Robert Howse: Misreading Leo Strauss ... A Misbegotten Charge of Nazi Sympathies

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Howse teaches international law and legal and political philosophy at NYU Law School. He is the author of articles on Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève, and is writing a book on Strauss's views on war and peace.

According to william altman’s The German Stranger, Leo Strauss concocted a “radical critique of liberal democracy” that is a “synthesis” of the thought of Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, “two cowardly, utterly repulsive, and lapel pin-wearing Nazi philosophers.” Strauss could not join the party due to his “Jewish blood,” but he “did what no mere Nazi could have done or dreamed of doing: he boldly brought his anti-liberal project to the United States, the most fearsome of his homeland’s Western enemies and the greatest and most powerful liberal democracy that has ever been.” Strauss’s project is “primarily destructive: it was the theoretical foundation of liberal democracy in general that he sought to annihilate, not some new form of totalitarianism he aimed to erect.”
Leo Strauss was born into an observant Jewish home in Germany at the end of the 19th century. As a young man he participated in the Zionist movement; he studied philosophy in several German universities, encountered Husserl and Heidegger as well as the academic philosophy of the neo-Kantian school, and began his scholarly career as a researcher in Jewish Studies in Berlin in the 1920s. Strauss left Germany on a fellowship to Cambridge in 1932 and did not return after Hitler came to power. He lived in England and France for a number of years before moving to the New School in New York, where he obtained a regular faculty position in 1941. Later, Strauss accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago, where he wrote the works that have made him famous, such as Natural Right and History, the City and Man, and Thoughts on Machiavelli. He is best known in America, at least by those who have taken the trouble to study carefully his writings, for his critique of the roots of modernity based on a perspective that is largely drawn from pre-modern philosophy — Greek, Jewish, and Islamic.
Altman is aware of the many statements of Strauss against Nazism, often worded in strong, passionate terms. He knows that Strauss said many things that could be taken to support liberal democracy, including that liberal democracy was the best possible political alternative in his own time. According to Altman, these explicit statements are lies, designed to conceal the true nature of Strauss’s project from unsuspecting, innocent Americans. Strauss had claimed that the great philosophers of the past wrote “exoterically” — in such a manner as to conceal their true teaching from all but a few understanding readers. According to Strauss these thinkers did so to avoid persecution, and also the harm to themselves and society that could come from the innocent and not-so-innocent misappropriation of their ideas. Writing in this way — “between the lines” — entails burying in a work with an innocuous external teaching various statements that guide the reader toward the author’s true intent. Altman believes that Strauss himself practiced exotericism. According to Altman, once we assume this we will find many statements in Strauss’s writing that modify those which attack Nazism and support liberal democracy. While often ambiguous, these statements, Altman maintains, are decisive hints of Strauss’s hidden Nazi-inspired attack on liberalism.
Even if it is were true that Strauss wrote between the lines, this does not establish that all explicit statements of Strauss are misleading or false accounts of his views. Altman would still have to show that the particular statements in question in favor of liberal democracy or against Nazism are lies. This depends on interpreting the ambiguous statements as anti-liberal and pro-Nazi. But ambiguous statements by definition permit of more than one meaning. On the basis of what principle ought we to resolve the ambiguity in favor of a pro-Nazi or anti-liberal meaning?..

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