Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy
by Michael P. Zuckert and Catherine H. Zuckert
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-13573-1 | Paper: 978-0-226-47948-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-13587-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Leo Strauss and his alleged political influence regarding the Iraq War have in recent years been the subject of significant media attention, including stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.Time magazine even called him “one of the most influential men in American politics.” With The Truth about Leo Strauss, Michael and Catherine Zuckert challenged the many claims and speculations about this notoriously complex thinker. Now, with Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, they turn their attention to a searching and more comprehensive interpretation of Strauss’s thought as a whole, using the many manifestations of the “problem of political philosophy” as their touchstone.
 
For Strauss, political philosophy presented a “problem” to which there have been a variety of solutions proposed over the course of Western history. Strauss’s work, they show, revolved around recovering—and restoring—political philosophy to its original Socratic form. Since positivism and historicism represented two intellectual currents that undermined the possibility of a Socratic political philosophy, the first part of the book is devoted to Strauss’s critique of these two positions. Then, the authors explore Strauss’s interpretation of the history of philosophy and both ancient and modern canonical political philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Locke. Strauss’s often-unconventional readings of these philosophers, they argue, pointed to solutions to the problem of political philosophy. Finally, the authors examine Strauss’s thought in the context of the twentieth century, when his chief interlocutors were Schmitt, Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.
 
The most penetrating and capacious treatment of the political philosophy of this complex and often misunderstood thinker, from his early years to his last works, Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy reveals Strauss’s writings as an attempt to show that the distinctive characteristics of ancient and modern thought derive from different modes of solving the problem of political philosophy and reveal why he considered the ancient solution both philosophically and politically superior.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Michael Zuckert is a Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, The Natural Rights Republic, and Launching Liberalism.Catherine Zuckert is a Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Plato’s Philosophers, Postmodern Platos, and The American Imagination. Together, they are the authors of The Truth about Leo Strauss, also published by the University of Chicago Press. They live in South Bend, IN.

REVIEWS

Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy offers a welcome exposition and defense of Strauss as a political philosopher. Given the considerable range and depth of Strauss’s writings, serious readers could use a reliable overview and a connecting thread for seeing their way through them. These the Zuckerts seek to provide. Of the recent books on Strauss, none matches this one in scope or detail.”
— Martin D. Yaffe, University of North Texas

“The Zuckerts have done it again! Their new book establishes Strauss as being at the forefront of the great philosophic minds of the twentieth century.  This book not only makes Strauss’s writings clear and accessible, but raises him above the shabby polemics to which his thought has too often been subject. Their careful readings, together with a mastery of the entire corpus of Strauss’s work, will put this book on the top shelf for those interested in a serious engagement with Strauss the thinker.”
— Steven B. Smith, Yale University

“In 2008 the Zuckerts published The Truth about Leo Strauss primarily to defend Strauss against the charge of being the ideological source behind unpopular initiatives within American foreign policy. This book seeks rather to explain Strauss’s political philosophy from within by showing the various influences to which he was responding and to test his philosophy for completeness and coherence. In this second project, they succeed admirably. . . . A fascinating study.”
— Heythrop Journal

“Essential. . . . Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert have taken on the ambitious task of analyzing Leo Strauss’s entire intellectual career. The result is a very good introduction to Strauss’s published works. It is more than a summary of one of the twentieth century's most influential political theorists, however, as the Zuckerts attempt the even more ambitious goal of trying to reconcile Strauss's entire career into a coherent statement of his ultimate view of philosophy.”
— Choice

“[The book] not only illuminates many fundamental issues but also gives readers more food for thought and wonderment.”
— Perspectives on Political Science

“The Zuckerts have succeeded beautifully. This latest effort will serve both as an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with Strauss’s thought and influence and as a path to a much fuller understanding for those who are already familiar with some aspects of his works.”
— Perspectives on Politics

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0001
[Leo Strauss, political philosophy, history, philosophy, esotericism, controversial, history of ideas]
Leo Strauss was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. Although most of his work took the form of investigations in the history of political philosophy, his intentions were not simply those of a historian of ideas. His investigations had a philosophical and even, to a degree, a political purpose. His chief goal in both his historical and his more strictly philosophical writings was the restoration of political philosophy as a meaningful enterprise. Strauss always emphasized the importance of beginning with the surface. The most surface observation about him is that he has been hounded by controversy, both about what he thought and about its value. We thus begin by asking, why all this controversy? Three answers come to mind: the fusion of history and philosophy in his work; his esotericism thesis; and his complex central idea of the “problem of political philosophy”. The last serves as the core theme of this book. (pages 1 - 16)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0002
[Leo Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, failure of Enlightenment project, Weimar, crisis of our times, positivism, fact-value distinction]
Two events were probably most decisive for setting Strauss on the path that led to his mature philosophic orientation. The first was his education, formally in the neo-Kantian tradition and more informally under the influence of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. The other was the political disaster unfolding around him in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was an uncanny and important coincidence between these two major formative forces in Strauss’s life, for the philosophers to whom he was attracted were at the forefront of challenging the kind of Enlightenment thought that inspired the failing Weimar republic. From that convergence Strauss inferred that the liberal Enlightenment project was not viable. He saw the resulting situation as “the crisis of our times,” an important element of which was the dominance of positivism and the fact-value distinction. Much of his philosophic efforts were devoted to refuting this doctrine. (pages 19 - 33)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0003
[Leo Strauss, historicism, philosophy, history, Martin Heidegger, esotericism, history of philosophy]
Strauss took historicism more seriously as a threat to philosophy than he took positivism, for he believed the latter naturally transformed itself into the former. He defined historicism as the replacement of philosophic questions with historical questions; and he labored to rescue philosophy from it. He also, paradoxically, engaged in historical studies and defended his own work by arguing for the necessity of a “fusion” of philosophy and history in our time, affirming all the while that “political philosophy is fundamentally different from the history of political philosophy.” The former seeks to answer “the question of the nature of political things,” whereas the latter seeks to discover “how this or that philosopher or all philosophers have approached, discussed or answered the philosophic question.” The one question, Strauss insisted, “cannot possibly be mistaken” for the other. His refutation of historicism involved a philosophical confrontation with its most philosophic form in Heidegger and the adumbration of his theory of esotericism. (pages 34 - 60)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0004
[Leo Strauss, history of political philosophy, Socratic Turn, Machiavellian turn, Martin Heidegger]
Strauss’s concern to restore political philosophy and overcome historicism led him to reread the history of political philosophy. He is known for his many innovative studies of individual philosophers, but he also extracted from that rereading an overarching narrative of the history of political philosophy. In various ways Heidegger opened the way for Strauss’s radical rereading of the tradition, but Strauss’s novel understanding of this history proved to be very different from Heidegger’s. He rejected Heidegger’s version of that history as one history from the pre-Socratics to Nietzsche, working out what was implicit at the very beginning. Rather, that history had two breaks that were not predictable nor the working out of what was pre-existing. There was both a “Socratic Turn” and a “Machiavellian Turn,” the birth of political philosophy in Socrates and the birth of modernity in Machiavelli. These “turns” were products of choices or insights, not of necessity. (pages 63 - 89)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0005
[Leo Strauss, pre-modern thought, progress, roots of the West, biblical revelation, Progress or Return, classical philosophy]
Among the most widely known of Strauss’s ideas was his call for a return to pre-modern thought. That call for return was understood by him to stand in contrast to the intellectual orientation of our day toward progress. He made the contrast between these two orientations thematic in lectures called, appropriately, “Progress or Return?” He made two main points. He held, first, that the modern idea of progress is fundamentally incoherent, because based on an untenable combination of concepts drawn from the two fundamentally incompatible “roots” of the Western tradition: ancient or classical philosophy and Biblical revelation. Second, in light of the failure of the modern project, he urged his contemporaries to return to and “live the tension between” the two “roots” of the Western tradition, each of which is more coherent than later attempts to synthesize them. (pages 90 - 116)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0006
[Leo Strauss, Plato, Republic, Laws, Apology, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, drama of the dialogues, Alfarabi]
Strauss’s call for a return to the ancients was above all a call for return to the Socratics, most especially Plato. He came to a new way of reading and understanding Plato through his earlier studies of the Arabic philosopher Alfarabi. This chapter presents Strauss’s novel understanding of “Platonic political philosophy.” He wrote extensively but not exhaustively on Plato with studies of the Republic, Statesman, and Laws, Plato’s main political dialogues, as well as the Apology and Crito, the Euthydemus and the Euthyphro. The dominant understanding of the Platonic dialogues in the Western philosophical tradition emphasized the centrality of Plato’s doctrines—the theories of the “ideas” and the immortality of the soul. Strauss reads Plato entirely differently, emphasizing the dramatic and ad hominem character of much in the dialogues. (pages 117 - 143)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0007
[Leo Strauss, Aristotle, The City and Man, political science, political philosophy, Socrates, Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics]
Strauss was one of the first non-Thomists to call for a return to the ancients in the face of the twin forces of progressivism and historicism that made the idea of return seem retrograde or absurd. Since Strauss wrote, the idea of return has become more widespread. Yet he still differs from most of the others who wish to so return: Aristotle is not the central name in his concern with ancient philosophy. He has remarkably few writings devoted to Aristotle – only one on a particular Aristotelian text, the first chapter in his The City and Man. This chapter looks at Strauss’s writing on Aristotle and his related writings on political science (Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics), where he recommends an Aristotelian political science. Strauss describes Aristotle as the originator of political science, as compared to Socrates, the founder of political philosophy. (pages 144 - 166)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0008
[Leo Strauss, Niccolò Machiavelli, Marsilius of Padua, modernity, crossroads]
Strauss identified Machiavelli as the originator of modern political philosophy, and frequently wrote on him. One of his writings was the essay on Machiavelli in the second and later editions of History of Political Philosophy, where Strauss paired that essay with another he had written on Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius and Machiavelli faced similar situations– the theological-political order of late medieval times in Italy. But one reacted in a way that remained within the classical tradition of political philosophy, while the other went beyond and ushered in that new “kind of thought which is philosophic indeed but no longer Greek: modern philosophy.” It is as though Marsilius and Machiavelli came to the same crossroads, Marsilius veering back toward classical political philosophy, and Machiavelli heading off toward that new moral continent Strauss called modernity. These twin essays reveal especially well just how Strauss understood the nature of modernity. (pages 167 - 195)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0009
[Leo Strauss, John Locke, law of nature, Natural Right and History, Thomas Aquinas, Essays on the Law of Nature]
The Lockean form of modernity was generally more attractive than the Machiavellian and far more successful. Locke appealed to what seemed a version of traditional natural law and cast his argument in many places in theistic terms. In Natural Right and History Strauss argued that this appearance was mostly a clever subterfuge. The chapter in Natural Right and History had been written prior to the 1954 appearance of a text, the Essays on the Law of Nature, that had been found in Locke’s papers. The new text was sometimes seen as a definitive rebuttal to Strauss’s version of Locke. In an essay on this new text Strauss vindicates his original reading and, building on Locke’s presentation, goes on to offer his own serious refutation of natural law philosophy, in particular the version of that doctrine associated with Thomas Aquinas. (pages 196 - 214)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0010
[fascism, authoritarianism, Carl Schmitt, Karl Löwith, liberal democracy]
Strauss was not merely a conservative critic of liberalism, critics now maintain; they say that in the 1930’s he openly sympathized with fascist imperialists and that he continued to advocate authoritarian politics covertly after he emigrated to the U.S. This chapter shows that these allegations rest on a serious misreading of the review Strauss wrote of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. The understanding of “the political” Strauss derived from classical political philosophy was very different from Schmitt’s. The letter Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith in May, 1933, did not constitute a profession of Strauss’s own fascist political principles, but expressed Strauss’s view of the political facts and possibilities in the Germany of 1933. Strauss argued that the theoretical foundation of liberal democracy in modern political philosophy is defective, but that it “derives powerful support from the pre-modern thought of our western tradition.” (pages 217 - 253)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0011
[Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Emil Fackenheim, Martin Heidegger, Jewish thinkers]
This chapter highlights the distinctive character of Strauss’s response—both political and philosophical—to his difficult position as a Jewish student of philosophy in Weimar Germany by contrasting it with the responses of two other similarly situated individuals—Hannah Arendt and Emil Fackenheim. All three were Jewish students of philosophy in Germany, Strauss and Arendt in the 1920’s and 1930’s until the National Socialists came to power; Fackenheim in the 1930’s. Because they were Jewish, they could not simply follow or adopt the exciting “new thinking” of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger–especially after he publically joined the Nazi party that called for the expulsion and, finally, the extermination of the Jews. Because they were students of philosophy, however, they could not simply dismiss Heidegger’s thought on account of its horrible political consequences. (pages 254 - 288)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0012
[Leo Strauss, liberal education, great books, problem of political philosophy, Liberal Education and Responsibility, What Is Liberal Education]
“I own that education is in a sense the subject matter of my teaching and my research.” Thus Leo Strauss in an essay on liberal education. Yet he wrote relatively little directly on the subject, only two essays. In one, he writes on the topic “What is Liberal Education,” one of only two pieces in his entire corpus explicitly raising in its title the Socratic question, the “what is” question. In the other he addresses “Liberal education and Responsibility.” The first addresses liberal education in light of philosophy, the other liberal education in light of politics. The two together reflect the dual aspects of the “problem of political philosophy.” The thesis of both, however, is the need for Great books education, raising a puzzle about the essays and Strauss’s educational practice: how can the same education fit such different ends? (pages 289 - 310)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0013
[Leo Strauss, Straussians, morality, religion, Athens, Jerusalem, Plato, Aristotle]
More than most thinkers of the 20th Century, Leo Strauss polarized his audience. Thus has arisen the phenomenon, nearly unique among the century’s academic thinkers, of a recognized group of “followers,” called “Straussians.” But that label suggests much greater unity than exists among those influenced by Strauss. The number and the diversity of subject matter studied make it impossible to canvass or catalogue the universe of “Straussians.” The principle of selection to be followed here is to focus on some of the major lines of cleavage discernible among the “Straussians.” The disagreements in question here center on certain puzzles or now-familiar ambiguities in Strauss’s thinking. The two most fundamental puzzles are: (1) what is the status of religion, or the problem of Athens and Jerusalem, and (2) what is the status of morality, or the problem of Plato and Aristotle. (pages 311 - 337)
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- Michael P. Zuckert, Catherine H. Zuckert
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226135878.003.0014
[Leo Strauss, crisis of the West, Socratic philosophy, political philosophy, the problem of political philosophy, public spirited philosophy]
Leo Strauss was born into a world in crisis. While that crisis became apparent to him first in politics, he came to see that the crisis extended to human life and knowledge as a whole. Although the danger was great, Strauss also came to believe, the crisis of the West constituted a great opportunity. Following out this opportunity led Strauss to his life-long project—the restoration of Socratic philosophy, i.e., political philosophy in the original and still valid sense. One response to the problem of political philosophy is the public-spirited philosopher, for the “problem of political philosophy” means that it must make a case for its value to the city. But the problem of political philosophy has another face: the philosopher has a potentially antipathetic relation to ordinary citizens. Negotiating that divide constitutes the various solutions to the problem of political philosophy and the theme of Strauss’s corpus. (pages 338 - 352)
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