Analyzing the Work of an Influential Philosopher

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 17, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Analyzing the Work of an Influential Philosopher


A specter is haunting North America the specter of Leo Strauss. His name is encountered

everywhere these days from the New York Times and National Public Radio to Wikipedia entries and the blogosphere. Many of these pieces have suggested that Strauss' work has directly affected United States foreign policy through the influence of neoconservatives connected with the Bush administration.

But, according to Yale professor Steven Smith, Strauss' fundamental priority was not so much the fostering of a particular political movement, but the understanding of the fate of Western rationalism under modern conditions.

Who was Leo Strauss and why is there so much heat and confusion about his work?

Born into a German Jewish family in 1899, Strauss was educated before and after World War I, taking his doctorate in 1921. He fled Germany in the 1930s, first for England and then the United States.

He taught for 10 years at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and then moved to the University of Chicago where for the next two decades his teaching and writing established a quiet revolution in the study of political philosophy. He died an emeritus professor at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. in 1973.

Strauss was above all a reader of old books, ranging from his beloved Greeks such as Thucydides, Plato and Aristophanes, to the Judeo-Arabic writers of the Middle Ages, to early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza. In his seminars at the University of Chicago he would typically devote a whole semester to a close reading of a single text, say a Platonic dialogue.

As Mr. Smith observes, this approach to the study of classic texts which had become to some extent museum pieces in recent generations was itself a revolution in the way political philosophy was taught in mid-century America.

Moreover, Strauss' way of reading these philosophers was so subtle and nuanced that his thought cannot be reduced to a system, doctrine or an "ism." So innovative were his studies of these authors that they have led to a radical rethinking of the intellectual foundations of the modern West, and in so doing demonstrated the importance of continual self-examination within the liberal democratic tradition as it faces the challenges of the postmodern world.

In the proverbial distinction between the hedgehog and the fox, Strauss was a hedgehog whose expertise in topics philosophical, literary, political and historical appealed to a wide range of students from different beginning points and backgrounds. Thus one cannot speak of a legacy but rather of a number of competing legacies deriving from his lifework.

Yet if there is not one way to be a Straussian, Mr. Smith identifies a common set of problems which preoccupied the master and were handed down to his students. Three of the most important are the difference between the ancients and modern philosophers, the quarrel between philosophy and poetry and most importantly, the tension between reason and revelation.

The center of Strauss' thought can be located at or near the apparently irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation, a conflict which Strauss, following Spinoza, named the "theological-political problem" and which at one point he described as "the theme of my investigations."

Mr. Smith has previously written two books on Spinoza, so it is only natural that he should organize his book on Strauss around this problem. He entitles one section "Jerusalem," the focus of which is Strauss' writings about the Jewish tradition, and another section "Athens," which revolves around Strauss' reflections on the differences between ancient and modern rationalism.

According to Mr. Smith, the theological political problem represents for Strauss the core or beating heart of the Western tradition.

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