Leo Strauss  

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"Leo Strauss once suggested that if all laws are relative, then "cannibalism is a matter of taste." The whim of the individual, however passionately he himself feels about that whim, ..." --A Responsum on Questions of Conscience - Pagina 21, Samuel I. Korff, 1970, see cultural relativism

The Power of Nightmares cites Gunsmoke and Perry Mason as his favourite tv shows:

Voice over: Strauss believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom led people to question everything—all values, all moral truths. Instead, people were led by their own selfish desires. And this threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together. But there was a way to stop this, Strauss believed. It was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation. And in America, that was the idea that the country had a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil throughout the world. This myth was epitomized, Strauss told his students, in his favorite television program: Gunsmoke.

Professor STANLEY ROSEN, Pupil of Leo Strauss 1949: Strauss was a great fan of American television. Gunsmoke was his great favorite, and he would hurry home from the seminar, which would end at, you know, 5:30 or so, and have a quick dinner so he could be at his seat before the television set when Gunsmoke came on. And he felt that this was good, this show. This had a salutary effect on the American public, because it showed the conflict between good and evil in a way that would be immediately intelligible to everyone.

BAD MAN on Gunsmoke: Let’s see what happens!

JAMES ARNESS: No! [ SHOOTS bad man; bad man DROPS to the ground ]

ROSEN: The hero has a white hat; he’s faster on the draw than the bad man; the good guy wins. And it’s not just that the good guy wins, but that values are clear. That’s America! We’re gonna triumph over the evils of… of… that are trying to destroy us and the virtues of the Western frontier. Good and evil.

Voice over: Leo Strauss’ other favorite program was Perry Mason. And this, he told his students, epitomized the role that they, the élite, had to play. In public, they should promote the myths necessary to rescue America from decay. But in private, they didn’t have to believe in them.

ROSEN: Perry Mason was different from Gunsmoke. The extremely cunning man who, as far as we can see, is very virtuous and uses his great intelligence and quickness of mind to rescue his clients from dangers, but who could be fooling us—because he’s cleverer than we are. Is he really telling the truth? Maybe his client is guilty!

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Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973) was a German-American political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated from Germany to the United States. He spent much of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of students and published fifteen books.

Trained in the neo-Kantian tradition with Ernst Cassirer and immersed in the work of the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Strauss later focused his research on the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, retracing their interpretation through medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy and encouraging the application of those ideas to contemporary political theory.



"In Natural Right and History Strauss begins with a critique of Max Weber's epistemology, briefly engages the relativism of Martin Heidegger (who goes unnamed), and continues with a discussion of the evolution of natural rights via an analysis of the thought of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. He concludes by critiquing Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. At the heart of the book are excerpts from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Much of his philosophy is a reaction to the works of Heidegger. Indeed, Strauss wrote that Heidegger's thinking must be understood and confronted before any complete formulation of modern political theory is possible, and this entails that political thought has to engage with issues of ontology and the history of metaphysics.

Strauss wrote that Friedrich Nietzsche was the first philosopher to properly understand historicism, an idea grounded in a general acceptance of Hegelian philosophy of history. Heidegger, in Strauss' view, sanitized and politicized Nietzsche, whereas Nietzsche believed "our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as unconvincing and alien as all earlier principles (essences) had shown themselves to be" and "the only way out seems to be ... that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth". Heidegger believed that the tragic nihilism of Nietzsche was a "myth" guided by a defective Western conception of Being that Heidegger traced to Plato. In his published correspondence with Alexandre Kojève, Strauss wrote that Hegel was correct when he postulated that an end of history implies an end to philosophy as understood by classical political philosophy."--Sholem stein

On politics

According to Strauss, modern social science is flawed because it assumes the fact–value distinction, a concept which Strauss found dubious. He traced its roots in Enlightenment philosophy to Max Weber, a thinker whom Strauss described as a "serious and noble mind." Weber wanted to separate values from science but, according to Strauss, was really a derivative thinker, deeply influenced by Nietzsche's relativism. Strauss treated politics as something that could not be studied from afar. A political scientist examining politics with a value-free scientific eye, for Strauss, was self-deluded. Positivism, the heir to both Auguste Comte and Max Weber in the quest to make purportedly value-free judgments, failed to justify its own existence, which would require a value judgment.

While modern-era liberalism had stressed the pursuit of individual liberty as its highest goal, Strauss felt that there should be a greater interest in the problem of human excellence and political virtue. Through his writings, Strauss constantly raised the question of how, and to what extent, freedom and excellence can coexist. Strauss refused to make do with any simplistic or one-sided resolutions of the Socratic question: What is the good for the city and man?

Encounters with Carl Schmitt and Alexandre Kojève

Two significant political-philosophical dialogues Strauss had with living thinkers were those he held with Carl Schmitt and Alexandre Kojève. Schmitt, who would later become, for a short time, the chief jurist of Nazi Germany, was one of the first important German academics to review Strauss's early work positively. Schmitt's positive reference for, and approval of, Strauss's work on Hobbes was instrumental in winning Strauss the scholarship funding that allowed him to leave Germany.

Strauss's critique and clarifications of The Concept of the Political led Schmitt to make significant emendations in its second edition. Writing to Schmitt in 1932, Strauss summarised Schmitt's political theology that "because man is by nature evil, he, therefore, needs dominion. But dominion can be established, that is, men can be unified only in a unity against—against other men. Every association of men is necessarily a separation from other men ... the political thus understood is not the constitutive principle of the state, of order, but a condition of the state."

Strauss, however, directly opposed Schmitt's position. For Strauss, Schmitt and his return to Thomas Hobbes helpfully clarified the nature of our political existence and our modern self-understanding. Schmitt's position was therefore symptomatic of the modern-era liberal self-understanding. Strauss believed that such an analysis, as in Hobbes's time, served as a useful "preparatory action", revealing our contemporary orientation towards the eternal problems of politics (social existence). However, Strauss believed that Schmitt's reification of our modern self-understanding of the problem of politics into a political theology was not an adequate solution. Strauss instead advocated a return to a broader classical understanding of human nature and a tentative return to political philosophy, in the tradition of the ancient philosophers.

With Kojève, Strauss had a close and lifelong philosophical friendship. They had first met as students in Berlin. The two thinkers shared boundless philosophical respect for each other. Kojève would later write that, without befriending Strauss, "I never would have known ... what philosophy is".

The political-philosophical dispute between Kojève and Strauss centered on the role that philosophy should and can be allowed to play in politics.

Kojève, a senior civil servant in the French government, was instrumental in the creation of the European Economic Community. He argued that philosophers should have an active role in shaping political events. Strauss, on the contrary, believed that philosophers should play a role in politics only to the extent that they can ensure that philosophy, which he saw as mankind's highest activity, can be free from political intervention.

Liberalism and nihilism

Strauss taught that liberalism in its modern form (which is oriented toward universal freedom as opposed to "ancient liberalism" which is oriented toward human excellence), contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards extreme relativism, which in turn led to two types of nihilism:

The first was a "brutal" nihilism, expressed in Nazi and Bolshevik regimes. In On Tyranny, he wrote that these ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to destroy all traditions, history, ethics, and moral standards and replace them by force under which nature and mankind are subjugated and conquered. The second type—the "gentle" nihilism expressed in Western liberal democracies—was a kind of value-free aimlessness and a hedonistic "permissive egalitarianism", which he saw as permeating the fabric of contemporary American society.

In the belief that 20th-century relativism, scientism, historicism, and nihilism were all implicated in the deterioration of modern society and philosophy, Strauss sought to uncover the philosophical pathways that had led to this situation. The resultant study led him to advocate a tentative return to classical political philosophy as a starting point for judging political action.

Strauss's interpretation of Plato's Republic

According to Strauss, The Republic by Plato is not "a blueprint for regime reform" (a play on words from Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, which attacks The Republic for being just that). Strauss quotes Cicero: "The Republic does not bring to light the best possible regime but rather the nature of political things—the nature of the city."

Strauss argued that the city-in-speech was unnatural, precisely because "it is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros". Though skeptical of "progress", Strauss was equally skeptical about political agendas of "return"—that is, going backward instead of forward.

In fact, he was consistently suspicious of anything claiming to be a solution to an old political or philosophical problem. He spoke of the danger in trying finally to resolve the debate between rationalism and traditionalism in politics. In particular, along with many in the pre-World War II German Right, he feared people trying to force a world state to come into being in the future, thinking that it would inevitably become a tyranny. Hence he kept his distance from the two totalitarianisms that he denounced in his century, both fascists and communists.

Strauss and Karl Popper

Strauss actively rejected Karl Popper's views as illogical. He agreed with a letter of response to his request of Eric Voegelin to look into the issue. In the response, Voegelin wrote that studying Popper's views was a waste of precious time, and "an annoyance". Specifically about The Open Society and Its Enemies and Popper's understanding of Plato's The Republic, after giving some examples, Voegelin wrote:

Popper is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able to even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato. Reading is of no use to him; he is too lacking in knowledge to understand what the author says.

Strauss proceeded to show this letter to Kurt Riezler, who used his influence in order to oppose Popper's appointment at the University of Chicago.

Ancients and Moderns

Strauss constantly stressed the importance of two dichotomies in political philosophy, namely Athens and Jerusalem (reason and revelation) and Ancient versus Modern. The "Ancients" were the Socratic philosophers and their intellectual heirs; the "Moderns" start with Niccolò Machiavelli. The contrast between Ancients and Moderns was understood to be related to the unresolvable tension between Reason and Revelation. The Socratics, reacting to the first Greek philosophers, brought philosophy back to earth, and hence back to the marketplace, making it more political.

The Moderns reacted to the dominance of revelation in medieval society by promoting the possibilities of Reason. They objected to Aquinas's merger of natural right and natural theology, for it made natural right vulnerable to sideshow theological disputes. Thomas Hobbes, under the influence of Francis Bacon, re-oriented political thought to what was most solid but also most low in man—his physical hopes and fears—setting a precedent for John Locke and the later economic approach to political thought, as in David Hume and Adam Smith.

Strauss and Zionism

As a youth, Strauss belonged to the German Zionist youth group, along with his friends Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. Both were admirers of Strauss and would continue to be throughout their lives. When he was 17, as he said, he was "converted" to political Zionism as a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky. He wrote several essays about its controversies but left these activities behind by his early twenties.

While Strauss maintained a sympathetic interest in Zionism, he later came to refer to Zionism as "problematic" and became disillusioned with some of its aims.

He taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the 1954–55 academic year. In his letter to a National Review editor, Strauss asked why Israel had been called a racist state by one of their writers. He argued that the author did not provide enough proof for his argument. He ended his essay with the following statement:

Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of "progressive" leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.

See also

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