Leo’s Web

A new look at Strauss’s ideas helps reveal their influence in Canada.

In recent years, particularly after the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been a flourishing cottage industry in portraying political philosopher Leo Strauss as the godfather of a nefarious and multigenerational neoconser­vative conspiracy to promote the rule of strife and unreason. As an undergraduate, I first discovered this German political philosopher through a 2004 BBC documentary by filmmaker Adam Curtis entitled The Power of Nightmares, which purported to show the parallels between Strauss and the modern theorists of Islamist terrorism. Robert Howse, a professor of international law at New York University, has produced a new book, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, which dispels the conspiracy theories while at the same time promoting a critical engagement with Strauss’s work. Through careful studies of his writings on Machiavelli and Thucydides and his exchanges with two prominent political theorists, Howse demonstrates that Strauss was not a bellicose warmonger. Instead, he was a firm believer in constitutional democracy and respectful of international law. Howse shows that one of Strauss’s major concerns was the limitation and moderation of political violence, an important precondition for the practice of philosophy. As Strauss himself wrote: “Socrates was a man of peace rather than of war. It should go without saying that a man of peace is not the same as a pacifist.”

The modern suspicion of esotericism (a major interest of Strauss), along with the loyalty of the scholar’s students and followers, has led to an outpouring in Straussophobic conspiracy theories. One of the pioneers of this strand of thought is Canadian political scientist Shadia Drury, whose 1988 book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss condemned Strauss for corrupting the young—the very charge the Athenians made against Socrates. Later, the supposed connection between Strauss and bellicosity emerged around the time of the lead-up to the Second Iraq War, especially in May 2003 with the publication of influential essays by Jeet Heer and Seymour Hersh.1 An attempt was made to draw a connection between the ideas of Strauss and some of his former graduate students who held key offices in the Bush administration. This attempt nevertheless failed to take notice of more important influences on neoconservative foreign policy, such as the nuclear war theorist Albert Wohlstetter. The differences between Strauss’s thought and the ideas of his students and followers were blurred in an attempt to place the roots of the Iraq War in the philosophic work of an obscure German émigré who had died in 1973.

Straussian conspiracy theories are currently popular on the Canadian left, frequently drawing a spurious connection between Stephen Harper and the teachings of Leo Strauss. Numerous writers have tried to find the roots of Harper’s conservatism in the ideas of Strauss, which are presented by these individuals as consisting of elite rule, nationalism, religiosity and the promotion of war. In September 2010, Rick Salutin was fired from The Globe and Mail shortly after writing a column accusing Harper of allegiance to these so-called Straussian ideals.2 The Tyee’s David Beers inferred that Salutin’s impudence in exposing Harper’s covert Straussianism (along with Salutin’s final column, which criticized then Toronto mayoral hopeful Rob Ford) provoked the dark forces who control the employment of newspaper pundits.3 Donald Gutstein has been another promoter of the Harper-Strauss conspiracy theory, especially in Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada.

The crucial link in these theories is Harper’s time in graduate school at the University of Calgary, especially his connection to the “Calgary School” of conservative scholars, such as Barry Cooper, Tom Flanagan, Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton. It was at Calgary that Harper, albeit a student in economics, supposedly fell under the sway of a Straussian coterie at the heart of the Department of Political Science. Aside from the popular conjecture about the indirect role these political scientists might have played in Harper’s intellectual development, the theory falls apart for a simple reason: the members of the Calgary School were not real Straussians. As Flanagan recently stated, neither he nor Cooper had been influenced by Strauss in any significant way; additionally, although Knopff and Morton had been taught in graduate school by students of Strauss at the University of Toronto, they remained outside the fold of his loyal followers.4

What explains the popularity of these ideas about Strauss’s agenda and influence? Perhaps, like all conspiracy theories, the idea of Straussian subversion helps to give a simple and coherent narrative to complex world events (such as the Second Iraq War) or political ideologies (such as Stephen Harper’s unique brand of modern Canadian conservatism), which would otherwise have to be acknowledged to arise from a confusing multiplicity of sources and motives. For instance, the fact that Strauss was a major influence on a decidedly non-neoconservative Canadian such as George Grant is conveniently forgotten by the promoters of these theories, as it needlessly complicates the narrative. Who, then, is the real Leo Strauss?

Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is an excellent corrective to the conspiracy theories, because Howse returns to Strauss’s lectures and writings to get at the real meaning of his ideas. Howse claims that Strauss’s mature work can be seen as an act of t’shuvah, the Jewish concept of return or repentance, in atonement for his earlier flirtations with the immoderation of the German nihilist school, as represented by such thinkers as Heidegger, Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt. Unfortunately, Howse does not provide much evidence for the thesis, instead noting a transgression-repentance pattern as a major theme in Strauss’s work. One of our only hints that Strauss moved away from his youthful philosophical interests is a 1935 letter to his close friend Karl Löwith, in which he admitted that Nietzsche “so dominated and bewitched me between my 22nd and 30th year, that I literally believed everything I understood of him.” Others have pointed to a 1933 letter to Löwith as evidence that Strauss supported the authoritarian right. Howse ably proves that Strauss was in fact suggesting liberalism would fail to successfully challenge the Nazi regime. Overall, evidence for Strauss’s allegiance to Nietzsche and likeminded German thinkers is rather scarce, if not nonexistent.

Perhaps a more useful concept to understand Strauss’s intellectual trajectory is that of Socrates’ “second sailing.” In the Phaedo, Socrates tells Cebes of the “second voyage” or “second sailing” in his intellectual development, in which he abandoned his youthful abstracted examinations into nature in favour of a new kind of inquiry. To my mind, Strauss’s second sailing began in the 1930s, and is linked, like Howse’s t’shuvah thesis, to his criticism of Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. For Strauss, this involved a reorientation toward an examination of the concrete historical development of ­philosophy.

Strauss was an important proponent of the theory that past philosophers often wrote in an ­esoteric way, the main reason for which was to avoid persecution by intolerant societies. Some have read his own writing as a similar exercise in esotericism. Howse insists on avoiding an esoteric reading of Strauss’s work, as he perceives the practice to be unnatural in the modern era: “In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss makes it clear that one must not assume a hidden meaning unless the tensions or apparent contradictions in the author’s work cannot be lucidly understood even after a careful reading of the surface of the text guided by a plausible notion of the author’s intent.” Of course, it could be debated whether all of these conditions apply to Strauss’s work. Second, it is not necessarily hard to find the centre of Strauss’s writing. Lastly, the esotericism of his writing is only controversial if one assumes this opacity exists for unnatural and nefarious purposes. Arthur Melzer shows, in Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, that there are various reasons for the practice, such as pedagogy.

Howse’s engagement with Strauss was spurred by his studies as an undergraduate under the prominent Straussian Allan Bloom at the University of Toronto in the late 1970s. The latter returned to the University of Chicago in 1979, and Howse enrolled there in graduate school, but he became disenchanted with the culture of the Straussians. Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is in part a critique of what Howse calls the “Straussian cult,” those scholars who have drawn together due to their common tutelage by Strauss or his students (like Bloom), or their interest in the line of inquiry developed by Strauss. I think Howse can be perhaps too critical of the Straussians, especially as he does not adequately address their internal divisions and disagreements, such as the popular classification of the esoteric scholars of “East Coast Straussianism” versus the conservative polemicists of “West Coast Straussianism.”

However, some of Strauss’s more outspoken devotees remind me of Bloom’s description in Love and Friendship of Apollodorus, a disciple of Socrates who appears in the Symposium:

Such followers were not designed to win friends or influence people, although their capacity to retell Socrates’ interesting speeches did have an effect in transmitting something of Socrates’ teaching. This is a problem faced by all great teachers, the fanatic loyalists whose fanaticism is quite alien to the teachers’ disposition. They develop an almost religious reverence for this man whose teaching they are so deeply impressed by but are not themselves in a position adequately to judge.

Howse can sometimes be imprudent in his criticism of Straussian scholars, but he demonstrates that it is possible to engage with Strauss’s ideas with a critical distance that can steer between total agreement and absolute rejection. Howse’s presentation of Strauss’s thinking is not a rehabilitation of Strauss so as much as a representation of his work to a new audience of readers.

As a specialist in international law, Howse has reconstructed Strauss’s views on political violence, to debunk those who claim that he was an enthusiastic advocate of bellicosity. Strauss certainly gained a reputation for conservatism due to his skepticism about the possibility of a permanent settlement of all international conflict—in his famous debate with Alexandre Kojève (discussed by Howse) this was the “Universal and Homogenous State,” which would mark the End of History and, quite possibly, the end of philosophy. But although skeptical of what he argued were utopian projects, Strauss nevertheless supported the moderating influence of international laws. Still, this prudent skepticism has often been mischaracterized as bellicosity by modern thinkers habituated to more hopeful objectives.

Howse’s great contribution is to show that Strauss was largely not a polemical thinker. In fact, this is what set Strauss apart from Schmitt in the first place. By turning toward philosophy’s past, Strauss rediscovered the practice of non-polemical thought, in which the possibility of grasping the truth was seriously considered. It is perhaps this attribute of his thought that could partly explain the great animosity toward Strauss: if he mostly refused to engage in present-minded polemics, what was he hiding? Many hostile scholars, refusing to believe in an alternative to polemic, thus see dangerous and hidden political motives within Strauss’s work.

The most outstanding aspect of Strauss’s thought is his openness to alternatives, to the roads not taken in the history of ideas. He could take seriously the fact of revelation alongside the truths from reason, as shown by his lifelong interest in the tension between “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” Strauss sought to understand the thinkers of the past in their own terms and tried to present their ideas from their own perspectives. He was a key figure in the contemporary renaissance of interest in Islamic philosophy, and was fluent in Arabic, along with several other languages. This is a great irony, that a notorious “conservative” such as Strauss could be a greater promoter of intellectual diversity than some of the liberal partisans of diversity for its own sake. This openness to alternative ideas and ways of life is one of the original meanings of liberalism.

Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is particularly notable for Howse’s use of hundreds of hours of audio recordings students made of Strauss’s lectures. These recordings, digitized and made available online by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, help refute the notion that Strauss ­delivered a nefarious secret teaching to his pupils. In these crackly tape recordings, made so long ago in classrooms at the University of Chicago, Claremont College and St. John’s College Annapolis, we hear the voice of another Leo Strauss—an elderly scholar devoted to his students and the life of scholarship. It is the same voice that Howse has so ably presented to us. Strauss is among the most important thinkers of the 20th century, bequeathing to us vital insights into the nature of war, philosophy and peace.

  1. Jeet Heer, “The Philosopher,” Boston Globe, May 11, 2003, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2003/05/11/the_philosopher, and Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” New Yorker, May 12, 2003, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/05/12/selective-intelligence

  2. Rick Salutin, “Stephen Harper—The Last Straussian?” Globe and Mail, September 17, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/stephen-harper—the-last-straussian/article621870/

  3. David Beers, “Rick Salutin’s Last Words,” The Tyee, September 30, 2010, http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2010/09/30/RickSalutinLastWords

  4. Tom Flanagan, “Legends of the Calgary School,” VoegelinView, 25 January 2015, http://voegelinview.com/legends-calgary-school-guns-dogs