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Leo Strauss and the Straussians

Until quite recently, Leo Strauss and his disciples were considered (insofar as anyone took any notice of them) just a particular variety of conservative intellectuals, with a special interest in political philosophy and American constitutional history. Now we are beginning to discover that something peculiar has been going on all this time.

The greatest peculiarity of Straussianism is that there is such a thing. Not a single other "conservative" thinker has inspired a following remotely comparable, in size, continuity, and influence, to that of Leo Strauss. There is a Straussian school as there is no Weaveran or Burnhamite or Meyeran or Kendallist or Voegelinist school. And this school has its own interests, ideas, and purposes, which are clearly distinct from mainstream conservatism, however close to their collective chest they play their cards.

The Straussians are also the only group of "conservatives" ever to amount to anything in the academic world. They have reportedly been gradually, quietly infiltrating and taking over political-science departments, making that discipline characteristically theirs, as Marxists have done with sociology, and libertarians with economics.

Then along came Allan Bloom, who was catapulted to momentary fame by The Closing of the American Mind (1987), briefly becoming one of the most publicly-recognized "conservative" figures ... second only to William F. Buckley, Jr., who had spent decades making his name as the liberal establishment's token conservative. Curiously (and characteristically) enough, in Bloom's famous (or infamous) book, he only mentions his master once, and in passing, so that the vast majority of his readers remained blissfully ignorant of any connection (probably never having heard of Leo Strauss anyway); yet those in the know could immediately recognize Bloom's intellectual affiliation.

Strauss and the Straussians began to attract more attention, both journalistic and scholastic. One liberal scholar, Shadia Drury, has made a career of writing anti-Straussian exposés: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), Alexandre Kojeve: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994), Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997).

The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are "outmoded" and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch -- usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than "outmoded" ones.

But this is only a prelude to an even more radical challenge to modern thought: the Straussians believe that premodern philosophy is better than modern philosophy. This turns the whole "progressive" view of history topsy-turvy, and provides a very distinctive point of view, and line of criticism, about modernity. The Straussians are pre-modern and anti-modern, not in the name of religion (like the various forms of religious fundamentalism all over the world) or of tradition (like conservatives since Edmund Burke), but in the name of reason, of philosophy: an understanding of reason and philosophy different from the Enlightenment's.

The teaching of Leo Strauss is "political philosophy" in a very special sense: his primary, if not exclusive, concern is the relation of philosophy (and the philosophers themselves) to society as a whole. Moreover, he imputes this primary concern to the premodern and early modern philosophers.

The lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens' loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of all human endeavors. The resolution of this conflict is that the philosophers should, and in fact did, keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing "between the lines." Strauss believed that he alone had recovered the true, hidden message contained in the "Great Tradition" of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke: the message that there are no gods, that morality is ungrounded prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.

With Machiavelli, however, there came a shift in emphasis. He was the first to deviate from the esoteric tradition that began with Plato, thereby initiating the Enlightenment. Machiavelli de-moralized political philosophy, and thereby created "political science." Virtue, whether defined in classical or Christian terms, was dethroned, because no regime could live up to its demands. Instead, a new regime could and should be created, by accepting, understanding, and harnessing men's lower, self-interested nature.

The modern world is held to be the deliberate creation (with some unintended consequences) of the modern philosophers -- namely, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to both scientific-technological progress and the liberal ideology of social-political progress. The Enlighteners argued (though still covertly) that instead of hiding philosophy, philosophers should reform society to make it more hospitable to philosophy: in particular, by undertaking the "project" of modern science, by which reason masters nature and provides material gratifications -- safety, health and wealth -- to common men, bribing them into acquiescence to philosophy. Physical science and technology would provide the know-how, while a new kind of regime, liberalism, would provide the conditions of liberty and equality enabling men to pursue their self-interest.

The problem with this (in the Straussian view) is that it exposed philosophy once more, and ultimately prostituted philosophy itself into the service of common men. The esoteric tradition was forgotten, and with it philosophy as such. At the same time, philosophy inadvertently exposed men to certain hard truths, truths too hard for them to bear: that there are no gods to reward good or punish evil; that no one's patria is really any better than anyone else's; that one's ancestral ways are merely conventional. This leads to nihilism, epitomized by the listless, meaningless life of bourgeois man, or to dangerous experiments with new gods -- gods like the race and the Fuehrer.

Strauss, an ethnic Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, looked at the regnant liberalism of mid-century America, and saw the Weimar Republic: morally weak, incapable of self-preservation. His prophecy was fulfilled by the ignominious collapse of the liberal establishment, both political and academic, in the face of the New Left.

Now, this unique interpretation of Western history depends on the existence of a "hidden agenda" in the history of philosophy. If there was, in fact, such an esoteric tradition, it has escaped the attention of most scholars. Of course, that might only prove how well-hidden it is ... which goes to show how seductive esotericism can be, once you start flirting with it. But in the end, what really matters is the philosophical questions Strauss raised, whether or not he was correct in ascribing them to the historic philosophers.

There are several problems with his "teaching." First, is the philosopher (in the original, literal sense: a "lover of wisdom") really a superior type of person? I think that he is -- but not that he is a superior being. The difference between the philosopher and the ordinary person is one of degree, not of kind. His impulses are the same, but ordered differently. No matter how rational he is, he is still a rational animal: a sexual one, for instance, and a social one. His curiosity is more fully developed than theirs, but unless his other faculties are at least as well developed as theirs, this one trait does not make him better than they are.

The ancient philosophers did believe that the philosophic life is the highest and best, but only a few are suited to it. The Straussians concur, and go on to imply that the major evil of modern egalitarianism is that it makes philosophy impossible, by devaluing anything that is not accessible to the common man. But philosophy is not the only thing that suffers: so do creativity, heroism, authority, and all other "elitist" qualities.

Bloom makes much of this, even though he regards these other "types of soul" as rivals to philosophy, because he wants to undermine egalitarianism, and these others are more appealing. Philosophy is all the less appealing if, as he seems to assume, the ultimate truth is that there is no truth. It is all the more important, then, to convey this truth through misdirection: the desire to know cannot be aroused unless the allure of truth is held out.

The main difference between the Straussians and Left-wing nihilists is that the former think the "truth" of value-relativism should be known only to the few. All the philosophical problems with relativism apply to the Straussians' Right-wing version, and in spades. Suffice it here to say that the Straussians, too, have to introduce quasi-objective standards of judgment, covertly and unintentionally: e.g., the social utility of religion and patriotism. Surely, the very fact that society requires certain things -- communal loyalty, for instance -- in itself justifies these things: they are rooted in nature, the social nature of humanity.

Then there is an evident contradiction between the idea of philosophy as the pursuit of truth, and the idea of philosophy as a body of esoteric lore. If the Straussian reading is correct, it would seem that the history of philosophy consists of practically nothing but pondering the relation of philosophy to civil society, rather than pondering philosophical questions themselves. All the important questions have already been answered, or declared to be unanswerable: this is what created the tension between philosophy and civil society in the first place. So what is there for philosophers to do? The Straussians themselves are not even philosophers, but historians of philosophy, custodians of the esoteric lore.

The perceived need to write obscurely also tends to obscure thought. The Closing of the American Mind is much better-written (in style, at least, if not in convoluted structure and argumentation) than anything by Leo Strauss. But even Bloom makes his argument complex and subtle to the point of evasiveness, as if he wants to confuse and mislead the reader. (In particular, his critics -- those who actually did read him -- were hardly ever able to tell when he was or was not speaking in propria persona.) Bloom, at least, writes so well that he charms rather than repulses the reader, so one is (if sympathetic) willing to read his book again and again, with closer and closer attention; but not even the most sympathetic reader can really be sure, in the end, precisely what Bloom really means, behind all the good and important things he does say.

Bloom's analysis of our cultural predicament is so true, so profound, that there must be some truth in his speculations as to its causes; but he all-too-carefully avoids making clear and specific claims that can be put to the test. This is the great weakness of the Straussian method: so careful is he to hide the point of his argument, he nearly fails to make it. Certainly he fails to support it. Strauss puts his students to such a mental effort to try to understand him that they are too exhausted to make the mental effort to criticize him.

Given the inherent obscurity of the Straussian teaching, one should only be surprised if it did not produce conflicting interpretations. There are in fact two schools of Straussians: those like Bloom, who accept and propound this esoteric teaching; and those, such as Harry Jaffa, who interpret Strauss in terms of a more conventional understanding of classical philosophy. One might call them the esoterics and the exoterics, but it is hard to tell which is which.

It may be that the seeming exoterics are just better at hiding their esotericism, which makes them the true esoterics. Both of them challenge the prevailing relativism of twentieth-century thought, harking back to classical standards of truth and justice; but the esoterics only do so because truth and justice are salutary myths, while the exoterics (perhaps) really do believe in truth and justice.

The two schools are also divided on their interpretation of American history, and particularly the American Founding. Both follow Strauss's division of philosophical history into the (good) "ancients" and the (bad) "moderns." According to the esoteric version, America was wholly modern from its inception: it is entirely the creation of the "modern project." The exoteric Straussians, like conservatives, prefer to emphasize America's continuity with the classical and Christian sources of Western civilization.

The esoterics, then, basically agree with the libertarian and (pre-1960s) liberal understanding of American history: we are a "proposition nation," liberal to the core, and conservatism is un-American. The cult of the Founding Fathers is just a salutary myth. The truth is that the Founders, under the tutelage of Hobbes and Locke, deliberately created a squalid regime ruled by self-interest, sacrificing virtue to liberty and equality, and are ultimately responsible for the philistinism, mediocrity, and deracination of contemporary America.

Both esoterics and exoterics seem to agree that we need to try to refurbish the old notion of "natural rights," on which the republic was founded. Bloom regards "natural rights" as illusory, and bourgeois society as distasteful; but they are at least preferable to the nihilism of the New Left. The question is whether the New Left was the inevitable culmination of the ideology of liberty and equality -- and he strongly implies that it is. His only hope seems to be the cultivation of a tiny remnant to pass on the old lore through the new Dark Age. Now, conservatism might or might not be un-American, but this sort of quietism certainly is.

Straussianism is an extraordinarily complex and subtle body of ideas, and I am sure that I have hardly done it justice in this small space. But in the end, Straussianism offers more questions than answers. This is not necessarily bad: the questions need to be asked. What is the relation of nature to culture? Can society be founded on rational principles? Has the Enlightenment brought about its own downfall? How did this happen? What can be salvaged from the wreck? -- etc. Strauss, through his disciple Bloom, started me thinking about these questions, which have preoccupied me ever since.

© 2000 by Karl Jahn