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Defending Strauss

U. of C. philosophy prof Leo Strauss has been blamed for the rise of the neocons and even the invasion of Iraq. Now one of his disciples hopes to clear his name.



On a sunny Wednesday last November, 16 students sat around a University of Chicago seminar table with two unpublished typescripts in front of them. The students were taking a course on the philosopher Leo Strauss, and "politics and policy" was the day's topic. "In some ways it was easy to select the readings for this subject," announced Nathan Tarcov, a professor of political science, "because Strauss wrote almost nothing about practical politics. I had to scrounge to find much of anything."

The typescripts--two speeches Strauss delivered in the 1940s--left plenty of questions unanswered. They didn't lay out in perfect clarity Strauss's opinions on practical politics; they hinted at them. But Tarcov hoped they would correct what he saw as one of academia's most sensational urban myths: the notion that Leo Strauss--though he'd died in 1973--was responsible for the rise of America's neoconservatives and even for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A number of prominent journalists and writers thought they'd found a method to George W. Bush's madness in deposing Saddam Hussein. Writing in the New Yorker in May 2003, Seymour Hersh claimed that "the Straussian movement has many adherents in and around the Bush Administration," most notably Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, and Abram Shulsky, director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans. Hersh wrote that these Straussians agreed with their guru, a scholar of Plato, that there are "truths [that] can be comprehended only by a very few, and would be misunderstood by the masses." Thus the "noble lie" (a phrase from Plato's Republic that Strauss liked to use) that Bush and Powell told the American public: Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and we've got to go in there, whatever the cost.

Here at the Reader, The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams once answered an inquiry about Strauss with the assessment that the professor thought such lying "wasn't just an occasional tactic for the great philosophers, but their routine strategy." He called Straussianism "a high-voltage version of the impulse that leads the common herd to embrace conspiracy theories, numerology, and tarot readings. In light of all this," he continued, "the scary thing isn't that the government may have lied to us--it wouldn't be the first time--but that for most of the past 20 years our presidents have been lending an ear to adherents of a guy with such a shaky grasp of reality." Meanwhile on Broadway, the military generals of Tim Robbins's 2004 play Embedded were shown worshipping an image of the German emigre, chanting, "All hail Leo Strauss!"

To many who studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago in the 60s, or who studied later with Strauss's former students, the accusations were puzzling at best and offensive at worst. In 2006, "motivated by a deep sense of gratitude to him as our teacher and, we must say, by a bit of righteous indignation at the injustice being done to him," Notre Dame political science professors Catherine and Michael Zuckert published The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. Two other correctives appeared last year as well: Leo Strauss: An Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy, by Thomas Pangle of the University of Texas, and Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism by Yale's Steven Smith. The Zuckert and Smith books were published by the University of Chicago Press.

Known more for his absorption in the abstractions of ancient philosophy than for any personal political ambitions, Strauss could hardly be held responsible for U.S. foreign policy, according to his defenders. As Tarcov pointed out to his class, the occasions when Strauss spoke up about the political issues of his day could be counted on one hand, and what he did say rarely lent itself to easy interpretation or implementation. "One can't simply quote a line and say therefore the tax rate should be x, or we should invade these three countries," he declared.

In fact, Tarcov guessed that Strauss would have advised against going to war in the Middle East. Tarcov himself had felt from the beginning that invading Iraq was a bad idea. As he told WGN radio host Milt Rosenberg in February, "Machiavelli says, in The Art of War, that Europe should never invade Parthia." Tarcov was using the ancient name for the region that today comprises Iran and Iraq and invoking one of the classics that Strauss worked so hard to revive over the course of his career. "Rome couldn't subdue Parthia."

"When I was 16 and we read [Plato] in school," Leo Strauss once wrote, "I formed the plan, or the wish, to spend my life reading Plato, breeding rabbits while earning my living as a rural postmaster." A Jew born in 1899 in Hessen, Germany, he earned his doctorate by studying with, among others, Martin Heidegger, who later joined the Nazi party. Strauss might have become a victim of the Nazis, but in the 1930s he was working abroad, in France and England, on the religious thought of Maimonides and the political thought of Hobbes. Unwilling to go back to Germany, he immigrated to the United States in 1937 to take a job at Columbia University.

The following year Strauss became an American citizen and began a professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1949, wooed by president Robert Maynard Hutchins, he moved to Hyde Park to teach political philosophy at the University of Chicago. He labored to redress what he saw as the failings of modernity, the popular social theory that through science and enlightenment a perfect society was possible. Strauss considered such thinking naive if not outright dangerous. Social science, he felt, was obsessed with measuring, predicting, and classifying, with "facts" but not "values." A political scientist, he argued, might study tyranny backward and forward but not call it a bad thing. How could students taught not to judge recognize tyranny and fascism for the dangers they were and guard against them? "Science," he proclaimed, "cannot teach wisdom."

In place of the relativism that, for Strauss, threatened a decline into nihilism, he wanted political science departments to revive ancient Greek and medieval political thinkers--the "premoderns" who posed questions about "the Good" relevant to serious thinkers of every milieu and regime. In particular, he argued, students should read Plato--it was necessary for contemporary social science to understand its "basis or matrix." The principles "elaborated by the classics may be the indispensable starting point for an adequate analysis, to be achieved by us, of present-day society and its peculiar character, and for the wise application, to be achieved by us, of these principles to our tasks."

Strauss remained at the U. of C. for 20 years. Though a small man with a "very small voice, and a congenital incapacity to make proper use of a microphone or of a telephone," according to his student George Anastaplo, he was a captivating teacher with a devoted following. Another student, Werner Dannhauser, wrote that Strauss's classes were "scheduled from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., but while they started punctually they usually lasted until 6:00 or even 7:00." In the wider world of scholarship, Strauss achieved some notoriety as the author of Natural Right and History, in which he examined the "crisis of the West" and attempted to defend the idea of inalienable rights, an idea that had inspired America's founders, against the onslaught of later ideologies like Marxism.

In his lifetime Strauss was the subject of controversy in large part because of his obsession with the ancients. The controversy centered on his now famous doctrine of esoteric writing, which he'd laid out in Persecution and the Art of Writing. The greatest thinkers, Strauss maintained, wrote in such a way as to provide not one but two meanings to their readers: "a popular teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground; and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject, which is indicated only between the lines." The "exoteric" meaning was apparent; only the clever few who read closely and knew where to look could glean the esoteric meaning. Great philosophers wrote this way, Strauss believed, because "freedom of inquiry, and of publication of all results of inquiry," wasn't guaranteed.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss touched on his idea of the noble lie. Philosophers "believed that the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," Strauss told readers, and the vulgar were generally suspicious of philosophers. So philosophers had to employ subversive means: "noble (or just) lies," "pious frauds," the "economy of the truth."

This can be a difficult notion to swallow, Strauss acknowledged. "Every decent modern reader is bound to be shocked by the mere suggestion that a great man might have deliberately deceived the large majority of his readers," he wrote. "And yet, as a liberal theologian once remarked, these imitators of the resourceful Odysseus were perhaps merely more sincere than we when they called 'lying nobly' what we would call 'considering one's social responsibilities.'"

He was known to be a Zionist, but mostly Strauss's personal politics remained mysterious. Even devoted students like the Zuckerts were frustrated in the 60s trying to guess their teacher's position on the hot-button issues of the day, like Vietnam and civil rights. Catherine Zuckert recalls a classmate asking Strauss a question about contemporary America. Strauss replied that he didn't feel qualified to comment, as he wasn't born and bred here. He was rumored to have voted for Adlai Stevenson twice in the 50s, but then he signed a 1972 ad in the New York Times by a group called Academics for Nixon.

In 1985, 12 years after Strauss's death, Oxford classicist Myles Burnyeat wrote a scathing critique of his ideas and influence, "Sphinx Without a Secret," in the New York Review of Books. "Strauss's interpretation of Plato is wrong from beginning to end," Burnyeat argued. "There is much talk in Straussian writings about the nature of 'the philosopher' but no sign of any knowledge, from the inside, of what it is to be actively involved in philosophy."

Two years later, Allan Bloom, Strauss's best-known student, published a defense of sorts: The Closing of the American Mind. In glorifying the classics and critiquing the modern university, Bloom's best-seller helped lay the ground for the culture wars of the 90s.

In 1988, one of Strauss's most vociferous critics published an entire book on the debate over Strauss. Shadia Drury, professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Regina in Canada, wrote in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss that she had once been dismissive of Strauss's scholarship and, like Burnyeat, "perplexed as to how such rubbish could have been published." But once she began to see Strauss as not a mere scholar but also a philosopher in his own right, she became fascinated by him--and alarmed. She set out to expose Strauss's thought for the dark, perverse, nihilistic philosophy that she understood it to be. "Strauss believes that men must be kept in the darkness of the cave," she wrote, "for nothing is to be gained by liberating them from their chains."

Strauss, according to Drury, maintained that the truth is not merely difficult to discern but so dangerous and detrimental to our well-being that it should be kept under wraps at all costs. "Is there a truth so terrible that it threatens to wreak havoc on society unless it is kept secret?" Drury asked. "I will show that for Strauss, religion and morality are two of the biggest but most pious swindles ever perpetrated on the human race. But paradoxically, there would be no human race were it not for these swindles."

One startling idea Drury put forth was that Strauss favored not democracy but what is known as "the tyrannical teaching." She wrote, "Strauss is not very explicit about this, but he makes it clear that absolute rule without law, if it is wise, is infinitely superior to the rule of law."

Tarcov and the Zuckerts took Drury's book seriously as the work of a fellow scholar. But "Strauss somehow becomes a mixture of Machiavelli, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Thrasymachus, in a way that seems to me to miss his critiques of those thinkers," Tarcov observes. A less serious work, in Tarcov's opinion, was Drury's 1997 follow-up, Leo Strauss and the American Right, in which she attempted to tie the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress to Strauss's ideas. In 2005 Drury reissued her original book with a new, impassioned introduction. "There is no denying that Strauss shaped the minds of the men who embarked on a foreign policy that has had monumental ramifications for America and for the world," Drury wrote. "I criticize Strauss for cultivating an arrogant, unscrupulous, and mendacious elite--an elite that has a profound contempt for the rule of law, for morality, for ordinary people, and for veracity."

By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Strauss was getting it from all sides. Depending on who you asked, he was an inconsequential curmudgeon, an academic hack, a reactionary fascist, or a democratic imperialist orchestrating American foreign policy from the grave.

In his 2003 New Yorker article, Seymour Hersh traced Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky's delusions of grandeur and own "noble lies" to Strauss and the University of Chicago, where both men "received their doctorates under Strauss in 1972." In fact, Strauss had left the U. of C. four years earlier. Wolfowitz took some courses with Strauss, but he wrote his dissertation on mathematical models and nuclear proliferation under the guidance of Albert Wohlstetter. Shulsky did claim Strauss as an influence, as in the 1999 essay "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous)," written with Gary Schmitt. With a wink at students of Greek philosophy, Shulsky and Schmitt wrote that just as social scientists often could not see the forest for the trees--Strauss's case against them--so was the American intelligence community blind to "big picture" issues and threats to national security.

About the same time that Seymour Hersh was writing in the New Yorker about a Straussian cabal, James Atlas had an article in the New York Times detailing the Straussians-as-orchestrators-of-empire theory. "According to one school of thought, our most recent military adventure turns out to have been nothing less than a defense of Western civilization--as interpreted by the late classicist and political philosopher Leo Strauss," he wrote. "If this chain of events seems implausible, consider the tribute President Bush paid in February to the cohort of journalists, political philosophers and policy wonks known--primarily to themselves--as Straussians. 'You are some of the best brains in our country,' Mr. Bush declared in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, 'and my government employs about 20 of you.'"

Atlas's article outraged Brian Leiter, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Texas, but not because he's a defender of Strauss. "Philosophers ought to be concerned when their field is misrepresented in the media," Leiter wrote on his Web site, "The Times ought to make clear that, whatever the influence of Strauss among intellectual lightweights and political hacks like Paul Wolfowitz and William Bennett, he is viewed by actual scholars as a politically motivated and unreliable scholar, whose philosophical competence is minimal at best." More recently Leiter told me, "Straussianism is a pathology of American philosophy departments. They have this niche, and they reproduce."

Tarcov thinks the charges levied at Strauss are bizarre. He defends Strauss as a thinker--"He did more than anyone I know of in the 20th century to revive the centrality of the notion of philosophy as a way of life"--and refuses to lay the invasion of Iraq at his feet. "You can probably give as well as I an account of how it happened," he says with a shrug. "You know, people were eager to come up with some explanation for our foreign policy."

Tarcov, who was born in Chicago and grew up in New York City, had declared a history major at Cornell in the 60s. But when he took a political philosophy class there with Allan Bloom, he was turned on to something new. "It had seemed so clear to me--every high school sophomore knew!--that all human thought is historical," Tarcov says. The idea Bloom and his teacher Strauss professed, that there was something universal to learn from classical and ancient philosophy, that the old books weren't just dusty relics of another era, was "earthshaking." Tarcov was so intrigued by what he'd learned from Bloom that he applied to grad school not in his major but in philosophy and political science. He enrolled at Claremont Graduate School in California in 1968 and took classes--one on Socratic dialogues and one on Rousseau--with Strauss himself, who, having retired from Chicago, was teaching there that year. "I even managed," says Tarcov modestly, "screwing up my courage, to ask him if he would give me a one-on-one tutorial." Strauss consented.

A slight, gray-bearded man, Tarcov is mild mannered but prone to outbursts of laughter, sometimes at his own jokes. In his office he's hung pictures of many of the thinkers he studies and teaches--Machiavelli and Socrates, for example--and also the famous image of a Tiananmen Square protester facing down tanks. Trotsky, whom he admired as a teenager, is also on the wall. "I decided one shouldn't abandon an old friend," he explains.

In 1978, not long after Tarcov completed his doctorate and began teaching at the University of Chicago, he entertained the possibility of life outside the academy. He phoned Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he'd been friendly at Cornell (Wolfowitz was a senior there when Tarcov was a freshman), for advice about jobs in politics. Wolfowitz had been working in the State Department under President Carter and served on a transition team when Reagan was elected. He was then appointed director of the department's policy planning staff, and he brought Tarcov on board as a speechwriter for the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig. Tarcov's first day at work was March 31, 1981--the day Reagan was shot. The hostages, who'd recently been released from Iran, were scheduled to visit the State Department that day, but the distracted White House hadn't composed the president's welcome. Tarcov was given 45 minutes to draft a speech for a State Department official to deliver in Reagan's stead.

While Tarcov enjoyed his sojourn in Washington--he speaks appreciatively of the access he had to "a lot of very smart people"--it was "a very different mode of life" from the ivory tower he was used to. "I don't think I ever went to a meeting where anyone spoke for more than a couple of minutes," he says. "Whereas, as you know, we're incapable of that in academia." With nothing but daily deadlines confronting him, Tarcov found it hard to maintain an academic's long view. So after 15 months he went back to the U. of C.

Strauss's own thoughts and beliefs can be hard to untangle, and to some extent Michael Zuckert can't blame journalists for turning to Shadia Drury for guidance--which is what he believes they did in 2003. "Strauss isn't a project for a minute or a day," he observes. "There's no way to get a quick take on him."

Catherine Zuckert valued Strauss enormously as a teacher, but she's wary of being labeled a disciple. "It's not always clear what people are saying when they use the term Straussian," she says. She was introduced as such on a recent panel and protested to the moderator. "Did he mean conservative? elitist? ahistorical? liar? I told him, 'I don't know which sin you're accusing me of.'"

Figuring enough was enough, in 2006 the Zuckerts published The Truth About Leo Strauss. They described Strauss's encounters with ancient and modern philosophy and pictured him as a skeptic and moderate who had conflicted feelings about modern democracy (as he did about modernism generally) but thought it better than the alternatives. They asked, "Does the Platonic/Straussian doctrine of the noble lie serve to justify the kind of alleged lies critics of Strauss . . . lay at his doorstep?" They went on, "This is not to say that political leaders do not on occasion do such things, but again, they did not learn to do this from Strauss."

"A lot of stupid and unfair things were said about Strauss," says Michael. "The idea that he had some big political agenda is just nutty."

Yale's Steven Smith concedes in the preface to Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (also published last year by the University of Chicago Press) that Strauss "has always been something of an exotic plant" and is undoubtedly "an acquired taste." But he was "a friend of liberal democracy--one of the best friends democracy has ever had."

While putting together the book, Smith recalled a paper he'd come across a decade earlier in the Strauss archives at the U. of C. It was the typescript of a talk Strauss gave at the New School in 1942, "What Can We Learn From Political Theory?" A quick glance showed that its topic fell outside the scope of his research at the time, but the memory stayed with him, and in 2005 he suggested the paper to Tarcov, who was looking for examples of Strauss's thinking during his New York days.

In the special collections of the U. of C.'s Regenstein Library, 51 boxes house Strauss's unpublished literary remains. In addition to texts of lectures Strauss gave, there's a fair amount of what archivists call ephemera. "There are folders," Tarcov says with some amazement in his voice, "that have titles like 'Natural Right' or 'Hobbes.' There are scraps of paper. Scraps of paper!" He begins to laugh. "With notes on them! In no order!" Despite the chaos, Tarcov found his way to the talk Smith had told him about. Delivered in 1942, "What Can We Learn From Political Theory?" answers its own question with a surprising "not much."

Because philosophy is fundamentally an approach to knowledge and a search for knowledge, rather than a body of knowledge, Strauss told his audience, we can't rely on philosophy to tell us what to do in any given situation. The best approach to political action, Strauss said, was the one Winston Churchill advocated to H.G. Wells during World War II. K.M.T., Churchill called his policy--Keep Muddling Through. Still, Strauss said, political philosophy is good for something: "If for no other purpose, at least in order to defend a reasonable policy against overgenerous or utopian thought, we would need a genuine political philosophy reminding us of the limits set to all human hopes and wishes."

Tarcov was amazed. Here was the most explicit statement by Strauss on the relationship between philosophy and practical politics that he had ever seen. Aside from a letter to the editor of the National Review in 1957 criticizing the magazine for its hostility to Israel and his signature on that ad for Nixon, Tarcov knew of no other clues to Strauss's take on contemporary political questions. Was there more to be discovered?

He consulted Strauss's executor, friend, and editor, Joseph Cropsey, who'd made a list of unarchived Strauss material. Only one title on the list appeared to address practical politics in some way. It was "The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews," a talk given at the New School in 1943, before World War II was even over. When Tarcov got his hands on the five-page manuscript, he found Strauss's handwriting hard to decipher. But what he eventually decoded was as intriguing and surprising as "What Can We Learn?"

"I was certainly struck by how very skeptical he was for the prospects of establishing democracy in Germany," Tarcov says. In "Re-education," Strauss doubted that a just government in Germany could be constructed after the war, at least not if the effort were left to the Allies. "A form of government which is merely imposed by a victorious enemy will not last," Strauss predicted. "Only Germans, only Germans who remained in Germany and shared all the misery of Nazi rule and of defeat, can do it. Only they will be able to speak a language understandable to post-Hitlerian Germany."

Tarcov says Strauss's skepticism surprised him--not only because Germany did manage to develop a democracy but because of the subject's curious relevance to the debate over Strauss's responsibility for Iraq. "He was wrong!" declares Tarcov. "But he was wrong in the opposite way from what he's been blamed for--encouraging people to think they can use military force to impose democracy." Tarcov had always found the link between Strauss and the neocons suspect, but now he had some hard and fast evidence to present to the world that what the neocons said they took from Strauss was not actually there to take. Perhaps in their vanity they'd embraced Strauss's exoteric discussion of the "noble lie" as the esoteric message only they were smart enough to see.

Tarcov is now in the process of editing the speech, along with "What Can We Learn?" He expects the two to be published in the fall issue of the Review of Politics.

In 2008, Cambridge University Press plans to issue the latest volume in its Cambridge Companions to Philosophy series: The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss. "The ground's been pretty well covered with 20th century philosophy," says Andy Beck, commissioning editor of the series. "After we publish the one on Strauss, there probably won't be too many more." For Steven Smith, who will be editing the volume, it's a sign that Strauss has arrived.

Nonetheless, Strauss still has many critics who persist in connecting him to all that's wrong with American policy. When Brian Leiter learned of the Cambridge project he said, "The fact that it's bullshit is not necessarily an obstacle. I'm sure the press knows it will sell." And Shadia Drury recently savaged Smith's Reading Leo Strauss in the journal Political Theory. When I requested an interview with her she told me she had no more to say about the current Strauss "scholarship." The quote marks and sarcasm were hers.

"There's a lot of optical illusion here," says Michael Zuckert, in terms of deciding what Strauss stood for and who qualifies as a Straussian. "What about Bill Galston?" he asks, referring to a Chicago classmate who studied with Strauss but later worked as a domestic policy adviser for President Clinton. "What about me?" Zuckert, like Tarcov, had also been against George W. Bush's war from the beginning.

Many of Strauss's students say a virtue he held dear was open-mindedness. George Anastaplo, who in 1950 refused to sign a statement swearing he was not a communist and as a result was denied admission to the Illinois bar, received a note from Strauss, his former teacher. "This is only to pay you my respects for your brave and just action," wrote Strauss, no apologist for communism. "If the American Bar and Bench have any sense of shame they must come on their knees to apologize to you."

Indeed, says Tarcov, it takes an open mind to study Strauss today. "A lot of scholarly work--maybe too much of it--consists of people gathering evidence to prove something they already believe. But these talks Strauss delivered were surprising to me. Even after learning the title of 'Re-education,' it was not what I expected at all." Tarcov thinks for a moment. "It's really the best kind of detective work--it's so much more interesting--when somebody says something unexpected."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nathan Tarcov photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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