Journalists, academics and even the occasional playwright and filmmaker have claimed that Leo Strauss (1899–1973), the exiled German-Jewish political philosopher long resident at the University of Chicago, has acted from beyond the grave to inspire key decisions in recent American foreign policy, especially those reflecting unrealistic hopes for the spread of liberal democracy through military conquest.11.
For early examples, see Tim B. Müller, “Partei des Zeus”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 5, 2003; Alain Fraichon and Daniel Vernet, “Le stratège et le philosophe”, Le Monde, April 15, 2003; Jeet Heer, “The Philosopher”, Boston Globe, May 11, 2003; the play Embedded, written and directed by Tim Robbins, and the film The Power of Nightmares, written and directed by Adam Curtis (Independent Feature Project, 2005). For much more sober accounts, see Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Thomas G. West, “Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy”, Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2004). These claims have been based either on policies advocated by a few of his students (or students of his students), or on a few passages taken out of context from his writings, most of them interpretations of the thought of other thinkers. Strauss’ controversial claim that many of the great writers of the past hid their dissenting views from government and ecclesiastical censors, for example, has been turned upside down into a supposed justification for governments to lie to their peoples and even to squelch dissent.
The title of Strauss’ 1942 New School lecture, “What Can We Learn from Political Theory?”, was not of his choosing. He preferred to speak of “political philosophy” because “political theory” implicitly denies the traditional division of the sciences according to which political science is practical, not theoretical. “Political theory” implies that the basis and safest guide for reasonable political practice is pure theory, a view that Strauss rejected. This terminological preference points precisely to the question of the practical bearing of political philosophy: For Strauss took the question “What Can We Learn from Political Philosophy?” to mean what can we learn from it to guide political practice.Strauss first presents the negative case—that “we can learn nothing from political philosophy”—on three grounds: 1) Political philosophy is at best clear knowledge of the problems, not of the solutions, and so cannot be a safe guide to action; 2) not political philosophy but practical wisdom is needed for reasonable political action; and 3) political philosophy is ineffectual, merely reflecting rather than guiding political practice, since all significant political ideas come from statesmen, lawyers and prophets rather than political philosophers. “I have not the slightest doubt as to the possibility of devising an intelligent international policy”, Strauss declares,
without having any recourse to political philosophy: that this war has to be won, that the only guarantee for a somewhat longer peace-period after the war is won, is a sincere Anglosaxon-Russian entente, that the Anglosaxon nations and the other nations interested in, or dependent on, Anglosaxon preponderance must not disarm nor relax in their armed vigilance, that you cannot throw power out of the window without facing the danger of the first gangster coming along taking it up, that the existence of civil liberties all over the world depends on Anglosaxon preponderance—to know these broad essentials of the situation, one does not need a single lesson in political philosophy. In fact, people adhering to fundamentally different political philosophies have reached these same conclusions.
Having first sketched the negative case, in good scholastic fashion, Strauss then introduces a positive argument “from authority”: “Quite a few men of superior intelligence [e.g., Plato] were convinced that political philosophy is the necessary condition of the right order of civil society”, or at least that it is of some practical use in minimizing the harm done by the lunatics who rule us. But Strauss’ positive argument for the practical utility of classical political philosophy turns out to be not a refutation but a modification of the negative argument. He concedes the force of the first two negative claims: that political philosophy is knowledge of the problems, not of the solutions; and that common sense or practical wisdom, not political philosophy, is the guide for reasonable political action. The positive argument for political philosophy is that we need it to defend reasonable political action discovered by prudent statesmen when it is challenged by erroneous political teachings. Strauss denies the third negative claim: that all significant political concepts are the work of political men rather than philosophers. The concept of natural law or natural right, after all, is of philosophic origin. Classical political philosophy judges all actual political orders by the standard of natural right—the natural or perfect order whose realization is a matter of chance, and in comparison to which all actual orders are imperfect. He calls this the “legitimate utopianism” of philosophy. Strauss then illustrates what he means by political philosophy’s defensive role. A new modern utopianism, he says, has replaced the legitimate utopianism of classical philosophy. This modern utopianism has lowered the standards of conduct to guarantee their realization by reducing virtue to enlightened self-interest. This modern utopianism, Strauss argues, assumes that enlightenment would gradually make the use of force superfluous and that social harmony would follow if all people became primarily interested in raising their standard of living. Strauss rejects this modern utopianism on the grounds that enlightened self-interest conflicts with the desires of at least some people for power, precedence and dominion. Enlightenment alone is therefore not sufficient to overcome evil, just as man does not necessarily become better by becoming more powerful or more affluent. Strauss therefore disparages the economism that he regards as inseparable from modern utopianism, whether in its liberal or its Marxist form, warning that the withering away of the state will still be “a matter of pious or impious hope” long after “the withering away of Marxism.” After making his positive argument Strauss speaks of what a reasonable policy would be: Now, a reasonable policy, I take it, would be along these lines: human relations cannot become good if the human beings themselves do not become good first, and hence it would be a great achievement indeed if foundations for a peace lasting two generations could be laid, and hence the choice is not, as between imperialism and abolition of imperialism, but as between the tolerably decent imperialism of the Anglosaxon brand and the intolerably indecent imperialism of the Axis brand.
Even to discuss hopeful postwar policy took foresight and some courage. When Strauss delivered this lecture in the summer of 1942, victory was by no means assured. Axis armies were still advancing into the Soviet Union and through North Africa, and Japanese gains in Asia still overshadowed the recent American victory at Midway.Strauss thus advocated both victory in the war and postwar peace, but he emphatically denied the promise of perpetual peace: “The task before the present generation is to lay the foundations for a long peace period: it is not, and it cannot be, to abolish war for all times.” Far from claiming that classical political philosophy could provide the guidelines for American foreign policy, Strauss says that this reasonable foreign policy could be arrived at without any recourse to political philosophy. But again, such policy might need political philosophy to defend itself against utopian or other erroneous political doctrines: Such a policy, as we all know, is by no means generally accepted; it is attacked not only by those who dislike the burden, and the responsibility, which go with a decent hegemony, but above all by a group of infinitely more generous political thinkers who deny the assumptions, implied in that reasonable policy, concerning human nature. If for no other purpose, at least in order to defend a reasonable policy against overgenerous or utopian thought, we would need a genuine political philosophy reminding us of the limits set to all human hopes and wishes.
Strauss argues that reasonable policy needs to be protected in particular from the modern utopianism which forgets that “forces of evil” exist and cannot be fought successfully by enlightenment alone. It would be as unreasonable to expect to abolish hegemony as to abolish war. Strauss’ reminder that forces of evil exist and that war sometimes needs to be waged against them or deterred by a preponderance on the part of decent forces recalls the combination of moral clarity and prudent realism characteristic of American foreign policy at its best. Political philosophy, Strauss then argues, is needed to protect us against “the smugness of the philistine” as well as against “the dreams of the visionary.” He warns both against smugly thinking that our own society is perfect and against recklessly dreaming that we are achieving a future perfect society. Strauss did not identify the American political order with “the best regime according to nature” of the classical political philosophers. Far from encouraging his listeners to adopt an uncritical stance toward the American or any other actually existing political order, he warns, As long as philosophy was living up to its innate standard, philosophers as such, by their merely being philosophers, prevented those who were willing to listen to them from identifying any actual order, however satisfactory in many respects, with the perfect order: political philosophy is the eternal challenge to the philistine.
But the more urgent danger, he thought, came from modern utopianism, whichis bound to lead to disaster because it makes us underestimate the dangers to which the cause of decency and humanity is exposed and always will be exposed. The foremost duty of political philosophy to-day seems to be to counteract this modern utopianism.
Political philosophy bears on political practice in one more crucial way, Strauss says: “We do not need lessons from that tradition [of political philosophy] in order to discern the soundness of Churchill’s approach e.g. but the cause which Churchill’s policy is meant to defend would not exist but for the influence of this tradition.” In other words, the liberal democratic polities that protect civil liberties were unthinkable without the Western tradition of political philosophy. The Re-Education of Germany
In accord with the relation between political philosophy and political practice sketched in his July 1942 lecture, Strauss’ 1943 lecture on the re-education of Germany recommends particular courses of political action based not on his interpretations of classical political philosophy but on his own observations and judgments—judgments not necessarily different from those of other observers who had not studied classical political philosophy. Strauss’ judgments may have been protected from certain illusions by his philosophical studies, but they were not, as we shall see, protected from being proven wrong by subsequent events. Just as Strauss noted in the 1942 lecture that persons adhering to different political philosophies could come to the same conclusions about policy, so persons with the same understanding of political philosophy can come to different conclusions about policy, depending on the extent and reliability of the information they possess and their judgments of the likely course of events.Strauss’ title in 1943, “The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews”, was also not of his choosing. So he narrowed the topic to Germany as the only Axis country of which he had firsthand knowledge, and also broadened it to include the re-education of Germany not only concerning the Jews but first and foremost concerning Nazism and liberal democracy. He introduced the lecture by saying that the topic was not very important compared with reparations, relief and emigration, and he added that it was also “an iffy question” because answers depended on the war being won, on the survival of Anglo-American-Russian cooperation, and on the bulk of Germany not being occupied by the Red Army. (By November 1943 victory was more easily foreseen than in July 1942: German forces at Stalingrad had surrendered in February, Italy had surrendered in September, and Allied forces were advancing in the South Pacific and the Aleutians.) After making these important qualifications, Strauss went on to argue that the mass of the Germans had been moved not by Nazi doctrines but by the prospect of a solution to all of Germany’s problems by a short and decisive war—in short by the conviction “that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays.” He concludes therefore that “the re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnjepr and among the ruins of the German cities.” Allied victory, followed by a just, stern and stable peace, culminating in trials of the war criminals, would be the refutation of the Nazi doctrine and would uproot Nazi education. Strauss then argues that the re-education of Germany concerning the Jews was only a particularly difficult part of the general question of the re-education of Germany, the purpose of which was for the Germans not only to reject Nazi doctrine but to discover the true doctrine: liberal democracy. Strauss asks whether liberal democracy would appeal to the Germans, and answers in a gloomy afterthought penned at the bottom of the page: “A German form of collectivism perhaps—an authoritarian regime of the bureaucracy based on a resuscitated authoritarian interpretation of Christianity perhaps—but not liberalism.” He warns further that “a form of government which is merely imposed by a victorious enemy, will not last.” Instead, only Germans who remained in Germany (not exiles or foreigners) could do the re-educating because of German pride, differences between the German and Anglo-American intellectual climates, and German awareness of the differences between Anglo-American doctrine and practice (he refers to racial segregation in the United States and British policy in India), which led Germans to regard the Atlantic Charter as hypocrisy. (Since the Germans are not familiar with the practice and spirit of compromise, they do not know that a just law, even when not observed, acts as a humanizing influence.) More generally, Strauss proclaims: A nation may take another nation as its model: but no nation can presume to educate another nation which has a high tradition of its own. Such a presumption creates resentment, and you cannot educate people who resent your being their educator.
Furthermore, he argues, “If the Germans were to submit to re-education by foreigners, they would lose their self-respect and therewith all sense of responsibility. But everything depends on making the Germans responsible.”While the re-education of Germany should be exclusively the affair of Germany, Strauss argues, “the security of the non-German nations against the repetition of German aggression, must be exclusively the affair of the non-German nations.” The Allies could influence the re-education of Germany after the war only by showing the Germans “by vigilance in arms that all prospects of German world domination and even of German expansion have gone, and have gone forever”, thereby driving Germany back to the cultivation of its own spiritual tradition. Only halfway through the lecture does Strauss finally turn to his assigned topic, re-education concerning the Jews. First he asks as a Jew speaking to other Jews, “How can a Jew who has some sense of honor be interested at all in what Germans think about Jews?” And he answers that until the Germans have purified themselves by spontaneously giving satisfaction for what they have done—and Strauss said this before the worst of the Holocaust occurred and thus before its scale could have been known—“no self-respecting Jew can, and no Jew ought to, be interested in Germany.” I infer that Strauss later came to regard postwar Germany as having met this test given his own willingness to teach there, but he did not in 1943 see how Jews could return to Germany, being “separated, for a long time to come, from the Germans by rivers of blood.” He was, however, willing to assume that “in some miraculous way” Jews would again live in Germany as German citizens, in which case his audience might be interested in the re-education of Germany concerning the Jews. Again Strauss asks who is going to do the re-educating. Not returning German Jews or Jewish Americans (the Germans being well informed about the strength of anti-Jewish feelings in America), but “only Germans can educate the Germans concerning the Jews.” But which Germans? He considered German middle-class liberals too weak to do it. He notes that Catholicism was much less anti-Jewish in Germany than in the United States, and suggests that the German Catholic clergy and a part of the Catholic intelligentsia might become significant agents of German re-education concerning the Jews. By contrast, Strauss notes, high school and college teachers, along with the Protestant clergy, may have been the most important carriers of the anti-Jewish virus. He writes off the teachers, who, having been attracted by Nazi doctrines, unlike the masses, would not be refuted by mere defeat. Although the Lutheran clergy had traditionally been anti-Jewish, they had learned that anti-Judaism is apt to lead to anti-Christianism, and so many of them stood up against the Nazis. Strauss concludes in an emphatically conditional sentence that if the Protestant clergy realized that it must abandon its hostility to Jews, and if the war and the defeat of the Nazis led to a reawakening of Christian faith and manners in Germany, “it is not impossible, I believe, that the leaders of German Catholicism and Protestantism will make some efforts towards the re-education of the Germans concerning the Jews.” Strauss brings the lecture to a close on a hopeful though still skeptical note: But I would be unfair to those Germans who did not waver in their decent attitudes, if I did not report to you a remark a German made to me: that the mass of the Germans are simply ashamed of what has been done in the name of Germany; and after the war Germany will be the most pro-Jewish country in the world. If I were a German, if I had ever been a German, I might be perhaps in duty bound to have these hopes. If these hopes are not unfounded, the re-education of the Germans concerning the Jews will be even superfluous. I shall not believe before I have seen.
In retrospect, we are bound to think that the hopeful German whose remark Strauss reported was far closer to the truth about postwar Germany than was Strauss himself. Strauss seems not to have appreciated that the experience of defeat might not only dispel the delusions of National Socialism but impel Germans to imitate the liberal democracies that liberated and occupied the western parts of Germany. Strauss’ skepticism about the ability of the British and Americans to re-educate the Germans may have been right, but not his skepticism about the willingness of the Germans to take British and American liberal democracies as models. Strauss was wrong to think that the German tendency to regard those democracies’ principles as hypocritical would prevent the Germans from adopting those principles themselves. In this he may have been too skeptical about the spread of democracy.The Lessons of Communism
Strauss discussed communism in the introduction to The City and Man, written when the West still felt endangered by the East and a consensus of liberals and conservatives supported an anti-communist foreign policy. This discussion is part of his overall argument that the crisis of the West makes a tentative return to classical political philosophy both necessary and possible. “For some time it appeared to many teachable Westerners”, he wrote, “to say nothing of the unteachable ones—that Communism was only a parallel movement to the Western movement—as if it were its somewhat impatient, wild, wayward twin who was bound to become mature, patient, gentle.” In this view, communism shared the Western purpose, “stated originally by the most successful form of modern political philosophy” (by which Strauss referred to the modern liberalism of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke): to achieve continual progress toward greater prosperity through the conquest of nature, the actualization of the universal right to develop one’s faculties, and “a universal league of free and equal nations, each nation consisting of free and equal men and women.”Strauss presents this Western purpose as having become global: It had come to be believed that the prosperous, free, and just society in a single country or in only a few countries is not possible in the long run: to make the world safe for the Western democracies, one must make the whole globe democratic, each country in itself as well as the society of nations. . . . The movement toward the universal society or the universal state was thought to be guaranteed not only by the rationality, the universal validity, of the goal but also because the movement towards the goal seemed to be the movement of the large majority of men on behalf of the large majority of men: only small groups of men who, however, hold in thrall many millions of their fellow human beings and who defend their own antiquated interests, resist that movement.
Strauss’ explication of the global character of the Western political purpose has been quoted in connection with recent American foreign policy. For example, James Atlas, writing in the May 4, 2003 New York Times, claimed of Strauss: “He believed, as he once wrote, that ‘to make the world safe for the Western democracies, one must make the whole globe democratic, each country in itself as well as the society of nations.’ There’s a reason that some Bush strategists continue to invoke Strauss’ name.” Now, in the first place, I am not aware that any “Bush strategists” have ever invoked Strauss’ name in support of their foreign policy. Moreover, Atlas simply misreads Strauss. Far from representing Strauss’ own view, this explication approximates the view of Alexandre Kojève that Strauss had critiqued in his “Restatement” in On Tyranny. Strauss presents that view in the introduction to The City and Man only to immediately call it into question precisely because he rejected the apparent participation of communism in the Western purpose as radically misleading. He proclaims instead: “We see that the victory of Communism would mean indeed the victory of originally Western natural science but surely at the same time of the most extreme form of Eastern despotism.” Instead of being the wayward immature twin of Western liberalism, Strauss saw communism as its all too capable evil twin. Strauss insisted that communism had revealed itself as Stalinism or “actually existing socialism” rather than Trotskyism, which is “condemned or refuted by its own principle” as an historical failure condemned by the principle of historical materialism. Strauss’ adverting here to the opposition between Stalinism and Trotskyism suggests the thought that the Western impulse to make the whole globe democratic rather than establish democracy in a single country is the democratic equivalent of Trotsky’s “world revolution” as opposed to Stalin’s “socialism in one country.” The belief in guaranteed progress toward universal freedom and equality, Strauss concedes, retained a certain plausibility “not in spite of but because of Fascism.” Fascism, unlike communism, presumably could be understood (however imperfectly) by adherents of the Western movement “as merely a new version of that eternal reactionism against which it had been fighting for centuries.” Communism was neither simply pre-modern tyranny nor Eastern despotism. Nor was it the anti-modern reaction, in the name of “throne and altar” or master race, to the modern aspiration toward freedom and equality. Strauss declares that in the face of communism the West “had to admit that the Western project which had provided in its way against all earlier forms of evil could not provide against the new form in speech or deed.” This puzzling sentence seems to mean that whereas the Western movement had effectively opposed older forms of tyranny in speech by enlightenment and by propagating the ideals of universal freedom and equality, and in deed by arming the large majority against the small groups who held them in thrall, these means were insufficient against communism, which also laid claim to those ideals and also had mobilized and armed the masses. The second stage of the Western understanding of communism, succeeding the illusion that it was a parallel movement to the liberal West, was, according to Strauss, the view that, while the Western movement agrees with Communism regarding the goal—the universal prosperous society of free and equal men and women—it disagrees with it regarding the means: for Communism, the end, the common good of the whole human race, being the most sacred thing, justifies any means; whatever contributes to the achievement of the most sacred end partakes of its sacredness and is therefore itself sacred; whatever hinders the achievement of that end is devilish.
His suggestion may be that this abandonment of sacred moral restraints on the choice of means is an inevitable temptation once the ends of political action have been inflated from a local and temporary common good to the ultimate common good of the whole human race. Strauss proceeds to describe a third stage of Western understanding of communism, the recognition that “there is not only a difference of degree but of kind between the Western movement and communism, and this difference was seen to concern morality, the choice of means” (just as the Nazis convinced a substantial part of the German people “that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays”). This recognition differed from the previous view that the two agreed on the goal while disagreeing regarding the means; in this third view it was understood that “no bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint.” Strauss implies that this recognition not only requires the maintenance of sacred restraints on the choice of means, but profoundly moderates the original Western aspiration toward a universal society of freedom and equality. The ineradicable evil in man not only renders tyranny a danger coeval with political life, but requires every non-tyrannical regime to employ coercive restraint against the dangers posed by forms of that evil at home and abroad.22.
On Tyranny, p. 22; Natural Right and History, pp. 132–3.
The hope for a perfectly free, non-coercive political order is therefore an illusion. Strauss distinguishes communism with respect to moral and political, not social and economic differences. He does not mention private property or free enterprise or the godless character of communism. In these respects he differed from much of the anti-communism of his time, in particular from conservative anti-communism in contradistinction to liberal or even social democratic forms. Strauss concludes his discussion of communism by teaching that “the experience of Communism has provided the Western movement with a twofold lesson: a political lesson, a lesson regarding what to expect and what to do in the foreseeable future, and a lesson regarding the principles of politics.” The practical lesson was that “for the foreseeable future there cannot be a universal state, unitary or federative.” The United Nations masked a fundamental cleavage, and Strauss therefore warns against taking it seriously “as a milestone on man’s onward march toward the perfect and hence universal society.” Strauss reasons that “even if one would still contend that the Western purpose is as universal as the communist, one must rest satisfied for the foreseeable future with a practical particularism.” Strauss does not explicitly flag the “lesson regarding the principles of politics” taught by the experience of communism, but it seems to be that “for the foreseeable future, political society remains what it always has been: a partial or particular society whose most urgent and primary task is its self-preservation and whose highest task is its self-improvement.” Strauss explained elsewhere that there is sometimes a tension between the tasks of self-preservation and of self-improvement.33.
Natural Right and History, pp. 152, 160–3.
He further suggests that the experience of communism has made the West “doubtful of the belief that affluence is the sufficient and even necessary condition of happiness and justice: affluence does not cure the deepest evils.” Strauss suggests, too, that the experience of communism teaches a moderation of the universalist aspirations of Western modernity to solve all human problems through modern science, increasing affluence and guarantees of freedom and equality. The alternative to tyranny is not a universal society of unlimited freedom and equality but a plurality of particular societies concerned with self-preservation, self-restraint and self-improvement. A moderation of the universalist aspirations of the West is not the same as their abandonment, and should not be, warns Strauss, because “a society accustomed to understand itself in terms of a universal purpose cannot lose faith in that purpose without becoming completely bewildered.” The moderation of Western universalism Strauss suggests differs both in theory and in practice from the relativism he warned against, and that has become so widespread today. Strauss argued elsewhere against universalist political projects not merely as a concession to temporary obstacles, but because a universal state was likely to be a universal tyranny. He presented the classic view that political freedom becomes actual only through the efforts of many generations, and its preservation requires the highest degree of vigilance. The probability that all human societies should be capable of genuine freedom at the same time is exceedingly small. For all precious things are exceedingly rare. An open or all-comprehensive society would consist of many societies which are on vastly different levels of political maturity and the chances are overwhelming that the lower societies would drag down the higher ones. . . . The prospects for the existence of a good society are therefore greater if there is a multitude of independent societies than if there is only one independent society.
More simply, the classical view warned that “no human being and no group of human beings can rule the whole human race justly.”44.
On Tyranny, pp. 208–11; Natural Right and History, pp. 131–2, 149.
For early examples, see Tim B. Müller, “Partei des Zeus”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 5, 2003; Alain Fraichon and Daniel Vernet, “Le stratège et le philosophe”, Le Monde, April 15, 2003; Jeet Heer, “The Philosopher”, Boston Globe, May 11, 2003; the play Embedded, written and directed by Tim Robbins, and the film The Power of Nightmares, written and directed by Adam Curtis (Independent Feature Project, 2005). For much more sober accounts, see Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press, 2006); and Thomas G. West, “Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy”, Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2004).
On Tyranny, p. 22; Natural Right and History, pp. 132–3.
Natural Right and History, pp. 152, 160–3.
On Tyranny, pp. 208–11; Natural Right and History, pp. 131–2, 149.