The Modesty of Leo Strauss

One of the most intriguing aspects of the war in Iraq is the idea that much, if not all of the neocon strategy is derived from the philosophical teachings of Leo Strauss, who until the war was an obscure political science professor at the University of Chicago. No conscientious opponent of the war can examine the Project for the New American Century, for instance, without eventually finding some evidence of "Straussian" thought. Typically the Left accuses Strauss and his acolytes, neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, as having effected a Machiavellian cabal (with roots in the Republic) to dishonestly shape U.S. policy, and with imposing on a wide scale the "clash of civilizations" view of Islam which rests on rabidly xenophobic dreams of American Empire. Bush may be a dupe and a cretin, the thinking is, but he is more than a dupe of the Straussians, he is their ideal Prince. He is merely the symptom of a deeper, and therefore far more concerning, philosophical shift in American politics.

In one important sense, the story of Leo Strauss and his obscure but intimate involvement in the Bush Administration is a Leftist paranoiac's wet dream. At last they have found a conspiracy theory which is basically self-evident. A group of men who openly advocate the Pax Americana which holds that power must rest in the hands of a small elite. Furthermore, among the many tools available to that elite is Plato's Noble Lie, the infamous passage from the Republic which allows that sometimes it may justifiable to spin official myths to get the populace to fall in line with their wise masters. Ironically, those who have "unearthed" this open-air secret are committing the error Strauss balefully ascribed to them again and again. They do not know how to read. They do not know how to listen. If they did, they would discover that there is a second dimension of Strauss's thought, and another conduit of his teachings-- Allan Bloom-- which not only predicted and warned us against the Bush Administration but also offered a chillingly accurate diagnosis of the utter failure of the liberal counterattack against radical conservatism.

My use of the word diagnosis is intentional. If American, or Western civilization, may be thought of as a patient, upon which academia and the intellectual elite work various remedies, the patient is clearly sick and has been for some time. Rejecting conservatism's noxious brew of selfishness, superstition, and blind nationalism is an honorable fight, but the fighting these days-- and I think I'm putting it mildly-- has taken on the appearance of a child shooting spitballs at a tank. Any honest appraisal of the Left, undertaken by the Left, must yield significant dissatisfaction with the state of liberalism, if not open revolt against the philosophic tradition which has led to such a sickly, death-bed form of progressivism. Though the doctor may appear to be a quack, or possibly working against our interest, it can no longer be denied that Strauss and many of his students have so far made the only compelling diagnosis, and offered the only sane treatment, of our malady. They are the only ones who have recognized the disease and named it. Perhaps they are witch doctors, and to listen to them we must ignore the advice of platoons of trained doctors. Perhaps the opposite is true. Either way, a change is needed, because every time the face of our Caesar, President Bush, appears on television, it ought to be clear that the opposition has lost and lost big.

It is difficult to speak comprehensively about Strauss' writings because they are hard-wired to frustrate easy analysis on the one hand and refer to a constellation of other authors' texts on the other. Strauss explained that he wrote the book I have just finished, "On Tyranny", in an attempt to draw attention to the ancient understanding of tyranny because modern political science-- rooted in historicism-- was woefully inadequate and could not identify Hitler in time to prevent the many Nazi atrocities. "On Tyranny", which is a close reading of Xenophon's dialogue Hiero, ought to be read en face with Machiavelli's The Prince in order for its significance to come to light (and probably his own Cyropaedia too). Both Hiero and The Prince are concerned with a wise man's attempt to educate a ruler, and because of this correspondence of theme Strauss calls these two works "the point of closest contact between premodern and modern philosophy". In Machiavelli's writing Strauss thought he had identified the key to the break between the ancients and moderns, an error in thought which he believes has led to our current crises. The break comes down to Machiavelli's deliberate removal of the distinction between the king and the tyrant, a distinction which was crucial to Xenophon and the ancients.

Machiavelli's innovation becomes striking when comparing his text with Xenophon's. For example, Chapter Three of Hiero begins with a Socratic discussion of friendship which accepts as a given the pleasures and usefulness of love and friendship. The tyrant Hiero states, "I myself judge being loved a good so great that I believe benefits actually come of themselves to the one who is loved, both from gods and men". In The Prince, of course, Machiavelli famously states that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Throughout The Prince he stresses that the ruler should do what he can to be loved, but instead of encouraging the prince to win affection, he counsels that he avoid being hated. Love, like the other virtues in The Prince, is only useful as one of many politically expedient means of taking and holding power. Fear is the only way for the prince to be sure of his rule. "Men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the prince", Machiavelli writes. The important difference between Xenophon and Machiavelli, as represented in this passage, is that Hiero's dialogue reflects an awareness of the good life, measuring the anxiety Hiero claims to feel over the distance between the ideal life of Socratic contemplation and his political realities as a tyrant. In Machiavelli this anxiety is gone. He scoffs at "imagined republics" and says "how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin". The "ought" has been discarded; in effect Machiavelli removed moderation from the political equation.

Whether Strauss is correct or not in his larger conclusions about Machiavelli's founding of modern politics, I cannot say. A verdict would require full knowledge of the history of political philosophy, and on this subject I am at best a dilettante. What I can discern in "On Tyranny", and in the other writings of his I have read, is the characteristic of modesty-- "modesty" meaning something like the quiet, rational protection of virtue-- which Strauss values in the ancients and which he adopts in his own writings. This is often seen as an insidious attempt to write esoterically. Strauss wrote about esoteric writing in ancient and medieval texts, and practiced it himself. To our suspicious ears it sounds like he is speaking across the centuries with other scheming intellectuals, passing along arcane secrets to his followers which modern citizens-- we, the rubes-- couldn't hope to decipher. But this isn't fair. Certainly Strauss felt that philosophy was only understandable by the few. When he finished "On Tyranny", he wrote to his friend and fellow philosopher Kojeve that there were only three men in their profession who would understand what he was trying to do. Needless to say the general reader would have no chance, especially "the reader in our century who has been brought up on the brutal and sentimental literature of the last five generations". He goes on to say that the ideal reader of the ancients would have "a natural preference for Jane Austen rather than for Dostoevski". As Strauss says elsewhere, we must shun the "loudspeakers" and train ourselves to listen to the small, distant voices of the past if we are to make any sense of our present condition.

This is key to understanding the purpose of "On Tyranny", and in Strauss's location of the fatal and decisive break between ancient and modern political philosophy. In a sense, all of Strauss' philosophy is colored by his insistence on the "small" voices of "modesty": authors who, like Austen, could write with astonishing command of subtle and ironical prose strategies. Modesty, however guileful, is seen as a necessary quality of wisdom, the abandonment of which is a grievous error. So while it is true that Strauss believed his teachings could only be understood by the few, and that the wise can only influence the state obliquely-- in other words, in ways that often appear to be secretive or conspiratorial-- it is also true that Strauss at all times insists on the ancient ideal of moderation, pointedly expressed in the detachment from the state to which philosophers must adhere. Inevitably, he writes, because "subjective certainty" (a term he ridicules) is impossible, philosophers must leave their coterie of followers and "seek the marketplace", occasioning contact with politics. Philosophers are neither detached nor fully invested in the politics of the city. They exist in what can be called a state of permanent tension. Strauss wanted his readers to confront, and respect, the ambiguities of this tension.

"On Tyranny", both the work itself and his reading of it, reflects Strauss's method. Ancient political philosophy, as isolated in Xenophon's Hiero, understood the ambiguous nature of the tyrant. As I wrote above, the tyrant, in search of the good life, naturally wants honors as well as love, but the only way for the tyrant to win these from his subjects is to rule benevolently. As Strauss shows, Xenophon cleverly hints that while this would indeed be the preferred method of government, it is basically impossible. Only in a state which is ruled by law, in which the ruler-- the king, not the tyrant-- is legitimate, will love and honor. He also shows that Xenophon contrasts the good life, the life of the wise man, with the life of the tyrant. The end result is not that tyranny is "bad" and law-based democracy "good", but a laying bare of the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the political sphere. The ancients saw these imperfections as preferable to the unvirtuous ruler (later conceived of by Machiavelli). In a similar fashion, Strauss (and Bloom) explain Socrates' ironical advocacy of aristocracy as the best regime in the Republic-- in fact, Socrates hints that democracy is the best regime because only in that regime is a wise man possible. The rich irony of the ancients boils down to Socrates' understanding that Sparta was the ideal city, and, equally, that Socrates himself would not have been allowed to survive in that city. Politics are imperfect; the best regime is therefore not perfect, but simply the one which is least problematic.

Strauss's respect of this "permanent tension" is precisely the saving grace of his philosophy, and which gives the lie to the notion that Strauss would offer unqualified support to the war in Iraq and to the means by which the neocons brought it about (and by extension unlawful surveillance of civilians, excessive executive powers, torture, etc). Strauss does not conceive of his philosophy as, in his own words, "simply wisdom". His project is not to offer solutions but to emphasize problems which modern philosophy claims to have solved out of existence.

Philosophy as such is nothing but genuine awareness of problems, i.e. of the fundamental and comprehensive problems. It is impossible to think about these problems without becoming inclined toward a solution, toward one or the other of the very few typical solutions. Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only the quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of problems. Therefore the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the "subjective certainty" of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution. At that moment the sectarian is born.

The sect was of concern to Strauss, and one of the greatest and least accessible strains of thought in his writing. Clearly, as I have indicated, he understood that philosophers do not exist in a vaccuum. Though he distinguishes the sect from the mass party, abhorring the latter, he knows that wise men must, to some extent, mingle with affairs of state and with society as a whole. Moreover, it is plainly obvious, looking at Strauss's general intention of saving liberal democracy from tyranny (fascism or collectivism) and "The Last Man", that in his philosophical statement of these problems he was "inclined toward a solution": to restore the ancient idea of good and evil which Nietzsche and his followers had-- in effect-- led twentieth century thinkers to reject, culminating in Hitler and Stalin. To prevent further catastrophe, sects are necessary.

Still, it is essential to mark that the real power of Strauss' writing is his caution and modesty, in this case his concern about sects. He cannot be confronted for his supposed hostility to true democracy because even a casual reading of his work is enough to demonstrate that his thought exists entirely within the tensions he brought to light in the writings of other philosophers. He is not an idealogue. His philosophy is one of self-critique; like the ancients, his mission is to counsel rulers, to check their power, not facilitate its free and unbridled use. His method is one of careful, precise, and transparent obfuscation: he lucidly articulates ambiguities. Strauss muddies the waters of our political thought precisely because we have been too quick to assume we have discovered the clear springs of truth. And these ambiguities are expressed in ways designed to frustrate the unphilosophical-- and to enrage breathless half-wits who follow fashionable ideologies. Put simply, his style is a trap. His writing becomes an impassable conundrum for his prejudiced enemies. Pitchfork-wielding villagers on the hunt for the Grand Inquisitor will only find the gentle Mr. Knightly.

This is both Strauss's charm and his worst quality: his subtle voice is an antidote to the bluster and screams of the modern marketplace, which has shamelessly commodified political discourse, yet his intentionally difficult writing is at times annoyingly smug. While Strauss is correct in demanding that-- horror of horrors-- we put in the effort of reading closely and thinking through difficult ideas which require us to walk slippery terrain, there is something gleefully punitive in his aloofness. Like the lawyer Utterson in Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Strauss seems to incline to "Cain's heresy": "I let my brother go to the devil in his own way". But although liberals who traffic in radical historicism and logical positivism are perhaps to be scorned, they are not the only kinds of liberals. Instead of contributing to the overall success of the democratic project, Strauss exacerbates the already contentious intellectual atmosphere surrounding the various projects undertaken by the Left to actualize the "universal and homogenous state". Love of truth, and battling on its behalf, is not served by demonizing honest opponents.

His writings were published during the Cold War, and the breaking point between philosophers of the old and new orders was the Soviet Union. Strauss had the pleasure of being right just at the historical moment when Western liberals were slowly awakening to Stalin's perversion of the Marxist ideal. The effect was chastening, to say the least. This is clear in the work of many different writers, from critics such as Lionel Trilling to contemporaries like the neocons-- many of whom come from the Left-- and popular pundits like Christopher Hitchens, an ex-Trotskyite. The discovery that the U.S.S.R. was not only not the best regime, but was perhaps the worst, the bloodiest, the least successful of all regimes, marginalized the men who still, against all evidence, supported communism and saddled conscientious, honest liberals with a bad conscience, rendering them intellectually impotent. At the same time, on the Right, the writing of men like Strauss took a strident, acid tone. Watching as the power of the Left receded, they would not allow anyone in the intellectual elite, especially in academia, to forget, let alone repeat, their failures. "Liberal self-respect" gradually, often comically, became an oxymoron. With Reagan's ascension came the righteous, occasionally unhinged polemicism of Allan Bloom, and after the fall of the U.S.S.R., the final nail in the coffin, the victors of the Cold War infected popular discourse with the crude mashing together of all liberal ideas into the most lunatic pipe dreams of the last century: among average Americans there is no more common, or indeed more vitriolic epithet applied to liberals off all stripes, than "communist".

But here it is worth remembering Strauss' remark just after the publication of "On Tyranny" that only three people in his profession would understand it. Strauss was always writing for those in his profession, and even then only for those who were philosophers, like Kojeve, and not merely intellectuals. The rarefied air of his writing, so off-putting at first, is perhaps why Strauss is ultimately worth studying. To repeat his methodology, we should return to the sources of modernism with an open mind, granting the first texts their full measure of self-conscious ambiguity. We must not only contemplate the problems but start by understanding their breadth and scope. Doing so would allow Strauss's books to disclose whatever wisdom they have for us-- and they have much-- and would also, I strongly believe, offer a critique of the current political crisis that would be indispensable to anyone concerned with checking the abuse of power by the Bush Administration. For Strauss's writing not only points out where the Left went wrong, but rips away the foundation upon which the Republican Party has constructed its new model American government, one which is now approaching Strauss' definition of tyranny: an illegitimate ruler, like Xenophon's Hiero, who rules by fiat and not in accordance with the laws. A still greater lesson to be learned from the problem of Leo Strauss is that philosophy is always damaged when it is used as an instrument for any end. As Strauss both teaches and exemplifies, philosophers cease to be philosophers when they enter the compromised space inhabited by the rest of us, the citizens who are not wise and must begin, as Strauss does, by understanding the establishment of universal freedom for all of mankind as a problem without a solution.

  Back to Essays page.