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Leo Strauss: Tributes And Reflections
William Bluhm and Alfred Geier offer non-neo-con views on their old teacher.
During the last ten years or more, a considerable literature has appeared that sets forth a variety of views about the political stance of Professor Leo Strauss, who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Perhaps this is because his name has gotten tied up with those of a number of neo-cons, especially some members of the Bush administration, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Daniel Pearle, who planned and justified the Iraq war and who are sponsors of the contemporary idea of America as an imperial power. Strauss has also been called “a Nietzsche with the mask of Burkhardt” (Michael Platt), and even a fascist. His work as decipherer of secret writings in many of the classic works of political theory led to the charge that the professor himself wrote in such a way as to veil his real meaning. This has lent cogency to the statements that his true political opinions were extremist. A more innocent view of Strauss’ scholarly intention is of Strauss as a thinker who used rational discourse (dialogue) to explode the prejudices of conventional thought and move minds towards an understanding of the whole. In this image he appears more like John Stuart Mill.
My own recollection of Leo Strauss as a teacher is different from either view. I never detected extremist opinions, either in his teaching or in his writings, at any level of complexity.
His stress in seminars I attended, and also in his writings, was on excavating the intention of the author we were studying and to strip away all interpretations that reduced a great writer to an expression of the culture of his time. In my experience Strauss’ interest was always to get at an author’s central and original intention, which he read as an intention to display universal human nature, universal political motives and typical patterns of political action – a truth about the political that transcends the culture of the everyday, the received truth of a particular time and place.
An example of this method is found in the fact that Strauss always kept in front of him a copy of the work we were studying in its original language. Thus in a seminar on Machiavelli’s Discourses I remember him constantly correcting the translator of the edition we used in class when the translator rendered the Italian word virtu as ‘capacity’, ‘strength’, ‘vigor’ or some such word. “No”, Strauss would say, “Machiavelli meant to say ‘virtue’, pure and simple.” Machiavelli was redefining the word, attempting to get rid of Aristotelian connotations. He was overthrowing the tradition of ‘virtue’ and establishing a new meaning for the word – or rather the old meaning of the word, which is as old as Thucydides.
Strauss’ concern for understanding secret writing flowed from his belief that the great writers of philosophy veiled their true meanings because the truth at which they aimed would invariably threaten the established regime. This idea rested on the assumption that all regimes rely on a legitimizing myth which is different from the truth of the matter about human nature. Stability requires such myths, and therefore philosophy, which seeks the truth simply, can be subversive. Philosophers therefore do not write for the general public, but for one another, for persons who understand how to veil their own thought and how to uncover that of their peers.
I have applied this method in three published works: an article on the form of government that Aristotle terms ‘Polity’ in his Politics; an article on Locke’s idea of God; and in an essay on Descartes in the introductory chapter to my book, Force or Freedom? The Paradox in Modern Political Thought. I have also applied it in a paper on Aristotle’s theory of slavery that I delivered at a meeting of the American Political Science Association, which I have not published. In each case my reading of the author’s true intention is widely different from what it is generally accepted to be.
Strauss’ way of reading the classic texts profoundly affected the way I taught political theory, for almost forty years following my graduate work at the University of Chicago. I did not teach certain books as ideologies – Locke as prime exemplar of liberal republican thought, for example – but as alternative frameworks for fundamentally understanding political regimes. In each case I found it important to show the connection between a particular political doctrine and the metaphysical and epistemological basis on which it rested, and then to compare and contrast these philosophies as alternative ways of understanding political reality, indeed, as alternative philosophies of life. Strauss taught me how to study political theory as alternative truths about the political world, indeed, as alternative truths simply. In each case I used the writer – Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche – to hold up a mirror to the governing ideologies of our society, and especially to the political science of our time. It was in each case an effort to get beyond opinion towards knowledge. Strauss taught me how to think.
© William T. Bluhm 2006
Willliam Bluhm is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Rochester (N.Y.)
There is a contemporary phenomenon: a group of former students of Leo Strauss, and students of students of Leo Strauss, all called, sneeringly and indiscriminately, Straussians, are suspected of engaging in a political conspiracy reaching to high levels of government. Now I will not swear that there is no truth to this accusation. But part of this accusation is that Leo Strauss himself, consciously or unconsciously, is somehow the sinister mastermind behind the conspiracy. There is nothing more absurd and ridiculous than this notion. It is absolutely false.
I studied under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago for two wonderful years and on the side received a Master’s degree in Political Science. I took six courses with Mr Strauss and would have taken more if they had let me.
Mr Strauss was a great teacher. He gave very illuminating seminars on the whole range of thinkers – classical, medieval, and modern – in political philosophy. Plato: the Republic, many times, the Gorgias, Protagoras, Statesman, Laws, Meno, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Symposium; Aristotle: the Politics, many times, the Ethics; Nietzsche, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Cicero, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Marsilius of Padua, Xenophon, Spinoza, Maimonides, and so on. His expositions were brilliant, most illuminating and showed the greatest care and respect for the text.
Mr Strauss’ excellence created a difficulty for me. Mr Strauss was so good at interpreting the texts that I felt I could not continue studying with him but had to learn Greek and strive to form my own interpretations of Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon before I could evaluate his, in order to see with my own eyes, as it were, and not with his. His excellence inspired me to try to develop my own. So I went to Johns Hopkins to learn Greek and get a PhD.
Mr Strauss, like Socrates, not the most handsome of men, was a very charming man nevertheless. I have never met a man with less vanity and self-importance. He was interested in people and fascinated by them. He was very witty, often playful, and even a little puckish. He was short, slight, his voice somewhat high-pitched. In appearance and demeanor he was not unlike a Cherub. The idea that anything sinister is to be attached to him is wholly ludicrous.
He had one vice, or rather obsession. He would never miss a Saturday night TV program called Gunsmoke, a western about marshall Matt Dillon in Dodge City, Kansas, and his many exploits. Strauss once said that the situation in the Old West was an excellent representation, unintentional or not, of what Hobbes meant by the state of nature.
He unvaryingly counseled prudence to his students though he himself was not always prudent, at least in his speech in classes. If he thought a thinker or a school of thought was in error, he did not refrain from being very critical. Sometimes he was quite polemical. I did not think he was at his best here, but his attacks may have been motivated by the necessity he felt to confront the Goliaths of his time. He had little interest in current political events and devoted his time and energy to understanding the whole theoretical tradition of Political Philosophy.
He was the least practical man I have ever known. One of his students, Joseph Cropsey, handled all his financial affairs. Various students, including myself, chauffeured him here and there. But we welcomed this because of the opportunity it gave us to talk with him.
One day I drove him to the dentist. We were crossing a major thoroughfare when suddenly the brakes were not working. Oh my God! There we were going down-hill, racing to our death, and Mr Strauss, as always, oblivious to that or any danger, continued to speak about natural rights and such as I saw myself going down in history as the cause of his death. Suddenly, through no effort on my part, the brakes started working. No doubt a Godsend.
One time at a party someone offered him some apple pie my wife had made for the occasion. As he was munching on the pie he came over to me and said, “Mr Geier, you are a very wise man.” I beamed, trying to recall which profound statement or statements I had recently made he must have been referring to. He then wandered off. A minute or two later it hit me. Of course he was both playfully and seriously referring to my marrying a woman who could make such delicious dishes!
I found among my fellow Strauss students some pettiness, much envy, mean-spiritedness, and the like. It has always puzzled me how little of the goodness and purity of Strauss’ character rubbed off on his students. Well, but Socrates had the same problem with respect to Critias and Alcibiades. And also like Socrates, Strauss has been blamed for the short-comings of a few of his students.
It is not Strauss who is at fault, not at all, but those Straussians whose misplaced and self-serving zeal threatens to obscure the writings of one of the most genuine and best thinkers of the 20th century. We should never allow this to happen.
Strauss himself was, purely and simply, a good and honorable man. But more than that. He was one of that rarest breed, a genuine philosopher.
There is an article by Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books Nov. 4, 2004 issue, the second of two articles, about Leo Strauss’ reputation in Europe. I urge you all to read this article if you can. In closing, I will quote from a brief passage at the end of the article:
“It is a shame that Strauss’s rich intellectual legacy is being squandered through the short-sightedness, provincialism and ambition of some of his self-proclaimed disciples. Fortunately, his books remain and they can be studied with profit without paying the slightest attention to those disciples or their polemical adversaries in the university and the press…
“When the American press was in the middle of its Strauss fever last year a number of alarmist articles appeared in Europe as well. But there were also a few wise ones defending Strauss against Americans who would use him for their own political ends. One of the best was by an Italian scholar of Jewish thought. Her title simply ran: ‘Hands Off Leo Strauss!’”
© Alfred Geier 2006
Al Geier teaches Greek Philosophy and Literature at the University of Rochester. He recently published the book Plato’s Erotic Thought: The Tree of the Unknown, and is now working on another, tentatively entitled, The Learning Soul in Plato.
• If you disagree with these articles, and have good reason to take a different view of Strauss or his ideas, and if you’d be interested in writing an article to explain why, then please email me: email@example.com.