|Occupations||Politician Political scientist Philosopher Educator|
|Countries||United States of America Germany|
|Birth||September 20, 1899 (Kirchhain, Marburg-Biedenkopf, Giessen Government Region, Hesse)|
|Death||October 18, 1973 (Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, U.S.A.)|
|Education||University of Hamburg, University of Freiburg, University of Marburg, Columbia University|
|Authority||ISNI id Library of congress id NNDB id Openlibrary id VIAF id|
Leo Strauss (; German: [ʃtraʊs]; September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973) was a German-American political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated from Germany to the United States. He spent most of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of students and published fifteen books.
Originally trained in the neo-Kantian tradition with Ernst Cassirer and immersed in the work of the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Strauss later focused his research on the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, retracing their interpretation through medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy and encouraging the application of those ideas to contemporary political theory.
Leo Strauss was born in the small town of Kirchhain in Hessen-Nassau, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia (part of the German Empire), on September 20, 1899, to Hugo Strauss and Jennie Strauss, née David. According to Allan Bloom's 1974 obituary in Political Theory, Strauss "was raised as an Orthodox Jew," but the family does not appear to have completely embraced Orthodox practice. Strauss himself noted that he came from a "conservative, even orthodox Jewish home," but one which knew little about Judaism except strict adherence to ceremonial laws. His father and uncle operated a farm supply and livestock business that they inherited from their father, Meyer (1835–1919), a leading member of the local Jewish community.
After attending the Kirchhain Volksschule and the Protestant Rektoratsschule, Leo Strauss was enrolled at the Gymnasium Philippinum (affiliated with the University of Marburg) in nearby Marburg (from which Johannes Althusius and Carl J. Friedrich also graduated) in 1912, graduating in 1917. He boarded with the Marburg cantor Strauss (no relation); the Cantor's residence served as a meeting place for followers of the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. Strauss served in the German army during World War I from July 5, 1917 to December 1918.
Strauss subsequently enrolled in the University of Hamburg, where he received his doctorate in 1921; his thesis, "On the Problem of Knowledge in the Philosophical Doctrine of F. H. Jacobi", was supervised by Ernst Cassirer. He also attended courses at the Universities of Freiburg and Marburg, including some taught by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Strauss joined a Jewish fraternity and worked for the German Zionist movement, which introduced him to various German Jewish intellectuals, such as Norbert Elias, Leo Löwenthal, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin was and remained an admirer of Strauss and of his work throughout his life.
Strauss' closest friend was Jacob Klein but he also was intellectually engaged with Karl Löwith, Julius Guttman, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Franz Rosenzweig (to whom Strauss dedicated his first book), Gershom Scholem, Alexander Altmann, and the Arabist Paul Kraus, who married Strauss' sister Bettina (Strauss and his wife later adopted their child when both parents died in the Middle East). With several of these friends, Strauss carried on vigorous epistolary exchanges later in life, many of which are published in the Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings), some in translation from the German. Strauss had also been engaged in a discourse with Carl Schmitt. However, after Strauss left Germany, he broke off the discourse when Schmitt failed to respond to his letters.
In 1931, Strauss sought his post-doctoral habilitation with the theologian Paul Tillich, but was turned down. After receiving a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1932, Strauss left his position at the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin for Paris. He returned to Germany only once, for a few short days twenty years later. In Paris he married Marie (Miriam) Bernsohn, a widow with a young child, whom he had known previously in Germany. He adopted his wife's son, Thomas, and later his sister's child; he and Miriam had no biological children of their own. At his death he was survived by Thomas, daughter Jenny Strauss Clay, and three grandchildren. Strauss became a lifelong friend of Alexandre Kojève and was on friendly terms with Raymond Aron, Alexandre Koyré, and Étienne Gilson. Because of the Nazis' rise to power, he chose not to return to his native country. Strauss found shelter, after some vicissitudes, in England, where in 1935 he gained temporary employment at University of Cambridge, with the help of his in-law, David Daube, who was affiliated with Gonville and Caius College. While in England, he became a close friend of R. H. Tawney, and was on less friendly terms with Isaiah Berlin.
Unable to find permanent employment in England, Strauss moved in 1937 to the United States, under the patronage of Harold Laski, who made introductions and helped him obtain a brief lectureship. After a short stint as Research Fellow in the Department of History at Columbia University, Strauss secured a position at The New School, where, between 1938 and 1948, he worked the political science faculty and also took on adjunct jobs. In 1939, he served for a short term as a visiting professor at Hamilton College. He became a U.S. citizen in 1944, and in 1949 he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, holding the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professorship until he left in 1969.
In 1951, Strauss apparently coined the phrase "Reductio ad Hitlerum", when he used it in an article he wrote.
In 1954 he met Löwith and Gadamer in Heidelberg and delivered a public speech on Socrates. He had received a call for a temporary lectureship in Hamburg in 1965 (which he declined for health reasons) and received and accepted an honorary doctorate from Hamburg University and the Bundesverdienstkreuz (German Order of Merit) via the German representative in Chicago. In 1969 Strauss moved to Claremont McKenna College (formerly Claremont Men's College) in California for a year, and then to St. John's College, Annapolis in 1970, where he was the Scott Buchanan Distinguished Scholar in Residence until his death from pneumonia in 1973.
For Strauss, politics and philosophy were necessarily intertwined. He regarded the trial and death of Socrates as the moment when political philosophy came into existence. Strauss considered one of the most important moments in the history of philosophy Socrates' argument that philosophers could not study nature without considering their own human nature, which, in the words of Aristotle, is that of "a political animal."
Strauss distinguished "scholars" from "great thinkers", identifying himself as a scholar. He wrote that most self-described philosophers are in actuality scholars, cautious and methodical. Great thinkers, in contrast, boldly and creatively address big problems. Scholars deal with these problems only indirectly by reasoning about the great thinkers' differences.
In Natural Right and History Strauss begins with a critique of Max Weber's epistemology, briefly engages the relativism of Martin Heidegger (who goes unnamed), and continues with a discussion of the evolution of natural rights via an analysis of the thought of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. He concludes by critiquing Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. At the heart of the book are excerpts from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Much of his philosophy is a reaction to the works of Heidegger. Indeed, Strauss wrote that Heidegger's thinking must be understood and confronted before any complete formulation of modern political theory is possible, and this entails that political thought has to engage with issues of ontology and the history of metaphysics.
Strauss wrote that Friedrich Nietzsche was the first philosopher to properly understand historicism, an idea grounded in a general acceptance of Hegelian philosophy of history. Heidegger, in Strauss' view, sanitized and politicized Nietzsche, whereas Nietzsche believed "our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as unconvincing and alien as all earlier principles (essences) had shown themselves to be" and "the only way out seems to be...that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth". Heidegger believed that the tragic nihilism of Nietzsche was a "myth" guided by a defective Western conception of Being that Heidegger traced to Plato. In his published correspondence with Alexandre Kojève, Strauss wrote that Hegel was correct when he postulated that an end of history implies an end to philosophy as understood by classical political philosophy.
In the late 1930s, Strauss called for the first time for a reconsideration of the "distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching". In 1952 he published Persecution and the Art of Writing, arguing that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Esoteric writing serves several purposes: protecting the philosopher from the retribution of the regime, and protecting the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; it attracts the right kind of reader and repels the wrong kind; and ferreting out the interior message is in itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning. Taking his bearings from his study of Maimonides and Al Farabi, and pointing further back to Plato's discussion of writing as contained in the Phaedrus, Strauss proposed that the classical and medieval art of esoteric writing is the proper medium for philosophic learning: rather than displaying philosophers' thoughts superficially, classical and medieval philosophical texts guide their readers in thinking and learning independently of imparted knowledge. Thus, Strauss agrees with the Socrates of the Phaedrus, where the Greek indicates that, insofar as writing does not respond when questioned, good writing provokes questions in the reader—questions that orient the reader towards an understanding of problems the author thought about with utmost seriousness.
Strauss's general "hermeneutical" argument—rearticulated throughout his subsequent writings (most notably in The City and Man )—is that, prior to the 19th century, Western scholars commonly understood that philosophical writing is not at home in any polity, no matter how liberal. Insofar as it questions conventional wisdom at its roots, philosophy must guard itself especially against those readers who believe themselves authoritative, wise, and liberal defenders of the status quo. In questioning established opinions, or in investigating the principles of morality, philosophers of old found it necessary to convey their messages in an oblique manner. Their "art of writing" was the art of esoteric communication. This was especially apparent in medieval times, when heterodox political thinkers wrote under the threat of the Inquisition or comparably obtuse tribunals.
Strauss's argument is not that the medieval writers he studies reserved one exoteric meaning for the many (hoi polloi) and an esoteric, hidden one for the few (hoi aristoi), but that, through rhetorical stratagems including self-contradiction and hyperboles, these writers succeeded in conveying their proper meaning at the tacit heart of their writings—a heart or message irreducible to "the letter" or historical dimension of texts.
Explicitly following Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's lead, Strauss indicates that medieval political philosophers, no less than their ancient counterparts, carefully adapted their wording to the dominant moral views of their time, lest their writings be condemned as heretical or unjust, not by "the many" (who did not read), but by those "few" whom the many regarded as the most righteous guardians of morality. It was precisely these righteous personalities who would be most inclined to persecute/ostracize anyone who was in the business of exposing the noble or great lie upon which the authority of the few over the many stands or falls.
According to his critics, especially Shadia Drury, Strauss wrongly assumes a distinction between an "exoteric" or salutory and an "esoteric" or "true" aspect of the philosophy of pre-modern political philosophers. Furthermore, Strauss is often accused of having himself written esoterically. The accusation would seem to rest upon the belief that in modern liberal societies and, especially in the United States, philosophers are not free to voice their philosophical views in public without being accused of impropriety.
An example can be found in his argument that the exoteric portion of the text was a cover story, and the esoteric portion of the text was the "real" part. In this way, what Plato termed a "noble lie" serves to impart distance from the unpopular truths of the esoteric text. Strauss maintained that Socrates' line of reasoning in the dialogue with Thrasymachus was the exoteric cover story, while the real truth is actually the oratory of Thrasymachus. Problems arise immediately, as the reader may not be able to discern the philosopher's real intent from the shadows, and language becomes a tightrope or a narcotic if not a whipsaw.
According to Strauss, modern social science is flawed because it assumes the fact-value distinction, a concept which Strauss found dubious. He traced its roots in Enlightenment philosophy to Max Weber, a thinker whom Strauss described as a "serious and noble mind.” Weber wanted to separate values from science but, according to Strauss, was really a derivative thinker, deeply influenced by Nietzsche’s relativism. Strauss treated politics as something that could not be studied from afar. A political scientist examining politics with a value-free scientific eye, for Strauss, was self-deluded. Positivism, the heir to both Auguste Comte and Max Weber in the quest to make purportedly value-free judgments, failed to justify its own existence, which would require a value judgment.
While modern liberalism had stressed the pursuit of individual liberty as its highest goal, Strauss felt that there should be a greater interest in the problem of human excellence and political virtue. Through his writings, Strauss constantly raised the question of how, and to what extent, freedom and excellence can coexist. Strauss refused to make do with any simplistic or one-sided resolutions of the Socratic question: What is the good for the city and man?
Encounters with Schmitt and Kojève
Two significant political-philosophical dialogues Strauss had with living thinkers were those he held with Carl Schmitt and Alexandre Kojève. Schmitt, who would later become, for a short time, the chief jurist of Nazi Germany, was one of the first important German academics to review Strauss's early work positively. Schmitt's positive reference for, and approval of, Strauss's work on Hobbes was instrumental in winning Strauss the scholarship funding that allowed him to leave Germany.
Strauss's critique and clarifications of The Concept of the Political led Schmitt to make significant emendations in its second edition. Writing to Schmitt in 1932, Strauss summarised Schmitt's political theology that "because man is by nature evil, he therefore needs dominion. But dominion can be established, that is, men can be unified only in a unity against—against other men. Every association of men is necessarily a separation from other men... the political thus understood is not the constitutive principle of the state, of order, but a condition of the state."
Strauss, however, directly opposed Schmitt's position. For Strauss, Schmitt and his return to Thomas Hobbes helpfully clarified the nature of our political existence and our modern self-understanding. Schmitt's position was therefore symptomatic of the modern liberal self-understanding. Strauss believed that such an analysis, as in Hobbes's time, served as a useful "preparatory action", revealing our contemporary orientation towards the eternal problems of politics (social existence). However, Strauss believed that Schmitt's reification of our modern self-understanding of the problem of politics into a political theology was not an adequate solution. Strauss instead advocated a return to a broader classical understanding of human nature and a tentative return to political philosophy, in the tradition of the ancient philosophers.
With Kojève, Strauss had a close and lifelong philosophical friendship. They had first met as students in Berlin. The two thinkers shared a boundless philosophical respect for each other. Kojève would later write that, without befriending Strauss, "I never would have known...what philosophy is". The political-philosophical dispute between Kojève and Strauss centred on the role that philosophy should and can be allowed to play in politics.
Kojève, a senior civil servant in the French government, was instrumental in the creation of the European Economic Community. He argued that philosophers should have an active role in shaping political events. Strauss, on the contrary, believed that philosophers should play a role in politics only to the extent that they can ensure that philosophy, which he saw as mankind's highest activity, can be free from political intervention.
Liberalism and nihilism
Strauss taught that liberalism in its modern form contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards extreme relativism, which in turn led to two types of nihilism:
The first was a "brutal" nihilism, expressed in Nazi and Marxist regimes. In On Tyranny, he wrote that these ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to destroy all traditions, history, ethics, and moral standards and replace them by force under which nature and mankind are subjugated and conquered. The second type—the "gentle" nihilism expressed in Western liberal democracies—was a kind of value-free aimlessness and a hedonistic "permissive egalitarianism", which he saw as permeating the fabric of contemporary American society.
In the belief that 20th century relativism, scientism, historicism, and nihilism were all implicated in the deterioration of modern society and philosophy, Strauss sought to uncover the philosophical pathways that had led to this situation. The resultant study led him to advocate a tentative return to classical political philosophy as a starting point for judging political action.
Strauss's Interpretation of Plato's Republic
According to Strauss, The Republic by Plato is not "a blueprint for regime reform" (a play on words from Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, which attacks The Republic for being just that). Strauss quotes Cicero: "The Republic does not bring to light the best possible regime but rather the nature of political things—the nature of the city."
Strauss argued that the city-in-speech was unnatural, precisely because "it is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros". Though skeptical of "progress", Strauss was equally skeptical about political agendas of "return"—that is, going backward instead of forward.
In fact, he was consistently suspicious of anything claiming to be a solution to an old political or philosophical problem. He spoke of the danger in trying finally to resolve the debate between rationalism and traditionalism in politics. In particular, along with many in the pre-World War II German Right, he feared people trying to force a world state to come into being in the future, thinking that it would inevitably become a tyranny. Hence he kept his distance from the totalitarianisms of his century, the right-wing fascists and the left-wing communists.
Strauss and Karl Popper
Strauss actively rejected Karl Popper's views as illogical. He agreed with a letter of response to his request of Eric Voegelin to look into the issue. In the response, Voegelin wrote that studying Popper's views was a waste of precious time, and "an annoyance". Specifically about Open Society and Its Enemies and Popper's understanding of Plato's The Republic, after giving some examples, Voegelin wrote:
Popper is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato. Reading is of no use to him; he is too lacking in knowledge to understand what the author says.
Strauss proceeded to show this letter to Kurt Riezler who used his influence in order to oppose Popper's appointment at the University of Chicago.
Ancients and Moderns
Strauss constantly stressed the importance of two dichotomies in political philosophy: Athens and Jerusalem (Reason and Revelation) and Ancient versus Modern. The "Ancients" were the Socratic philosophers and their intellectual heirs; the "Moderns" start with Niccolò Machiavelli. The contrast between Ancients and Moderns was understood to be related to the unresolvable tension between Reason and Revelation. The Socratics, reacting to the first Greek philosophers, brought philosophy back to earth, and hence back to the marketplace, making it more political.
The Moderns reacted to the dominance of revelation in medieval society by promoting the possibilities of Reason. They objected to Aquinas's merger of natural right and natural theology, for it made natural right vulnerable to sideshow theological disputes. Thomas Hobbes, under the influence of Francis Bacon, re-oriented political thought to what was most solid but also most low in man—his physical hopes and fears—setting a precedent for John Locke and the later economic approach to political thought, as in David Hume and Adam Smith.
Strauss and Zionism
As a youth, Strauss belonged to the German Zionist youth group, along with his friends Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. Both were admirers of Strauss and would continue to be throughout their lives. When he was 17, as he said, he was "converted" to political Zionism as a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky. He wrote several essays pertaining to its controversies but left these activities behind by his early twenties.
While Strauss maintained a sympathetic interest in Zionism, he later came to refer to Zionism as "problematic" and became disillusioned with some of its aims.
He taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the 1954–55 academic year. In his letter to a National Review editor, Strauss asked why Israel had been called a racist state by one of their writers. He argued that the author did not provide enough proof for his argument. He ended his essay with the following statement:
Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of "progressive" leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.
Although Strauss espoused the utility of religious belief, there is some question about his views on its truth. In some quarters the opinion has been that, whatever his views on the utility of religion, he was personally an atheist. Strauss, however, was openly disdainful of atheism, as he made apparent in his writings on Max Weber. He especially disapproved of contemporary dogmatic disbelief, which he considered intemperate and irrational and felt that one should either be "the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy." One interpretation is that Strauss, in the interplay of Jerusalem and Athens, or revelation and reason, sought, as did Thomas Aquinas, to hold revelation to the rigours of reason, but where Aquinas saw an amicable interplay, Strauss saw two impregnable fortresses. Werner Dannhauser, in analyzing Strauss' letters, writes, "It will not do to simply think of Strauss as a godless, a secular, a lukewarm Jew." As one commenter, Edward Feser, put it:
Strauss was not himself an orthodox believer, neither was he a convinced atheist. Since whether or not to accept a purported divine revelation is itself one of the "permanent" questions, orthodoxy must always remain an option equally as defensible as unbelief.
Feser's statement invites the suspicion that Strauss may have been an unconvinced atheist, or that he welcomed religion as merely (practically) useful, rather than as true. The supposition that Strauss was an unconvinced atheist is not necessarily incompatible with Dannhauser's tentative claim that Strauss was an atheist behind closed doors. Hilail Gildin responded to Dannhauser's reading in "Déjà Jew All Over Again: Dannhauser on Leo Strauss and Atheism," an article published in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy. Gildin exposed inconsistencies between Strauss's writings and Dannhauser's claims; he also questioned the inherent consistency of Dannhauser's admittedly tentative evaluation of Strauss's understanding of divinity and religion.
At the end of his The City and Man, Strauss invites his reader to "be open to the full impact of the all-important question which is coeval with philosophy although the philosophers do not frequently pronounce it—the question quid sit deus ["What would God be?"]" (p. 241). As a philosopher, Strauss would be interested in knowing the nature of divinity, instead of trying to dispute the very being of divinity. But Strauss did not remain "neutral" to the question about the "quid" of divinity. Already in his Natural Right and History, he defended a Socratic (Platonic, Ciceronian, Aristotelian) reading of divinity, distinguishing it from a materialistic, conventionalist, Epicurean reading. Here, the question of "religion" (what is religion?) is inseparable from the question of the nature of civil society, and thus of civil right, or right having authoritative representation, or right capable of defending itself (Latin: Jus). Atheism, whether convinced (overt) or unconvinced (tacit), is integral to the conventionalist reading of civil authority, and thereby of religion in its originally civil valence, a reading against which Strauss argues throughout his volume. Thus Strauss's own arguments contradict the thesis imputed to him posthumously by scholars such as S. Drury who profess that Strauss approached religion as an instrument devoid of inherent purpose or meaning.
Responses to his work
Reception by contemporaries
Strauss's works were read and admired by thinkers as diverse as Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alexandre Kojève. Benjamin had become acquainted with Strauss as a student in Berlin, and expressed admiration for Strauss throughout his life. Gadamer stated that he 'largely agreed' with Strauss's interpretations.
Critical views of Strauss
Some critics of Strauss have accused him of being elitist, illiberalist and anti-democratic. Shadia Drury, in Leo Strauss and the American Right (1999), claimed that Strauss inculcated an elitist strain in American political leaders linked to imperialist militarism, neoconservatism and Christian fundamentalism. Drury argues that Strauss teaches that "perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them." Nicholas Xenos similarly argues that Strauss was "an anti-democrat in a fundamental sense, a true reactionary." As Xenos says, "Strauss was somebody who wanted to go back to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism."
Strauss has also been criticized by some conservatives. According to Claes Ryn, Strauss's anti-historicist thinking creates an artificial contrast between moral universality and "the conventional," "the ancestral," and "the historical." Strauss, Ryn argues, wrongly and reductively assumes that respect for tradition must undermine reason and universality. Contrary to Strauss's criticism of Edmund Burke, the historical sense may in fact be indispensable to an adequate apprehension of universality. Strauss's abstract, ahistorical conception of natural right actually distorts genuine universality, Ryn contends. Strauss does not consider the possibility that real universality becomes known to human beings in concretized, particular form. Strauss and the Straussians have paradoxically taught philosophically unsuspecting American conservatives, not least Roman Catholic intellectuals, to reject tradition in favor of ahistorical theorizing, a bias that flies in the face of the central Christian notion of the Incarnation, which represents a synthesis of the universal and the historical. According to Ryn, the propagation of a purely abstract idea of universality has contributed to the neoconservative advocacy of allegedly universal American principles, which neoconservatives see as justification for American intervention around the world—bringing the blessings of the "West" to the benighted "rest". Strauss's anti-historical thinking connects him and his followers with the French Jacobins, who also regarded tradition as incompatible with virtue and rationality. What Ryn calls the "new Jacobinism" of the "neoconservative" philosophy is, writes Paul Edward Gottfried, also the rhetoric of Saint-Just and Trotsky, which the philosophically impoverished American Right has taken over with mindless alacrity. Republican operators and think tanks apparently believe they can carry the electorate by appealing to yesterday’s leftist clichés.
Journalists such as Seymour Hersh have opined that Strauss endorsed noble lies, "myths used by political leaders seeking to maintain a cohesive society". In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths outlined in Plato's Republic that are required for all governments. These include a belief that the state's land belongs to it even though it may have been acquired illegitimately and that citizenship is rooted in something more than the accidents of birth.
Response to criticisms
In his 2009 book, Straussophobia, Peter Minowitz provides a detailed critique of Drury, Xenos, and other critics of Strauss whom he accuses of “bigotry and buffoonery.” In his 2006 book review of Reading Leo Strauss, by Steven B. Smith, Robert Alter writes that Smith "persuasively sets the record straight on Strauss's political views and on what his writing is really about." Smith rejects the link between Strauss and neoconservative thought (a link that some commentators have controversially made), arguing that Strauss was never personally active in politics, never endorsed imperialism, and questioned the utility of political philosophy for the practice of politics. In particular, Strauss argued that Plato's myth of the philosopher king should be read as a reductio ad absurdum, and that philosophers should understand politics, not in order to influence policy but to ensure philosophy's autonomy from politics. Additionally, Mark Lilla has argued that the attribution to Strauss of neoconservative views contradicts a careful reading of Strauss' actual texts, in particular On Tyranny. Lilla summarizes Strauss as follows:
Philosophy must always be aware of the dangers of tyranny, as a threat to both political decency and the philosophical life. It must understand enough about politics to defend its own autonomy, without falling into the error of thinking that philosophy can shape the political world according to its own lights.
Finally, responding to charges that Strauss's teachings fostered the neoconservative foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, such as "unrealistic hopes for the spread of liberal democracy through military conquest," Professor Nathan Tarcov, director of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, in an article published in The American Interest, asserts that Strauss as a political philosopher was essentially non-political. After an exegesis of the very limited practical political views to be gleaned from Strauss's writings, Tarcov concludes that "Strauss can remind us of the permanent problems, but we have only ourselves to blame for our faulty solutions to the problems of today." Likewise Strauss's daughter, Jenny Strauss Clay, in a New York Times article defended Strauss against the charge that he was the "mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy." "He was a conservative," she says, "insofar as he did not think change is necessarily change for the better." Since contemporary academia "leaned to the left," with its "unquestioned faith in progress and science combined with a queasiness regarding any kind of moral judgment," Strauss stood outside of the academic consensus. Had academia leaned to the right, he would have questioned it, too—and on certain occasions did question the tenets of the right.
Straussianism is the name given "to denote the research methods, common concepts, theoretical presuppositions, central questions, and pedagogic style characteristic of the large number of conservatives who have been influenced by the thought and teaching of Leo Strauss." While it "is particularly influential among university professors of historical political theory...it also sometimes serves as a common intellectual framework more generally among conservative activists, think tank professionals, and public intellectuals." Within the discipline of political theory the method calls for its practitioners to use "a 'close reading' of the 'Great Books' of political thought; they strive to understand a thinker 'as he understood himself'; they are unconcerned with questions about the historical context of, or historical influences on, a given author" and strive to be open to the idea that they may find something timelessly true in a great book. The approach "resembles in important ways the old New Criticism in literary studies."
There is some controversy in the approach over what distinguishes a great book from lesser works. Great books are held to be written by authors/philosophers "of such sovereign critical self-knowledge and intellectual power that they can in no way be reduced to the general thought of their time and place," with other works "understood as epiphenomenal to the original insights of a thinker of the first rank." This approach is seen as a counter "to the historicist presuppositions of the mid-twentieth century, which read the history of political thought in a progressivist way, with past philosophies forever cut off from us in a superseded past." Straussianism puts forward the possibility that past thinkers may have "hold of the truth—and that more recent thinkers are therefore wrong".
Harvey Mansfield has argued that there is no such thing as "Straussianism" yet there are Straussians and a school of Straussians. Mansfield describes the school as "open to the whole of philosophy" and without any definite doctrines that one has to believe to belong to it.
Notable students and Straussians
Notable people who studied under Strauss, or attended his lecture courses at the University of Chicago, include Hadley Arkes, Seth Benardete, Allan Bloom, Werner Dannhauser, Murray Dry, Charles Butterworth, William Galston, Victor Gourevitch, Harry V. Jaffa, Roger Masters, Clifford Orwin, Thomas Pangle, Stanley Rosen, Abram Shulsky (Director of the Office of Special Plans), Susan Sontag, Warren Winiarski, and Paul Wolfowitz (who attended two lecture courses by Strauss on Plato and Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws at the University of Chicago). Harvey C. Mansfield and Steven Berg, though never students of Strauss, are noted "Straussians" (as some followers of Strauss identify themselves). Richard Rorty described Strauss as a particular influence in his early studies at the University of Chicago, where Rorty studied a "classical curriculum" under Strauss.