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Leo Strauss

The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss by Steven B. Smith (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy)  The essays contained in this volume attempt to canvass the wide range of Strauss's interests. Although Strauss's writings typically took the form of the commentary — a form to which he gave very high philosophical expression — I have preferred to avoid reprising his often dense and detailed interpretations of specific figures within the tradition (Plato, Maimonides, Hobbes, Nietzsche) and to focus instead on the general themes or problems that these writings are intended to illustrate. I believe this approach follows Strauss's own method that always regarded his case studies in the history of ideas as the best means of stimulating awareness of the "fundamental" or "permanent" problems of philosophy. This approach should give readers a sense of the scope and breadth of the problems that Strauss felt it important to address.

Leo Strauss was a central figure in the twentieth-century renaissance of political philosophy. The essays of The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss provide a comprehensive and nonpartisan survey of the major themes and problems that animated Strauss's work. These include his revival of the great "quarrel between the ancients and the moderns," his examination of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens, and, most controversially, his recovery of the tradition of esoteric writing. The volume also examines Strauss's complex relation to a range of contemporary political movements and thinkers, including Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Gershom Scholem, as well as the creation of a distinctive school of "Straussian" political philosophy.

Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University, is the author of Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism, Spinoza's Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in the Ethics (Yale UP), and Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (Yale UP). His publications have appeared most recently in Hebraic Political Studies, Review of Politics, and Political Theory, and he has lectured throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel. Professor Smith has held the position of Master of Branford College at Yale since 1996.

The essays in the first half of The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss deal broadly with Strauss's various contributions to the history of philosophy (ancient, medieval, modern), the theologico-political predicament, the recovery of esotericism, and the modernity problem, to name just the most prominent. Those in the second half of the book survey his views on politics and twentieth-century thought, in particular. These include his views on his German contemporaries, on modern political ideologies (Liberal-ism, Communism, National Socialism), his judgment on America as a regime, his critique of the social sciences, and his views on the role of education and the university in a free society. The volume concludes with a consideration of Strauss's legacy.

This volume opens with a biographical essay by the editor that puts Strauss's writing in the context of an extraordinary life that moved from a small town in Germany to Berlin, Paris, and England, and from there to New York, Jerusalem, and Chicago. Strauss's life intersected with some of the giants of twentieth-century European thought including not only Husserl, Heidegger, and Cassirer but Gershom Scholem, Alexandre Kojève, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Special attention is given to the decade Strauss spent at the New School for Social Research, where he first began to develop his distinctive approach to philosophy.

Leora Batnitzky then takes up Strauss's understanding of the theologico-political predicament. She argues that although Strauss initially examined this problem within the context of German Jewry, he came to regard it as expressing the enduring challenge posed by revelation to the claims of reason and philosophy. As such, the term "theologico-political predicament" links Strauss's early development to his later themes, including his revival of the great "quarrel between the ancients and the moderns," the relation between Jerusalem and Athens, and his diverse studies in the history of political philosophy. Her essay concludes that the challenge posed by revelation remains of enduring significance not just for believers but especially for nonbelievers.

Laurence Lampert addresses the controversial theme of Strauss's "recovery" of esotericism. Drawing heavily upon Strauss's recently pub-lished correspondence and especially the letters to his friend Jacob Klein from 1938 to 1939, these letters record Strauss's excitement at the dis-covery of esoteric writing first in Maimonides and later in Plato and other classical Greek writers. Strauss's recovery of the esoteric tradi-tion is then illustrated by a close reading of his essay on Judah Halevi's Kuzari, composed originally in 1943. Lampert argues that following his great medieval and classical masters, Strauss decided to practice his own form of esoteric writing, having deemed that the reasons for the practice were still valid in an age that regarded itself as open to the expression of all views, however heterodox.

Catherine Zuckert considers Strauss's repeated and widely discussed proposals for a "return" to premodern thought. Focusing on his lecture "Progress or Return," she argues that Strauss's call for a return was based on a new understanding of both of the "roots" of the Western tradition, namely biblical morality and Greek rationalism. Strauss presents the history of the West as a series of attempts to harmonize or synthesize these conflicting tendencies, but because ancient philosophy is funda-mentally incompatible with the biblical conception of the Creator God, these attempts have failed. It is the tension between rather than any synthesis of these roots that is the secret of the vitality of the West and the best promise for its future.

Stanley Rosen reprises Strauss's analysis of the problem of modernity by drawing attention to the two modern thinkers who arguably exercised the greatest influence on Strauss: Nietzsche and Heidegger. Modernity, they agreed, was marked by the steady triumph of scientific and techno-logical progress, while being simultaneously incapable of understanding the very works that constitute that progress. This inability is represented by the terms "relativism" and "historicism," which claim there is no stable basis for ranking values in accordance with excellence; the resulting denial can only lead to nihilism. Rosen concludes that Strauss's analysis of the modernity problem is itself a characteristically modern trope and that he fails to prove the superiority of the Socratic-Platonic alternative.

Joel Kraemer considers one of Strauss's most enduring intellectual legacies, his recovery of the "medieval Enlightenment" in Jewish and Arabic thought. Turning to Strauss's 1935 book Philosophy and Law, Kraemer argues that Strauss's understanding of Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed ("the classic of rationalism") was decisively shaped by his reading of Alfarabi and the Arabic Falasifa (philosophers). Like his brother-in-law Paul Kraus, Strauss helped to direct attention to the Arabic contribution to philosophy and in so doing come to a richer understanding of philosophy. Because Islam and Judaism both have the character of a comprehensive body of Law (Sharia, Torah) and not a faith or creedal religion like Christianity, each helps vividly to illus-trate the enduring tensions between philosophy and revelation. Strauss's approach to the medievals was not that of a conventional historian of ideas but rather of a philologically gifted philosopher challenging the attack on classical rationalism by the modern Enlightenment.

The second half of this volume begins with two essays on Strauss's politics and his relation to both his country of birth and his adopted homeland. Susan Shell discusses Strauss's views on the German philos-ophy of the early twentieth century that helped give rise to Hitler and National Socialism. She focuses on Strauss's 1941 lecture on "German Nihilism," in particular his use of the Virgilian motto, "to crush the proud and spare the vanquished." She argues this essay marks the turn in Strauss's thought where he distanced himself from his earlier harsh criticism of liberal democracy and the doctrine of the "rights of man," as expressed in his now widely cited letter to Karl Lowith of 1933, to his unhesitating support of liberal democracy as a vehicle for civilized statecraft.

William Galston disagrees with those critics who regard Strauss as a dangerous enemy of liberal democracy. Galston maintains that Strauss valued the U.S. Constitution as a bulwark against the tyrannies of both the Left and the Right, but he did so for positive reasons as well. Strauss endorsed the public-private distinction so valuable to liberalism, as the best way of reducing — even if not completely eliminating — the vari-ous forms of discrimination and social injustice. This separation also helps ensure the survival of certain distinctive forms of liberal virtue necessary for the survival of self-government. Strauss emphasized that liberal democracy is the modern regime that is the closest approxima-tion of the ancient idea of politeia or mixed government, and to this extent it remained open to the claims of human excellence. Galston concludes that Strauss provided a "qualified embrace" of liberal democ-racy, qualified only by his fears about modern democracy's tendency toward complacency, philistinism, and mass conformity.

Nasser Behnegar explores Strauss's interest in the modern social sci-ences, examining his critique of behavioral and Weberian social science, respectively. Both are understood in the light of Strauss's attempt to restore classical political science, especially in its Aristotelian visage. Strauss's critique centered on the modern social scientific endorsement of the fact/value distinction and the claim that only the "Is" can be an object of knowledge, whereas the "Ought" belongs to the irrational sphere of private values. He once colorfully compared this situation to "beings who are sane and sober when engaged in trivial business and who gamble like madmen when confronted with serious issues — retail sanity and wholesale madness. Behnegar also explains the close kin-ship between Strauss and Edmund Husserl and the reasons for Strauss's preference for classical political science over phenomenology.

In his essay, Timothy Fuller places Strauss among the distinguished scholars who restored political philosophy to a central place in the university study of politics in the years after World War II, advocating also the complementary restoration of the classical tradition of liberal learning. Strauss was not only a teacher; he reflected carefully on teaching as a vocation and on the aims of liberal education in the context of a liberal democracy. What he offered as a scholar was complemented by what he wrote on teaching and learning. He insisted on clearly distinguishing the study of politics from the life of action while recognizing that these distinct teachings are dialectically related.

One of the most controversial aspects of Strauss's legacy is that group known as "Straussians." Michael Zuckert attempts to dispel both the notion that there exists a single-minded clique of followers of Strauss and the mystery surrounding the existence of several groups or factions of Straussians. Although the number of those influenced by Strauss is now quite large and their interests diverse, Zuckert attempts to get to the heart of the matter by identifying two issues upon which they disagree, namely morality and religion. He attempts to show that these disagreements derive at least in part from certain unresolved puzzles in Strauss's own thinking. The different factions of Straussians — the East Coast and West Coast as well as different Straussian grouplets — derive not only from issues in Strauss's thought but center on some of the most significant and abiding human questions.

These issues and others have intrigued and perplexed Strauss's readers from the time of his earliest publications. Strauss was the author of more than a dozen books and around a hundred articles and reviews, among which the best known are On Tyranny (1948), Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), What Is Political Philosophy (1959), and Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968). These works and many others have been reissued several times over the years and are now widely translated into a number of European and Asian languages. New editions and collections of Strauss's works are being made available, and conferences have been devoted to his ideas in countries throughout the world. What is clear is that Strauss's writings and teachings — rivaling that of other giants of twentieth-century political thought such as Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, and John Rawls — have had a major impact on the revival of political philosophy in our time.

Strauss's own achievements cannot be entirely divorced from the phenomenon known as "Straussianism." To be sure, this has been exac-erbated recently by certain high-profile discussions of Strauss and his alleged influence from beyond the grave on American policymakers in the Bush administration.' Of course, what Strauss would have thought of this is impossible to know. What is clear is that these discussions have often ended up reifying Straussianism by turning it into some sort of monolith. There are many different types of Straussians with quite different interests; there are liberal Straussians and conservative Straussians, Democratic Straussians and Republican Straussians, secu-lar Straussians and religious Straussians. With some plausibility, all can claim to find their ideas and positions ratified by Strauss's own writings.

Strauss was a teacher and, like all great teachers, he attracted stu-dents. Many of these students have gravitated to the university and can be found in departments of political science, philosophy, classics, and even literature; others can be found in the world of journalism, think tanks, and public administration. This diversity is represented by the various contributors to this volume, all of whom have been inspired in one way or another by the work of Strauss. This does not mean that they understand Strauss in the same way or even that they agree about the overall purpose of his work. Any attempt to impose some type of unity of perspective would be false to the subject. Some of the contributors were students of Strauss, others students of his students, and still others simply found their way to Strauss's writings on their own. There is no individual known to me who can claim mastery of all of the subjects about which Strauss wrote. Therefore, each contributor has been chosen for their command of one or the other of the wide range of problems and themes that constituted Strauss's life's work.

Strauss did not see himself as offering a road map to utopia. There are no books by Strauss with titles like A Theory of justice or Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He eschewed the temptation to engage in ambitious, reconstructive efforts to remake society in accordance with a theory or a program. At certain times, he even denied that he was a philoso-pher at all, preferring to regard himself as a "scholar" or, even better, as a teacher and reserving the term philosopher only for the greatest thinkers.9 Strauss did not write analytical treatises on politics nor did he, except indirectly, attempt to give practical guidance to statesmen and fellow citizens. His writings remain firmly nested within the genre of the commentary, leading some critics to wonder whether he should even be considered a philosopher at all. Nevertheless, Strauss often spoke of the commentary as a unique form of philosophical communication — a form brought to perfection by the great medieval Arabic Platonist Alfarabi — and which he sought to renew in our age.

Strauss did not offer a philosophy of politics in the conventional sense of the term. He was concerned instead with the prior and almost unasked question, "What is political philosophy?" a term that he did more than anyone else to revive. The question to which he devoted his life and that shaped his work was the classic theme of the relation between philosophy and the city. What is philosophy and how does it differ from other forms of knowledge and ways of life? What benefits, if any, does philosophy confer on the city? Strauss presented philosophy and the philosophical way of life as an alternative to two powerful but deeply felt delusions to which human beings are perpetually attracted. I think it is best to conclude by letting Strauss speak in his own voice:

Men are constantly attracted and deluded by two opposite charms: the charm of competence which is engendered by mathematics and everything akin to mathematics, and the charm of humble awe, which is engendered by meditation on the human soul and its experiences. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to succumb to either charm. It is the highest form of the mating of courage and moderation. In spite of its highness or nobility, it could appear as Sisyphean or ugly, when one contrasts its achievement with its goal. Yet it is necessarily accompanied, sustained, and elevated by eros. It is graced by nature's grace. ( Strauss, "What Is Political Philosophy and other Studies (1959) .




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