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On Leo Strauss’s Legacy

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. x + 306.
Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 256.

While it may come as little surprise to many, Leo Strauss’s (1899–1973) legacy remains today at the center of a rather heated and ongoing controversy. His powerful indictments of social scientific relativism and historicism, beginning in the 1930s and spanning the rest of his career into the 1960s, charge the social and political sciences with an ignorance, or, what is even worse, with an active denial of founding principles in the break with natural right. In a striking chapter in Natural Right and History (1950), Strauss contends that the great sociologist Max Weber “objected to the historical school not because it blurred the idea of natural right but because it had preserved natural right in a historical guise, instead of rejecting it altogether.”[1] According to Strauss, Weber’s work on the cultural or historical sciences reveals that “there is no ‘meaning’ of history apart from the ‘subjective’ meaning or the intentions which animate historical actors. But these intentions are of such limited power that the actual outcome is in the most case wholly unintended.”[2] On the one hand, Strauss argues that Weber’s great methodological strength for which he deserves our respect was that he retained at least a certain basis in natural or trans-historical values (something that has a given status and does not have to be created) in his outline of the methodology of the social sciences. That is, Weber retained a “sphere” of non-relative researcher value-orientation. Value-neutrality, in Weber’s thought, is a necessary illusion because science cannot ground its values or presuppositions on its own terms, in that biology cannot explain why we should be bothered with life, or aesthetics why we should care about beauty, or history, the past, and so on. Weber’s aim, according to Strauss, was to construct a social scientific way of understanding cultural forms by outlining a radically historical orientation toward conducting empirical and subjective research that would be attentive to the subjective intentions of actors, whether they were aware of the consequences of their actions or not. But, on the other hand, Weber tied our hands because he denied any natural frame of reference for doing social research, other than, of course, underlining the importance of the relations between values and facts.[3] Without reference to researcher values, facts make little sense independently, and this is because without researcher values there would be no focus of interest, no “principles of distinction between relevant and irrelevant facts.”[4]

Strauss’s challenge both to philosophical relativism and to historicism remains as incisive today as when it was first enunciated. But the repercussions of Strauss’s work move well beyond an immanent critique of Weber and the methodology of the social sciences. His legacy remains and pushes us to ask difficult questions about how we understand the emergence of European tyranny in the twentieth century, and about how we live in relation to such events, which Hannah Arendt argued destroyed all prior categories of thought.[5] Nassar Behnegar, author of Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics (2003), argues that “Strauss turned away from the ‘value free’ social science of his time, which could not understand Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes as tyrannies, and turned towards classical political philosophy out of a desire for a genuine social science.”[6] Due to many factors—some of his own making, especially in regard to his striking anti-liberal leanings, and also others basically beyond his control—Strauss’s role in the remaking of political and social science is not widely appreciated today. His writings represent a serious controversy primarily for political reasons with those philosophers and social critics who have encountered him in one forum or another. Just the mention of Strauss today can stir animosity and resistance to actually reading his texts, which are allegedly tainted with justifications of inequality and elitism. At least as far as his philosophical insights are tied to his controversial “political” legacy as a so-called “neo-conservative,” perhaps the neo-conservative theorist of our time,[7] his deep and positive impact on philosophy and the social sciences risks being lost in the context of various claims that attempts to directly associate him with the protracted war in Iraq, the “war on terror” more generally, or the Bush Administration and its history of “noble lies” in the name of democratic freedoms.

American Democracy

In this context, Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s timely book, The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, is a welcome and careful defense of Strauss’s work. It contributes to the growing literature on this controversial figure in relation to the Bush regime in the United States, and attempts to set the record straight about Strauss’s legacy more generally. It opposes the strict identification of Strauss with the Bush Administration in particular, as well as with the second war in Iraq, engineered in part by former students of Strauss (chapter 6, “The Emergence of the Straussian Study of America”). In the opening essay, “Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington?” Zuckert and Zuckert introduce Strauss as a postmodern thinker following in the path of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity (21). As they open the text: “A specter is haunting America, and that specter is, strange to say, Leo Strauss.” The authors understand Strauss as explicitly engaging with Nietzsche’s concern to outline an alternative modernity, but they wish to break with the “LaRouchites” who stress the “Nietzsche-Heidegger-Schmitt-Nazi filiations of Strauss.” They argue that Nietzsche’s philosophy demanded a powerful response from his readers because his critique is limited or incomplete in scope: “The movement of Strauss’s thought back to the ancients may be understood as Strauss continuing on and completing that Nietzschean trajectory, so as to remove all hesitation from Nietzsche’s project and root it solidly in nature” (91). Strauss’s attempt to find a natural basis for right, to ‘root’ right in nature while working out the political implications of this move, continually took him back to ancient thought for guidance and a framework for thought. Strauss’s famous “return to the ancients” (the name of chapter 1) provided a continual source of contrast and even opposition to the modern principles of right, something that could be accomplished only by a renewed sense of political philosophy and with a rejection of the specialization of the social sciences. As Zuckert and Zuckert write, Strauss’s return to the ancients gave his position its distinctiveness:

Part of Strauss’s new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henry Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. (31)

The implication is that Strauss’s return to the ancients wasn’t to revive or apply ancient philosophy in a dogmatic way to the concerns of his own century. But neither was it solely the negative project to criticize those surrounding him in European philosophy. His intention, on the contrary, was to outline something positive in the field of political philosophy; and that is to develop “a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics)” (31–32). For the authors of The Truth About Leo Strauss, themselves former students of Strauss, his project was a “reorientation” and “to say the least, ambitious” (32). From this perspective, Strauss sought to revive political philosophy in the context of historical relativism and postmodernism and, most importantly, to respond to and think with Nietzsche in a political way.

Revealed Religion and Politics

In Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism, Steven B. Smith also develops a detailed analysis of Strauss’s intellectual career, although not with reference to the debates surrounding Nietzsche. He contends in part that Strauss’s legacy be read and understood in relation to the Jewish thought of Akiba, Rashi, Judah, Halevi, and Maimonides, as well as to those “non-Jewish Jews” such as Spinoza, Marx, Heine, and Freud (24). But Smith also challenges any reduction of Strauss to a “religious” or primarily Jewish thinker. In chapter 1, “How Jewish was Leo Strauss?” Smith traces “the core” of Strauss’s thought to “the famous ‘theologico-political problem'” (26). This is the primary way in which Strauss is interpreted today, which the German philosopher Heinrich Meier’s influential Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem addresses most directly.[8]

Smith’s book, however, is equivocal on the question of the relationship between politics and religion (the theologico-political problem), and thus he divides it, like his understanding of Strauss, into two: the first half of the book, called “Jerusalem,” addresses the Jewish thought of Strauss, and the second section, entitled “Athens,” interrogates his so-called “Platonic Liberalism.” Smith understands the conflict between these two positions—”the Bible and philosophy” (Jerusalem), “between revelation and reason” (Athens)—to be an important tension in Strauss’s philosophical preoccupations. In one of Smith’s most succinct passages he argues that one of the main aims of Strauss’s intellectual project was to “find in the basic premises of ancient political philosophy new sources of support for liberal democracy rather then the reverse” (105). It is worth noting in passing that Shadia Drury disagrees with Smith’s attempt to reconstruct Strauss as a liberal (of sorts) almost in total.[9]

But, according to Smith, Strauss is perhaps one of the “best friends democracy ever had” (ix) in that he continually argued in favor of a form of liberalism that “bespeaks a Churchillian defense of democracy as the worst except for all the alternatives” (105). Now, it is doubtful whether this settles the political question on Strauss and his reluctant modernism, but, in any case, Smith’s defense of Strauss’s legacy is well-placed and a valuable contribution to the recent debate over Strauss’s position in the history of thought. Smith provides a close and philosophically astute reading of Strauss’s work and, along the way, adds a healthy dose of suspicion against many of the popular writers (and not so) who attempt to construct direct associations between Strauss and the phenomenon of political inequality more broadly.


1. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1950), p. 37.

2. Ibid., p. 38.

3. Ibid., p. 39.

4. Ibid., p. 40.

5. Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” in Essays in Understanding 1930–1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), pp. 121–32.

6. Nasser Behnegar, Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 1.

7. Shadia Drury, “The Making of a Straussian,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, 1st qtr., no. 25 (2004): 24–25; The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, updt. ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); and “Leo Strauss and the American Imperial Project,” Political Theory 35, no. 1 (2007): 62–67.

8. Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and Theologico-Political Problem, trans. Marcus Brainard (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006).

9. Steven B. Smith, “Drury’s Strauss and Mine,” Political Theory 35, no. 1 (2007): 68–72; Shadia Drury, “Reply to Smith,” Political Theory 35, no. 1 (2007): 73–74.

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