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December 1, 2012

Misreading Leo Strauss

A misbegotten charge of Nazi sympathies

According to william altman’s The German Stranger, Leo Strauss concocted a “radical critique of liberal democracy” that is a “synthesis” of the thought of Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, “two cowardly, utterly repulsive, and lapel pin-wearing Nazi philosophers.” Strauss could not join the party due to his “Jewish blood,” but he “did what no mere Nazi could have done or dreamed of doing: he boldly brought his anti-liberal project to the United States, the most fearsome of his homeland’s Western enemies and the greatest and most powerful liberal democracy that has ever been.” Strauss’s project is “primarily destructive: it was the theoretical foundation of liberal democracy in general that he sought to annihilate, not some new form of totalitarianism he aimed to erect.”

Leo Strauss was born into an observant Jewish home in Germany at the end of the 19th century. As a young man he participated in the Zionist movement; he studied philosophy in several German universities, encountered Husserl and Heidegger as well as the academic philosophy of the neo-Kantian school, and began his scholarly career as a researcher in Jewish Studies in Berlin in the 1920s. Strauss left Germany on a fellowship to Cambridge in 1932 and did not return after Hitler came to power. He lived in England and France for a number of years before moving to the New School in New York, where he obtained a regular faculty position in 1941. Later, Strauss accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago, where he wrote the works that have made him famous, such as Natural Right and History, the City and Man, and Thoughts on Machiavelli. He is best known in America, at least by those who have taken the trouble to study carefully his writings, for his critique of the roots of modernity based on a perspective that is largely drawn from pre-modern philosophy — Greek, Jewish, and Islamic.

Altman is aware of the many statements of Strauss against Nazism, often worded in strong, passionate terms. He knows that Strauss said many things that could be taken to support liberal democracy, including that liberal democracy was the best possible political alternative in his own time. According to Altman, these explicit statements are lies, designed to conceal the true nature of Strauss’s project from unsuspecting, innocent Americans. Strauss had claimed that the great philosophers of the past wrote “exoterically” — in such a manner as to conceal their true teaching from all but a few understanding readers. According to Strauss these thinkers did so to avoid persecution, and also the harm to themselves and society that could come from the innocent and not-so-innocent misappropriation of their ideas. Writing in this way — “between the lines” — entails burying in a work with an innocuous external teaching various statements that guide the reader toward the author’s true intent. Altman believes that Strauss himself practiced exotericism. According to Altman, once we assume this we will find many statements in Strauss’s writing that modify those which attack Nazism and support liberal democracy. While often ambiguous, these statements, Altman maintains, are decisive hints of Strauss’s hidden Nazi-inspired attack on liberalism.

Reading “with suspicion”

Even if it is were true that Strauss wrote between the lines, this does not establish that all explicit statements of Strauss are misleading or false accounts of his views. Altman would still have to show that the particular statements in question in favor of liberal democracy or against Nazism are lies. This depends on interpreting the ambiguous statements as anti-liberal and pro-Nazi. But ambiguous statements by definition permit of more than one meaning. On the basis of what principle ought we to resolve the ambiguity in favor of a pro-Nazi or anti-liberal meaning?

The principle Altman asserts is that of reading “with suspicion.” But where does such suspicion come from? A small shelf of books (mostly) dedicated to discrediting Strauss and his scholarship. The first of these, Shadia Drury’s The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, accused Strauss of being a Machiavellian, a Nietzschean, a nihilist, and many other things he could not possibly be all at the same time. Later, in the Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism, a much more serious work than the others, Stephen Holmes read Strauss’s remark about the need for “a horizon beyond liberalism” as a demand for an anti-liberal philosophy of the right; in a book that was otherwise perceptive about anti-liberalism, Holmes nevertheless didn’t consider the meaning of “a horizon beyond liberalism” in the context of Strauss’s subsequent writing, including his most relevant work on the subject, Liberalism Ancient and Modern. In the wake of the Iraq War, Anne Norton, in Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, resorted to the dubious method of discerning Strauss’s thought from the views of a handful of students and admirers on the American right; she thus excused herself from the task of coming to grips with what Strauss actually wrote and taught.

Altman knows he can succeed in his indictment of Strauss only on the basis of prior suspicions about Strauss and liberal democracy.

Altman knows that he can succeed in his indictment of Strauss only on the basis of a prior suspicion that Strauss is an enemy of the American regime of liberal democracy. Strauss must be guilty until proven innocent. So Altman depends on the reader having already been influenced by attacks on Strauss by critics like Drury, Norton, and Holmes; as with Socrates’s situation as he presents it in the Platonic Apology, Altman’s prosecution of Strauss can work only on the basis of a prejudice aroused against him by the earlier accusers.

Altman exhorts the reader: “we must entertain the suspicion that [Strauss] is not offering us the all-American apple pie we like and that, moreover, he knows full well that we like.”  Therefore, “we must not assume that he sees things as we do unless he makes it unambiguously clear that he does so” (emphasis added).

The “we” to whom Altman is referring here are those Americans who regard certain truths as “self-evident” — namely, the truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Altman is “tempted” to say that these documents are “the most perfect products” of Enlightenment Rationalism. It is the “truths” of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that set the standard for what “Americans” or “thoughtful” Americans find it “natural” to believe. Strauss “neither unambiguously embraces positions that we find natural nor unambiguously repudiates ones we find abhorrent.” At least in the mouth of a “German stranger,” the slightest hesitation or nuance in affirming the “self-evident truths” of the American regime is evidence of treason. This is a test for anti-Americanism that is far more elastic and dangerous to free thought than anything proposed in the McCarthy era.

Altman says that he “will rely on [his] readers to know Nazism whey they see it.” But they will do so only if they adopt Altman’s own definition of Nazism in the first place: “national pride and the solidarity of all Germans, regardless of class.” A “German” is defined here by Altman as anyone born as a citizen of the Second Reich. Thus, incredibly, according to Altman, anti-Semitism and even Aryanism are not connected to the core of Nazism but mere accidental features of it. Be that as it may, this definition has the crucial benefit to Altman that it allows him to set the bar of proof for his thesis very low indeed. For any statement that does not unambiguously repudiate nationalism or patriotism, however liberal (i.e., including a citizen-based concept of the nation) then becomes an affirmation of the “core” of Nazism. Bizarrely, Altman presents his own project as essentially motivated by American patriotism — “for the sake of my native land, which demands something better than our best from those who love her.” It appears that only in America, or perhaps only in the soul of Altman, is love of country not tainted by “Nazism.”

The intellectual witch hunt entailed in Altman’s reading “with suspicion” is antithetical to Strauss’s method.

Although Altman claims he is following Strauss’s own principles for reading between the lines, the intellectual witch hunt entailed in Altman’s reading “with suspicion” is antithetical to Strauss’s method. Strauss writes in “Persecution and the Art of Writing” that “reading between the lines is strictly prohibited in all cases where it would be less exact than not doing so. Only such reading between the lines as starts from an exact consideration of the explicit statements of the author is legitimate.” Thus, one must not start from suspicion that the explicit statements of the author are untrue, but rather the reverse. Only where these explicit statements contradict one another, or contain errors of fact or blunders of logic, can one have recourse to reading between the lines. And reading between the lines entails discerning the “plan” or “design” of the work by a careful consideration of the work as a whole — all of its disparate elements.

While all of Strauss’s reading between the lines of older thinkers entails an intricate examination of individual works as wholes and a concern with reconciling the details with the plan or the design of the work, Altman moves free form between many different writings of Strauss — entire books, posthumously published lectures and drafts, private correspondence. He strings together snippets from all this material, each quotation taken out of context to display Strauss’s hatred of liberalism. I imagine that if one were clever enough with this technique one could make any major thinker out to be fascist, probably even Kant.

After telling us he will provide an exposition of “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” Altman makes a move that will be repeated every other time in The German Stranger when he promises to provide a careful reading of a work of Strauss that will uncover Strauss’s hidden teaching. Instead of a systematic interpretation, Altman cites a few isolated sentences or phrases from the work in question, then goes on to divert the reader with a dazzling but disorganized display of erudition. For instance:

Although Hegel’s 1817 review of Jacobi’s collected writings has not yet been translated, it is only a question of time before the decisive impact Jacobi had on Hegel is recognized: both German and American scholars are now doing important work on this subject. The trick, then, is not to illustrate the continuity between Hegel and Hamann or Hegel and Jacobi but use them to reveal the link between the apparently Christian Hegel and the openly anti-Christian Nietzsche. Naturally this project can only be sketched here: the train of thought that links Hamann, Jacobi, Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss.  But an awareness of this link is extremely important for catching Strauss. [Emphasis added; footnotes omitted]

Note Altman’s strategy. He first of all tells the reader that there is a link that is important for catching Strauss. But then he confesses that, in his 600-page book, he has no space to prove it. He can only “sketch” it. “Sketch” means that Altman insinuates the link while indicating to the reader that he would need to do forbidding scholarly footwork either to prove or refute it. In effect, the reader is invited to defer to Altman’s mere assertion of the existence of the link, fortified by a mass of pedantic footnotes. After all, if he were to challenge Altman’s “sketch” he would need to read a book review by Hegel that Altman makes very clear has not been translated into English, and as well as to have a competent grasp of the work of Hamann, Jacobi, Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Better to trust secret agent Altman with his linguistic skills and his arcane researches behind enemy lines. This is the sleight of hand by which, again and again, Altman seeks to induce the assent of the reader in the absence of proof.

Another example that illustrates this strategy is Altman’s claim that Strauss had discovered esotericism well before he began to study with care the medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers. Here Altman directs the reader to Strauss’s doctoral dissertation, written in his early twenties, where Strauss discusses the final footnote in an obscure work of the anti-Enlightenment thinker Jacobi. Altman tells us the footnote is too lengthy for him to translate. He never does walk the reader through Strauss’s actual analysis of the footnote, or explain why it shows awareness of esotericism. After torturing and teasing us for pages about the footnote, he finally admits that “obscure footnotes” can’t tell us that much about whether Strauss recognized Jacobi’s esotericism. Instead we have to rely on Altman’s own judgment that “Strauss, whose ability to spot such things cannot be doubted, was too smart not to realize it.” But why should we believe Altman’s hunch that Strauss had some uncanny gift or knack for uncovering hidden truths, rather than Strauss’s own claim that his rediscovery of esotericism was due to the painstaking study of earlier thinkers like Maimonides and Farabi?

“Horizon beyond liberalism”

Despite all the insinuations and the grandiose claims that he has finally managed to “catch” or nail Strauss, the substance of Altman’s allegations against Strauss doesn’t differ that much from the attacks of Drury, Norton, and Holmes. A great deal of the focus is on Strauss’s association with Carl Schmitt and his admiration for Heidegger and Nietzsche (in fairness to critics like Holmes there are scholars sympathetic to Strauss, like Heinrich Meier and Laurence Lampert, who also greatly overstate, for different purposes, Strauss’s affinity with thinkers of the German right like Schmitt). In the case of Schmitt, Altman breaks no new ground but revisits Strauss’s familiar criticism that Schmitt’s attack on liberalism operated nevertheless within liberalism’s assumptions or horizon, while according to Strauss what was required was a “horizon beyond liberalism.” Like Holmes and others, Altman offers this as evidence that Strauss is a much more thoroughgoing or extreme antiliberal than even the (at that time proto-Nazi) Schmitt.

As I have shown at length elsewhere, Strauss meant something entirely different when he called for a “horizon beyond liberalism.” He thought it inadequate to reject the philosophical premises of liberalism on account of dissatisfaction with the liberal world in which he and Schmitt lived. Rather, one must look beyond the world that liberalism created and wrestle with the philosophical premises of liberalism on their own terms. One must not assume that the decadence, weakness, and bourgeois emptiness of Weimar are the inevitable result of liberalism. To understand the force of the original premises of liberalism one must return to the beginnings of modernity, where liberalism was born in opposition to the pre-liberal, pre-modern world. Liberalism’s basis must be judged through an understanding of the pre-liberal world to which liberalism opposed itself. Was liberalism a justified or necessary response to the evils or shortcomings of that world?

Strauss wrote in his intellectual autobiography that his encounter with Schmitt was the beginning of a change in orientation. But the change in orientation is not the one that Altman and other critics believe. As Strauss indicates in the 1965 German edition of his early Hobbes book, Schmitt’s influence sent him back to the study of Hobbes, but in a different manner than Schmitt himself had studied Hobbes — i.e., with an adequate awareness of the pre-liberal horizon in which and against which Hobbes established his political teaching. Thus, the “horizon beyond liberalism” to which Strauss refers in his remarks on the Concept of the Political is the horizon within which, and against which, Hobbes founded liberalism, not a new antiliberal horizon to be constructed by Strauss. As Strauss put it in his intellectual biography, he had believed a return to pre-modern thought impossible. What changed this belief was the discovery that the core of Hobbes’s political teaching was not derived from, or the result of, modern science or modern biblical criticism. Rather, Hobbes based his political thought on a radical and willful change in moral orientation from premodern thought. To question the superiority of this moral orientation to that characteristic of premodern thought did not depend on rehabilitating premodern science or on a return to the horizon of faith in the premodern world.

For Strauss, a true philosophical interrogation of liberalism could not be achieved through a decision of the will against liberalism. Both liberal and antiliberal ideology stood in the way of an adequate investigation of the foundations of liberalism. Critique had to be based on dispassionate understanding rather than polemical opposition. What thus followed from Strauss’s change of orientation was the continuous and simultaneous study, throughout the rest of his life, of both modern and premodern thought, with an emphasis on the foundational works of modernity. This was the precise sense in which Strauss sought “an horizon beyond liberalism.” This differentiates Strauss sharply from the antiliberalism of Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Heidegger.

The remarks that Altman misrepresents as Strauss’s views occur precisely where Strauss is summarizing Schmitt’s position.

Altman takes passages where clearly Strauss is interpreting the intent of Schmitt and passes them off as statements of Strauss’s own views. When Strauss refers to polemics against liberalism as only the preparatory step for the decisive battle between the spirit of technology and “the opposed spirit or faith” that does not yet have a name, he does so in a paragraph that is intended to prove the proposition that antiliberal polemics cannot be Schmitt’s last word, in the sense that he has failed to articulate in the name of what alternative it is worth battling liberalism. The remarks that Altman misrepresents as Strauss’s views occur precisely where Strauss is summarizing Schmitt’s position for purposes of critiquing it.

As Strauss had noted in the previous paragraph, decisionism cannot articulate or defend what the decision is for and thus is as relativistic as the kind of liberalism that Schmitt despises. In this sense, Strauss saves liberalism from the consequences of its own turn toward relativism, while indicating why that turn opens the door to decisionism and why at the same time Schmitt’s brand of antiliberalism would have little purchase against a nonrelativistic form of liberalism that is able and willing to defend its principles as true. Strauss pointedly notes: “the liberal respects and tolerates all ‘honestly held’ convictions, so long as these respect the legal order or acknowledge the sanctity of peace, whoever affirms the political as such, respects and tolerates all ‘serious’ convictions, in other words, all decisions leading up to the real possibility of war.” Strauss brilliantly discloses the inadequacy of warrior morality as a political orientation by challenging Schmitt to say in the name of what understanding of the “order of human things” warrior morality itself is worth fighting for. It is not enough to remain at the level of polemics and say that one is fighting against liberalism.

Where Altman most differs from the other misreadings is by proposing a psychological basis for Strauss’s purported endorsement of warrior morality; according to Altman, like Schmitt and Heidegger Strauss had to expurgate his guilt or shame for having not fought in World War I by adopting a particularly virulent form of militarism. Typical for Altman, this theory — it is presented as something very clever and original — has a dubious basis. Strauss was younger than Heidegger and Schmitt and only fifteen at the outbreak of the First World War, yet Strauss did indeed serve in the German army from July 1917 until the end of the war.

The smoking gun

Altman, like most of the recent critics, views a letter that Strauss wrote to his friend the philosopher Karl Löwith in 1933 as convincing and damning evidence of Strauss’s sympathy with Nazism. The overall context of the letter is Strauss’s explanation to Löwith  why he cannot imagine returning to Germany now that Hitler is in power. Strauss writes:

I will never be able to write other than in German, even if I must write in another language. On the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility of living under the swastika, i.e., under a symbol that says nothing more to me than: you and your ilk, you are physei [by nature] subhumans and therefore justly pariahs.

It would be very hard to take this explanation of why Strauss cannot return to Germany as an indication of sympathy with Nazism. But then Strauss goes on to write:

To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian, and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme [inalienable rights of man] to protest against the shabby abomination . . . There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.1

It requires only a little care, and remembering the context of the letter, to understand that Strauss is not here affirming as true “the principles of the right” but rather he is suggesting that they are the only effective basis on which Hitler (“the shabby abomination”) could be opposed in the present circumstances. Given what Germany had become by 1933, an appeal to liberalism would be ridiculous and contemptible; it would amount to giving oneself up for crucifixion. Better to live in exile, even in the ghetto, than to sacrifice oneself for a liberalism that had already proven impotent against Nazi thugs.

Unlike most of the other critics of Strauss, who assume that “shabby abomination” (meskine Unwesen) refers to Nazism, Altman, based on a suggestion of Michael Zank, argues that meskine Unwesen refers to libertarian or laissez-faire capitalism in Germany. Thus, Altman would have it that Strauss was suggesting only the extreme right could counter the excesses of capitalism. The trouble with Altman’s reading is that the letter in question was drafted after Hitler came into power. The relevant political issue then was not capitalism. Thus, as noted, the preceding sentence of the letter makes it clear that what is unbearable is Hitler, not capitalism. Altman assumes that meskine as used by Strauss is a Germanization of the French mesquin, one of the meanings of which is stingy or ungenerous (sometimes employed in French anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews, as Altman notes). However, Altman’s philology is inadequate. Meskine is ultimately derived not from mesquin but rather a Semitic word (it has both Arabic and Hebrew variants) for “impoverished” or “bereft.” Both mesquin and meskine appear in German literary writing in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no reason why Strauss would use meskine if he intended the shades of meaning evoked by the French mesquin.

Strauss’s view of liberalism

The lack of foundation for Altman’s stance on Strauss as an antiliberal should not blind us to the important criticisms or doubts that Strauss expressed concerning liberal democracy. The best writing on Strauss’s relation to liberal democracy is by Straussians responding to irresponsible polemics like those of Drury and Norton (here I think particularly of Catherine and Michael Zuckert). This work, though on many points very instructive, sometimes takes on the character of apologetics and blunts the edges of Strauss’s negative views concerning aspects of liberal democracy. In particular, there is a tendency to overstate the extent to which Strauss came to admire the American regime or thought of it as a political model. Actually, Strauss does have a radical critique of liberal democracy — but not radical in the way that critics like Altman use the word. The critique is radical in that it goes to the roots of liberal thought, and indeed the roots of the political problem as such.

Strauss writes that there are elements of the liberal ideal that are compatible with the concern for human perfection or excellence.

The deepest source of Strauss’s critique is a questioning of the moral orientation at the root of liberalism, and indeed of modernity which, as Strauss puts it in Thoughts on Machiavelli, he regards as a great impoverishment or narrowing of perspective. That moral orientation is one that gives primacy if not exclusivity to secure and comfortable self-preservation as the goal of political life; man is not oriented toward anything higher. Man does not have any justified aspirations that transcend the realm of ordinary human concern. The tendency is to regarding a concern in politics for human excellence or perfection as inherently incompatible with the secure protection of each individual’s self-preservation under law. Strauss does not deny that the concern with stable social peace is a legitimate and indispensable goal of political life. Using classical political philosophy as a model, he asks why the best political order could not balance or combine the concern for order and the concern for perfection or excellence, which in its highest forms requires an openness to a whole that is greater than man, and accessible to him as an individual in ways not possible through collective, including political, existence. Strauss accepts that the founders of liberalism had some good reasons for narrowing the goals of politics — for liberalism emerged in the context of religious wars, where competing concepts of human salvation divided communities in ways that were often fatal to stable social peace. But why could we not today, under different conditions, reconsider this basic normative choice of liberalism?

In Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss makes the case that, whatever good reasons might have existed for the original moral orientation of liberalism, there are elements of the liberal ideal that are compatible with the concern for human perfection or excellence. Many liberals value freedom not only for the sake of security of the person and of property, but also as essential to the individual’s quest for self-knowledge and self-development. In addition, as noted, for Strauss the highest human experiences (above all, philosophy) that connect man to the whole are achieved by individuals, not collectivities, and through thought and dialogue rather than will and decision. This kind of rationalist individualism has a closer affinity with liberalism than any ideology of the political right.

Another plane of Strauss’s critique of liberal democracy is that of Jewish philosophy. Strauss insists that liberal democracy is not a fully adequate solution to the destiny of Jews as a people who are charged with maintaining a collective existence in a largely non-Jewish world. Liberal democracy provides for the tolerance of traditional Judaism but it also awards large social, cultural, and economic prizes for assimilation. In the ghetto, as Strauss observes, Jews were only a stone’s throw away from brutal persecution; but they also maintained a rich sense of collective existence, of Jewish spiritual life. Liberal democracy thus offers new challenges, and not only advantages, for the survival of Judaism as a viable collective way of life. Political Zionism does not solve the problem either: For it poses the difficulty, with which so many controversies in Israel today are fraught, of what it can mean for Israel to be both committed to the idea of a Jewish state and to liberal democracy.

Events unfolding today show that Strauss’s objection to liberal democratic triumphalism has real bite.

Finally, and perhaps most radical and also most troubling in Strauss’s critique of liberal democracy, is the notion that liberal democracy ultimately depends on Christianity, or, more precisely, a transformed understanding of religious belief and its relationship to politics or the public sphere, which supposes a Protestant, reformed, or secularized Christianity as the model for the nature of religious commitment within liberal democracies. Here Strauss is not saying that liberal democratic tolerance requires members of other faiths to pledge public or external allegiance to a Christian-inspired civil religion, though some early modern thinkers veered in that direction. Rather he is claiming that liberal democracy entrenches a prejudice in favor of a way of looking at religion that is much more favorable to a certain kind of Christianity than to other faiths. According to Strauss, for Jews to link their destiny as a people to the future of liberal democracy rather than to a past of struggle for the survival of tradition in a world hostile to democracy, is to accept the unacceptable — the spiritual dependence of Judaism on Christianity. In Strauss’s view, neither liberal democracy nor the version of Christianity favorable to liberal democracy offers a definitive solution to the struggle between belief and unbelief that constitutes the vitality and perpetual challenge of civilization.

Events as they unfold day by day, whether in Afghanistan or Tahrir Square, suggest that Strauss’s objection to liberal democratic triumphalism has real bite. Strauss is one of the few late-modern thinkers who offer any kind of wisdom as to how one could go about thinking of what other kinds of political solution could offer reasonable answers to the theological-political problem: Reasonable in that these solutions offer the possibility of reconciling, to the extent possible within the limits of a given situation, “order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.” Once we realize that the American approach to the separation of church and state is not workable in many places in our time nor for that matter is French laïcité, we are mostly left at sea by contemporary liberal democratic theory. John Rawls recognized this problem late in life, when he wrote The Law of Peoples. Rawls mooted the notion that there could be decent societies that nevertheless do not strictly follow the principles or practices of liberal democracy as they are understood at Harvard.

A further aspect of Strauss’s critique of liberal democracy is pessimism about mass democracy, and concern that liberal democracy can exhibit the worst features of mass politics in some settings. In “Why We Remain Jews,” Strauss recounts a childhood premonition of the possibility of mass violence against Jews in Germany, after encountering refugees from Russian pogroms in his father’s house. Prior to that intuition, Strauss recounts, he had not imagined that it could happen in Germany: “We Jews there lived in profound peace with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was a government, perhaps not in every respect admirable, but keeping an admirable order everywhere; and such things as pogroms would have been absolutely impossible.” Strauss openly admired the traditional, authoritarian regime of old Germany, which he perceived to be run by basically honorable and realistic aristocrats, advised by educated and enlightened civil servants. He had no illusion that such a polity approximated liberalism. And yet we have to face the fact that, for some considerable period of time, that regime kept under control the violent hatred that Weimar liberal democracy would prove unable to control.

Of course Strauss was aware of the many economic and political forces that would lead to the old regime becoming impracticable, and recognized the abuses and injustices that went along with its better qualities. In that sense, he was not a nostalgic. Contrary to Altman, he did not set out to destroy liberal modernity; instead he sought to articulate what would be the most reasonable political options given the character of the times as well as the abiding nature of the theological-political problem. The profundity of Strauss’s understanding of the sources and limits of liberalism, combined with his insight into the permanent problems of politics, led him to support moderation in political life, and therefore ultimately brought him back to a more positive assessment of liberal democracy's worth than he had as a young man.


Robert Howse teaches international law and legal and political philosophy at NYU Law School. He is the author of articles on Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève, and is writing a book on Strauss's views on war and peace.

1  Here I have relied on the translation by Scott Horton. It must be admitted that the original German is quite difficult and legitimate different renderings of some of the expressions are certainly possible. This makes it both easy and also problematic to treat the letter as a smoking gun. It is likely that postal censorship was already being practiced by the Nazi regime (Löwith was apparently still in Germany at the time Strauss sent the letter) and this may account for some of Strauss’s rather odd turns of phrase and reversions to non-German words.