Strauss as Teacher

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a German-Jewish émigré who escaped Nazism on the advice of his teacher, (the Nazi) Martin Heidegger. Escaping through France and England to America, he is most closely associated with the University of Chicago and its Committee on Social Thought. His influence on the American study of politics has been profound, with many of the regular authors featured on these pages having studied with him or, more likely at this point, with his students. He has had less influence elsewhere, but there are pockets in France and Canada.

Is it finally time to take Leo Strauss seriously? I hope so. I would like to think that we are past Myles Burnyeat’s hit-piece from the 1980s, “Sphynx without a Secret,” and Seymour Hersh’s essays in the early 2000s that claimed the University of Chicago professor endorsed the promulgation of “noble lies” throughout the demos. But whole careers have been made on misreadings. If Strauss could be accused of being the father of neoconservativism, perhaps he can be stitched-up as the grandfather of Trumpism. If so, he will need an attorney as good as Perry Mason, of whom he was inordinately fond.

Catherine Zuckert has done us a great service in providing an edited transcript of several of his lectures in Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy: Responding to the Challenge of Positivism and Historicism. The Leo Strauss Center has the unedited transcripts available on their website and some of us have mimeographed versions from many decades ago. But having a version edited for clarity, that removes hesitations and the sorts of repetitions common in the spoken word, is more than convenient. Questions from students and his answers are retained, and those students are identified when possible. If anyone is to be trusted with this task it is Catherine Zuckert. And I can say that checking against my mimeographs, her decisions were sound. I can even commend the University of Chicago Press for retaining Strauss’ ever-present cigarette in the photo on the cover. No airbrushing here.

These lectures of Leo Strauss can give an indication to those of us who never met him why he was such a successful teacher. Admittedly, he would win no teaching awards today and would probably not even get a job in academia. He did not begin the course with a list of his student learning outcome goals and the original transcript lacks details of assessment methods. There is no extant statement of pedagogy or policies, so we may never know how his students learned anything at all. The transcript begins in progress: “Political action is founded upon knowledge. Therefore, all political action points to knowledge of the politically good or bad.” Perhaps his students were there to learn. The interactions captured here are charming and it should be noted that this was one of the few courses open to undergraduates as well as graduates.

Most of the book, seven of the nine chapters, addresses the topics of positivism and historicism, just as the title suggests. Reading these lectures fifty-five years later, one is struck by how anachronistic it all seems. Of Auguste Comte, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and R.G. Collingwood, only Weber might be known to non-specialists. Yet Strauss speaks of these figures and topics as if they were pressing issues. Can these speak to us in an age of identity politics and intersectionality? In a word, yes.

It may take a little work to transpose Strauss’ topics to our current concerns, but not much. Positivism, the view that “all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge,” is inescapably tied to the idea of progress, for “every wave of the future is good.” The corollary is that all the past is bad. Both the faith in the future and denigration of the past are shared with historicism, of course. The prime exhibit of their confluence in our current year is the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” And Strauss’ definition of the liberalism he saw developing around him is entirely consonant with what we can see, namely, “permissive egalitarianism.” Liberalism can be austere, and it can accommodate distinctions in rank. Locke, Montesquieu and the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams on the natural aristocracy confirm as much. But the adamant insistence on a strict equality of outcome, as evidenced in disparate impact studies, and the development of tolerance into celebration of anything one might wish to do to oneself or with another, was new.

Moreover, Strauss could foresee one of the most vexatious issues of our contemporary social, political, and even corporate world, “the abandonment of the distinction between healthy and sick in medicine or biology.” How else is one to understand the recent decision of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court that everyone has “the right to a self-determined death?” Is it now healthy to die? Basic biological classifications are routinely ignored. Some doctors now support the removal of healthy limbs and organs, to say nothing of the psychiatric and pharmacological interventions the transgender movement insists are necessary. How can science persist when unable to determine health from illness?

Positivism is the weaker of the two partners, according to Strauss. Historicism is the more philosophically robust and honest. Where positivism says science is objective, historicism does not even try. According to historicists, the distinction between facts and values is untenable, which is the very premise of the so-called “Great Awokening.” Where positivism would be comfortable making a distinction between, say, male and female as a fact of science, historicism thinks all such statements are social constructs, in other words, values. There are no pure facts. Yet historicism maintains the premise that history moves forward as the only standard and source of “value,” bringing more of those positive waves of the future; or rather, as mentioned above, removing us from those evil waves of the past. This unreflective position is a serious impediment, according to Strauss, to the study of political philosophy for to take the thought of the past seriously, one must doubt the present. For many people today, the only doubt they might have of the present is that it has not yet caught up to the future.

The last two lectures/chapters of the book are each given their own section titles, but they jointly provide one of the most clear and compelling accounts of Strauss’ recovery of political philosophy. Here is the real heart of the book, as the editor seems to agree. Catherine Zuckert’s Introduction spends as much time on these two chapters as on the first seven, and it is hard not to do so.

Strauss argues that the unifying feature of modern philosophy is questioning the status of nature. What is it? The premodern position was that nature is “a term of distinction.” That is to say, not everything in nature is natural. Some things are defective, which means they are not as they should be if they were properly themselves. The flat foot, the nearsighted eye, neither is natural in this sense. But there is another way in which “nature” is distinctive. The original or classical account divided the world into the natural, the artificial (produced by human art), and that which exists by human custom or law. Each of the three can be judged on a scale from bad to good, with good and bad eyes, chairs, and laws. The moderns cannot see nature as something good. Rather, “[n]ature is not a kind mother but a stepmother, even an enemy.”

Seeing nature as an enemy is the kind of “seeing through” that C.S. Lewis criticized in his Abolition of Man, a book Strauss used in his classroom at the New School for Social Research when he first arrived in this country. As Lewis wrote, “To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” When we see past nature’s claims to kindliness and expose the enemy within, what is left to see? If nature is not a standard for us, what is?

Strauss’ mature position in writing was that Machiavelli marked the break between the classical and medieval position, on the one hand, and the modern. His Natural Right and History, from 1953, corrects his earlier argument that the break originated with Thomas Hobbes. But this account, more than a decade later and in front of students, is much more nuanced. Machiavelli is still the first of the moderns, but now Immanuel Kant provides the decisive break with natural law. The early modern political philosophers could still claim nature as a standard, even if a negative standard—something to flee—as in the case of Thomas Hobbes. There is much to consider here, not least the implications for understanding the American Founding. A persistent question has been just how “modern” the Founding was. If pre-Kantian modernity was still operating in terms of the natural law, new lines of inquiry open up.

With all these arguments that seem unique to this volume, there is a sense of disappointment at the end of the book. Strauss points to subsequent lectures on Aristotle, which are not included here. Zuckert gives a summary and analysis of them in her Introduction, but this helpful account only accentuates the peculiar imbalance of the book. Everything points to the lectures not recorded in this volume. One can only hope the next is being prepared. For now, we can enjoy the heady experience of what it must have been like to reflect upon the politically good and bad with a teacher who continues to instruct long after his death.