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Leo Strauss: Man of Peace by Robert Howse, (Cambridge University Press, 200 pages)


The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name. —Exodus 15:3

There is an old story that the Archangel Michael and the devil feuded over Moses’ remains. While Michael aimed to convey the prophet’s body up to heaven, Satan was determined to keep him buried in the dirt.

If the comparison is not impious, we may speak of a similar contest for custody of Leo Strauss. According to his admirers, Strauss earned a place among the angels by promoting Greek-inspired rationalism and a cautious liberalism. Strauss’s critics contend that he was a demonic figure, who encouraged his acolytes to disregard both scholarly probity and basic morality in favor of a Nietzschean will to power.

Strauss’s supporters held the upper hand so long as debate was focused on works that Strauss prepared for publication after his arrival in the United States in 1937. Yet they have struggled to explain the early works in German that have come to light over the last decade. These texts do not appear to be the work of a liberal rationalist. In a notorious letter to philosopher of history Karl Löwith, Strauss even expressed support for “the principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperialist principles…”

Robert Howse, who teaches law at New York University, is the latest combatant in the Strauss wars. In Leo Strauss: Man of Peace, Howse defends Strauss from his enemies while distancing him from some of his self-appointed friends. Howse acknowledges that Strauss flirted with extremism, but he argues that Strauss devoted the rest of his career to t’shuvah, a Hebrew word that is usually translated “repentance.”

Howse’s study has the merit of drawing on newly available sources from Strauss’s intellectual maturity: the archive of seminars made available by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. And Howse is among very few writers on Strauss who are sympathetic to their subject without being sycophantic. Despite these virtues, I do not think Howse wins the battle for Strauss’s legacy, at least if this means distancing him from the politics of national self-assertion. That is because Howse does not draw the connection between Strauss’s early critique of liberalism and his lifelong Zionism.

Howse focuses on political violence. Departing from Strauss’s alleged influence on supporters of the Iraq War, Howse asks whether Strauss thought violence should be regulated by a normative standard or deployed according to its user’s interest. He answers that Strauss sought “a middle way between strict morality and sheer Machiavellian[ism].”

In itself, this conclusion is not very interesting. Every significant political theorist, including Machiavelli, has tried in some way to steer between the rocks of moral absolutism and political solipsism. Howse’s contribution is an argument about the character of the “middle way” that Strauss preferred. In courses on Thucydides, Kant, and Grotius from the 1960s, Howse finds Strauss praising the Nuremberg trials, United Nations, and nascent European Community. He argues that Strauss was essentially a Cold War liberal internationalist.

leo strauss

Leo Strauss

To make his case, Howse has to refute an interpretation of Strauss that has become dominant over the last decade or so. According to this interpretation, the most important influence on Strauss was the reactionary legal philosopher Carl Schmitt. In seminal works from the 1920s, Schmitt argued that the basis of politics is the distinction between friend and foe realized in mortal combat.

The Schmitt connection has been a centerpiece of attacks on Strauss since the mid-1990s. But Howse is more interested in confronting Strauss’s allies than in rehashing old debates. In particular, Howse accuses Heinrich Meier, the German scholar who edited Strauss’s Gesammelte Schriften, of “misreading Strauss as a hyper-Schmittian.” According to Howse, Meier not only inflates the significance of Schmitt for Strauss, but also presents Strauss as agreeing with Schmitt’s politics of existential opposition.

Howse’s response to Meier has several dimensions. On the textual level, Howse shows that there is not enough evidence to support claims that Schmitt was among Strauss’s most important interlocutors. Strauss wrote a 1932 review of Schmitt’s seminal work, The Concept of the Political, that Schmitt recognized as the most searching he received. On that basis, he wrote a letter of recommendation for the Rockefeller Foundation grant that allowed Strauss to leave Germany. But these facts demonstrate no more than a professional relationship between scholars. And Schmitt’s anti-Semitism may have given him personal reasons to wish that Jewish intellectuals would make their careers elsewhere.

On the philosophical level, Howse reaffirms that Strauss was deeply critical of Schmitt’s approach. Although Schmitt claimed that he was distinguishing politics from morality, his argument was based on the assumption that a life devoted to existential confrontation is more worthy than one devoted to peace and prosperity. Although opposed to Christian and bourgeois norms, this assumption is inextricably normative. Strauss exposed Schmitt’s hard-boiled realism as a cover for his own brand of moralism.

Finally, Howse also offers a plausible, if not novel, account of the historical setting in which Strauss could have been attracted to antiliberalism without endorsing Schmitt’s theory of enmity. Given the failure of the Weimar republic, it seemed that a politics of militant self-assertion was necessary to protect Germany’s Jews. Strauss’s praise of “the principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperialist principles…” has to be read with this consideration in mind. The full context of the letter makes it clear that Strauss believed that only such principles were capable of standing up to the National Socialist regime.

41ZXT1bqjfLWhen he wrote those words in 1933, Strauss may have been thinking of Mussolini, who was at the time an opponent of Hitler. As the 1930s continued, however, he associated them with Churchill. After Strauss arrived in the United States, he was known for insisting that “I am not liberal, I am not conservative, I always follow Churchill.” As Paul Gottfried pointed out in Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, Strauss was far more enthusiastic about England than the land of his birth.

Howse suggests that Strauss’s admiration for Churchill indicates his growing appreciation for liberal democracy. This is true, but only partly. What Strauss admired in Churchill and England was not bourgeois virtue or popular government; rather, it was the “Roman” element he praised in the letter to Löwith.

This element consisted, in the first place, of a defiant militarism. In the letter to Löwith, Strauss quotes Virgil’s exhortation to the Romans “to rule with authority…spare the vanquished and crush the proud.” He elides the interstitial phrase “impose the way of peace.” The elision suggests that for Strauss the Roman way is the way of war and empire.

In 1934, Strauss identified a Roman quality in British parliamentary debate, but what he was praising was fairly specific: Churchill’s eloquent support for rearmament. There were compelling political and personal reasons for Strauss’s enthusiasm for military resistance to Germany. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling this view was deeply unpopular in the mid-’30s. Strauss’s praise for Parliament rests on its senatorial rather than its plebiscitary character.

Strauss’s affection for patricians was an important part of his near-worship of Churchill. As an aristocrat, soldier, and enthusiastic imperialist, Churchill personally represented the survival of premodern virtues within liberal democracy. It is easy to forget that Churchill’s critics often castigated him in terms similar to those Strauss used in his letter: imperialist, authoritarian, even fascist. In Strauss’s view, however, these were precisely the qualities that enabled Churchill to take a lonely stand against Hitler.

For Strauss, then, “the principles of the Right” were not so distant as they might now seem from the values that helped saved Europe from Nazi domination and its Jews from extinction. In 1941, he explained to an audience at the New School for Social Research that “it is the English, and not the Germans, who deserve to be, and to remain, an imperial nation: for only the English…have understood that in order to deserve to exercise imperial rule, regere imperio populos, one must have learned for a very long time to spare the vanquished and to crush the arrogant: parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.”

Howse argues that the lecture on “German Nihilism” from which this passage is quoted shows Strauss continuing his critique of Schmitt. And this is true as far as it goes: Strauss rejects the “warrior morality” that finds meaning in confrontation with a mortal enemy.

But that does not mean Strauss rejected violence as such. Like the letter to Löwith, “German Nihilism” culminates in a defense of war and empire. For Strauss, the problem with Schmitt was not that he placed violence at the center of politics, it was that he did so for the wrong reasons.

What did Strauss believe were the right reasons for violence? From the crisis of the 1920s, he learned that coercion was necessary to secure order. In the intellectual autobiography that he added to the 1965 English translation of his book on Spinoza, Strauss explained that the Weimar Republic “presented the sorry spectacle of justice without a sword or of justice unable to use the sword.” Without endorsing dictatorship, Strauss followed Machiavelli in regarding reliable execution as the central responsibility of the state.

But this is an argument about domestic politics. In a seminar on Thucydides taught just a few years before the Spinoza preface was published, Howse finds Strauss insisting that “foreign relations cannot be the domain of vindictive justice.” Force must be used in international affairs, but only to the extent necessary to secure a minimum of justice.


The Nuremberg Trials

Howse observes that Strauss’s view that justice must be tempered by moderation was reflected in his assessment of the Nuremberg trials. While the Versailles treaty after World War I was a vindictive application of collective responsibility, the Nuremberg trials attempted to distinguish individual criminals from collaborators.

There is an implicit contrast here to Schmitt, who rejected the Nuremberg tribunal as an exercise in hypocritical moralism. As Strauss had shown, Schmitt himself was moralist when that suited his purposes. For Strauss, on the other hand, the fight against the Nazis was unquestionably a just war. He had argued in 1941 that England was not only permitted to fight Germany but had a moral right to do so.

At the time, Strauss had expressed this position using the rhetoric of empire. He was far from the only one to describe just causes in now politically incorrect terms. In 1942, the newly promoted Churchill explained that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” In Churchill’s view as much as Strauss’s, the war against Germany was a war for empire.

After the war, old-fashioned empire became untenable. In addition to economic and military obstacles, the principle of self-determination that encouraged resistance to the Nazis made it impossible for former imperial powers to justify their domination of other peoples.

Surprisingly, Howse finds Strauss relatively accepting of this change. In the Thucydides seminar, Strauss juxtaposes “empire” and “freedom from foreign domination” as the two greatest goals of politics. The suggestion is that the strong cannot be blamed for seeking empire. On the other hand, the weak cannot be blamed for resisting it. After about 1945, however, the moral and technological balance of power shifted in such a way as to give the resisters the upper hand. The imperial powers could no longer claim the right of the stronger because they were no longer stronger.

Howse argues that the Kant and Grotius seminars show Strauss searching for an acceptable order for the world of nation-states that replaced the old empires. He finds that Strauss, although resolutely anticommunist, expressed enthusiasm for a federation of republican states similar to the one suggested by Kant. Nevertheless Strauss, like Kant, rejected a world state as unavoidably tyrannical. The best alternative would be a federal arrangement involving shared sovereignty combined with respect for national particularity—perhaps in ways comparable to the European Union.

Howse thus concludes that the mature Strauss was a liberal internationalist. Although not naïve about the necessity of war, he believed that war should be waged for the sake of a more just order. According to Howse, this Strauss is far from the belligerent nationalist who is supposed to have inspired the neoconservatives. Like Socrates, he is a man of peace.

Yet there is something missing from Howse’s portrait of Strauss as a liberal internationalist. That is a detailed consideration of the role of Zionism in Strauss’s thought about violence.

In his intellectual autobiography, Strauss describes his earliest political decision as a commitment to “simple, straightforward political Zionism” at the age of seventeen. Throughout the 1920s, he was active in the Revisionist movement led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the 1930s, Strauss endorsed the “the principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperialist principles…” as the only basis for defense of Germany’s Jews. In the 1940s, he offered a moral defense of the British Empire partly because of the mercy it offered to the vanquished—including the Jews settled in Palestine. In the 1950s and 1960s, Strauss lectured and wrote extensively on Jewish themes, rarely failing to voice his admiration and gratitude for the foundation of the State of Israel.

41qRVHS8DeLThese facts are barely mentioned in Leo Strauss: Man of Peace. In fact, the only explicit reference to the State of Israel that I have found comes in the conclusion, when Howse mentions Strauss’s 1957 letter to National Review defending Israel from accusations of racism. As part of his polemic against the neoconservative appropriation of Strauss, Howse assures readers that: “This was an act of loyalty to the Jewish people, not to the political right.”

Howse may be correct about Strauss’s intentions, but Strauss’s personal relationship to the American conservative movement is not the most important issue. Strauss’s lifelong commitment to Zionism tells us something important about his views on political violence. In this decisive case, he endorsed the politics of national self-assertion that Howse contends he had rejected by end of his career.

Strauss makes this point obliquely but unmistakably in the “Note on Maimonides’ Letter on Astrology” that he composed in 1968. In the letter, Maimonides attributes the destruction of the Second Temple to the fact that the Jews relied on magic to provide their defense, rather than practicing the art of war and conquest like the Romans who defeated them.

Strauss describes the remark as “a beautiful commentary on the grand conclusion of the Mishneh Torah: the restoration of Jewish freedom in the Messianic age is not to be understood as a miracle.” The Mishneh chapters that Strauss cites clarify this statement, explaining that the only difference between between the current age and the Messianic era will be “emancipation from our subjugation to the gentile kingdoms.”

For the mature Strauss, in other words, the redemption of the Jewish people was not mystical event. It is a political condition, defined by the reestablishment of Jews’ sovereignty in their own land. The achievement depended on much the same unsettling principles that Strauss endorsed in the infamous letter to Löwith. It may not be a coincidence that they were written almost exactly one year after Israel won control of the Temple Mount.

Strauss may have hoped the Jewish State could eventually become a respected member of a peaceful international federation. Nevertheless, this passage suggests that t’shuvah may not have been the central theme of Strauss’s career. Rather than enacting a return from extremism to moderation, Strauss’s thought about political violence was remarkably consistent concerning the nation that he cared most about. When it came to the Jewish people, Strauss felt that he had nothing to repent.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of The American Conservative (January 2015). 

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2 replies to this post
  1. I’ve always found the dictum that you will ‘know a tree by its fruit’, true and useful.The Strauss tree gave us the NeoCon fruit!
    Zionism is to Judaism what Wahhabism is to Islam….namely two heresies that deserve each other!
    IDF vs.ISIS

  2. A good article , but things would be made clearer by a more in-depth appreciation of Jewish-German imperialism as it manifested itself in the old German Empire as opposed to anti-semetic German imperialism of the NAZI variety.

    One ought to consider also Stalin’s view that the second world war was merely a war of empires, thus his desire to shield the Soviet Union from it, allowing all of the Imperial powers to destroy themselves . Strauss’s later appreciation for Kojeve shows he understood this.

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