Leo Strauss’ Published But Uncollected English Writings

On Leo Strauss & the crisis of modern liberalism.

Glenn Ellmers at The New Criterion: Can anyone help us understand the madness afflicting Western civilization? Art, for all its power, is usually better at reflecting or illuminating—rather than explaining—the human condition. Psychology can at best clarify what appears to be a metastasizing global derangement syndrome. (I can recommend, in this field, Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism.) If Aristotle is right, politics offers the most comprehensive view of human affairs. Yet most academic political scientists—and psychologists, for that matter—seem to be more a part of the problem than the solution. Let me suggest, then, the work of Leo Strauss, who combined the study of the soul with the study of politics. Strauss (1899–1973) almost singlehandedly recovered the wisdom and enduring relevance of classical political philosophy, and he may offer unexpected insights regarding our dilemma.

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Strauss’s death. With the notable exception of a tribute by the (now retired) Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield in the Claremont Review of Books, this occasion went largely unremarked. Strauss—a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago—wrote for the few (or even the very few). He might not, therefore, have minded this neglect by the larger world. His scholarship, however, continues to exert an influence far out of proportion to his relative anonymity among the general public.

A new volume of essays, Leo Strauss’ Published but Uncollected English Writings, edited by Steven J. Lenzner and Svetozar Minkov (St. Augustine’s Press), is the latest of several new Strauss-related books. This collection includes important essays that can be found in other volumes (perhaps the most essential is “Farabi’s Plato”) as well as several that are obscure or hard to find (e.g., “On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy,” “Liberal Education and Mass Democracy,” “Greek Historians,” and “Machiavelli and Classical Literature”).

Last year, Minkov and Hannes Kerber published a welcome volume of Strauss’s scattered writings on a key Platonic dialogue: Leo Strauss on Plato’s “Euthyphro”: The 1948 Notebook, with Lectures and Critical Writings (Penn State University Press). In addition, Minkov (who seems to be spearheading a Strauss revival) is editing a collection of Strauss’s correspondence with his brilliant student Seth Benardete (forthcoming from Mercer University Press). Books about Strauss continue to roll out as well, including Rasoul Namazi’s Leo Strauss and Islamic Political Thought (Cambridge University Press) last year and Timothy Burns’s Leo Strauss on Modern Democracy, Technology, and Liberal Education (suny Press) in 2022.

In raising the question of why Strauss continues to generate such interest, I should note that there is disagreement about what makes Strauss relevant. Some of his students disparage any attempt to look to Strauss for answers to contemporary controversies and even doubt that he had a practical project. This dispute concerns what exactly is meant by political philosophy—which in turn raises the great question (never far from Strauss’s mind) of “the problem of Socrates.” One prominent Straussian, in a lecture in Claremont, California, some decades ago, declared that “Socrates didn’t give a shit about Athens.” It would be closer to the truth, in my estimation, to say that Athens was all Socrates cared about. This is not to deny that Socrates was devoted above all else to philosophy, but rather to suggest that Socratic philosophy seemed to be connected in a particular way with Athens. Plato tells us that when Socrates was awaiting execution in prison, some of his friends suggested he escape and find refuge in another city. Socrates rejected the idea. Strauss remarks, in his essay “What Is Political Philosophy?”:

We are entitled to infer that if Socrates had fled, he would have gone to Crete. [Plato’s] Laws tells us what he would have done in Crete after his arrival: he would have brought the blessings of Athens, Athenian laws, Athenian institutions, banquets, and philosophy to Crete. . . . But Socrates chose to die in Athens. Socrates preferred to sacrifice his life in order to preserve philosophy in Athens rather than to preserve his life in order to introduce philosophy into Crete. If the danger to the future of philosophy in Athens had been less great, he might have chosen to flee to Crete. His choice was a political choice of the highest order.

More here.