The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy
reviewed by Michael P. Foley
Leo Strauss is not a household name among Christians, nor is it likely to be anytime soon. A professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago who died in 1973, Strauss was a quiet and agnostic German Jewish émigré who was not well known during his lifetime or shortly thereafter.
This changed somewhat in 2003 due to a rash of much-publicized and, as it turns out, spurious claims that Strauss was the “godfather” of neoconservatism and the posthumous mastermind behind the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but this flash of pseudo-notoriety did little to advance his position with the theologically minded. If anything, his work is now saddled with the double disadvantage of obscurity and suspicion.
This is a pity, for while by no means a believer, Strauss shared one crucial goal with the great Christian writers of the twentieth-century such as Chesterton and Lewis: to understand what he called the “crisis of our times” and to seek an intelligent alternative. With that end in mind, for example, Strauss was one of the first scholars of our age to defend biblical religion on rational grounds from the attacks of the Enlightenment. With enemies like this, who needs friends?
Fortunately, a number of articles and books about Strauss—written mostly by former students rallying to his defense in the wake of the 2003 attacks—have begun to make his thought more widely accessible. Among these generally cogent apologias, it would be difficult to find one more painstakingly even-handed and informative than Michael and Catherine Zuckert’s The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy.
Meaning Blotted Out
In Part I, the Zuckerts, both Nancy R. Dreux Professors of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, explicate Strauss’s ambitious and multiform project. Strauss above all aimed to resuscitate classical political philosophy as a way of understanding and remedying our current malaise.
It became obvious after World War I that Western man had lost faith in the tenets of his own civilization, that the entire horizon of meaning in Western culture, as Nietzsche had put it, had been blotted out with a sponge. As Strauss saw it, this collapse primarily had to do with the philosophical principles animating contemporary Western thought.
He thus set out to uncover the nature of these principles and the cause of their implosion. His research led to three cardinal insights: that the secret of the West’s intellectual vitality lies in an irresolvable yet fruitful tension between “Athens and Jerusalem,” between philosophical reason on the one hand and divine revelation on the other; that this vitality was undercut by Niccolo Machiavelli’s creation of modern philosophy, which is as opposed to the classical rationalism of Socrates as it is to the biblical faith of Abraham and Jesus; and that modern philosophy metamorphosed into three increasingly ominous “waves,” the last of which, begun by Nietzsche, now goes by the general name of postmodernity.
The Zuckerts unfold all of this lucidly, as well as the fresh perspective that Strauss brings to bear upon classical, or Socratic, philosophy. But the more central focus of their study is Strauss’s complicated attitude towards America, which can be summarized in a single tension-ridden syllogism: (1) America is modern; (2) modernity is bad; (3) therefore, America is good.
Strauss locates the American Founding within the Enlightenment, the most aggressive face of the “first wave” of modern philosophy, and he suggests that the Enlightenment, all told, has been a failure, both because of its own intrinsic deficiencies and because it is vulnerable to the later critiques of modern philosophy’s “second wave” (Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and so forth).
Yet he also acknowledges much that is good in America, for the country is partially constituted by healthy classical or Aristotelian principles, such as the rule of law. Moreover, he sees in American life several pre-modern “residues” that are “favorable to its moral and political health,” chief among them religion.
America was, after all, settled by peoples of faith who were able to be both robustly religious and politically democratic. On the other hand, he is not optimistic about religion’s long-term prospects in a modern secular state, which privatizes and relativizes religious conviction, thus trivializing and weakening it.
The Straussian Map
Strauss’s three propositions about America also form the backdrop against which the Zuckerts evaluate what they call “Straussian geography,” the subject of Part II. As it turns out, the three main schools of thought among Strauss’s students—“East Coast,” “West Coast,” and “Midwest”—are distinguished by their under-emphasis of one of these statements.
East Coast Straussians (such as Allan Bloom) downplay America’s goodness; West Coast Straussians (such as Harry Jaffa) downplay America’s modernity; and Midwest Straussians (such as Martin Diamond) downplay modernity’s badness. The Zuckerts themselves are Midwest Straussians, though this does not prevent them from offering a fair-minded assessment of all three camps. Indeed, one of the most conspicuous features of the Zuckerts’ writing is their moderation, both in their style and in their conclusions.
One species of Strauss-inspired scholar that does not appear in this cartography, however, is that of the religious believer. The authors originally proposed a section entitled “Faith-Based Straussians,” but for reasons of space it was never written.
While such a concern is understandable (the book is already a meaty 320 pages), it has unfortunately deprived us of more information on the Jerusalem side of the Athens-Jerusalem equation so crucial to Strauss’s thinking. And it would have been instructive to hear how believing scholars like Ernest Fortin or Pierre Manent (to name two of Strauss’s more important Christian students) have wrestled with Strauss’s thought in this area.
Perhaps, however, this lacuna is fortuitous, for it leaves the religious reader to wrestle with Strauss on his own, like Jacob with the inscrutable angel. Strauss’s analysis of modernity, for example, provides a helpful roadmap from which Christians can benefit, both as a tool for understanding the times and as a mirror for discerning the degree to which they themselves may have unwittingly imbibed modern thought.
And while Strauss’s claims about the possible irreconcilability between Athens and Jerusalem, or reason and faith, are likely to provoke disagreement, they nevertheless serve as a useful starting point for further reflection.
A Crisis Diagnosed
The Truth About Leo Strauss was written in response to the 2003 tarring of Strauss’s legacy, but it will far outlast the controversy that begot it. This valuable and serious guide to Strauss’s thought, relevance, and impact should be read by all who wish to deepen their understanding of the intellectual crisis of the West and the estimable twentieth-century scholar who devoted his life to its diagnosis.
Needless to say, that category of readers includes mere Christians who recognize the need to understand, accurately and precisely, the genealogy of the peculiarities of our age.
Michael P. Foley currently teaches in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
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“Helpful Agnostic” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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