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The secret that Leo Strauss never revealed

No sillier allegation has found its way into mass-circulation newspapers than the notion that a conspiracy of Leo Strauss acolytes has infiltrated the Bush administration. Supposedly Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, a Strauss doctoral student, and other lesser-known officials form a neo-conservative cabal practicing some sort of political black arts.

If anything, the Straussians are dangerous not because they are Machiavellian but because they are naive.

First of all, there is no Straussian conspiracy, for the simple reason that no two Straussians agree about what Leo Strauss (1899-1973) really meant to say during his 37 years of teaching in the United States. Anyone who does not believe this should listen to today's Straussians searching for hidden meanings in his works by reference to numerology, comparative word counts, and other far-fetched devices. At the conclusion of this essay I will reveal the secret of the Tower of Straussian Babel.

Secondly, there is nothing the least sinister about Strauss himself, who spent his life attempting to square the circle of reconciling traditional values with the modern world.

Third, and most important, the questions that preoccupied Strauss have no relevance whatever to the problem which American foreign policy now proposes to address, namely, how to respond to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who want no part of the modern world. Hitler and Stalin, the spawn of modernist despair, were Strauss's life-long concerns. How to prevent democracies from sinking into debilitation and becoming the prey of tyrants was the subject of his political philosophy. He spoke to an academic audience that dismissed religion as a discredited superstition, not to a world of enraged believers.

Strauss was a German-Jewish theologian who lost his faith, and came under the spell of the modernists' critique of tradition. On the one hand, he agreed with the critics of Christian civilization from Machiavelli through Heidegger. On the other, he perceived that the end of the old order of things led only to Nihilism and destruction. Nietzsche and Heidegger refuted the absolutes of right and wrong as taught by revealed religion, insisting that men invented their own values as circumstances permitted. The Nazis idolized Nietzsche; Heidegger himself embraced National Socialism. That left Strauss in a profoundly uncomfortable position intellectually, given his fascination with Heidegger, as well as personally, as he had to flee Nazi Germany.

Caught between the collapse of tradition and the pyromania of the modernists, Strauss took the well-trodden path back to ancient Athens, that is, to the political philosophy of Socrates. Westerners who reject religion have been doing that since the Renaissance. Strauss, the theologian who began his career writing glosses on Jewish authorities, restyled himself as a classicist, with a fantastic twist. As he wrote to Karl Lowith in 1946: "I really believe, although to you this apparently appears fantastic, that the perfect political order, as Plato and Aristotle have sketched it, is the perfect political order. I know very well that today it cannot be restored." What that means, we shall see below.

By all accounts Strauss was a persuasive exegete of classical texts and an inspiring teacher. On American shores, to be sure, he was playing to an easy crowd. "Young Americans seemed, in comparison [to Europeans], to be natural savages when they came to the university. They had hardly heard the names of the writers who were the daily fare of their counterparts across the Atlantic, let alone took it into their heads that they could have a relationship to them," wrote the late Allan Bloom, Strauss's best-known student. Eager young Americans were easily impressed by the erudite German.

Much is made by left-wing critics of Strauss's "esotericism", his search for hidden meanings in classic texts. His students bear some of the blame for this, given their scavenger hunts for hidden messages in their teacher's own opus. Some commentators go as far as to allege that Strauss used esoteric exegesis to teach his students the art of political deception. That is silly. What author in what century was free to express himself with unconditional freedom? Heinrich Heine commented that Hegel wrote confusing prose because he did not want to reveal himself as an atheist. Strauss, for example, attempted to show that Machiavelli was an atheist who wished to overturn existing mores, and cloaked himself in commentary upon Roman authors. To whom is this is a surprise? Machiavelli was accused of this for centuries. All the Renaissance humanists were freethinkers of one sort or another. Why does anyone think that there was a Counter-Reformation?

Americans want happy endings, and the enterprising Leo Strauss provided them with this one: Reason as taught by the Athenian political philosophers can provide solutions to modern problems of statecraft. His student Harry Jaffa spent a lifetime portraying the Founding Fathers of the United States as well as Abraham Lincoln as master logicians. To Jaffa, Lincoln was "the greatest of all exemplars of Socratic statesmanship". "Never since Socrates has philosophy so certainly descended from the heavens into the affairs of mortal men."

And yet there is the nagging problem of Heidegger, who rejected all tellers of absolute truth and Socrates most vehemently. As an impressionable young man, Strauss fell under Heidegger's influence and never quite shook it. Considering Heidegger's grandiose reputation, it is depressing to consider how cheap was the trick he played. What is Being?, he demanded of a generation that after the First World War felt the ground shaky under their feet. It is a shame that Eddie Murphy never studied philosophy, for then we might have had the following Saturday Night Live sketch about Heidegger's definition of Being with respect to Non-Being, namely death. The use of dialect would make Heidegger's meaning far clearer than in the available English translations:

"What be 'Be'? You cain't say that 'Be' be, cause you saying 'be' to talk about 'Be', and it don't mean nothing to say that 'Be' be dis or 'Be' be dat. 'Be' be 'Be' to begin wit'. So don't you be saying 'Be' be 'Be'. You wanna talk about 'Be', you gotta talk about what ain't be nothin' at all. You gotta say 'Be' be what ain't 'ain't-Be'. Now when you ain't be nothing at all? Dat be when you be daid. When you daid you ain't be nothing, you just be daid. So 'Be' be somewhere between where you be and where you ain't be, dat is, when you be daid. Any time you say 'Be' you is also saying 'ain't-Be', and dat make you think about being daid."

That is all there is to Heidegger's Existential idea of Being-towards-death. Metaphysical pettifogging of this sort appeals to people whom the disintegration of social order has made uncertain about their sense of being. The enunciation of the concept "Being" dredges up the problem of mortality, Heidegger continued. Men confront their mortality under particular circumstances, in what came to be called "radical historicism", that is, the complete absence of absolute truths. What remains is subjective Existential choice. Heidegger's was to join the Nazis.

That left Strauss in the prickly position of preaching the absolute truth of Socratic philosophy while giving credence to Nietzsche and Heidegger, who rejected all absolutes and Socrates more than anyone. The Straussians come out on every side of this question, leading to the charge that Strauss secretly taught a cynical, value-free theory of power to his inner sanctum of acolytes. No such thing is the case. Strauss is neither a Heideggerian Historicist nor a Greek rationalist, but exactly the opposite. He was confused, but confused in a very special way. He was a confused Jew.

That is the secret that Strauss never revealed to any of his students (how many teachers admit to confusion?). A Jewish atheist, an old joke goes, tells God: "Look at all the terrible things you have permitted to happen! Just for that, I refuse to believe in you - so there!" To advance a solution to mankind's problems (in this case Socratic political philosophy) in the full knowledge that it cannot possibly succeed is a peculiarly Jewish gesture, a perversely stubborn statement of faith in the face of all the known facts.

Despite his atheism, Strauss remained occupied with Jewish issues throughout his life. He is buried in the cemetery of the Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Annapolis, Maryland. What characterizes Strauss's diverse group of followers is not a penchant for conspiracy, but a kind of optimism, a faith, if you will, that statecraft can improve the human condition. What will happen to his legacy? Demography soon will solve Europe's Existential crisis, as the Europeans die out. The issues that occupied Strauss are dying out with them. He left his students no tools to apply to a world of civilizational and religious war. It was not the philosophers, but the theologians who sorted out Europe in the religious wars of the 17th century. If Washington really is in the hands of the Straussians, the United States is flying blind.

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May 13, 2003


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