Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington


Political Philosophy and American Democracy
By Catherine and Michael Zuckert
320 pages. Chicago. $32.50.

American foreign policy these days is sometimes said to be guided by the sinister hand of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who taught political philosophy at the New School for Social Research and then at the University of Chicago.

Although Strauss was well-known to some of the last century’s intellectual heavyweights, he neither sought nor enjoyed public attention, working in relative obscurity until his death in 1973. But with increasing frenzy since 9/11, Strauss has been reviled as a shadowy mastermind whose antidemocratic, elitist, and illiberal teachings inspired the neoconservatives.

In a new book, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, former students of Strauss who teach political science at Notre Dame, aim to set the record straight. Replacing caricatures with nuance, they introduce us to a man who devoted his life to reading and teaching an astonishingly wide range of philosophers, bringing a vivid freshness to ancients like Plato and Xenophon, medievals like al-Farabi and Maimonides, and moderns like Hobbes and Heidegger. Few scholars have combined such wide knowledge with such subtle analytical power.

In interpreting such thinkers, Strauss resurrected a forgotten kind of writing. Before the Enlightenment, he said, philosophers often had to practice “esoteric writing.” To protect themselves from persecution from the state or church, and to protect the foundations of public morals from truths that call into question notions that society holds sacred, they had to write between the lines, with the result that their texts conceal as much as they reveal. But the Zuckerts show that, in exposing esoteric writing, Strauss by no means recommends it to contemporary politicians.

Strauss derived another lesson from the ancients. The philosopher, he said, far from aspiring to rule, knows the limits of his knowledge, and knows, too, the limits of the possible. Government should be limited, Strauss thought, precisely because wise statesmen will seldom rule. Rather than encourage tyranny (of the wise or of any other kind), Strauss sought the clarity that allows us to diagnose it.

In other words, that Strauss is not a dangerous utopian is clear from the ways he charted the limits of politics. Statesmanship, he once said, “is free from all fanaticism because it knows that evil cannot be eradicated and that one’s expectations from politics must be moderate.”

Although Strauss dedicated most of his efforts to interpreting the ancients, and almost never referred to current affairs, he had a great to deal to say about modernity—and America’s place in it.

Strauss once defined American democracy as the aspiration toward “universal aristocracy” (“this universal eligibility to be noble,” Saul Bellow called it), and admired America as a bulwark of freedom. Reflecting on the ways the Founders immunized their creation from even the most power-hungry prince, he described the United States as “the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles.”

Yet Strauss’s admiration for the American regime—and democracy itself—was far from uncritical. “We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy,” he said, “precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.” Strauss understood modernity as a political reorientation that, as the Zuckerts put it, “makes peace with the passions and becomes reconciled to man-as-he-is, not aiming at man-as-he-could-be.”

For this reason, Strauss considered America the modern regime par excellence, founded on the notion that a healthy politics can depend neither on the nobility of its leaders, nor on the education of the passions, but must rest instead on the unleashing of passions within well-designed institutions. He thought American politics had lowered its sights by discounting the virtues.

The Zuckerts persuasively argue that Strauss is no imperialist, no reactionary, and no elitist; they reveal him instead as a lover of philosophy, excellence, and moderation, and an enemy of nihilism and relativism; the man who in some sense made the serious study of political philosophy possible again. Strauss’s influence and accomplishment, they show, is indeed astonishing, but not for the reasons that the conspiracy-mongers suppose.

Yet their portrait is incomplete. If Strauss disclosed the irreconcilability of philosophy and politics, he meditated even more deeply on the tension between reason and revelation, between Athens and Jerusalem. As he never tired of saying, “The core, the nerve of Western intellectual history, Western spiritual history, one could almost say, is the conflict between the biblical and the philosophical notions of the good life... this unresolved conflict is the secret of the vitality of Western civilization.”

But in focusing on Athens and its American afterglow, the Zuckerts reveal only half of the man whom Harold Bloom once called a “political philosopher and Hebraic sage.” They neglect to discuss Strauss’s interpretations of Jewish thought, his love of the Hebrew Bible and Maimonides, and his Zionism.

This last love is especially interesting, for Strauss thought it necessary to the recovery of Jewish self-respect. He saw in Zionism “the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate are capable.” On the other hand, the establishment of Israel, Strauss said, “is the most profound modification of the Galut which has occurred, but it is not the end of the Galut.”

In the end, Leo Strauss’s influence derives not from some imagined manipulation of American foreign policy, but from something far deeper: a mastery both of the preeminently Jewish art of commentary and of the characteristically Athenian practice of philosophy.