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Leo Strauss and American Democracy: A Response to Wood and Holmes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Although Leo Strauss spent the better part of his scholarly career in the United States, his name remained essentially unknown in this country during his lifetime outside the rather restricted academic circles of political science and Judaic studies. Only in recent years — owing, positively, to the best-selling status achieved by a book by one of his students, Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind; and negatively, to several critical reviews of his thought and influence in the semi-popular media —has Strauss's name been publicized to a somewhat wider audience. This article is a response to two of the critiques: Gordon Wood's relatively moderate “The Fundamentalists and the Constitution,” published in the New York Review of Books (18 February 1988), and Stephen Taylor Holmes's less restrained “Truths for Philosophers Alone?”, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (1–7 December 1989)

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1991

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1. For the reader's assistance, I have added letter references corresponding to the page columns being cited in each parenthetical reference to these reviews: hence “33d,” for instance, refers to the fourth column of page 33 of Wood's essay; “1322b” to the second column of page 1322 of Holmes's review.

2. Wood's explanation of the spirit and motivation of Straussian studies of American political thought relies on a “conservative” critique of such studies by Kesler, Charles (more accurately directed against George Will), with whose views one cannot imagine Wood to be otherwise sympathetic (“Is Conservatism Un-American?,” National Review, 22 March 1985, pp. 2837)Google Scholar. For a corrective to Kesler's (and, a fortiori, Wood's) account, see Pangle, Thomas, “Patriotism, American Style” National Review, 29 November 1985, pp. 3034Google Scholar. For a misunderstanding of Strauss's own scholarly enterprise by another right-wing critic that is similar to Wood's (but more extreme), see Kirk's, Russell claim that “for the past four decades the disciples of Leo Strauss have been declaring that they design ‘to restore the polis’” (“What Did Americans Inherit from the Ancients?Intercollegiate Review 24 [Spring 1989]: 43Google Scholar). Kirk supplies no source for his most unlikely quotation. Cf. Strauss's explicit denial of the possibility of any such restoration in a 1946 letter to Lowith, Karl, published in Independent Journal of Philosophy 4 (1983): 107108.Google Scholar

3. On the philosophical rather than historical ground of the historicist thesis, see Strauss's, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 19ff.Google Scholar Wood's understanding of Strauss's conception of the relation between philosophy and history would have been enhanced by a consideration of the essay “Political Philosophy and History,” reprinted in Strauss's What Is Political Philosophy? (New York: Free Press, 1959), pp. 5677.Google Scholar He would also have benefited from a reading of Strauss's critique of Collingwood's, R. G.philosophy of history (Review of Metaphysics 5 [19511952]: 559–86), where —Myles Burnyeat's carping notwith standing— he would find Collingwood treated civilly, even sympathetically, even as the problematic assumptions that underlie his argument are uncovered. It is curious that Wood avoids any reference to Lerner's critical discussion of Wood's own historiography in the first chapter of his book.Google Scholar

4. Lynn, , The Air-Line to Seattle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 188.Google Scholar Contrary to Wood's claim, however, it is not the case that “[b]elief in ‘natural right' is crucial to the Straussian scheme of things” (34b); careful readers of Strauss's, Natural Right and HistoryGoogle Scholar such as Richard Kennington have emphasized the dialectical character of his treatment of that theme, consistent with Strauss's repeated statement that philosophy is properly characterized by the investigation of problems rather than the provision of, or dogmatic “belief in,” solutions. See Kennington, , “Strauss's Natural Right and HistoryReview of Metaphysics 35 (09 1981): 5786;Google ScholarStrauss, Leo, On Tyranny (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1963), pp. 209–10Google Scholar; What is Political Philosophy? (New York: Free Press, 1959), pp. 3840Google Scholar; “Farabi's Plato,” Louis Ginzburg Jubilee Volume (New York: Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), pp. 392–93.Google Scholar

5. See Berns, , Taking the Constitution Seriously (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), pp. 207208Google Scholar; cf. Hamilton, , Madison, , and Jay, , The Federalist, ed. Rossiter, Clinton (New York: New American Library, 1961), No. 78, pp. 466–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. Cf. the quotation from Kelsen, Hans in Natural Right and History, p. 4n.,Google Scholar with Strauss's ironic comment on Kelsen's decision to omit the quoted remark from the (postwar) English translation of the work in which it appeared.

7. For a massive philosophico-historical study that provides support for Strauss's “theory,” see Caton, Hiram, The Politics of Progress: The Origins and Development of the Commercial Republic, 1600–1835 (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Presses, 1988)Google Scholar, reviewed by the present author in this Review 52 (1990): 131–35.Google Scholar

8. See, e.g., Montaigne, , Essays, trans.Frame, Donald (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), I: 28, p. 135Google Scholar; Butor, Michel, Essais sur Us “Essais” (fans: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 125–30.Google Scholar

9. Cf.also Aristotle, Politics, II.7, 1266a9–12, 3236.Google Scholar

10. Ibid., 1301a38–40, 1304b4–5.

11. Contrary to Holmes, the fact that philosophers experience (in Strauss's words) “contempt for the things which the non-philosophers hotly contest” (1323c) does not entail that the philosophers feel only contempt for the nonphilosophers themselves: see Plato, Republic 347a–b, where contempt for money and honor are said to be prerequisites for just rule on behalf of the city's own well-being; to the extent that philosophers might rule human beings indirectly through the influence of their thought, their intellectual activity could simultaneously serve the good of the multitude and themselves. Holmes supplies no evidence to support his denial “that philosophers have ever effectively played such an educative role” for the nonphilosophers as Strauss attributes to them (1323d).Google Scholar

12. Cf. Tarcov, Nathan, “Philosophy & History: Tradition and Interpretation in the Work of Leo Strauss,” Polity 16 (1983): 89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Holmes's opinion of Montaigne's innocuousness was evidently not shared by the Catholic Church, which placed the Essays on its index, by Nietzsche, or, most importantly, by Montaigne himself: see Eden, Robert, Political Leadership and Nihilism (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Presses, 1984), pp. 5961Google Scholar; Montaigne, , Essays, I: 17, p. 51; I: 54, p. 227; II: 12, p. 379; II: 17, p. 498Google Scholar (on the tension between freedom of thought and obedience to authority); I: 23, p.84 (on the consequences of tracing an established custom “to its origin”); II: 12, pp. 439–41; and, on the political influence and effects of the Essays, Sayce, Richard, The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972), pp. 236–37, 259Google Scholar; Fleuret, Colette, “Montaigne et la société civile,” Europe 50 (1972): 107–23Google Scholar. Montaigne is also one of the most accessible sources of illumination about the practice of philosophic esotericism, for reasons other than the concern for selfpreservation cited by Holmes, : see, e.g., Essays, II: 12, pp. 375–80, 408; III: 9, p. 757Google Scholar(Solon, ); III: 10, p. 769.Google Scholar

14. See, e.g., Strauss's, The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” Independent Journal of Philosophy 3 (1979): 111–18Google Scholar; “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” reprinted in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, ed. Pangle, Thomas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 147–73Google Scholar; and Pangle's, introduction to that volume, pp.1826.Google Scholar

15. See, on Strauss's relation to Judaism, Himmelfarb, Milton, “On Leo Strauss,” Commentary 58 (08 1974): 6066Google Scholar, with the clarification provided by the exchange between Himmelfarb, and Joseph, Cropsey in the issue of January 1975 (pp. 14, 16).Google Scholar

16. Bloom, , “Leo Strauss,” Political Theory 2 (1974): 384–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. Holmes's earlier allegation of “a kind of‘inverted agreement’” between “Leo Strauss and his followers … and the most brashly totalitarian of [contemporary] leftists” (Aristippus in and out of AthensAmerican Political Science Review 73 [1979]: 113n.) is mirrored, in the essay under review, by the ominous hint that the “relationship” of “the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt [of whose work Strauss published a critical review] … with Strauss is an interesting story in itself” (1320d). Such casual insinuations come perilously close to what used to be called McCarthyism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar