Leo Strauss, father of neoconservatism, is not the fascist thinker of left-wing caricature. But neither is he a figure with whom democrats can feel comfortable. He believed in virtue rather than liberalismby Edward Skidelsky / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Mark you this, you proud men of action,” wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine. “You are nothing but the unconscious henchmen of intellectuals, who, often in the humblest seclusion, have meticulously plotted your every deed.” Heine was thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but the same charge has more recently been levelled against Leo Strauss, a former professor of political science at the University of Chicago who died in 1973. Just as Rousseau was blamed for the French revolution, so Strauss has been identified as the ghostly mastermind of current US foreign policy. Through a web of disciples and disciples of disciples, this shy scholar is alleged to have suborned the most powerful democracy in the world.
This allegation has some basis in fact. The last 30 years have indeed seen an influx of “Straussians” into Republican administrations, think tanks and policy journals. Paul Wolfowitz studied under both Strauss and his protégé Allan Bloom. Irving Kristol, pioneer of neoconservatism and father of the editor and publicist William Kristol, counts Strauss as a formative influence. But is this really a cause for alarm? In the 1960s, many British economic advisers were students of Keynes. His influence may have been harmful, but it was hardly sinister. Why should the influence of Strauss be viewed any differently?
The answer lies partly in the peculiar nature of Strauss’s work. Strauss was not a public intellectual after the fashion of Keynes. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, he remained a philosopher in the classic Germanic mould, with a strong overlay of Talmudic scholasticism. His work is subtle, laboured and recondite. Most of it takes the form of commentaries on the great political texts. His own thought emerges only indirectly, in hints and asides. Above all, Strauss was a teacher. He cultivated a large number of disciples—the word is in his case apposite—who went on to cultivate disciples of their own. Straussians see themselves as guardians of wisdom. Mainstream political scientists see them as a self-regarding clique or cult. This is one reason why so many Straussians have left academia and entered public life.