On the Reading of Leo Strauss

When a Christian picks up Leo Strauss’ work, two things strike the educated reader: 1) That this man knows his subject matter, and 2) He does not want to be read. Thus the experience of continuing to read Strauss, rather than tossing the book away with irritation and disgust, will not happen if the reader is disinterested in the subject matter. Conversely, if the reader is interested, the reading will become a kind of toil similar to being dragged through a museum by the most obtuse and tedious guide available. The exhibits will remain interesting, but the constant presence of the guide will tempt the reader to hurry past even the good points the guide has to offer.

This is my experience of Strauss. The introduction to his most well-read work—Natural Right and History—is punchy enough to catch the attention of the average discontented modern academic. It talks disparagingly of nihilism, presciently (the book was written in the 50’s) indicates the hypocrisy of modern tolerance, and sets up an intriguing narrative linking the development of modern problems to problematic modern philosophers. Had I read this book instead of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I might have been smitten with the work and the learned charm of its author. Strauss somehow manages to sound confidential—that kind of “confidential” usually experienced with someone just above you in the social hierarchy—and distant in the same breath. His work is the written form of the aristocratic dinner party: the real meat of the evening is not the food nor the wine nor even the company but rather the winks, nods, and implied conclusions between the cigarettes, the jargon, and the name-dropping. However, Strauss knows that you cannot have a pleasant effect without its cause. Such a dinner party, if one was even to be invited, would require at least a semester’s worth of swimming in the right circles, saying the right things to the right people at the right time, and reading the right books to find the right things to say. Strauss’s works demand the same level of preparation and habituation. Prior to reading Strauss, one must be exhaustively educated in the classics. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and a bit of Heidegger and Weber are an absolute must, but the most important background element for these texts is immersion. One must dive into Strauss’s texts and soak in their convoluted sentences for a good month before you can begin to tune in to their particular style of implication.

As with the dinner party and as Strauss himself admits, his main conclusions are written between the lines and not in the bulk of what he is writing. We can also assume, then, that Strauss must be immovable in those conclusions due to the vast tracts of English he wrote—he was not a native English speaker—between his implied conclusions. But this cannot be true: Strauss also speaks of “logographic necessity,” wherein writers give every word in their texts a necessary place and purpose in the work, so he must have meant every word he wrote. But then again, this last point was made about great writers: Plato, Aristotle, and the like. Strauss has also said that he did not consider himself a philosopher but rather a scholar. Does that mean that he did not consider himself a great writer? Here I will stop the train: I am sure my reader is thoroughly confused by the constant whipping back-and-forth between contrary or contradictory or uncertain statements. Yet this is exactly Strauss’s tactic. His works layer, with a constant bounding back and forth across a subject, tentative conclusion on top of tentative conclusion. This has the effect of, say, stacking slices of Swiss cheese on top of a crossword puzzle: the more slices you lay the less and less of the puzzle you see through the holes. The difference here is that the part of the puzzle we see is, presumably, some idea of what Strauss calls “the whole”: a comprehensive view of reality particular to Strauss. So, in our analogy, he is the one picking the cheese slices: Plato covers this but not that, Aristotle covers that but not this other thing—so that, depending on how he stacks his portrayals of these authors, the reader is slowly, apophatically, led to the conclusions that Strauss wishes to be taught. For Strauss is an esotericist: he does not want the readers who would abuse or misrepresent his teaching to have access to his conclusions carte blanche. He layers to protect himself, but dares his readers by his self-avowed esotericism to keep digging until they have found his real meaning. This, however, has an immensely practical effect on the reader. In the immense amount of reading that the student would have to do to begin to have a grasp of Strauss’s esoteric teaching, he will likely fall prey to Strauss’s charms or to his ideas. Here is a revealing passage from his work:

“When a man openly utters or vomits a blasphemy, all good men shudder and turn away from him, or punish him according to his deserts; the sin is entirely his. But a concealed blasphemy is so insidious, not only because it pro­tects the blasphemer against punishment by due process of law, but above all because it practically compels the hearer or reader to think the blasphemy by himself and thus to become an accomplice of the blasphemer.” (Leo Strauss, entry on Machiavelli in History of Political Philosophy, emphasis added, page 312)

In this quote, Strauss is not so much describing Machiavelli’s thought as implying his own aims in writing as he does. He is begging the reader to follow him along until he has left the “faith,” so to speak. What that faith is and what it would be to blaspheme against it is a long and involved argument that I will not write here, but it is abundantly clear that that faith is religious belief in some form. The core of Strauss’s thought is that political philosophy never was and never will be concerned with the best city: it is only concerned with the best city insofar as describing it serves as the philosophers’ defense against the city’s persecution. What we have thought of and followed as metaphysics, physics, ethics, politics, and the philosophy of the soul is, for Strauss, all based off of a misunderstanding of the “political philosophy” of Plato and Aristotle. They only wrote and said the things they wrote and said for the sake of preserving zetetic philosophy: the constant questioning that never chooses a sect, belief, framework, or god because, if they did, they would have re-submitted themselves to the authority—an authority that requires belief rather than just outward conformity—of the city and its laws. Thus, if Strauss is to pull those who are, at heart, “philosophic,” towards himself and away from faith in a misunderstanding, he must remain illusive in his writing so as to slowly build the strength necessary in his reader’s mind to either eventually repel the faithful man or attract his philosopher.

Christianity acts in a peculiar way: it re-casts things that came before it as typifying or preparing the world for its coming. This is most clearly seen in our Biblical typology, wherein we read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament so as to reveal the coming of the New in the Old. Strauss, being Jewish, does not and cannot admit any legitimacy to this approach. To him, this would be claiming to “understand an author better than he understood himself,” (Persecution and the Art of Writing) which is one of his maxims. At this point in my studies, I do not know how that maxim jives with the plain fact that Strauss, in rejecting Christianity, must at least believe that he “understands [Christians] better than [they] understand [themselves].” What I do know is that we Christians are not troubled by the idea of a new phenomenon breaking our paradigm and revealing all that we once knew as mere shadows. What Tolkien described as a “eucatastrophe” (“On Fairy Stories”) and Lewis’s professor Kirk proclaimed as “all in Plato” (The Last Battle) is the thrust of all Christian belief: that something both terrible and beautiful can break even the utmost of our knowledge in pieces while at the same time exalting those pieces to a level we had not thought possible. Strauss’s thought does not and cannot admit of this phenomenon… and for that we cannot really blame him. He is only working from what he knows, and that is entirely the problem.

To conclude, I think that the question which this article has been considering—”Ought a Christian read Leo Strauss?”—ought to be answered by “If you are a Christian, then you can take it or leave it. If you are not a Christian—you have yet to be given the gift of faith and have thus not understood Christianity as it understands itself, then you must leave it.” Strauss is far too seductive a reader for those who have not yet made their choice concerning things in general: the two poles of all belief and action are nihilism and Christianity. All points between those two have differing names: Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, Platonisim, Neo-Platonism, Thomism, Neo-Thomism, etc etc. Even Christianity has points along that line that correspond to images or idols of Christianity itself—Protestants and Catholics are at constant odds as to what the true pole is. Yet it remains that there is a point at which every individual has chosen either nihilism or Christianity. The push and pull across that point is what Strauss himself endeavors to engage in. He pulls his philosophers towards him (whether he recognizes his actions as such or not), away from Christianity. Christianity pulls Christians towards itself, away from Strauss’s philosophy. The choice lies with the reader, but these are my thoughts on it.

I think that is enough polemics for me. I think I will read some Lewis now.

One thought on “On the Reading of Leo Strauss

  1. Wow. Graham this is breathtakingly brilliant, subtle, and compelling. And your writing is simply magnificent. You have the potential to be a top critic of Strauss, even the best one. If there ever was an anti-philosopher and an anti-Socratic, Strauss is its platonic form. He makes NietZsche seem like the Easter bunny (whatever that could possibly mean).


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