It is not self-forgetting and pain-loving antiquarianism nor self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism which induces us to turn with passionate interest, with unqualified willingness to learn, toward the political thought of classical antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West. ~ Leo Strauss, The City and The Man (1964)

“…before the villains are rounded up and put away, it is necessary to determine to which party they belong. They may be our villains…” ~ Donald Barthelme, “The Inauguration”
The Legacy of A Realist

Leo Strauss, to look at the man, was probably the last fellow on the planet who’d have thought much about running the world. He looked like a turtle in tweed: hunched, thick wide glasses, a man balding his way to death in a worn greyish sportcoat. He liked to quote Xenophon in Greek, or Machiavelli in Italian, all in a thick Germanic drawl. His death in 1973 was grieved by his friends, family and pupils at the University of Chicago political science department, and many of his peers in classicist circles around the Western world, but Strauss was hardly a household word.

However, since running a piece about the man and his legacy, the New York Times 1 has set off a ripple effect of interest in Strauss, and the working whereabouts of his pupils, many of whom now stand as intellectual bastions of the neoconservative community throughout the world. One acolyte Henry Jaffa, for example, went on to teach Straussian thought to the editors of the New Republic (Andrew Sullivan) and the Weekly Standard (William Kristol). Bill Kristol then went on to co-found the Project for a New American Century (with the help of Rupert Murdoch). Another pupil and acolyte, Alan Bloom, would go on to write The Closing of the American Mind, one of the opening shots of the American culture wars. Even Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, schooled at the University of Chicago as a political science grad student and came under Strauss’ sway.

In other words, Leo Strauss has become an imminence gris behind world power at the moment, the intellectual grand father of American neo-con foreign policy. All this is, rather overtly, laid out in the Times article. And as is wont to happen, papers and periodicals around the globe ran with the notion. 2 How much truth is there to it, that a single (and by most accounts far from charismatic) professor could dazzle so many powerful men?

Expansive Influences, Expansive Influence
“A mighty Power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but what it might do.” – Seneca, “On Clemency,” sec. 8.
First, Strauss was a polymath: philosopher, historian, political theorist. Born just outside Marburg, Germany, in 1899, his family were traditional, devout middle-class. Leo was a self-avowed and educated Zionist since his early teens, who after reading Friedrich Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, planned to raise rabbits and spend his life reading Plato. Instead, he was drafted into the German army in 1917, and acted as a squad translator in occupied Belgium. He returned to his studies during his country’s chaotic inter-war period, under the tutelage of Edmund Husserl at Marburg and Martin Heidegger’s lectures at Freiburg. This was in the spring of 1922, and there in Freiburg Strauss also encountered the writings of Thomas Hobbes for the first time, and was intrigued. Two years later, Baruch Spinoza caught his interest. Then, in 1932, he went to Paris for a welcome change of scenery from the crises in Germany, and there met Alexandre Kojeve and Walter Benjamin. In 1934, several high-placed academics resolved to get Strauss out of Germany, the year Hitler became Furher. He arrived in Britain where he began his first major work, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, probably one of the best accounts written on the English philosopher. He moved into a small flat at 38 Perne Road in Cambridge, and finds himself enchanted with British town life after some unpleasant times studying in France.

Second, Strauss was impressively prolific. Works on Xenophon’s “Oeconomicus”, Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, Maïmonides, Aristotle, Aristophanes and Plato’s “Symposium” followed, as well as broader themes such as Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, On Tyranny and The City and The Man. In 1938, Strauss’ reputation is well-cemented and he takes a position at the New School for Social Research, New York. Later, after having settled down to an academic’s life in America, from 1949 to 1973 Strauss teaches political philosophy at the University of Chicago. Although the man is cast at the moment as a political exponent of Realpolitik, the main focus of his writing was comparative philosophy. His articles ranged in subjects from medieval theology to Thucydides, from natural law to Lucretius, from relativism to Max Weber.

Third, Strauss was a close reader and unabashed antiquarian of vast scope. In the 1940s and 50s, his reach would have seemed almost awesome at an American institution before pupils just coming to intellectual maturity. A combination of historical range, pragmatic realism and adherence to difficult political truths gleaned from often obscure texts would likely have been captivating for many students. But Strauss himself often changed his tune. Over the course of his career, his focus changed frequently – sometimes from ancient history to early modern politics, sometimes from religious issues to legal questions. By times he was smitten with Hobbes or Machiavelli, while in other periods he felt Athenian politics needed to be the focus of his attention. In other words, he was hardly the dogmatic political schemer as currently portrayed in many media articles, and any journalist even remotely familiar with his actual writing would see this.

Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, due to Strauss’ affiliation with Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, his thought has been interpreted by some as latently anti-democratic, authoritarian, even pseudo-fascist.4 This is peculiar, given the man witnessed Russian pogroms, was drafted into Germany’s imperialism and could easily have ended up in a concentration camp. Strauss himself wrote, in On Tyranny, “when we were brought face to face with tyranny – with the kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinks of the past – our political science failed to recognize it.” He is speaking here of the world’s slow condemnation of fascism in the 1930s, to which he saw only one solution: “to make the world safe for Western democracies, one must make the whole world democratic.” Many academics see this, along side his assertion of natural right, as embracing cultural intervention, imperialism and colonialism, none of which are popular concepts in university lounges in the Western world. So what did Strauss really think?

Acknowledge the Darkness
“Of all the opinions held by ancient writers of man in the mass, those that I most readily accept and most strongly adhere to are those which are most contemptuous, most vilifying and most annihilating.” – Michel de Montaigne, “On Presumption,” fr. Essais (II, 17)

“Harmony, universal or otherwise have never existed and will never exist. As for justice, in order to believe it possible, in order to even imagine it, we must have the advantage of a supernatural talent for blindness.” – Emile Cioran, History and Utopia, 116.
Strauss developed a political and ethical worldview based on a long chain of transmitters dating back to Antiquity. For example, in his opinion, the zenith of political narrative was Niccolo Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. However, his real earliest fascinations drew him to another figure, Thomas Hobbes, a devout rationalist and materialist, who in turn was also drawn to the darker realities of the classical period (Hobbes’ rendered a brilliant translation of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War). Strauss spent his first years in London at the British Museum poring over Hobbes’ manuscripts for his Elements and Leviathan, each seeming to reflect the gathering storm in Europe:
Men have no other means to acknowledge their own darkness, but only by reasoning from unforeseen mischances that befall them in their ways. ~ Leviathan, c. 44.

To kill is the aim of them that hate, to rid them selves of fear. ~ Elements, I, 9, vi.

Men from their very birth, and naturally, scramble for everything they covet, and would have all the world, if they could, to fear and obey them. ~ English Works, VII, 73.

When all the world is overcharged with inhabitants, then the remedy of all is War. ~ Leviathan, c. 30
From these maxims and the brutalities of European politics at the time, Strauss derived some harsh lessons: “man would not think of the preservation of life as the primary and most urgent good, if the passion of fear of death did not compel him to do so,” appears in his first major work discussing Hobbes. He goes on to conclude approvingly, “every effective rule is eo ipso legitimate. The words ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’, therefore, lose all significance … any state is based on usurpation without the least prejudice to its legitimacy.” 5 In other words, flying in the face of political idealism, Strauss returns us to a world where ends, not means, matter. Fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos) and honour (doxa) take center-stage in human affairs and freedom from violence and anarchy become the most moral of political goals. However, his study of the ancients, particularly the prescriptions of Plato in his Symposium when contrasted against the inevitable decline of the Athenian state, brought Strauss to reflect darkly on our democracies. Here he is in 1959, addressing a graduating class at the University of Chicago,
“The salt of modern democracy are those citizens who read nothing except the sports page and the comic section… Democracy is then not indeed mass rule but mass culture. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”
As so-called enlightened Westerners, we dislike these notions: that a ruling elite might be desirable, even vital, that religion may be yet another noble lie, that deception in politics is often necessary. Collectively, until quite recently, it seemed we’d evolved past these grim realities. Kant and Hegel certainly hoped we had, and their hopes for our collective progress underpin the evolution of human rights, conservation, international law and international co-operation. But there is another view of politics, one that states any consensus or legality will buckle under the right combination of violence, nihilism and desperation. Civilizations are preserved by their own inner ideals and strength, Strauss would argue, and some of these 'truths' are unpleasant. He stands, like Diogenes with his lamp, pointing to the darkness and shadow of our collective past.

The unfortunate thing is that a whole generation of public figures and policy wonks are now abusing this principle and comporting themselves as if these rules of power were the only truths. It is a grave, pessimistic, black and white worldview, based on antagonism and insecurity. It is, at its essence, as reductionist and inhumane as the extremism and terrorism it claims to counter. The core advocates of applying Strauss to state security and war (which is precisely the situation in America at the moment) are ultimately bookish men playing the part of centurions and generals. So dogmatic and righteous are they, I doubt very much Strauss would have approved of his own acolytes' actions on the world stage, however defensive and well-intentioned they are supposedly.

Further Reading:
  • Strauss, Leo. Leo Strauss on Plato's Symposium / edited and with a foreword by Seth Benardete (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, c2001).
  • ---. Leo Strauss : the early writings, 1921-1932 / translated and edited by Michael Zank (Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press, 2002).
  • ---. Natural right and history (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1974, c1953).
  • ---. On tyranny : including the Strauss-Kojove correspondence / edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth Rev. and expanded ed. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  • ---. Liberalism ancient and modern / foreword by Allan Bloom (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  • ---. The rebirth of classical political rationalism : an introduction to the thought of Leo Strauss : essays and lectures / selected and introduced by Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  • ---. Thoughts on Machiavelli / (Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, 1984, c1958).
  • ---. The city and man (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1977).
  • ---. The political philosophy of Hobbes, its basis and its genesis. Translated from the German manuscript by Elsa M. Sinclair (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1966).

1 James Atlas, “A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builder’s,” New York Times, New England Edition, Sunday, May 4, 2003, Week In Review, Section 4, p.1.
2 If you want to know what will be in the arts and culture section of your local paper a week or two later, pick up the Times Sunday edition and you’ll see into the future editorial meetings and story assignments of a hundred publications in North America for the next couple of weeks. Here are some of the stories on Strauss which followed:
  • J. Spengler, "The Secret that Leo Strauss Never Revealed", Asia Times May 13, 2003 (
  • William Pfaff, "The long reach of Leo Strauss", International Herald Tribune, Thursday, May 15, 2003 (
  • Jim Lobe, "Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception",, May 19, 2003 (
  • Gary Leupp, "Philosopher Kings: Leo Strauss and the Neocons", CounterPunch, May 24, 2003 (
  • Robert Locke, "Leo Strauss, Conservative Mastermind", FrontPage, May 31, 2003 (
  • Peter Berkowitz, "What Hath Strauss Wrought? : Misreading a political philosopher," Weekly Standard, June 2, 2003 (
  • Paul Knox, "The Strauss Effect", Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 12, 2003, F9 (
For earlier exculpation see University of King’s College professor Neil Robertson’s “Leo Strauss’ Platonism,” Animus, v.4, 1999 ( or “The Closing of the Early Modern Mind: Leo Strauss and Early Modern Political Thought”( There is also Jeffrey Steinberg ‘s “Leo Strauss, Fascist Godfather of the Neo-Cons” in Executive Intelligence Review March 21, 2003 ( or Shadia Drury’s criticism in Leo Strauss and the American Right (St. Martin's, 1999) or her article "The Esoteric Philosophy of Leo Strauss" Political Theory 13:3 (1985), pp. 315-37, as well as Ken Masugi’s rebuttal of Drury in “A Leo Straussian Conspiracy” The Washington Times, February 4, 1998.
3 There is a detailed chronological bibliography at as well as a long-list of self-styled Straussians teaching in institutions around North America.
4 A whole generation of academics made their names re-writing interpretations of the ancient world, contra the ideological classicists who tended to romanticize or ignore a great deal of the social brutality underlying the achievements of Antiquity. The historical recasting are impressive, challenging some dubious assumptions about the Classical Hellenic world as it is usually portrayed, and it would have been this generation that would have challenged the Straussian adherence to Greco-Roman ideals. Let me quote a few as example: first, Carroll Quigley from her The Evolution of Civilizations (NY, 1961): “We still hear a good deal of emotional talk about the ‘Greek miracle’ or the ‘Greek genius’…a term applied to the erroneous belief that Greek culture sprang up, fully formed, in no more than a couple of generations out of complete barbarism…to mention only one point: any culture that came from a mixture of Cretan, Phoenician and Indo-European elements did not start from nothing.” (170) She goes on to point out that Hellenic culture, as we know it, was only ever shared by a tiny, rich Mediterranean minority whose wealth was based on land tenure and slavery – i.e. hardly the democratic Athenians we like to imagine. There is also Arnaldo Momigliano, who wrote in “The Fault of the Greeks” (fr. Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, Wesleyan, 1977, pp. 9-24), “…we are never allowed to forget our debt to Greece, Latium and Judea. There are powerful pressure groups (whether classicists, theologians or rabbis) to keep us, quite properly, ashamed of our failure to read the right texts in the right language,” or finally Maurice Bowra, who pointed out in The Greek Experience (1957): “Athens provides a signal refuation to the optimistic delusion that democracies are not bellicose or avid of empire.” (88) In other words, between the late 1950s to early 80s, showing an old-school, unapologetically elitist interest in the classics was clearly rubbing people the wrong way. This goes a long way to explaining the suspicion doled out the Straussians and their ilk today.
5 Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, trans. E. Sinclair (London, 1952), 68.

Leo Strauss (1899 - 1973) was a Jewish, German-American political thinker who had a tremendous influence on what remains of serious political philosophy in the United States, and especially on some thinkers who are usually identified as neoconservative. This identification with neoconservatives only occurred after his death, and would probably have surprised him. The pupil who was most faithful to Strauss was Allan Bloom, who never entered politics but instead authored books on Shakespeare and the bestselling The Closing of the American Mind, which popularized Strauss' thought and is quite simply the best book about twentieth century America that I can ever hope to read. I highly recommend it.

There are two basic things you need to know about Strauss and his influence on American politics to be somewhere close to the truth about the man. The first is that Strauss was anti-liberal, by which I do not mean he would have voted Republican but that he had deep reservations about the whole nature of modern, democratic, rights-based politics. This reservation sent him back to a study of classical philosophy. The second thing that it is important to note is that the neoconservatives, whose whole project is based on the export of precisely this rights-based liberal system to the entire world, hence sit incredibly uneasily if they claim the blessing of their former master.

To understand Strauss, we have to understand where he came from. Strauss came of age in Weimer Germany amid the intellectual battles that surrounded the emergence of modern social science and the physical battles between Nazis and Communists in the streets of Berlin. Weimer Germany was the liberal Republic par excellence, in which all manner of crazy political projects and beliefs found succour, which was part in consequence of the dramatic break with the past caused by World War I; one of these political projects was Nazism. Strauss hence saw liberalism at its worst in a weak, directionless polity that eventually allowed itself to be destroyed by Nazism.

The intellectual comitant to this situation was social and political science, which owe their origins to the German thinker Max Weber. The impact of German political thought on America after World War II has been as all-encompassing as it has been ignored, and was driven largely by the emigration of thinkers who fled the Nazis. Social and political science are disciplines that claim to be able to engage in the dispassionate study of social and political problems in the same way that a man can dispassionately study the laws of physics that guide a river. They are fundamentally liberal because they claim that no value is higher than the other; to claim the superiority of a particular value would be "unscientific".

This is the fundamental nature of liberalism: so long as someone desires something that does not violate the law, it is their right to have it. This is what conservatives have long attacked as value relativism. Social and political science became the study of the pursuit of social and political desires, without allowing itself to comment on what these goals should actually be. This means the goal might, for instance, be Nazism.

Weber's ideas roosted on the East Coast and in Chicago and soon became American orthodoxy. Strauss also came to America and he recognized these phenomenon from the old country, and he remained as unconvinced when the fundamentals were dressed in American garb as he had been when they wore lederhosen. Strauss thought that liberalism led to nihilism because if nothing was valued higher than anything else, then nothing had value. Furthermore, liberalism was a "seminary of intolerance" as he says in his book Natural Right and History, because the consistent liberal can have no objection to the Nazi without recourse to something outside of liberalism; all values are relative, after all, and a system that is based on what men desire cannot stop a man desiring to be a Nazi. The system might be saved if all other men have banded together and passed a law that outlaws Nazism, but this law is also based only on people's desires and can be repealed if they all decide to be Nazis. Without a higher metaphysical standard, liberalism hence contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Strauss hence argued that liberalism could never be separated from some other metaphysical belief. Something like the Ten Commandments or a theory of natural law had to, in the last analysis, provide the fundamental basis of inviolable rights. This is the basis of Strauss' interest in the noble lie, a concept derived from Plato which states that some sort of irrational belief has to lay at the foundation of a political system to hold it together - such as, for instance, the belief in a God who prohibits Nazism. This concept was vulgarized and taken to mean that his supposed followers were encouraged to lie about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion, but this is entirely removed from Strauss' point that fundamental rights have to be justified by an irrational belief.

The neoconservatives were certainly heavily influenced by Strauss, but to claim that they are "Straussian" or that his ideas lay at the heart of their policy is highly misleading. Strauss was highly pessimistic about cultural conditions in contemporary America, believing them to be a reflection of the relativistic nihilism that he so scorned. He urged a return to the study of clasical philosophy and of classic notions of virtue, arguing for the existence of duties as well as rights. He did not think that the fundamental tension between excellence and equality was resolvable, and his opposition to liberalism did not lead him to a simple-minded acceptance of some tyrannical alternative. His criticism of liberalism was as a friend, not a determined enemy. He kept thinking, and kept writing, precisely because the problem of how humans should live together in society could not be solved.

The neoconservatives, on the other hand, believed this question to be resolved: the fundamental problem of human living-together had been solved, and the solution was the United States of America. Francis Fukuyama, who was a student of Allan Bloom, stated this worldview most concretely in his The End of History, in which he claimed that the question of what the best type of regime was had been solved by the United States. Entirely missing from this analysis is Strauss' pessimism about American liberalism, which could hardly have made him sanguine about its export all over the world. Furthermore, his profound understanding of political problems and their inherent unsolvability would have made him highly sceptical of the idea that a new regime could be easily enforced by the barrel of a gun. I suspect he rolls over in his grave whenever he is associated with it.

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