The Progress of Leo Strauss

With Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, Robert Howse situates himself between the two opposing camps of the Strauss-wars. He is neither a Straussian nor an anti-Straussian; and his Leo Strauss is neither the unsurpassable resurrection of the Socratic spirit nor a malevolent teacher of immorality. His Strauss is a “man of peace”: a humane if tough-minded philosopher who confronted the tyrannies and political violence of the 20th century and attempted to make sense of them and the philosophical minds that endorsed or were complicit in them. He sought to do so at the deepest level, not being content with moralistic, or even commonsensical, reactions. Constantly probing the various issues connected with political violence, including its legitimacy and limits, he maintained philosophical integrity even as he sought to articulate a “moral-political horizon” that would help his readers navigate the complicated thicket of states, law, morality, and violence.

In the contentious literature on Leo Strauss (1899-1973), this is a remarkably well-informed and evenhanded portrait which takes its place among the genuinely revealing studies of the rather elusive Strauss. In my judgment, though, some of Howse’s strengths have correlative weaknesses.

This irenic-minded Strauss emerges in part because of the perspective and concerns that Howse brings to his subject. A well-known professor of international law at New York University’s law school, Howse has written extensively on globalization, international law and trade, and the European Union, that great transnational entity and endeavor. More than an analyst or theorist, he is also a practitioner, working at the national and international levels on trade agreements and policies.

Howse appears to hold to a “federal vision” of international politics, one that sees states united in regional and global units, subject to international law and judicial tribunals, with democratic self-governance at work beneath these supra-state authorities. He is a sober internationalist whose heart desires progress, but whose mind recognizes both philosophical and practical obstacles to its realization. His engagement with Strauss is motivated by this normative vision and attendant concerns. It’s a vantage point that makes him sensitive to issues in Strauss that others have ignored or insufficiently appreciated (even as it somewhat occludes from view some important matters, about which more later).

The author has written previously on two of Strauss’s major contemporaries, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) and Alexander Kojève (1902-1968), and his first two chapters deal with Strauss’s critical engagement with them. Strauss’s penetrating critique of Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927) revealed a young scholar who had overcome his infatuation with Nietzsche and was in the process of finding more solid intellectual guides in premodern thinkers, while his published debate with Kojève in the 1950s on the phenomenon of tyranny, ancient and modern, pitted a classical perspective on thought and action against an emphatically modern one. In both, Strauss argued for a form of thinking that kept its distance from political extremism while remaining alive to the complexities of the relationship between political life and morality, “legality and legitimacy.”

After these stage-setting chapters, Howse turns to the core of the book, an incisive analysis of Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), which he pairs, in the next chapter, with a Strauss-orchestrated dialectical confrontation between Thucydides and Machiavelli. The ancient thinker, confronting “the greatest motion” of Greek civilization, the Peloponnesian War, retained his humanity and commitment to moral norms in the midst of war’s harshness, while the Florentine, confronting the Biblical God and the victory of Christianity, compromised his, ignoring intimations of the sacred and delighting in tempting consciences.

Thucydides, while acknowledging that political necessities may justify or exonerate departures from justice and legality, never denied the superiority of justice and nobility, while Machiavelli used an expansive notion of “necessity” to undermine the distinction and the hierarchy. An important feature of this important chapter is the use that Howse makes of a seminar that Strauss devoted to “the political philosophy of Thucydides.” The seminar fleshed out the rather condensed treatment of the ancient historian in Strauss’s 1964 The City and Man.

It is here that Howse underlines that the “private Strauss” did not teach students differently than the writer.

The author moves to his own bailiwick in his chapter entitled “Justice and Progress: Strauss’s Assessment of Modern International Law,” again bringing in courses that Strauss offered at the University of Chicago. The chapter begins with an acknowledgment of Strauss’s “complicated, ambivalent assessment of modern international law,” which is traced to the tension in Strauss “between Jerusalem and Athens as well as within each of these narratives of the human condition.”

Notwithstanding that, according to Strauss, there is a real distinction between civilization and barbarism, and international law is an achievement of civilization which rightly aims at forestalling and moderating conflict, Strauss also believed that elements of human nature, the human condition, and some of modernity’s own contributions to civilization (chiefly lethal technologies) undercut any hope of permanently pacifying humanity through law. Still, modern international law was a commendable humanizing effort, and Strauss gave it respectful but critical analysis in his seminars on Grotius, its father, and Kant, its most penetrating philosophical exponent.

As the title of the chapter indicates, for Howse the fundamental question is, does one’s understanding of man and the human condition allow one to have reasonable hopes for progress in justice in the world by way of its progressive juridification and integration? While I could not but be impressed by and even grateful to Howse for putting the question of “aspirations and hopes” for pacification through international law in such a capacious context, I could not agree with his criticisms of Strauss’s “antihistoricist” views. As for his own alternative, this was only intimated, which made assessment difficult.

Howse seems to think that appealing to past “experience” or “history” undercuts any articulation of the universal or the permanent, whether of “human nature” or “the principles of politics,” and ipso facto makes one some sort of “historicist.” In arguing this, he appears to follow Kant’s understanding of the relationship between humankind’s past and its future, in which there is a logical gap between lessons drawn from what has been, on the one hand, and on the other, what might be—or, more strongly, must be, given the imperatives of the moral law. To say the least, this is not Strauss’s way of combining experience, history, and the natural. The issue needs more development than Howse provides.

One surmises that Howse is drawn more to the thinking of Kojève. He characterizes as “perspicacious” Kojève’s argument that “globalization is law’s destiny,” which entails “regional transnational structures” that “eventually become integrated in a universal legal order,” and he says that Kojève’s perhaps

idealistic distortion of the reality of Alexandrine rule [i.e., Alexander the Great], the suggestion that progress toward a world state might be made without using methods that brutally suppress human diversity, is important in confronting what we will see are the most insistent objections of Strauss to the idea of a world state.

Despite the reference to “world state,” Kojève “appears to intend something like a universal juridical order without a central state apparatus; in this order, the principles of positive law, rather than the detailed rules, would be valid everywhere for all citizens on the globe.” Other passages have Howse arguing for the possibility of “divided sovereignty,” as a confederation of republican states has its members yield important powers to “a common judicial authority.”

As I said, Howse is reluctant to show his normative cards. But clearly he wants to blunt any Strauss-inspired challenges to enterprises and institutions such as the post-Maastricht version of the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and other recent projects of legal sovereignty in the international arena and of what he calls “thicker” regional and global political integration. This leads him to take Strauss’s postwar defense of the Nuremberg Trials and of Benelux integration as suggesting or allowing the possibility of a Straussian nihil obstat vis-à-vis more recent developments. I think it is more accurate to make a sharp distinction between what France’s Charles de Gaulle and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer had in mind and what European Union chief Jacques Delors and subsequent makers of Europe have intended and wrought.

The book’s brief conclusion argues that Strauss made his eminently defensible thought too difficult to grasp, and (more interestingly) that he failed to treat the problem of evil adequately, especially after the Shoah. The presuppositions of the Socratic way of life, which somehow must combine “knowledge of ignorance” with a fundamental trust in the goodness of thought and the world, cannot be taken for granted, least of all by a Jewish thinker. While acknowledging the need to repair to “the fundamental experiences” that gave rise to Socratic zeteticism and Platonic idealism, Strauss himself would have left these matters of utmost importance unresolved. Howse, however, presents evidence elsewhere in the book that Strauss did go further in this all-important investigation.

I do agree with Howse that merely the experience of progress in one’s own understanding of “the fundamental problems” is an inadequate basis on which to argue for the superiority of the philosophical life. But Strauss also indicated that a dialectical consideration of competing alternatives—the gentleman, the statesman, the believer, the moral person—may make their claims less compelling and philosophy a rational imperative. Admittedly, these are deep waters.

As for the bearing of human evil upon our hopes for the legal ordering of the crooked timber of humanity, Howse’s discussion is to be commended for drawing attention to the issue, but it must also be acknowledged that the matter requires much more development than either Strauss or he gave it. It does seem to me that Strauss articulates a first principle of the discussion. As he wrote in The City and Man: “As long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy, hatred.”

So much for a seven-league boots overview. Now some directly critical comments. They are intended to advance the important discussion opened by this rich and significant study.

In coming to grips with Strauss, Howse rightly tries to apply Strauss’s own interpretive principle that one should try to understand an author as he understood himself. In so doing, however, he comes up with novel characterizations of Strauss that, while intriguing, would need to be developed to be convincing. These include the basic distinctions and subtle connections that, according to Howse, structured Strauss’s soul and thought: between his genuine but unbelieving Judaism and his decidedly philosophical nature; between Socrates and Plato, on one hand, and Xenophon and Thucydides, on the other.

In Howse’s judgment, Strauss’s mature classical perspective combined Socratic zeteticism, a Platonic idealism centered around “the city at peace,” and the contributions of two practical men, also philosophically minded, Xenophon and Thucydides, who explicitly dealt with the harsh necessities of political life, including war: their focus on “the city in motion” was a necessary complement to the Socratic-Platonic dimensions of philosophizing accepted by Strauss. (Significantly, while he mentions Aristotle, he does not try to articulate the Aristotelian elements in Strauss’s thinking.) In addition to the pagan classics, though, Howse regularly adverts to core Jewish elements in Strauss’s soul and thought, starting with the Jewish notion of “repentance and return” (t’shuvuh).

Howse sees Strauss as a supremely dialectical thinker and writer, trying to present the strongest case for each important position, carefully delineating its animating issue or problem, as well as carefully retracing its arguments, assumptions and implications, thereby revealing their strengths and weaknesses. While this is not a particularly novel view of Strauss, the author detects something else at work, a distinctively Jewish dynamic of transgression and repentance—that is, a youthful violation of time-honored beliefs and limits, then a mature return to appreciation for legal and moral order, but on a deeper, more philosophic plane.

This account is not without its ambiguities, however. Two passages can bring them out:

“He sought, through writing as he did, to show how his youthful temptation toward fascist thought was motivated by high-minded considerations, no matter how misguided, and to atone before God and the Jewish people . . .  (Emphasis added)

“In his mature writings that address political violence, again and again we are presented by Strauss with the original temptation and transgression of the thinker/intellectual and an explanation of how it arises out of moral seriousness and/or philosophical Redlichkeit, that is, from high motives. This is then followed by the enactment of a kind of t’shuvah, a pulling back from the extreme through critique, often internal, of the extreme – a deeper, more radical level of philosophical reflection that, however, has the result of reestablishing the case for moral-political limits and for legality, hence moderation in Strauss’s sense. T’shuvah, return or repentance, is accomplished not through pious shame or remorse but through an even greater philosophical Redlichkeit. As is clear from his references to Machiavelli’s treatment of penitence and repentance, as well as what he regards as the most important speech in Thucydides, that of Diodotus, Strauss regards the pattern of transgression and return as 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.” (Emphasis added)

Howse leaves the matter at “for Strauss, t’shuvah is possible in a philosophic, not just a theological, sense.” Its inadequacy as an articulation of Strauss’s Jewishness and his philosophical self-understanding is indicated by a conundrum in Howse’s presentation: While he affirms Strauss’s fundamental dependency upon Jewish categories and motives (“to atone before God and the Jewish people”), at the same time there is Strauss’s acknowledged unbelief in the God of Jewish orthodoxy and his insistent philosophical “antihistoricist perspective . . . which is secular and immanent, not premised on a transcendent or religious view of human destiny.” I agree with Howse that Strauss’s Judaism was essential to his soul and helped fundamentally shape his thinking; how it did so remains elusive. One would need a differently focused reading to pursue the matter. As it happens, Strauss himself indicated one, and it is not the same as Howse’s.

As I have said, Howse is attuned to themes in Strauss that others have missed or insufficiently appreciated. But this also means he has not tried to enter into Strauss’s own way of thinking as fully as Strauss invited his readers. Any work purporting to treat Strauss’s central themes that does not begin with his preoccupation from early on with “the theologico-political problem,” will always be more or less eccentric.[1] If I am not mistaken, the phrase does not even appear in this book. Howse has detected and highlighted a set of very important ideas in Strauss; that they are as fundamental as he would make them is questionable. Daniel Tanguay’s Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (2007) is a more faithful guide in this respect.

I would also call attention to the inadequacy of his presentation of Strauss on Socrates and Plato. They are too facilely brought together as Strauss’s “Socratic-Platonic” philosophizing. Strauss himself said that Plato combined “the dialectics of Socrates with the rhetorical art of Thrasymachus.” This pregnant phrase could shed at least as much light on Strauss’s way of proceeding as Howse’s admittedly speculative view. Similarly, in reading Strauss, one should pay attention to the differences between and changes from “Socrates” to “the philosopher.” Found in the Theatetus, this shift is a key to interpreting the Republic. Socrates would not be allowed into the city in speech. Moreover, both the philosopher-king and Socrates are characters of Plato. Distinctions need to be made.

Let me note, too, that Strauss’s early and continued engagement with Maimonides is conspicuous by its absence from this book—curiously, since this was Howse’s first introduction to Strauss. Here is a Jewish-philosophical model that Strauss did follow, both substantively and in his rhetoric. (Maimonides may have taught Strauss the decisive lesson that philosophy emerged and is constituted by the discovery of the idea of Nature.) This Maimonidean key to understanding Strauss’s mind and pen would have to be pursued if one were to really plumb his Jewish and philosophical self-understanding and his manner of writing. Kenneth Hart Green has attempted this in Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides (2013). Jeffrey Bernstein’s Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History (2015) is a commendable recent attempt.

Then there are considerations related more directly to politics. Howse’s focus on law, legitimacy, and issues of war and peace or “political violence,” does not address the full range of relevant classical thought brought to light by Strauss. He wants Strauss to be primarily, although not exclusively, a partisan of philosophy, of free thought, of transnational universality and openness. This allows him to bring Strauss somewhat closer to his own preferred cosmopolitan juridical and moral order, with global citizenship and international legal norms with teeth. However, in part because of the texts he chose to focus on, he fails to bring in Strauss’s discussions of the intrinsic connection between morality and man’s political nature, and hence the importance of one’s attachment to a particular political community. To my recollection, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace never discusses Aristotle’s famous notion of “man, the political animal.” Strauss, of course, did, and it would certainly play an important role in any judgment he would make about proposals for improved political order subject to international law and tribunals.

Let us sharpen the point by focusing upon the notion of citizenship. Aristotle concluded that a citizen was one who took part in the ruling offices of a self-governing community. In this perspective, global citizenship is an oxymoron. At the very least, Aristotle’s notion highlights what is left out of many notions of global citizenship on offer today. Citizenship is not merely rights, immunities, and entitlements. It is the opportunities and obligations of self-government. The thinning of the moral-political category of citizenship by way of its globalization can be seen in Howse’s omission of the politically important part of the soul designated by thumos (spiritedness) and his skewed treatment of manliness.

Howse’s most cogent interpretive assumption is derived from Strauss’s wonderfully personal lecture from 1959, “What Is Liberal Education?” It starts with the twofold observation that “the greatest minds” differ among themselves on the most important matters and that in the wake of the Enlightenment many find themselves severed from authoritative traditions. As a result, lesser minds must depend upon themselves to find their bearings, while also recognizing the superiority of the disagreeing greats.

From this Howse extracts a key to reading Strauss that is plausible and illuminating. It involves the “idea of constructing conversations with and between thinkers of the past” in order to address contemporary problems, while escaping contemporary intellectual limitations. According to Howse, this “accounts for the unconventional style of Strauss’s mature writings.” He created a “literary form in which a contemporary thinker first absorbs himself into earlier thinkers then constructs an imaginary conversation among them, posing his questions.” In this way “‘We’ use these [constructed] dialogues as a means of thinking for ourselves.”

Howse further suggests that this “presages a new beginning for philosophizing, a kind of dialogue that, in a certain sense, transcends the Socratic dialogues of Plato in . . . openness.” An intellectual situation that combines the eclipse of authority, the revival of the classics, the persistence of Biblical religion, and the challenge of radical historicism is thus not wholly unpropitious for renewed radical thinking. Strauss availed himself of the opening for such thinking in dark times and invited others to join him. To his credit, the non-Straussian Howse accepted the invitation.

In this learned and thoughtful study, the author has done yeoman’s work in seeing how Strauss engaged with superior minds on matters of political violence, law, and morality. He himself has entered into a not-dissimilar dialogue with Strauss—a powerful demonstration of the fruitfulness of philosophizing as dialogue with the greatest minds. In this way (and others), Leo Strauss: Man of Peace has earned a place on the top shelf of works devoted to its elusive subject.

[1] “The theologico-political problem has remained, from that time on, the theme of my inquiries.” Found in Strauss’s 1965 “Preface to Hobbes Politische Wissenschaft,” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity (SUNY, 1997), edited with an introduction by Kenneth Hart Green, p. 453.