Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

STRAUSS, LEO (1899- 1973)

Leo Strauss was a German- Jewish émigré political philosopher and historian of political thought, who wrote some fifteen books and eighty articles on the history of political thought from Socrates to Nietzsche. Strauss was no ordinary historian of ideas; he used the history of thought as a vehicle for expressing his own ideas. In his writings, he contrasted the wisdom of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle with the foolhardiness of' modern philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke. He thought that the loss of ancient wisdom was the reason for the 'crisis of the West--an expression that was in part a reference to the barbarities of the Holocaust. He therefore sought to recover the lost wisdom. He studied the classics and was a great devotee of Plato and Aristotle. However, he developed unusual interpretations of classical texts.

Strauss was born in Kirchhain, Hessen, Germany. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and Hamburg where he came into contact with Edmund Husserl and the young Martin Heidegger. He left Germany in 1932 and eventually settled in the USA where from 1949 to 1968 he was professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He amassed a sizeable following of devoted students, who have played a significant role in US academic life and government.

According to Strauss, the fundamental issue that divides ancient and modern thinkers is the relative importance of reason and revelation in human life. Modem philosophers such as HOBBES (§§6- 7) and LOCKE (§  10), exalt reason and believe that a political order can be founded on purely rational and secular principles. But Strauss believed that this modern liberal project was doomed to failure. He thought that reason cannot provide the requisite support for moral and political life; what is needed is belief in a transcendent God who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. Strauss thought that ancient philosophers understood this very well and that modern philosophers were seriously misguided in thinking that rational self- interest was a sufficient ground of social life. In Strauss' view, the modern faith in reason is at the heart of the 'crisis of the West'. Reason has destroyed faith and in so doing has opened the door to barbarism. Ancient philosophers understood that reason and philosophy have a corrosive effect on the 'city', as Strauss called the state. By the same token, Strauss was committed to philosophy and had no intention of denouncing it out of hand. He therefore argued that philosophy must be kept hidden or secret, not simply to permit philosophers to avoid persecution, but for the sake of the people and for the wellbeing of the city.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), a paradigmatic work, Strauss argued that all the great philosophers of the past understood the dangers involved in their own philosophical activity. Accordingly, they peppered their work with riddles, hints, clues, allusions, confusing language, intentional contradictions and other forms of subterfuge designed to conceal their true thoughts. Strauss argued that every great book contained a dual teaching: an exoteric or public teaching and an esoteric or private message. The former was a salutary teaching or noble lie intended for the consumption of the many while the latter was the dangerous truth intended only for the few.

Strauss' discovery of esotericism led him to advance unusual interpretations of classic texts. For example, Strauss argued that PLATO (§4) wrote dialogues in order to conceal his true thinking. And contrary to popular belief, Strauss denied that Socrates was Plato's mouthpiece. He thought that in the Republic Thrasymachus, not Socrates, was Plato's true spokesman (Strauss 1964: 77). According to Strauss, the argument made by Socrates was simply Plato's exoteric teaching. In arguing that justice leads to happiness, Socrates was displaying his sophistic skill--that is to say, his ability to make the weaker argument appear the better. Strauss thought that the Socratic argument in favour of justice could not succeed. He was certain that Plato was wise enough to realize that Thrasymachus was right--that justice is a function of power, and that in acting justly one serves the interest of others and not oneself. Strauss surmised that Socrates must have taken Thrasymachus aside and explained to him that his views were true, but too dangerous to express publicly. In this way, Socrates managed to silence Thrasymachus without refuting him. For Strauss, the truth is a luxury meant only for the few who hunger for the reality behind the necessary myths and illusions of the city.

Strauss insists that although the truth is dark, even ‘sordid’, it is still the erotic object of the philosopher's quest.

However, it would seem that if we accept Nietzsche's premises, we must also accept his conclusion--if the truth is dark, then we must renounce it and live according to the humanizing illusions, the life-giving myths we create for ourselves. By accepting Nietzsche's premises and rejecting his conclusion, Strauss cultivates an elite that is more vulgar than wise (see NIETZSCHE, F.).

The devotion of Strauss' followers, coupled with his esotericism, has made him a figure of some controversy. But one thing is clear, Strauss' followers regard US liberalism as the embodiment of the legacy of modernity and its attendant dangers, and their aim is to rescue the USA from such modernity. Strauss taught them that this would be possible if they could win the ear of the powerful, hence their interest in government and public policy. Some find Strauss' elitism disconcerting. An elite that is radical, secretive and duplicitous, an elite that exempts itself from the moral principles it deems applicable to the rest of humanity, cannot be trusted with political power.

List of works

Strauss, L. (1952) Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (His best account of the esoteric/exoteric thesis.)

----------, (1953) Natural Right and History, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (His best account of the difference between ancient and modern thinkers.)

----------, (1959) What is Political Philosophy? New York: Free Press. (Collection of well-known essays.)

----------, (1964) The City and Man, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Discussion of Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides.)

----------, (1968) On Tyranny, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (A commentary on Xenephon's Hiero or Tyrannicus.)

References and further reading

Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon & Schuster. (This best- selling book is a popularization of Strauss' thought by one of his students.)

Burnyeat, M.F. (1985) 'Sphinx Without a Secret', New York Review of Books, 32 (9): 30- 6. (A criticism of Strauss' understanding of classical philosophy, especially Plato.)

Drury, S.B. (1988) The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, New York: St Martin's Press. (Argues that Strauss' ideas are largely inspired by Nietzsche. Contains a comprehensive bibliography.)

New York Review of Books (1985) 'The Studies of Lee Strauss: An Exchange', 32 (15). (Responses from Strauss' admirers to Burnyeat.)