procedure.

What I did was set up a series of definitions and then use them to discuss the assumptions Strauss and other philosophers. If you feel that I have incorrectly described Strauss' assumptions, then you need to explain specifically how I have done so.

I have noticed there is a common (but not universal) pattern among among Straussians that they respond to critiques of Strauss by complaining that he has been misrepresented, but then failing to explain what he did actually say. That sort of response does little to carry the discussion forward.

d.j.k., I thought some more about your comment and came up with a more direct way of stating my position.

You said, "One thing I always liked about Strauss's style is his avoidance of crude history-of-philosophy labels like "nominalist", "materialist", "pragmatist" and ... "metaphysics"."

Actually, that is part of the problem. Strauss avoids standard philosophical terms like "metaphysics." The consequence is that people who are not well acquainted with mainline philosophy get the mistaken belief that Strauss has left mainline philosophy behind and is simply thinking in an original manner.

Actually, Strauss started out studying mainline philosophy, and those who are familiar with it can see that he is greatly influenced by its assumptions, including those about metaphysics, even if he doesn't clear state it.

I have been thinking some more about d.k.j.'s post, and it has helped me understand how the Straussians are stuck in a sort of mental trap.

It has to do with standard philosophy--by that I mean the sorts of ideas that are taught in a typical philosophy department. These are ideas about philosophical topics such as the nature of reality and what is the good, and they are based in part on the standard philosophical understanding of the classical philosophers.

Now Strauss worshiped the classical philosophers, but he thinks standard philosophy has completely misunderstood them, and as a consequences its philosophical ideas are also completely wrong.

Straussians believe all this and they furthermore believe that Strauss made a radical break from standard philosophy. They think standard philosophy is useless, and so they don't study it seriously, and have at best a superficial understanding of it.

Actually, Strauss never made a radical break from standard philosophy. His ideas are a variation within it. Prior his adoption of esoteric reading, he spent a couple of decades studying standard philosophy, in particular Neitzsche. It was ideas from Neitzsche's version of standard philosophy that propelled Strauss into adopting the esoteric method of reading. And throughout his career Strauss continued to hold a whole vast network of assumptions that he had learned from standard philosophy.

That is important because as philosophy has gone forward, many of those standard philosophical assumptions that Strauss held have been found to be mistaken, and replaced with better ones.

Alas, Straussians never understand this because they don't study standard philosophy carefully enough, much less its more recent developments, to be able to understand how Strauss is following mistaken ideas from the older version of standard philosophy. They are sure there is nothing worth understanding there and so they never make the difficult effort required to understand it. And that is why I say they are stuck in a mental trap. This is rather sad, since the Straussians are bright and well-intentioned people who have made valuable contributions, but as long as they refuse to seriously study standard philosophy they will continue to make some serious mistakes.

I am planning on putting up Part V What Straussians Need to Do on Sunday.

Also I am going to re-organize the material into an essay and put it up on a web page

Make that Monday.

PART VI What Straussians Need to Do

Leo Strauss was not, as Shadia Drury claims, a facist demon. However, he also was not, as Straussians believe, a perfect thinker who taught the thoughts of perfect classical philosophers. Strauss was a brilliant philosopher who investigated profound problems and had many important insights. He was also a finite human being who went wrong on some key philosohpical issues.

Strauss did not, as he thought, make via Neitzsche a radical break with the standard philosophy that is taught in universities in the West. He was still to a great extent caught up in foundationalist metaphysics, and he never correctly understood the real revolution of anti-foundationalism that followed Neitzsche. And that is essential for political theory because American democracy is based on implicitly anti-foundationalist views.

Straussians are intelligent and basically well-motivated people, but they have in an important way fallen away from Strauss' own approach. Strauss was a member of the Western philosophical tradition, which means that he attempted to determine the truth through the application of rational
thought. In this tradition, when someone's arguments comes under rational attack, it is the job of everyone to attend to these arguments and see if they are correct or not. Alas, Straussians tend to instead respond to philosophical criticism with various forms of evasion.

What Straussians need to do is carefully look over the sorts of arguments I am making, and objectively determine the extent to which they are correct. Then on that basis they need to revise their views, integrating anti-foundationalist philosophy and scientific findings with Strauss' many valid insights. As a part of this effort Straussians should study Hume and Smith, and also the various anti-foundationalist philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein, and Bernard Williams. They also need to study the new scientific findings, as in Pinker's the Blank Slate. One book that should be of particular interest is Larry Arnhart's Conservative Darwinism,
since the author is well-aquainted with Straussian throught.

In order to do this, however, Straussians need to get over some important delusions. Several revolve around the idea that Strauss' ideas and in particular his Neitzschean arguments need to be kept secret from the public
for fear they would destroy society. Actually, Neitzsche's ideas have been out in the open for a century, and most Americans simply reject them, in part because they are in important ways so obviously mistaken.

Furthermore, the effort to keep Strauss' philosophy secret is futile because it is coming to be known more and more openly. An example is Damon Linker's article on Strauss in the July 31, 2006 issue of the New Republic. Strauss' philosophy is basically out in the open, and Straussians' efforts to conceal and mislead are becoming comically ineffective. Indeed, between the increase in public knowledge of Strauss's ideas and the widespread understanding among the educated pubic of the new scientific findings about human nature and human history, I think pure Straussian throught has reached the peak of its influence and is on its way down.

Straussians also need to think about how they became Straussians. In particular, what were their beliefs and motivations that made Strauss' ideas seem correct and attractive? I think an especially important issue here is Neitzsche's psychology. It is clearly contrary to what we observe, so the question is why budding young Straussians nonetheless found it persuasive. As part of getting out of Neitzschean psychology, Straussians become alert to pro-social motives and actions, both in own lives and the larger world.

Straussians need to rejoin the human race, and in particular American society. They are not a superior elite, and they are not the last wall that is preventing the United States from collapsing into barbarism and brutal
authoritarianism. They need to stop thinking of themselves as the defenders of the one, true faith, and realize their true vocation is to be serious, objective thinkers on philosophical topics.

Well, that is the last of my mini-essays. Sorry for the odd use of a blog comment thread. I am going to go a more conventional route and re-organize these comments into an essay. It will be published at

Oops, I see I misspelled "Nietzsche" all the way through.

Mr. Brunswick,

An interesting post that gave me a lot to think about. Thank you. Other than your mispelling of "Nietzsche," however, I believe Heidegger's "Being and Time" was published in 1927, not 1929. Pedantic details, but good to get them right.

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Just wanted to say thanks for your work and attention to detail, as sorting through all of this can be rather difficult at times.

My first real exposure to Strauss came when I saw "The Power of Nightmares" and rooting out the reality behind the assumptions has proven to be a labyrinthine exploration. And I'm still not certain as to the extent of the influence here, or whether, in the end, it is all that relevant. While there are striking similarities, particularly with the noble lie or use of religion, I'm more convinced that our current situation revolves more around the crucible of maintaining by force neoliberal economics. Nevertheless, as a theoretical underpinning of the neocon line, Strauss is particularly intriguing, and this post has been very helpful.

"But as a thinker? There's just no there there--there's no coherent, comprehensible theory or doctrine that one can identify and assess. And that's what his supporters say in his defense"
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I wrote a long defense of Strauss and, more importantly, some clarification of his thought. (In one line - he was a Platonist. Nietzsche as the anti-Plato. The blog writer is way off here.)

Sadly it got deleted somehow.

So instead I will just point out to Les that his writeup is terribly sophomoric and he doesn't seem to understand the significance of philosophy - ideas constitute regimes, those ideas comes from philosophers.

You need to spend way more time trying to understand the thought of the various thinkers you reference and how that thought has actually connected to politics in the real historical world.

The fact that you think you have a new theoretical justification for liberal democracy after the fact - that is, after it has already been constituted on Hobbesian-Lockean grounds, is simply irrelevant.

Furthermore your arguments from biology or neurology or whatever it is are quite irrelevant here, especially in regard to Strauss.

Read Plato's Republic (and Strauss' commentary) if you want to understand his thinking about this. In fact just read City and Man, he lays it all out.

Thanks for the many useful comments posted here and sent to me independently by email

I am convinced that this is a very frank account of the policy of Strauss when he wrote a play marked by its closure confessional. Indeed, anyone who carefully reads "book on Hobbes (Hobbes politische Wissenschaft in ihrer Strauss Genesis, 1936, but largely completed in 1933, translated by the political philosophy of Hobbes: its basis and its genesis) or his thesis, written on anti-Enlightenment writer Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, suspect such emotions.Eden GoldBuy Eden GoldCheap Eden GoldEden EternalEden Eternal GoldEden Eternal Review
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So I have no argument folks, no argument indeed.


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For another, they present Strauss as a “liberal democrat,” not in a domestic political context, but rather as a defender of the tradition of liberal democracy we associate with Locke, Hume and J.S. Mill.

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One of the pillars of liberal democracy is the embrace of the Rule of Law, and the notion that no one, even the king or Executive, stands above the law.

In the anti-foundationalist view, we know reality but never completely. There are different aspects of reality, but they all relate to each other. There is logical coherence, but also contradiction. So for instance, Berlin writes that there are universal values on which to base society and politics, but they are often in contradiction and there is no clear and perfect hierarchy among them.


The key criticisms of Straussian political thought are complex and difficult to summarize.
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