Between the Lines: Was Leo Strauss a Secret Enemy of Morality?

History’s final verdict on Leo Strauss is not yet in and is not likely to be in for quite some time. Meanwhile, one cannot help noticing that since his death in 1973 Strauss’s reputation has been growing by leaps and bounds. Barely known beyond a small circle of colleagues, students, and friends when I first encountered him in the 1950s, he is now a name to be reckoned with, one of the gurus of our age, the focal point of a swirling and oftentimes bitter controversy. A sure sign of this posthumous success is that everybody in academic circles has to pretend to know him. People have made a career of attacking or defending him. A good number of them have been promoted or denied promotion on the basis of their affiliation with him.

For better or for worse, Straussianism has become a school, a “movement,” an establishment of sorts, a minor but expanding and apparently exportable industry. Although concentrated on the North American continent, Straussians have begun to crop up elsewhere, in various European countries as well as in such faraway places as India and Japan. They have not only infiltrated the academy but occupy key positions in government, the media, and on the boards of large foundations. I do not wish to give the impression that the country is about to be taken over by them, as some of their critics fear, for nothing could be further from the truth. We are still talking about a relatively small and to some extent persecuted minority, but a minority that, like the early Christians, has managed to attract more attention than would have been thought possible when it began to form a short generation ago.

Strauss had the knack of turning students into disciples, and disciples, as we know, are both a blessing and a curse. The Gospel, which does not have too many good things to say about them, reminds us that they are forever (a) vying among themselves for first places and (b) distorting the master’s teachings. And, in fact, the once monolithic Straussian core has evolved into a surprisingly diversified group, encompassing within its ranks: right-wing and left-wing Straussians; fundamentalist or reactionary and revisionist or avantgarde Straussians; paleo- and neo-Straussians; philosophical, political, and literary Straussians; naive and thoughtful Straussians; firsthand, secondhand, and thirdhand Straussians; fanatical, mainstream, and lukewarm or borderline Straussians; moralizing and non-moralizing Straussians; Socratic, Machiavellian, and Nietzschean Straussians; front-door, back-door, side-door, and revolving-door Straussians; renegade and born-again Straussians; avowed and closet Straussians; hard-core and soft-core Straussians; pious and irreverent Straussians; East coast and West coast Straussians; urban, agrarian, and prairie Straussians; genial and grumpy Straussians; professional and amateur Straussians; Sunday and weekday Straussians; full-time, part-time, and intermittent Straussians; and with that the enumeration has hardly begun.

The development, an utterly amazing one, is not a mere fad, for it has already lasted longer than most fads. Not its least interesting feature is that it has given us the rare opportunity to observe at first hand a phenomenon previously known to our generation only from history books, namely, what happens to the thought of a bona fide master once he is no longer around to restrain the enthusiasts and keep a lid on things.

Given this state of affairs, it was inevitable, first of all, that a book should sooner or later be written on Strauss, and secondly, since old-time Straussians are generally reluctant to speak publicly about the master, that the author should be someone who never knew Strauss. For this we can be grateful. Closeness is not a guarantee of objectivity and has been known to constitute a serious obstacle to it. Kierkegaard tells us that the apostles, who shared Christ’s life for three years, did not necessarily understand him better than we can since they lacked the perspective that comes only with temporal distance. It is also true that a person whose critical faculties have not been dulled by a partiality bred of long acquaintance frequently achieves insights that are denied to others. I hasten to add that none of this automatically makes of Professor Shadia B. Drury a more reliable guide to Strauss’s thought than anyone else, for closeness to the subject and enlightened partiality, whatever their dangers, have their own advantages.

Be that as it may, the aim in the present case appears to be an eminently laudable one. Professor Drury comes neither to praise Strauss nor to bury him. Her goal, she tells us candidly in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (St. Martin’s Press), is to interpret and understand him, and this she has tried to do in the only way possible by disentangling his thought from the numerous commentaries on older authors in which for the most part it is imbedded. Her book is not a piece of research in the usual sense of the word. She has not taken the pains to figure out why, for instance, in reprinting some of his articles, Strauss occasionally left out passages that seem most intriguing to us. She has likewise refrained from engaging in a number of favorite Straussian pastimes, such as counting paragraphs, tallying numbers, locating the center of this or that enumeration, or uncovering the mysteries supposedly buried in footnotes that are hard to track down. (In one of its versions, Strauss’s essay “What is Political Philosophy?” has a total of 66 paragraphs. It also happens to be introduced by a quotation from Chapter 66 of Isaiah. Wow.)

Nor, as far as I can see, did she avail herself of the hitherto unused materials contained in the Strauss archives at the University of Chicago. Her study is based exclusively on Strauss’s published works. Even here, no attention is paid to the distinction between the pieces published by Strauss himself and the Nachlass edited by others (as is the case with the important essay on “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” of which much is made in the book). Interestingly, Professor Drury wonders why Strauss is silent about Freud, whom she considers relevant to his project and whom, unlike Strauss, she seems to hold in high esteem as a thinker. In that connection, she goes so far as to invent a little dialogue between them. Reading Strauss’s unpublished essay on Freud might have been both pru¬dent and helpful.

What we have before us, then, is something that presents itself as a straightforward, no-nonsense account of Strauss’s thought or, as she prefers to say, using a term that Strauss himself would probably have avoided, his “ideas.” Any newcomer who reads the book will have the good fortune of being introduced to some of the great themes with which Strauss’s name is associated, even if they are not always highlighted in the same way by Professor Drury.

I refer to such matters as the following: First, the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, which had been all but forgotten and which Strauss had the merit of reopening in all its breadth and scope. Second, the nature of “modernity,” as we now routinely call it. Third, the role of Machiavelli as the founder of the modern tradition in this emphatic sense—a role which, up to that time, was virtually unrecognized by modern scholars, mainly for the reason that few of Machiavelli’s early modern followers wished to be known as disciples of the man described by the greatest of all English bards as the “murdrous Machiavel.” Fourth, the recovery of political philosophy and the re-emergence of classical political philosophy as a live alternative to modern thought. The matter is of some consequence since for well over a century the only debates worth mentioning in the field of ethics and politics had been between utilitarians or teleologists on the one hand and deontologists or Kantians on the other. Who would have predicted 50 years ago that the ancients and not the moderns would be at the heart of our most heated debates? Finally, so as not to prolong the list, the notion that the development of Western tradition exhibits a unity that can be traced from its Socratic beginnings down to our time; that its evolution, without being predetermined, follows something like a logical order; and that its foremost representatives were all engaged as partners in a dialogue that spans the centuries.

It is significant that by and large Professor Drury’s book follows the order of Strauss’s Natural Right and History, working its way up (or down, as the case may be) from the classics, through the likes of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, to Nietzsche and his twentieth-century epigones. The framework of the book is clearly taken over from Strauss, as was practically inevitable in a work of this sort, and the discussion itself is carried out in terms that are mostly those of Strauss. Professor Drury is modest enough to admit that she has learned a great deal from Strauss. Indeed, she avows on more than one occasion that she would not have bothered to write a book on him had she not held him in high regard.

How much did she learn from Strauss? The question poses itself in acute form when we come to the last chapter, in which, abandoning any pretense at objectivity, Professor Drury launches into a blistering attack on him. The language suddenly becomes sharper and the accusations almost fiery. Strauss’s ideas, we are informed, are never frivolous, but they may be “perverse.” He himself is a dangerous man, who equips his students with a “philosophical kit” that will see them through any situation and “always save the day.” His commentaries force the text and compel the reader to surrender to the Straussian logic. Worse still, Strauss “corrupts,” and this, more than the power of his intellect, is the source of his fiendish attraction. His elitism is “among the most radical that has ever been encountered in the history of Western thought.” Accordingly, his students are for the most part a bunch of snobs who think they belong to “a privileged class of individuals that transcend ordinary humanity.”

She thinks Strauss’s manner all the more insidious because it encourages students to “discover” for themselves the very things he wants to teach. It is almost as if in dealing with him one were conducting an experiment with the devil, for Strauss has a low opinion of morality and denies that it has any place in politics. Equally alarming is the “vulgar nature of his vision of the philosopher-superman,” whose nobility is altogether “spurious.” The real Strauss, we had previously been told, is “surprising, shocking, outrageous.” Now we know why. He is nothing but a “heroic ‘Epicurean’ ” (Harry V. Jaffa’s term) whose “idea of philosophy as eros is a splendid excuse for being one of the Hugh Hefners of the philosophic set.” So much for the direct quotations, which should suffice to give us an idea of the tone of the book and the flavor of the argument. Professor Drury’s prose rises to new heights on two sets of occasions: when she paraphrases Strauss, as she often does, and when she attacks him.

My own image of Strauss is more positive. Perhaps I am just one of those dupes who need to be made aware of their naivete, but the Strauss whom I knew was not nearly so offensive and downright immoral as Drury pictures him. In any event, my first contact with him took place under more favorable auspices. This was not the pre-packaged Strauss with or against whom it is now fashionable to line up. I was a young student struggling to complete a dissertation on St. Augustine’s doctrine of the soul and running into all sorts of difficulties with which my mentors, world-famous scholars all of them, were unable to help me.

Strauss’s major works were just beginning to come out and, lo and behold, there were the answers I was seeking, or if not the answers themselves, some valuable clues as to how one might go about looking for them. This man knew something that the others did not know and was thus able to shed light on problems that most people did not even recognize as problems. At last, I was in business. This, of course, proved to be only the beginning of a much longer story the details of which are not of sufficient general interest to detain us here.

The trouble with Professor Drury’s diatribe is that it appears to be motivated by a non-theoretical animus that casts doubts in retrospect on the validity of her findings. It slowly comes across to us that she is more interested in warning people and especially young students against Strauss than in discovering what, if anything, Strauss might have to teach them. One could formulate this question in slightly different terms by asking for whom her book was primarily written. Some answer to that question is provided toward the end of chapter 1, where, foreseeing that she may be denounced by Strauss’s devotees, Professor Drury writes:

Those who understand fully the truth of my interpretation of the hidden meaning of Strauss’s thought will repudiate the book only to remain true to Strauss’s desire for secrecy. The rest of his students who are veritably ignorant of his real meaning will be genuinely horrified and appalled by what they will consider to be violent distortions of their master’s sacred views.

If I understand correctly, there are two groups of people who, more than anyone else, stand to benefit from Professor Drury’s book: the naive Straussians who need to be made aware of the poisonous character of Strauss’s teaching, and potential Straussians who run the risk of succumbing to the same deadly attraction.

The author of this timely book is clearly a person who is sure that she has understood Strauss, is convinced that he is wrong on the most fundamental issues, and has taken upon herself to alert the unwary to the dangers to which they are exposing themselves by dabbling in him. This may not be the most auspicious beginning for anyone who wants to get to the bottom of Strauss’s thought. No decent person, not even a dyed-in-the-wool Straussian, would have any objection to protecting the innocent. The problem is that by shielding gifted students in this manner one deprives them of a unique opportunity to reflect on certain basic problems which, unless they are properly dealt with at that time, may come back to haunt them later on in life. Three points in particular seem to stick in Drury’s craw: Strauss’s vaunted defense of esotericism, his ambiguous stance in regard to the status of morality, and his idiosyncratic account of the rapport between faith and reason. My hunch is that on all three counts Strauss is closer to both the pre-Christian and the Christian traditions than Professor Drury herself.

First, the question of esotericism, about which the least that can be said is that it was taken for granted by virtually everyone until roughly the end of the eighteenth century. Professor Drury is of the opinion that the truth is not nearly so terrible as Strauss thinks it is and hence that there is no reason to withhold it from the multitude. All truths are salutary. This obviously runs counter to the teaching of Plato’s Republic, which defends noble lies, but it also runs counter to a teaching found everywhere in Greek patristic literature.

Origen, who did so much to shape the early Christian tradition, states flatly that it is always dangerous to talk about God. His predecessor, Clement of Alexandria, had already coined the expression engraphos agrapha to explain how a truth that is unfit for general consumption but useful to the learned may be silently inscribed in a written text. Oscar Wilde, not the least perceptive of writers when it comes to such matters, knew whereof he spoke when he alluded to the “aura of mendacity that adorns the pale brow of antiquity.”

Not all intellects are capable of the highest truths. Scripture itself tells us that the number of the unwise is infinite—stultorum infinitus est numerus (Ecclesiastes 1:15), as the Latin translation of the Bible used by Augustine had it. It likewise warns that the person who digs a pit and leaves it uncovered is responsible for anyone who might fall into it. The Church Fathers took that to mean that certain thorny questions were not to be discussed in the presence of the simple faithful, lest they should prove unsettling to them. Only the shallowest of persons, who has nothing of importance to say anyway, would state publicly everything he thinks exactly as he thinks it.

This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of this matter, whose fascinating history has been told many times, most notably by Grotius in the seventeenth century and by Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century, much to the dismay of Newman’s former co-religionists. The question is not whether esotericism was condoned and practiced by our forebears—it obviously was—but why we have so much trouble accepting it today. Two factors appear to have precipitated its demise: first, the Enlightenment notion that knowledge is power and hence that the end of science and that of civil society coincide; and second, the idea of progress, with its serendipitous faith in the irreversibility of an historical process that leads to ever-higher stages of human development.

Secondly, Professor Drury objects even more strenuously, if that is possible, to Strauss’s supposed immoralism. All I can say is that the Strauss I knew was anything but the scoundrel the book makes him out to be. Far from denigrating morality, he was fond of quoting the famous text from the beginning of Book VII of the Politics, in which Aristotle says pointedly: “No one would maintain that he is happy who has not in him a particle of courage or moderation or justice or prudence, who is afraid of every insect that flutters past him, and will commit any crime, however great, in order to gratify his lust for meat or drink, who will sacrifice his dearest friend for the sake of an obol, and is as feeble and false in mind as a child or a madman.”

Professor Drury’s eagerness to paint Strauss as an immoralist reveals itself among other ways in the tendency to put the worst possible face on some rather innocuous statements. A case in point is her understanding of Strauss’s remark to the effect that “not everything just is noble,” which she takes to mean that “a certain ignobility may be just if it is deemed necessary under the circumstances.” Maybe so, but the statement also has a simpler meaning. It reminds us that the Greeks had no word for what we today call “morality.” They spoke instead of the” just” and the “noble,” thereby calling our attention to the fact that some human activities are rarer and more resplendent than others. The distinction is not unimportant. A streetsweeper who does his work well and pays his debts is without any doubt a just man. Yet no one who wishes to do justice to the full range of moral phenomena would dream of calling him noble for that reason alone.

The deeper issue concerns the ultimate status of morality, and on this score, Drury cannot come up with a better way of characterizing Strauss and his followers than by calling them highbrow consequentialists or thoroughgoing hedonists. They deny, she says, that moral virtue has any support in nature and have no qualms about bypassing it altogether when this can be done without any social inconvenience to themselves. That may or may not be the case, but given the importance that Professor Drury attaches to this issue, one wonders why she refuses to engage in any thematic discussion of it. Is there or is there not any cosmic support for justice? Is the universe structured in such a way as to insure that justice will not only predominate but always prevail within it? In simplest terms, is the world completely fair? We know that certain types of behavior are harmful to the individual who indulges in them and can thus be said to carry their own punishments with them. Eat or drink too much and you suffer the consequences. We also know that a life dedicated entirely to the pursuit of crime is liable not to be a happy one. But this still does not prove that all crimes will eventually be punished and that the only rewards that people reap in life are the ones to which in justice they are entitled.

This is what might be referred to as the problem of the happy crook, and it is a problem that is not easily resolved if one limits oneself to what natural reason is able to discover on its own. One would like to think that justice always redounds to the good of the one who practices it, but (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare) that may be more than we know. Nature could very well be indifferent to the plight of the just. If this is the kind of secret that Strauss and his disciples are bent on keeping to themselves, they are not hiding very much. There is nothing here that has not been said or hinted at over and over again by the most unimpeachable authorities. After all, Plato and Aristotle are not the only ones to raise questions about the goodness of justice in the absence of a legislating and avenging God. The cat that Professor Drury boldly lets out of the bag is a pretty small animal.

The third and perhaps most delicate of Drury’s three charges concerns Strauss’s understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, the highest theme of the Western tradition as it has developed over the centuries. As is well known, Strauss stresses the tension between these two poles and denies that they can ever be fully reconciled. Perfected reason or philosophy cannot disprove the claims of divine revelation and divine revelation cannot establish its own claims except by means of arguments that are fully convincing only to those who have already acquiesced in its authority. Indeed, if faith in divine revelation is to mean anything, it cannot ultimately be accepted on any ground other than the faith itself. What we end up with is a kind of Mexican stand-off in which neither side is able to defeat the other. Strauss is nevertheless quick to add that such a tension need not be deplored as long as one is willing and able to live it. To it, he thought, could be attributed the abiding vitality of the Western tradition.

Professor Drury, I gather, is unhappy with this formulation of the problem. Unlike Strauss, she apparently believes in a pre-established and demonstrable harmony between the two domains. She rejects Strauss’s contention that the biblical God is a God of justice rather than of theoretical wisdom and cites in support of her view the New Testament saying, “The truth will make you free.” She objects to Strauss’s characterization of philosophy as the embodiment of what Genesis calls the knowledge of good and evil, and she is less than comfortable with the view that emphasizes the total suprarationality of the assent of faith.

Each of these crucial points would require a much lengthier discussion than any that can be accorded to them here. The least that can be said by way of a cursory reply is that on all three Strauss’s views are close to, if not actually identical with, those of any number of orthodox theologians, beginning with Thomas Aquinas, who insists that the unaided human reason is powerless to establish the possibility, let alone the truth, of divine revelation. Thomas will go no further than to say that the highest achievement of natural reason is to prove, not that divine revelation is possible—to administer such a proof would be to deny implicitly the supernatural character of revelation—but that the arguments leveled against it on rational grounds are never such as to compel our assent.

The precise issue, Strauss insisted, is not whether some rapprochement between divine revelation and philosophy as bodies of doctrines is feasible. The whole of medieval philosophy shows that it is, and Strauss himself is the first to admit it. It has to do rather with the choice between faith and reason as the respective grounds of two ways of life that are mutually exclusive in so far as each one claims absolute superiority over the other. Nor, in speaking of God, is it unbiblical to stress his justice rather than his wisdom. Contrary to what Professor Drury suggests, the freedom that Christ promises when he tells us that the truth will make us free is not primarily freedom from error, which is what the philosopher seeks, but freedom from sin. St. Augustine, who in the Confessions attributes his passion for speculative truth to Cicero and not to the Bible, knew that only too well. As for the equation of philosophy with the knowledge that Adam and Eve were forbidden to seek, it was taught by no less of an authority than St. Bonaventure, who declares in the plainest of terms that “philosophy is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Professor Drury can hardly be blamed for wishing to protect morality and religion from the insidious assault supposedly mounted against them on philosophic grounds by Strauss and his school. I did not know what to make of her book when I first read it, and I am not sure what to make of it now. Here is an ostensibly orthodox thinker writing in behalf of moral and religious orthodoxy and putting people on their guard against those who would subtly undermine it. All well and good, except that most if not all of the positions impugned as both unorthodox and dangerous are identical or nearly identical to the ones taken by staunch upholders of the orthodox tradition. What in heaven’s name is going on? I was perplexed. Then the truth dawned on me: perhaps Drury’s book is a masterpiece of esoteric writing!

Every teacher knows without having to be told by Allan Bloom how hard it is to get young students to take serious writers seriously these days. Practically the only way to do it is to pick one such writer and attack him while pretending to give a scrupulously fair and impartial analysis of his thought. No reader runs the risk of missing the outwardly anti-Straussian thrust of Drury’s argument, which is the only one that needs to be put across to most of them. This leaves open the possibility that a tiny minority of more perceptive readers will be mesmerized by the eloquent passages in which Strauss’s views are laid out—often in Strauss’s own words—and will catch a glimpse of an unknown world whose beauty surpasses anything he has ever imagined. What happens after that is anybody’s guess, but, as Strauss once remarked, passages such as these, encountered in the midst of an otherwise dull book, could conceivably signal the beginning of a new life for them.

Drury’s coup was all the more brilliant as it scored a double hit. It enabled her to rehabilitate Strauss and at the same time put the nasty Straussians in their places. She made it clear from the start that she had no intention of doing what she says Straussians usually do: build a shell around Strauss in order to preserve his secret. Her task was rather to tear down that protective shell. The strategy—let us call it the Purloined Letter strategy—could not be more clever. Drury makes us see the real Strauss, but without letting on that this is what she is doing. Fooled or distracted by her exoteric attack, the casual reader will conclude that what Strauss and the Straussians discover in philosophic texts is always the same old thing—no creator God, no divine providence or divine foreknowledge, no personal immortality, and the like—and he will not look for anything beyond that in Strauss’s books.

None of this information will come as a great surprise anyway, since it does not take a genius to realize that the God of Aristotelian metaphysics, the “thought that thinks itself,” has little in common with the loving and solicitous God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Nor, if he is a believer, will the casual reader be unduly disturbed by it, for by their own admission philosophers have little to say with absolute certitude about any of the things about which they speak. The casual reader knows for having been told by Drury that their approach is mainly “zetetic”—rarely arriving at conclusions that are more than hypothetical. As a result, our casual reader is a sure bet to miss what is most exciting in Strauss. Never having personally experienced the siren call of a truly philosophic life, he will not be tempted by it and will dismiss it as nothing but hedonism in disguise. Hence the chances of his responding to Strauss as the body snatcher and Pied Piper of souls that he is are virtually nil.

All of this is to say that Professor Drury has done what no one has succeeded in doing for 40 years: she has taught Straussians a lesson in Straussianism. Anyone with a modicum of curiosity can read her book and, sinking back into his complacency, come away with the impression that he knows all there is to be known about Strauss, an impression no Straussian has ever had.

The only thing wrong with this interpretation of Drury’s work is that it takes far too much for granted. It assumes that Drury herself has understood Strauss and is therefore free to disclose or conceal his “secrets” as she sees fit and to whom she sees fit. This is to assume a great deal, especially since there is not a shred of evidence that she has reflected deeply on any of the authors whom Strauss claimed as his greatest teachers and to whom he constantly directs our attention. In consequence, nothing assures us that the student who has only her book to go by will come within striking distance of its elusive quarry, save perhaps by some unusually rare and happy accident.

  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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