Academic journal article Humanitas

Leo Strauss and History: The Philosopher as Conspirator

Academic journal article Humanitas

Leo Strauss and History: The Philosopher as Conspirator

Article excerpt

Those wishing to understand political and intellectual developments in today's America do well to familiarize themselves with the German-American political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who was a professor at the University of Chicago. Strauss's influence extends far beyond academia, where it has been a major force for a generation. The primary reason why an attempt should be made to understand what Strauss is about is not the intrinsic philosophical importance of his work but that his ideas are influential and provide important insight into the intellectual posture of an increasingly powerful interest in American society. Philosophical figures of the second or third rank sometimes enjoy a time in the sun for transitory historical reasons. They may, for example, serve well the needs of an emerging leadership class. Though not without philosophical interest, Strauss's work merits special attention in today's historical circumstances because of the impact it has had and because of the way in which it expresses and advances extra-philosophical motives.

Strauss's thinking seems in important respects tailor-made for a rising elite that wants, on the one hand, to justify its own claim to power and, on the other, to discredit an older elite that it is trying to replace. This article will examine how Strauss's work helps justify a "regime" change, in the intellectual life especially but also in politics and the general culture. This partisan aspect of his thinking is hidden in part behind a concern for the integrity and survival of "philosophy." The latter turns out to be by definition opposed to "convention," that is, to the traditions that prop up an existing elite. Philosophy is threatened by what Strauss calls "historicism," which is, among other things, an inclination to treat history respectfully. It is worthy of special note that Strauss's concern for philosophy and his apparent defense of natural right has made it possible for him to attract a following even among intellectuals who consider themselves traditionalists and who have much to lose by his gaining influence. Unsuspectingly, they have adopted Straussian intellectual habits that undermine their own professed beliefs and advance the rather different ethos of a new elite.

By calling attention to the aspect of Strauss's thought that appeals to the new pretenders to power, this article is not denying that sometimes more philosophical motives help Strauss transcend the partisanship in question. His work is also broader than may appear from the following examination of a particular dimension of his thought.

The Undermining of Traditional Elites

Strauss's own elitism accounts for some of the more conservative-looking elements of his thought; he appears to be arguing for an intellectual and moral aristocracy, an elite far above the hoi polloi. His interest in Plato and other Greek figures seems to accord with the classicist emphasis of a traditional Western education, but his classicism and elitism have a special twist that militates in important ways against ideas central to Western civilization. At the same time that Strauss's elitism boosts the self-confidence of an aspiring new elite, it delegitimizes religious, moral, intellectual and cultural traditions distinctive to the old Western world that support the slowly abdicating older elite. Karl Marx is an example of an earlier thinker who sought to justify the overturning of one leadership class and the installing of another, but his ideas appealed primarily to people who felt themselves to be on the outside of their society's ruling circles and were resentfully looking in. To them, it seemed that their interest could be advanced only through the complete destruction of the existing society. Leon Trotsky's notion of the global revolution envisioned the worldwide dethronement of traditional elites. Strauss appeals most to individuals who think of themselves as being to some extent already on the inside and as poised to take over from the resigning elite. …

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