One of the most controversial thinkers of modern times, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), a German Jew, was a Socratic political philosopher. As he considered the civic duty of a Socratic to be to question and criticize reigning dogmas, he aroused bitter opposition from established academic and intellectual authorities.
Leo Strauss was born to a rural, orthodox family living in the village of Kirchhain in the province of Hesse, Germany, on September 20, 1899. He graduated from the Gymnasium Philippinum in Marburg in 1917 and served until the end of World War I in the German army of occupation in Belgium. With war's end, Strauss entered upon the study of mathematics, natural science, and, above all, philosophy at the Universities of Marburg, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, and Hamburg. In 1921 he received his doctorate from Hamburg, with a dissertation on the theory of knowledge of Friedrich Jacobi, written under the supervision of the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer.
By this time Strauss had moved far from his orthodox roots. But the shattering power of Nietzsche's critique of rationalism in all its forms led Strauss away from his initial philosophic position as a neo-Kantian and compelled him to acknowledge the as yet unmet challenge of religious faith. Strauss' subsequent encounter with Martin Heidegger and Franz Rosenzweig confirmed the deep inadequacy of Kantian thought. On the other hand, post-doctoral study under Edmund Husserl at Freiburg fueled Strauss' consuming need to seek the possibility of a "philosophy as rigorous science" that could withstand Nietzsche's great critique and meet the challenge posed by faith. Meanwhile, in his early twenties, if not before, Strauss became convinced of the political unviability of the existence of Jews in Germany and became an active leader of Zionist youth. He thus found himself in the grip of a total dilemma: he could not simply accept traditional Jewish faith but he could not find in modern rationalism (science) and in modern liberal society a foundation for moral and civic life. The mature Strauss came to see the problem of being a Jew as a clue to the insolubly problematic character of all political life.
The abiding theme of Strauss' mature philosophic reflection was what he called, following Spinoza, the "theologico-political problem." This problem has several facets. First and foremost is the question whether or not God exists, and, in the second place, what difference God's existence or nonexistence makes, above all for our understanding of justice or the common good. Does justice, and hence the good society, ultimately require divine support, and faith in that support, or is there a natural, purely rational basis for justice? Does justice rest ultimately on divine right and law; and, if so, how does one decide between the various competing religions; or, alternatively, does justice rest ultimately on natural right and law, and, if so, how does "philosophy as rigorous science" discover the principles of natural right? By insisting on these questions, Strauss set himself in radical opposition to almost all the reigning dogmas of the 20th century, which try to avoid or ignore or suppress these questions by such dodges as relativism, pragmatism, existential commitment, religious faith, or ideology of one sort or another, including uncritical acceptance of the basic norms of modern liberal-democratic culture.
To begin to deal with the theologico-political problem, the young Strauss undertook a study of the original foundations of modern science in the critique of religion carried out by Spinoza and Hobbes. As a research assistant in the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin (1922-1935), Strauss published his first book, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1930), and helped edit the collected works of Moses Mendelssohn. Dissatisfaction with Spinoza led Strauss back to Spinoza's great antagonist, Moses Maimonides, the preeminent exponent of Aristotelian and Platonic or classical rationalism in the Middle Ages. Through Maimonides and his Islamic philosophic teachers, especially Farabi, Strauss re-discovered what he came to believe to be the decisive superiority of classical rationalism as epitomized in Socrates and the Socratic way of life. Strauss' second book, Philosophy and Law (1935), announced this discovery to the world and set the agenda for all Strauss' subsequent work, elaborated in some 13 other books, the most important of which are Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953), The City and Man (1963), and Xenophon's Socratic Discourse (1970).
When the Third Reich began persecuting Jews Strauss found refuge from the Nazis first in France and England and finally in the United States, where he settled permanently in 1937. He was professor of political philosophy at the New School for Social Research from 1938 to 1949, and then at the University of Chicago from 1949 until 1967. In America he mounted a searing critique of relativistic social science and of democratic dogmatism. He insisted, in his words, that "precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy we cannot be its flatterers." The highest civic duty of the Socratic, he insisted, was to criticize the reigning dogmas, and in a liberal democracy this means the duty to criticize democracy, liberalism, individualism, and egalitarianism. Like Socrates, he aroused, and continues to arouse even after his death, bitter opposition from all established academic and intellectual authorities. He was an extraordinarily influential teacher and left behind scores of students, numbering in the hundreds and perhaps thousands, some of whom are prominent and influential not only in the university but in journalism and the national government.
Further Reading on Leo Strauss
For an introduction to Strauss, see Thomas Pangle, editor, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (1989) and the "epilogue" to Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, editors, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd edition (1987). Strauss' autobiographical essay was published as the preface to the English translation of Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1965).