Friends of Leo

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftOctober 6, 2014

Leo Strauss: Man of Peace by Robert Howse

“Both of us thought you were an idiot, Sherlock. We had nothing else to go on. Until we met other children.”
“Oh yes. That was a mistake.”
“Ghastly. What were they thinking?”
“Probably something about trying to make friends.”
“Oh yes. Friends! Of course, you go in for that sort of thing, now.”
“And you don’t — ever?”
“If you seem slow to me, Sherlock, can you imagine what real people are like? I’m living in a world of goldfish.”

— Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes in dialogue,
Sherlock, Season 3, Episode 1, “The Empty Hearse”

THIS BIT OF DIALOGUE between Sherlock Holmes and his older (and, we are told, even smarter) brother Mycroft may seem like a strange place to begin a discussion of the German Jewish historian of political philosophy Leo Strauss (1899–1973). It may be an even stranger place to begin a discussion of Robert Howse’s bold and admirable new study, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, which examines Strauss’s views on war, peace, and the place of philosophy in political life, and seeks to rehabilitate Strauss, whose name has been, in the recent past, dragged through the mud by critics of diverse ideological orientations. But this exchange between the brothers Holmes takes us directly into one of the major thematic issues in Strauss’s work: the distance between philosophers and what Mycroft calls “real people.” The business of making friends turns up as an essential problematic — what kinds of friends can such wünderkinder, their worldviews founded on exceptionally high self-regard, have at all? Not for nothing did the philosopher Robert Pippin once suggest that if Straussianism were a religion, it would find an iconic “crucifixion moment” in the image of Socrates drinking the hemlock.[1] For Strauss, Socrates’ trial and execution in Athens served as a symbol for the struggles of philosophers to preserve both themselves and philosophy while trying to live alongside non-philosophers and, in indirect ways, to serve the political community at large.

The problem was not about friendship per se (though philosophical friendship was important to Strauss) but rather lay in the relationship between philosophy and a surprisingly fragile public political life, which always seems to hear philosophical questions as threats to habitual, if unquestioned, ways of living. At many phases of his career Strauss understood political philosophy not as the study of how philosophy guides politics, but as an effort to mediate the fraught relationship between skeptical philosophical inquiry and everyday life.

Strauss came of scholarly age in the turbulent weather of the Weimar Republic, escaped Europe like so many German and German Jewish thinkers, and established himself in the American academy. He did so most famously at the University of Chicago, but first at the New School for Social Research, called “the University in Exile” by many observers during the 1930s and 1940s because of the sheer number of scholarly European refugees who had found safe harbor in its lower Manhattan offices. Some scholars have argued that Strauss projected his own experience of vulnerability and danger onto the grand tradition of political philosophy, leaving an image of philosophers constantly worrying about the possibility of angry mobs. For Strauss, the skeptical power of philosophical inquiry tended to undermine the legitimacy of the social institutions “real people” need to live by. While Strauss acknowledged that philosophy began with the ordinary language used in the public spaces of the city, in his view this language only expressed opinion. The work of philosophy was to move capable minds from opinion to truth, from the public language of the polis to a more elevated, more private, form of speech. And philosophers had — as Howse notes — a responsibility to concern themselves with the peace and stability of their political communities, not least in order to preserve their freedom to philosophize.

Strauss looked within ancient texts to find solutions to the philosophical and political challenges of modernity. As Leora Batnitzky aptly puts it, Strauss “[read] the history of modern philosophy as beginning with the elevation of all knowledge to science, or theory, and as concluding with the devaluation of all knowledge to history, or practice.”[2] But he had written his doctoral dissertation not on ancients but on a modern — on F. H. Jacobi’s theory of knowledge — and over his career he produced books and essays and lectures on a wide range of figures: on Xenophon, on Thucydides, on the medieval Jewish doctor-philosopher Maimonides, on Spinoza, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche. Strauss reached his preference for pre-modern thought through a never-ceasing engagement with moderns.

Strauss’s best-known contributions are “esoteric writing” and an attack on modern theories of natural right. The former is the idea that, over the generations, political philosophers have presented their most potentially dangerous and subversive ideas in a coded fashion so that they appear only to perspicacious readers, while general readers catch only a more superficial level of exoteric thought. The latter, Strauss’s attack on modern natural right, argued that the rights discourse of modern liberalism is ultimately conventionalist. Modern liberal natural rights–talk does not reach down to any bedrock of nature on which we might ground collective social or political practices; however, while Strauss attacked modern natural right, he never suggested that we can ultimately return to some pre-modern version of natural right, nor did he advocate using some version of “untouched human nature” as a compass for social or political life.

Strauss’s books are usually commentaries on other texts rather than systematic arguments — they can be extraordinarily difficult to unpack. Furthermore, and frustratingly, to write on Strauss today is also to navigate the labyrinth of his incredibly politicized reception. The man who led the life of a scholar and never sought political influence has been repeatedly (and posthumously) identified as the origin point of a neoconservative conspiracy that led the United States into the disastrous military entanglements of the first decades of the 21st century. Over the past dozen years commentators both journalistic and scholarly have noted that many members of George W. Bush’s staff had enjoyed some exposure to Strauss’s thought — or to Strauss himself — during their student years.[3] During a period in American academic life shadowed by 9/11, when many eyes were on “political theology,” on the critique of secularism and on the political function of religion, Strauss’s work found new readers (including this reviewer). And his image suddenly became — to use a term Strauss would surely have mistrusted — that of a “public intellectual,” who craved not only political theory but also political action. Responding to insinuations about Strauss’s intentions, his daughter Jenny Strauss Clay complained that her father was being portrayed

as the mastermind behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy. He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a “cabal” (a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite.[4]

Surely Strauss’s very emphasis on privacy, both in his own life and in his works on the relationship between philosophers and society, adds to the drama. It is hard to imagine better fuel for conspiracy theory than a reclusive professor of classical political thought whose students orchestrate the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drawing from plans Strauss first drafted in his Hyde Park office. Conspiracy theory, however, makes bad intellectual history, and we are left with the question: how will we read Strauss after his adversaries and defenders have concluded their “Strauss wars,” assuming we continue to find value in his work at all?

Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is an effort to rehabilitate Strauss without supporting those whom he terms the “Straussians.” Howse both defends Strauss against his caricature as a “cult figure of the right,” and argues that Strauss favored peace (while acknowledging that violent force is sometimes necessary) rather than bellicosity, as some Strauss detractors have claimed. Howse wrote his book with the benefit of hundreds of Strauss’s recorded lectures, placed online by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. The availability of these lectures does much to increase the transparency of Strauss’s literary estate, particularly after so much opprobrium has been heaped on his name, and Howse is quite right to say that “The release of the recordings […] reflect[s] the shock therapy of the Iraq accusations on the Straussian cult.”[5] But beyond Howse’s meditations on Strauss, war, and peace, this thoughtful, inventive, and well-argued — if, as I will explain, sometimes uneven — book also makes an important contribution by inquiring into Strauss’s views on philosophers and political life. Howse frames this in the following terms: “What can we, as scholars and as citizens, learn from the dramatic encounter between philosophy and political violence in Strauss’s own thought?”

While Howse emphasizes violence, for Strauss the problem of how philosophers understand “political violence” — of how they guard against it both for their own good and for the benefit of their political communities — was effectively a sub-question beneath the larger question of the relationship between philosophy and politics, or philosophy and action in the world more broadly: how do philosophers relate to their non-philosophical neighbors? Strauss articulated his doubts about philosophers directly participating in governance — during a famous exchange with his friend, the great Hegel interpreter Alexandre Kojève — to which Howse attends with skill and care. Howse notes that the controversy between them really involved not only philosophy’s action-potential but also its fundamental meaning, which for Kojève was revealed by history’s unfolding. But doubts about the mixture of philosophy and politics had turned up early in Strauss’s career, roughly at the same time two of his illiberal influences — the jurist Carl Schmitt and the philosopher Martin Heidegger — joined the Nazi Party.

Howse’s “man of peace” discussion involves two central, intertwined claims: first, that Strauss was not a foe of liberalism, constitutionalism, or democracy, as he is commonly taken to be. Howse’s Strauss looks beyond the limiting polarization of liberalism and anti-liberalism, is willing to support constitutional democracy (just as the historical Strauss was, of course, happy to live within the constitutional democracy of the United States), and asks how philosophers might contribute to constitutional thought. Howse’s book thus demands to be read next to Steven Smith’s 2006 Reading Leo Strauss: Philosophy, Politics, Judaism, which presented Strauss as the best friend liberal political thought ever had, working not to attack liberalism but to shore up any weaknesses within liberal thought.[6]

Howse’s other claim is biographical: he argues that we should see Strauss’s development in terms of t’shuvah (Hebrew for “repentance”) performed for the youthful sin of illiberal and nihilistic thinking: he calls this “Strauss’s self-overcoming of anti-liberalism,” a form of surrogate repentance not through religious piety but by philosophical means. Strauss came to recognize, Howse argues, that his early attraction to the thought of Schmitt and Heidegger had been a youthful error, and all his subsequent projects must be understood as a slow arc of reorientation. Strauss’s persistent contemplation of non-liberal positions throughout his career — up to and including his study of Machiavelli, of which Howse is a very sensitive reader — was never an endorsement of those positions. It was driven by a need to tarry with the negative, to take critical distance from it, and then assume more moderate political and philosophical stances. For Howse’s Strauss, pre-modern political thought was not a source of authority but rather of “critical distance toward the present.”

Howse’s choice of the term t’shuvah is more than suggestive. It is an argument in and of itself. Howse must be well aware of its significance for Strauss’s generation of German Jews, many of them rebels against prior generations’ political and cultural efforts to assimilate into mainstream German life. Many younger scholars, including Strauss, objected to the “synthesis” some of their elders had proposed between Judaism and German Idealist philosophy, a synthesis that they took to betray Judaism’s uniqueness. One especially prominent rebel against this synthesis was Strauss’s friend Franz Rosenzweig, who almost converted to Christianity and thereafter (on his own path of t’shuvah) committed himself to the revival of Jewish thought and life. Strauss, in his works of the 1920s (works that Howse mostly passes by, preferring to examine Strauss’s mature period at Chicago), attacked both the methods and the conclusions of the synthesis, claiming that it denatured Judaism and stripped it of the power of revealed religion — the power to set a law beyond convention, beyond human power to amend or challenge.

But Leo Strauss, raised in an Orthodox household, at one point a member of a Zionist youth group, keenly interested in the question of the nature of Judaism, scornful of the idea of a German Jewish synthesis, was no baal t’shuvah in the term’s conventional meaning of a “returnee to Judaism” from apostasy. Insisting on his own atheism, at one point he stated the hope that his soul would “die the death of philosophers” (i.e., meaning that he cleaved to the view, often associated with Epicureanism, that the soul would disperse at death). Howse does not emphasize this version of Strauss; he prefers attending to a letter Strauss sent late in life to his friend, the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, in which he spoke of how God (“The Boss”) might regard his life once it was over. Howse’s choice of emphasis implies that Strauss pursued t’shuvah in a religious as well as a figurative sense — but in my view such an implication requires far greater evidence. Nor does Howse fully explain his claim that for Strauss “the pattern of transgression and return [is] part of the permanent moral phenomenology of humanity, and it is in this light that he views and transforms through philosophy the specifically Jewish concept of t’shuvah.”[7] This is a fascinating thought, one that resonates with other works that consider Strauss’s thoughts on heresy and sin, such as Benjamin Lazier’s God Interrupted; it deserves greater establishment and elaboration.

If Howse’s t’shuvah argument courts controversy, so do his claims about Strauss’s relationship with liberalism. Here Howse’s opposition to Heinrich Meier’s very influential readings of Strauss is notable. In Meier’s account, Strauss took on board Carl Schmitt’s belief that “the political” (something different, and more foundational, than everyday procedural politics) is contingent on “the possibility of existential conflict to the death between enemy nations.”[8] In other words the political community only exists if it is under threat and capable of threatening others, if the friend/enemy distinction is visible to all, and if there is the possibility of suspending the rule of law in the interests of the survival of the state — what Schmitt called the “state of exception.” For Howse, Strauss’s repudiation of Schmitt’s views resulted in his 1932 “Notes on The Concept of the Political” and then the long arc of t’shuvah after that, while Strauss’s repeated returns to the standpoints of premodern thought were not anti-liberal but rather efforts to transcend the modern dispute over liberalism’s legitimacy.[9] Howse’s Strauss correctly saw that beneath Schmitt’s various concepts — “political theology,” the “state of exception, and so forth — lay a fundamental nihilism with regard to values and a desire for a new mode of comportment toward concrete lived experience. Schmitt thought that the political theory of liberal jurists was itself groundless, based on mere decision and convention. To push this thesis further, Howse must oppose all those Strauss critics who view Strauss as clinging — either esoterically or exoterically — to some version of nihilism, identified either with Nietzsche or with Schmitt. Relatedly, Howse struggles to exonerate Strauss for what many interpreters consider a very damning letter to Karl Löwith, written in the early 1930s, in which Strauss seemed to praise fascism — a praise usually tied, by critics, to Strauss’s putative nihilism.

Notably, the t’shuvah motif is troubled in another way: if we accept Howse’s claim that Strauss sought to repent for his youthful Schmittian sympathies, we might conclude that Strauss never left the ambit of Schmitt’s political theology at all, merely changing his mind about the content and meaning of political theology.[10] Howse’s reluctance to directly take up Strauss’s political-theological writings, while perhaps an effort to shift the conversation away from Meier, makes it harder for him to tell a convincing story about the precise nature of Strauss’s repentance — assuming he attempted such a political and theological trajectory of return.

Howse is not a historian, and while this book flirts with intellectual history through its t’shuvah thesis, its strongest moments are Howse’s close readings of Strauss on various authors linked with the problems of war, political violence, and international law: Xenophon, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Grotius. That Howse skips much in the process is inevitable, and easy to forgive, but some of what he skips, or touches only lightly, produces difficulties: Strauss’s development of the “esoteric writing” thesis itself, Strauss’s substantial engagements with medieval thought both Jewish and Islamic, Strauss’s relationship with Heideggerian existentialism (the short version: first excessive praise, then damnation), and Strauss’s critical engagement with modernity. Readers already initiated into the world of Strauss can connect the dots between these elements of Strauss’s work and Howse’s discussion of war and peace, but “outsiders” will miss much. Admittedly one can read Strauss on constitutional law and political violence without lingering with his other works — but since Howse never argues that Strauss is our best thinker on political violence, the reason to read Strauss this way seems to be largely internal, located within the “Strauss wars” themselves: Howse seeks to rehabilitate Strauss and free him from his undeserved reputation for bellicosity. Howse insists that the time has come for a scholarly engagement with Strauss outside of the influence of “Straussianism,” and, of course, thus outside the influence of Strauss’s critics as well — and this reader heartily agrees. The question, however, is what we then do with the elements that helped establish a cultic aura around Strauss’s name, especially the “public secret” of esotericism and the idea of a fundamental difference between philosophers and other people. These are the ideas that gave us “friends” and “enemies” of Leo in the first place.

But any effort to make Strauss a friend to liberalism rather than an enemy must deal with his attitude toward that central element of liberal political culture, publicness. Howse does not linger over Strauss’s prominent views on public writing and speech at all, an omission that takes on the appearance of an evasion, if perhaps an unintentional one. Howse states that he does not believe that Strauss himself maintained an esoteric doctrine that he shared only with chosen disciples, but this is scarcely the only way to read Strauss’s “esoteric writing” thesis, which Strauss never presented as a prescription but rather as a historical analysis. Howse’s effective bracketing of the question of the public leaves a question: are we to understand (Howse’s) Strauss as a friend to constitutionalism, but one who hopes philosophers will consult on political matters only in some nonpublic capacity? Without addressing Strauss on the public, it seems impossible to defuse the fundamental problem of trust that continues to dog his reception and make him seem in need of rehabilitation.

Interestingly, at two points Howse mentions Strauss’s fellow émigré and fellow Heidegger student Hannah Arendt, coming close to comparing their views but not quite doing so. To bring their works together would be quite natural: not only were they acquainted, but in the canon of 20th-century political thought they serve as opposites: Strauss often appears as an avatar of privacy, Arendt of publicness, embracing the polis and its language of politics even if she admitted that this language was one of opinion rather than of truth. What often goes unmentioned in discussions of Arendt and Strauss is that they agreed, by and large, that philosophers lived partly outside the world of other people. Arendt often sided with public politics, Strauss with philosophy, but both acknowledged philosophy’s basic lack of a home in the world of mortal politics. It is this element of Strauss’s thought that most troubles Howse’s claims: Howse presents the Straussian philosopher as a friend to governance, potentially a contributor to legal debates, but this presentation is only feasible if we omit Strauss’s considerable emphasis on the privacy of philosophers and their basic otherworldliness. When the (arguably Schmittian) element of Strauss’s mature thought drops out — when we lose the sense that philosophy is a dangerous lifestyle choice and understanding friends are hard to find — we lose the motivation for the esoteric writing thesis itself. As Frank Kermode once suggested, such secrets provide the basic premise for all our hermeneutic and interpretative activities. It is not clear how literary or philosophical texts can function without them.[11]

But if Howse’s book still remains caught up in the “Strauss wars,” his inquiry nevertheless leads to a question that flees the battlefield, a question that seeks less bellicose and more hermeneutic rewards: what is philosophy, for Strauss, that it compels its practitioners to choose their friends wisely? And might reading Strauss help us to understand the static, the confusion, the translational glitches that occur when we transmit philosophical ideas in the public sphere?


[1] Robert Pippin, “The Modern World of Leo Strauss,” Political Theory V. 20 N 3, August 1992 448-472.

[2] Leora Batnitzky, “Leo Strauss,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at: posted December 1, 2010.

[3] For a brief sketch of the journalistic attacks on Strauss’s name, see Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “Within Sight of Syracuse,” in The Minnesota Review, Spring 2007. I am currently developing a more substantial essay on the related topic of Straussian conspiracy theories.

[4] Jenny Clay Strauss, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, June 7, 2003.

[5] Howse 20. See for audio and transcripts (transcripts still pending as of August 2014, when this review was written).

[6] Steven Smith Reading Leo Strauss: Philosophy, Politics, Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[7] Howse 28.

[8] Ibid. 41.

[9] Ibid. 39.

[10] Many thanks to Martin Woessner for helping me to understand this dimension of Howse’s t’shuvah thesis.

[11] Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles, and currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he writes about cultured meat and the futures of food.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


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