The late Leo Strauss (1889-1973) was a thinker sufficiently nuanced to allow a wide range of interpretation of his views, and a teacher broad-ranging enough to influence students with divergent interests. I am honored to contribute occasionally to the Claremont Review of Books, associated with the so-called West Coast Straussians (although I am persona non grata among some East Coast Straussians). In fact, some of my best friends are Straussians.
As my friend Peter Berkowitz argues in a recent essay for RealClearPolitics, it is silly and not a little mendacious to portray the late emigre philosopher as an arachnidan spinner of right-wing plots.  My problem isn’t simply with Strauss, but with the ancients whom he admired. He taught that we have something fundamental to learn about statecraft from the ancient Greeks. This in my view is woefully wrong.
Greek philosophy, to be sure, remains one of the ornaments of human endeavor – as it applies to epistemology, ontology, aesthetics and logic, among other fields. Plato and Aristotle, though, came into adulthood just as the Greek city-states destroyed themselves through their own cupidity. What was left of Athens after the disastrous Peloponnesian War was ruined by Alexander of Macedon, who employed Aristotle as a tutor. I do not mean to deprecate the importance of the Greek polis as an exercise in democracy, but Aristotle was hardly its advocate.
“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim,” begins the Nichomachean Ethics. But Aristotle’s assertion that all men seek the good (or at least the good as they see it) is wrong on the face of it. Frequently men seek perversion, violence, and the destruction of themselves and all around them. That is typical of civilizations that have reached their best-used-by-date, and at some point has been true of every civilization west of the Indus during the past 2,500 years with the exception of Israel.
By the time the Romans walked in, all of Greece could not field two regiments of phalanx-men. The rational, logical Greeks chose not to have children and disappeared. They did so after Athens built an empire that looted its colonies to pay off the Athenian mob, relying on imperial exactions for half of its food supply. Athens was a slave society that preyed on its neighbors. What is the sum of Athenian wisdom after the war was lost? For Sophocles (in Oedipus at Colonnus) it was that the best of all possibilities is never to have been born (“But who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand!,” said Yankel to Moishe in the old Jewish joke). It was Sophocles more than Aristotle whom Hellas took to heart, and ensured that its next generations would not be born.
Not since the late Roman Empire has the problem of willful self-destruction been so relevant to contemporary events. The whole of the industrial world excepting Israel is failing to reproduce itself, and great swaths of Europe and East Asia face demographic ruin at the hundred-year horizon. The civilized world, moreover, confronts mass suicide cults in the Islamic world happy to destroy themselves if only they can take the hated West down with them. About the despair that enervates the childless West as well as the self-immolating Muslim radicals, “classical political rationalism” has nothing to say to us.
Kierkegaard called Socrates an “ironist,” that is, a thinker who can look backward to the errors that brought his society into its parlous state, but cannot look forward to a way out (see Socrates the destroyer, Asia Times Online, May 25, 2004.) That explains why Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes give us mutually-incompatible reports of Socrates’ views (Strauss attributed this instead to esoteric expression). For Socrates, “the whole substantial life of Greek culture had lost its validity,” Kierkegaard wrote. An ironist “is prophetic, but his position and situation are the reverse of the prophet’s. The prophet walks arm in arm with his age, and from this position he glimpses what is coming … The ironist, however, has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze.” Socrates, in short, was playing with his interlocutors.
Men do not always, or even typically, seek the good. Just as fatuous as the Cliff Notes classicism of the American neo-conservatives is the pop-Thomism of certain Catholic exponents of “natural law.” A young man knocking on the door of a whorehouse is still seeking God, wrote G K Chesterton. If all human endeavor seeks the Good, then it is only necessary to show people what the Good really is through “right reason” in order to put them on the right path. (My objection to “natural law” goes farther than that; nature herself is flawed and requires frequent correction, as I argued in Why ‘Intelligent Design’ subverts faith, Asia Times Online, October 23, 2012).
If men naturally sought the good, then they all could be persuaded that Western-style liberal democracy and free markets were desirable, because they lead to good results. That happens to be what I consider good, but other people would rather kill everyone around them as well as themselves rather than accept this. I do not think it advisable to send American soldiers to occupy their countries to teach them differently. Strauss knew that a substrate of irrationality lies at the foundation of human society, because he spent a lifetime engaging the 20th-century philosopher who expounded irrational self-destruction as an existential choice: Martin Heidegger.
When Heidegger speaks of “non-Being” in the ontological sense, he conceals (or rather discloses) a sly nod to Goethe’s Mephistopheles: boredom, an objectless anxiety and alienation from life, gives us an intimation of “non-Being,” Heidegger said. He might have mentioned rage, perversion, horror and violence. Heidegger followed the logical conclusion of his thinking into membership in the Nazi Party. (See Now for something about nothing, Asia Times Online, July 24, 2012). I do not mean to attribute too much authority to Heidegger; as Michael Wyschogrod showed in his classic study of the two philosophers, he borrowed his best material from Kierkegaard. Nor did Heidegger discover intimations of non-Being in the pre-Socratics; Fernando de Rojas’ citation of Heraclitus in the introduction to La Celestina (1499) long preceded him. Still, Heidegger gave us the modern formulation of the problem in its standard form.
Strauss had studied with Heidegger at Freiburg and understood the issues as an initiate. But he relegated the Heidegger problem for the most part to a few asides. A whole scholarly literature about Strauss and Heidegger has arisen from the fact that Strauss was obtuse about the issue. He did not believe that rationality was enough, which is why thought religion a desirable, perhaps even necessary illusion for the masses (as opposed to philosophers).
One cannot blame Strauss for the insistence of some of his prominent disciples that political rationalism can be transplanted from the West to non-Western cultures. Strauss might be blameless, but I would like to hear Straussians who oppose this conceit explain why (in their view) it is not Straussian.
The self-destructiveness of great nations and cultures is the decisive problem of our time; about this Strauss has little to teach us. In fact, no set of generalizations will yield much of a result in this sort of inquiry (although I have offered a set of aphorisms on the subject). One has to learn the language, read the literature, learn the history, and get the jokes. These are the sort of things one learns not in the classroom but at 3 am over a fourth bottle of wine.
The most important things are beyond the reach of philosophy. More important than and prior to democracy, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued in his 2007 book The Home We Build Together is the concept that human beings have inherent rights which no king or parliament can violate. This we inherit from the Hebrews, not the Greeks:
The concept of the moral limits of power is more important to freedom than is democracy. For democracy contains within it a fatal danger. Tocqueville gave it a name: the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ A majority can oppress a minority. The only defense against this is to establish the moral limits of power … Biblical politics is limited politics – the political of liberal democracies, not of the Greek city state.
Leo Strauss, contemplating the madness of the Nazi mob, taught virtue and moderation, and looked backwards to the ancients as a counterweight to the passions of the moderns. There is nothing malicious in this, but there is also nothing right about it. Men are immoderate. The country that most attracts me is Israel, whose people are impassioned, boisterous, loud, risk-friendly, unruly, rude, and altogether wonderful. They also have three children per female, uniquely in the industrial world.
Moderation is overrated. Passion is to Kierkegaard the primary stuff of ontology. It is the starting-point of human existence. In Jewish thought, the “evil impulse” (ha-yetzer ha-rah) – ambition, sexuality, competitiveness – is indispensable to life. “If not for the evil impulse, no one would build a house, marry, have children, nor engage in trade,” wrote the rabbis of the Talmud. In one Talmudic homily the rabbis capture and imprison the yetzer ha-rah, and observe the next day that not a chicken in Israel had laid an egg. Suppress the passions, like the Greeks after Aristotle, and you get a country populated mainly by statues.
Let the Straussians sort out Strauss; truth told, I never found his work compelling, and studied it only because one cannot make sense of the contemporary conservative movement without it. Some of Strauss’ most celebrated assertions have not survived the withering critique of scholarship. Moshe Halbertal’s superb study Concealment and Revelation (Princeton 2007) makes short work of Strauss’ argument about esoteric writing, for example. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard’s Socrates, Strauss was playing with his students, acting as ironist rather than prophet, as a few critics have suggested.
Strauss’ strengths and weaknesses, though, are of secondary importance. What makes his influence so baleful are not errors of analysis or emphasis, but rather the insidious way in which “classical political rationalism” (Thomas Pangle’s phrase, not Strauss’s) supports a wholly irrational impulse, namely American narcissism. Forgetting our origin – the impassioned radical Protestantism that motivated the American Revolution – we Americans tend to assume that if only everyone did things the way we do, the world would be a wonderful place. Exporting democracy is perhaps the most fatuous conceit in the long, sad history of American policy failures. By no means is Leo Strauss to blame for this. But our narcissism explains a good deal of his enduring popularity. We like rationalism because we flatter ourselves that we are masters of our fate, and our use of reason enables us to control our destiny.
Quite the contrary: America made it by the skin of her teeth, by the grace of God. We nearly dissolved in the Civil War, and no-one but a president with the character of a Hebrew prophet could have extricated us from disaster. We aren’t that smart, and we aren’t that good. We are only the best there is – a depressing thought indeed.
1. Leo Strauss’ Political Philosophy: Reviled But Redeemed, RealClearPolitics, August 16, 2014.