You May Never Have Heard of Leo Strauss, but His Ideas Are Dominating the World

Also discussed: Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (St. Martin’s, 1997)

One of the grand mysteries of the 21st century, which may well have to be explained in the 22nd century, is how Cornel West became a household name, even a celebrity, while most Americans have never heard of Leo Strauss. The supreme irony is that Strauss’s influence is far more pervasive than West’s: Strauss’s acolytes have penetrated American government and higher education, and have proudly influenced the nation’s social and public policies. In the Bush Administration itself there are numerous people who have been either taught by Strauss or who are disciples of his ideas—most notably Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and Abram Shulsky, Director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans; and there are those outside of government with great influence on American domestic and foreign policy, such as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard.

While most educated Americans have heard of the Sage of Princeton, it has taken a Canadian (yes, those quiet and unassuming people north of us), Shadia B. Drury, professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Regina in Canada, to write an account of Leo Strauss’s political philosophy and its implications for American democracy. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss originally appeared in 1988. Now Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan, has republished the book with an updated introduction in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The provocative title of Drury’s new introduction, “Straussians in Power: Secrecy, Lies, and Endless War,” helps answer the question: who was Leo Strauss and why do his ideas matter?

Strauss was a German Jewish émigré who arrived in the United States during the rise of fascism in Germany. His expertise was political philosophy, especially that of the ancient, pre-modern world; in other words, DWMs such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzche, Machiavelli, et al. (as well as the Persian philosopher al-Farabi). He was a leading advocate of teaching the “wisdom of the ancients.” It was Strauss who introduced the program of “Great Books” (a.k.a. the Great Tradition), which taught “the best” of Western thought and literature. Strauss was the author of 18 books and 80 articles; he taught at the New School for Social Research, the University of Chicago, Claremont Men’s College, and St. John’s College in Annapolis. He instilled a cult-like devotion in his students—who became known as the Straussians. Strauss has also been called the “guru of American conservatism.” But, as Drury points out, it would be unwise to think that his followers are just some ivory tower eggheads; these men, and they are mostly men, share a philosophical predisposition, a “penchant for secrecy, lies, and deception, their confidence in the almost limitless manipulation of public opinion, their aggressive foreign policy, their virulent nationalism, and their madly theological approach to politics.” And such people have obtained positions in the government, academy, and the media.

At the heart of Strauss’s political philosophy is the problem of domination and subordination, or put another way, the conflict between philosophy and the political domain. In his view there are no natural rights, but the “natural right” of the superior to dominate and subordinate the inferior (see Strauss’s Natural Right and History). However, a key to understanding Strauss is that he tends to write exoterically as well as esoterically; in other words, there are those writings for public consumption and those writings for those who understand the serious business of philosophy, meaning the rule of the wise which needs to be kept out of plain sight.

Strauss, taking from Plato, argues that the wise are not allowed to rule because the masses of people are stupid and vulgar and have prevented them from doing such. So, in place of direct rule of the wise, those who understand the wisdom of the ancients—that the masses are stupid and need their opium of religion to keep them in check—the wise cultivate the gentlemen, or the princes of the state, and rule through them. The prince is the philosopher-king once removed; the true philosopher-king is the man of wisdom. Power has to be obtained and maintained by lies, guile, and deception. The philosopher “rules” indirectly through his association with the powerful via a “secret kingship.”

However, it would be impolitic to say such things in public as Machiavelli did in The Prince, which has been condemned by others on the right, including Strauss. Drury argues that while Strauss approved of Machiavelli’s analysis of power, he disagreed with his public pronouncement of such. Machiavelli was wise in his knowledge of how the game needed to be played, but socially irresponsible in that he didn’t reveal his knowledge esoterically, and thus betrayed the Great Tradition.

Quoting at length from Strauss’s What is Political Philosophy?, Drury cites the following passage as the “heart” of Straussian Philosophy:

Philosophy or science, the highest activity of man, is the attempt to replace opinion about ‘all things’ by knowledge of ‘all things’; but opinion is the element of society; philosophy or science is the attempt to dissolve the element in which society breathes, and thus endangers society. Hence philosophy or science must remain the preserve of a small minority, and philosophers or scientists must respect the opinions on which society rests. To respect is something entirely different from accepting them as true. Philosophers or scientists who hold this view about the relationship of philosophy or science and society are driven to employ a peculiar manner of writing which would enable to reveal what they regard as the truth to the few, without endangering the unqualified commitment of the many to the opinions on which society rests. They will distinguish between the true teachings as the esoteric teaching and the socially useful teaching as the exoteric teaching; whereas the exoteric teaching is meant to be easily accessible to every reader, the esoteric teaching discloses itself only to the very careful and well-trained readers after long and concentrated study.

Philosophy can undermine society because it can strip away the illusions and myths that under-gird it, and the greatest illusions are the existence of God or religion. However, people need, once again, their opium. Philosophers or scientists ought to respect that opinion (the existence of God), which is not the same as believing it. It is this kind of philosophical flexibility in the pursuit of power that allows neo-conservatives to have an association with the pious Christian foot-soldiers of the conservative movement; it’s the moral equivalent of keeping the many barefoot and pregnant.

Esoterically, political philosophy, which is Strauss’s field, isn’t about politics per se, but rather how philosophy is treated and approached in the public realm; philosophers pay lip service to the views of the many, knowing that God doesn’t exist but religion and morality are needed for social stability, meanwhile initiating and inculcating those who are ready to receive the true knowledge, or the wisdom of the ancients. Drury contends that Strauss believes that “philosophy regards nature as the supreme authority: ‘the discovery of nature is the work of philosophy’”—or science. This is essentially the conflict between science and religion. Science is a methodology that tries to measure the natural world and understands its laws, which is why evolution is such a bone of contention between science and religion. However true evolution may be, its laws displace religion, which is impolitic and threatens to undermine the foundations of society (hence the “crisis” of modernity). The problem with science is that it is a project of modernity, which has a tendency to undermine the external checks—religion and morality—on the vulgarians (the common folk) through knowledge, which is bad for the many but good for the few.

And Strauss has a major issue with modernity, which proceeds from the Enlightenment. As Drury sees it, from Strauss’s ideas:

[T]he secular heirs of the modern venture continue to cling to the belief that philosophical truth, regardless of its content, is salutary. They believe that philosophy can replace God and that Western civilization can withstand the death of God. They have therefore departed with the wisdom of the ancients according to which the masses need myths and illusions to cling to: they need to believe that there is an unchanging moral law sanctioned by a divine creator and backed by the powers that be. Strauss does not say any of this explicitly, because a wise man ought not to say publicly that there is no God and no unchanging moral laws.

For Strauss and his disciples, God has a utilitarian purpose: calming the minds of the benighted masses. For an atheist like Strauss, this is a “noble lie” which serves a purpose, namely holding society together. In the current historical moment, the Enlightenment, or modernity, is under serious assault by the forces of religious fundamentalism, which seek to return God back to the center of political life.

In another book on Strauss, Leo Strauss and the American Right, Drury noted several dominant themes that course through Strauss’s philosophy: importance of religion; necessity of nationalism; language of nihilism; sense of crisis; friend or foe dichotomy; hostility towards women; rejection of modernity; nostalgia for the past; abhorrence of liberalism. What Strauss offered his disciples is something that Left academic theory—deconstruction, critical theory, cultural studies, postmodernism, etc.—doesn’t: a Weltanschauung, a comprehensive concept of the world and humans’ relationship to it, as well as exposure to this “wisdom” and a dispensation of moral restraints demanded of all others.

To varying degrees, all of Strauss’s dominant themes appear in neo-conservatism and in some aspects of the conservative movement, which is why he’s seen as its “guru.” And some of Strauss’s political ideas neatly mesh with some principles of Burkean conservatism—namely patriotism, a preference for liberty over equality, a belief in established institutions and hierarchy; skepticism about the idea of progress, and elitism.

Strauss died in 1973. However, his pervasive influence has lived on through his students like Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Harry Jaffa and others in academia, and in the realm of politics through the rise of the neo-conservative movement, best exemplified by Irving Kristol and now William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard. In reality, neo-conservatism has become the dominant ideology of the Republican Party, as well as of the conservative movement. The conservative movement has built a network—foundations, think tanks, conservative intellectuals, media outreach— over the last 30 years by meshing philosophical ideas to realpolitik, enabling neo-cons to control the debate over issues and take power through governance (i.e., “secret kingship”). Because the Straussians believe in “noble lies,” they have no compunction about using mass deception—precisely as they did when they stressed that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were the motivating reason for regime change in Iraq. Upon finding no WMDs, the administration, as articulated by Wolfowitz, then said that WMDs were never the sole reason. The real reason then became regime change. From a Straussian perspective, the American public would not have accepted that as a legitimate reason and so was lied to for a noble reason: the liberation of Iraq.

There are pernicious implications in Strauss’s political ideas. Anyone who wants to understand the roots of today’s conservative movement and its neo-conservative architects would do well to read Drury’s masterful excavation of its most influential but elusive thinker.


Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.