Leo Strauss

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Lauded by his ardent followers and largely unnoticed by the majority of fellow political theorists, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 - October 18, 1973) produced a body of work derived from his study of the Western classics at odds with much that is considered modern. Typical of his followers is Harry Jaffa, who asserted that Strauss is the most influential teacher of political science since Machiavelli. The irony is that Strauss and contemporary Straussians like Jaffa reject or dismiss the empirical social science that is at the core of contemporary political science. Empirical scientific findings about political behavior require a more complex story about politics than they can accomodate in their political philosophy.

In recent years, this political philosopher has been identified as a key influence behind the rise of the neoconservative movement in the United States. While the overwhelming majority of his disciples--Strauss and contemporary Straussians collect followings of devoted disciples--are ideological conservatives, a few are ideologically moderate or liberal.




Straussians believe that great philosophers come along once a century at best and they are convinced that Leo Strauss was the twentieth century's great philosopher. They derive their belief about the once-a-century appearance of philosophical greatness from the work of Leo Strauss himself. Some observers suspect that the Straussians were simply the victims of very clever self-promotion.

Strauss was born on September 20, 1899 in Kirchhain, Germany, near the university town of Marburg in Hesse, and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. He studied philosophy at a variety of German universities, eventually completing his doctorate at the University of Hamburg under Ernst Cassirer. Strauss would come to specialize in the history of political philosophy and refused the title of "political philosopher." In 1932 he left Germany, both to pursue his work and to escape the growing political crisis in his home country. After spending time in both France and England, where he published a book on Hobbes, Strauss arrived in the U.S. in 1937. He would eventually teach at the New School for Social Research (1938-1949), the University of Chicago (1949-1967), Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna College) (1968-1969), and St. John's College in Annapolis, MD (1969-1973).

He was widely known for his argument that the works of Western philosophers can be read at two different levels: an exoteric level easily accessible to all, and an esoteric level that contains the philosophers' real teachings.

Strauss' most accessible work is probably Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, a collection of essays. His major works include Natural Right and History, Persecution and the Art of Writing, and Thoughts on Machiavelli.

Better known students of Strauss include Harry Jaffa (who is said to have written Barry Goldwater's line about extremism in the defense of liberty), Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind), Martin Diamond, Walter Berns, Thomas West, and Herbert Storing.

Fact-Value Distinction Rejected

Strauss rejected or dismissed empirical social science and its findings in large part because he had not been trained to employ them and was therefore unable to make contributions to political science using the scientific method and statistical analysis. Like many scholars trained exclusively in the humanities, he was intellectually trapped in making claims for truth solely on the basis of the close reading of text and intuition. His rejection of the fact-value distinction served as cover for this disability. Strauss explained his rejection in terms of bad consequences. He was convinced that the fact-value distinction produces nihilism. In effect, he recommended rejecting an idea not because it was true or false in the sense of being an accurate statement about the world but because he disliked or feared where it might lead in the search for truth. Strauss's rejection is an example of the fallacy called "argument from adverse consequences." See page 212 of Carl Sagan's 1995 book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House. ISBN 039453512X.

Versus democracy

Other elements of the philosophy of Strauss are controversial because they express ideals contrary to democracy. According to an analysis by Jim Lobe for the Inter Press Service News Agency, Strauss believed the world to be a place where policy advisers may have to deceive their own publics and even their rulers in order to protect their countries.

Shadia Drury of the University of Regina, author of 1999's Leo Strauss and the American Right, says "Strauss was neither a liberal nor a democrat... Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical (in Strauss's view) because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them. .. The Weimar Republic (in Germany) was his model of liberal democracy for which he had huge contempt," added Drury. Liberalism in Weimar, in Strauss's view, led ultimately to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

According to Drury, Strauss, like Plato, taught that within societies, "some are fit to lead, and others to be led". But, unlike Plato, who believed that leaders had to be people with such high moral standards that they could resist the temptations of power, Strauss thought that "those who are fit to rule are those who realise there is no morality and that there is only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior".

For Strauss, "religion is the glue that holds society together", said Drury, who added that Irving Kristol, among other neo-conservatives, has argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the U.S. republic.

"Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing", because it leads to individualism, liberalism and relativism, precisely those traits that might encourage dissent, which in turn could dangerously weaken society's ability to cope with external threats. "You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty," according to Drury. [1]

Influence on US foreign policy

Abram N. Shulsky received his doctorate under Strauss in 1972. Paul Wolfowitz, who was introduced to Straussian ideas while an undergraduate at Cornell, also studied with Strauss (though he received his doctorate under Albert Wohlstetter). Shulsky's area of expertise was Soviet disinformation techniques. The Straussian movement has many other adherents in and around the George Walker Bush Administration. They include William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and Stephen Cambone [sic], the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, who is particularly close to Donald Rumsfeld.

Strauss's influence on foreign policy decision making (he never wrote explicitly about the subject himself) is usually discussed in terms of his tendency to view the world as a place where isolated liberal democracies live in constant danger from hostile elements abroad, and face threats that must be confronted vigorously and with strong leadership.

Intelligence and duplicity

How Strauss's views might be applied to the intelligence-gathering process is less immediately obvious. Shulsky explored that question in a 1999 essay, written with Gary Schmitt, entitled "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous)"--in Greek philosophy the term nous denotes the highest form of rationality.

In the essay, Shulsky and Schmitt write that Strauss's "gentleness, his ability to concentrate on detail, his consequent success in looking below the surface and reading between the lines, and his seeming unworldliness . . . may even be said to resemble, however faintly, the George Smiley of John le Carré's novels."

Echoing one of Strauss's major themes, Shulsky and Schmitt criticize America's intelligence community for its failure to appreciate the duplicitous nature of the regimes it deals with, its susceptibility to social-science notions of proof, and its inability to cope with deliberate concealment. A more limited argument analogous to that of Robert Lucas regarding economics, is that any theory of leaders' behavior, like market behavior, had to assume that the enemy was as sophisticated and capable of self-assessments as any American, as capable of lying, and that it was "naïve" to assume that any question short of "what would we do?" and "why would he tell us that?" could lead to accurate anticipation. They suggested that political philosophy, with its emphasis on the variety of regimes, could provide an "antidote" to the C.I.A.'s failings, and would help in understanding Islamic leaders, "whose intellectual world was so different from our own." How the Western academic view of other cultures would assist in evaluating the Western intelligence agency view, retaining Western bias and losing direct experience in the field, was not addressed by Shulsky and Schmitt. They focused elsewhere:

Politics and deception

Strauss's idea of hidden meaning, Shulsky and Schmitt added, "alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception." In other words, what leaders say, is not what they do - and Niccolo Machiavelli was probably right to emphasize fear over being loved.

Robert Pippin, the chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago and a critic of Strauss, says that "Strauss believed that good statesmen have powers of judgment and must rely on an inner circle. The person who whispers in the ear of the King is more important than the King. If you have that talent, what you do or say in public cannot be held accountable in the same way."

This does appear to be the attitude of Paul Wolfowitz, whose admission that the claim that weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq was advanced to the UN "for bureaucratic reasons within the US government" was in part responsible for extreme pressure coming to bear on Tony Blair, who in Wolfowitz's view would simply have been a dupe, as one who sincerely believed in this claim. And, unlike Bush, justified it explicitly to a House that had not only the power but the obligation to refuse if they thought it unwise. For more see feature article on weapons of mass deception.

Integrity versus diplomacy

Another Strauss critic, Stephen Holmes, a law professor at New York University, put the Straussians' position this way: "They believe that your enemy is deceiving you, and you have to pretend to agree, but secretly you follow your own views." In effect, there is no integrity to diplomacy whatsoever - states engage in discussion only to deceive, and "the enemy" is defined not by the situation, but known in advance, and not amenable to change.

Holmes added, "The whole story is complicated by Strauss's idea--actually Plato's--that philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large but also to powerful politicians." In a liberal democracy it is complicated further still by the fact that consent of the governed is a basic requirement for legitimacy of any major decision. As Dennis Kucinich pointed out in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the debate among such politicians relies on false intelligence, whether the highest official is aware of this or not, such consent is obtained only by deception. The only alternate position is that one elects in effect a dictator with the power not only to act in accord with law, and make law, but also control the media and debate by feeding it with arbitrary and constructed stories.


One of Strauss's staunchest defenders, Joseph Cropsey, professor emeritus of political science at Chicago, about the use of Strauss's views in the area of policymaking, says that common sense alone suggested that a certain amount of deception is essential in government. "That people in government have to be discreet in what they say publicly is so obvious--'If I tell you the truth I can't but help the enemy.'" But there is nothing in Strauss's work, he added, that "favors preëmptive action. What it favors is prudence and sound judgement. If you could have got rid of Hitler in the nineteen-thirties, who's not going to be in favor of that? You don't need Strauss to reach that conclusion." This of course begs the question of "who is Hitler?" That is, how is one to identify one's enemy's behavior as Hitler-like or likely to lead to genocide or worse? Plato's ontology implies that Hitler is himself an ideal form of a dictator, and that one justifies invasion anywhere by explicit comparison to Hitler. This of course is a highly subjective "pitch".

Regarding the U.S. invasion of Iraq, some former intelligence officials believe that Shulsky and his superiors were captives of their own convictions, and were merely deceiving themselves. Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of counter-terrorism operations and analysis at the C.I.A., worked with Shulsky at a Washington think tank after his retirement. He said, "Abe is very gentle and slow to anger, with a sense of irony. But his politics were typical for his group--the Straussian view." This view would seem to have become official policy, specifically at the Office of Special Plans.

Influence on Office of Special Plans

According to his May 15, 2003, article Judeo-Christian Decadence. At the Fount of Power, Al Cronkrite writes regarding the Office of Special Plans:

"At the root of this effective manipulation of power is the teaching of a man named Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Leo Strauss was a brilliant German Jew who after studying in Europe on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, became a highly paid professor at the University of Chicago. According to Robert Locke, who studied under Professor Strauss, he was an atheist and the purveyor of an esoteric philosophy which was critical of liberalism but supported Machiavellian deception and a ruling elite.

"Robert Locke lists among Strauss's students or those influenced by his students: Justice Clarence Thomas; Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Dundes Wolfowitz; former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes; former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett; Weekly Standard editor and former Dan Quayle Chief of Staff William Kristol; Allan Bloom, former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz; and former National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman John T. Agresto."


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