Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Volume 12, Number 3
Fall 2006

What did Leo Strauss Believe About Politics?

Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation. By Leora Batnitzky. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Xxii + 280 pgs.

Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem. By Heinrich Meier. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Xxi + 183 pgs.

Critics of the Iraq war have sometimes claimed that neoconservatives who pressed for the war, and welcomed its onset, were in part inspired by the teaching of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. His students and defenders ridicule the claim. Strauss, they aver, though no doubt interested in contemporary events, had no political agenda. He was a scholar, studying the great questions sine ira et studio. Rather than seeking to explain current events through silly Straussian conspiracies, we should learn what we can from his profound inquiries.1

Both Batnitzky and Meier regard Strauss as a major thinker, but reading their two books together shows how difficult it is to gain a clear grasp of his views. Both claim that Strauss saw the relation between philosophy and religion as a key problem, but each one has a completely different idea of what he had to say about it. Unfortunately, both books suffer from a common error, a near complete absence of philosophical argument. Strauss is treated as an oracle, and exegesis of texts becomes a substitute for reasoning.

Strauss is best known as defender of classical political philosophy, but our authors concur that another issue for him exceeded in importance the quarrel between the ancients and moderns. In the preface, written in 1965 to the German edition of his The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Strauss said: "The theologico-political problem has since [the 1920s] remained the theme of my studies." (M, p.4)

What is this problem? Strauss thought that "to be a [religious] Jew and a philosopher" is impossible: religion and philosophy both demand ultimate allegiance. Philosophy recognizes nothing higher than reason, but religion depends on a revelation by God to which reason must bow. If one must choose between them, is it not clear that Strauss chose philosophy? Batnitzky quotes a passage from an early review that strongly suggests he rejected religion: "in the age of atheism, the Jewish people can no longer base its existence on god [sic] but only itself alone, on its labor, its land, and its state. . .Political Zionism, wishing to radically ground itself, must ground itself in unbelief." (B, p.142)

As if this were not enough evidence, his friend Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, who had tried to obtain for Strauss a job at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, threw up his hands in exasperation: "Writing to Walter Benjamin in 1935, Scholem. . .wrote that he did not think the faculty of The Hebrew University would 'vote for an appointment of an atheist to a teaching position that serves to endorse the philosophy  of religion.'"(B, p.182)

 Batnitzky maintains that all this at best bears on Strauss's personal choice between philosophy and religion.  Much more important is his claim that philosophy cannot refute the possibility of religion. In making this claim, Strauss struck against the dangerous claims of ideology. "[T]he question about Strauss's 'own' view of revelation skews the philosophical question that Strauss poses in regard to revelation. . . Recall, for instance, Strauss's argument in Natural Right and History that: "'Philosophy has to grant that revelation is possible. But to grant that revelation is possible is to grant that philosophy is perhaps not the one thing needful. . .or that philosophy suffers from a fatal weakness.'"(B, pp.6-7, order of quotations reversed)

If philosophy cannot rule out by reason this rival claim to authority, then the pretensions of ideologists to total knowledge are demolished. The disciples of Marx, e.g., cannot claim that because they grasp the movement of History "with the inexorability of a law of nature", they are fit to lead a worldwide revolution.

Batnitzky goes further. She claims that Strauss teaches that philosophy cannot by itself establish morality. It can reason about moral issues, but it must begin from law and tradition. And so far as universal morality is concerned, this can come only from revelation: "philosophy, for Strauss, can articulate a local morality, but not a universal one. Cain needs God to tell him that he is his brother's keeper."(p.26)

Accordingly, those who claim to find a natural-law morality in Strauss are grievously mistaken. Foremost among these is Harry Jaffa, and Batnitzky attacks him with great force. Jaffa, claiming to articulate Straussian insights, purports to locate a "principled ground for law" in the Declaration of Independence. Our author responds: "From Strauss's point of view, the question is whether Americans still have faith in the principles of the Declaration, but this is because the Declaration does not present, to use Jaffa's phrase, 'a principled ground for law.' Strauss's use of quotation marks for 'truths to be self-evident' emphasizes, moreover, his notion that these 'self-evident truths' are a matter of faith and not rational fact. From the point of view of Strauss's thought, universal law for all peoples cannot be grounded rationally. Only revelation can provide this ground, but this ground remains a matter of faith, and not reasoned fact." (B, p.138) I hope that readers will forgive me a smile at this well-placed blow to a frequent target in these pages.

But Strauss did not view all theology with favor. If, to his mind, reason and revelation are irreconcilable claims to total truth, then he cannot countenance an influential view. The Scholastics, culminating in Thomas Aquinas, claimed that by argument they could show the rationality of religion. True enough, some doctrines, such as the Trinity, are knowable only through revelation; but at least the existence and principal attributes of God can be established by argument from premises not in doubt.

For all this, Strauss had no use: he viewed Scholasticism as not only false but dangerous. Much more to his liking was Averroism, which taught that philosophy and religion were competing truths.2"In contrast to the Islamic-Jewish world, Strauss claims, the melding of revelation and philosophy in medieval Christendom destroyed the meanings of both revelation and philosophy.3In a very important sense, Strauss seems to locate the invention of the possibility of an atheistic, secular society with Thomas Aquinas. . .Strauss's contention is that because Christian scholasticism made philosophy the handmaiden of theology in its understanding of natural law, the Enlightenment, following Machiavelli's instrumentalization of philosophy, was eventually able to make theology the handmaiden of philosophy. Strauss maintains that in contrast to the medieval Christian scholastics, the profundity of the Jewish and Islamic medieval philosophers lies in their recognition that revelation and philosophy can neither be synthesized. . .nor can they refute one another. Revelation and philosophy are therefore incommensurable."(B, p.122)

Batnitzky looks at Strauss from the perspective of her own field, Jewish philosophy; and she can often see influences that scholars outside of her specialty have neglected .She contends, e.g., that Strauss responded to, and extended, the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most influential twentieth-century Jewish thinkers.4Rosenzweig, like Strauss, stressed the radical challenge that the "wholly other" God poses to philosophy. Strauss, she thinks, not only accepted Rosenzweig's thesis but thought he had not gone far enough: Rosenzweig had not fully broken from the assumptions of historicism about how to read ancient texts. But both thinkers were at one in their challenge to Hermann Cohen's monumental attempt to rationalize the Jewish religion. (She misses, though, the parallel between Strauss's attack on the scholastics and Karl Barth's excoriation of  the scholastic "analogy of being" as Satanic. Meier notes Barth's influence on Strauss but does not discuss it in any detail. [M, p.4])

Batnitzky does not write only as a historian of ideas. She thinks that Jewish philosophy ought to adopt Strauss's emphasis on the polarity between reason and revelation. She contrasts Strauss with Emmanuel Levinas, a much more influential thinker in the circle for which she writes. (Those interested can readily find, e.g., learned essays about the extent to which Derrida was a Levinasian, among other vital topics.) He frequently wrote on Jewish themes, and he is normally taken to be a much more religious thinker than the atheist Strauss. But she maintains that Levinas reduces religion to philosophy, while Strauss maintains a productive tension between them.

Here exactly lies the problem. One might be tempted to proceed by asking, are Strauss and Batnitzky right that if philosophers keep in mind that they cannot refute religion, they will avoid ideological distortion? But this would be a mistake. She has not given us any reason to think that reason either can or cannot refute the possibility of revelation. She merely tells us that Strauss thought so. What were his arguments? As Ayn Rand was wont to say, "Blankout."(Meier has reprinted a lecture of Strauss on the topic. [M, pp.141-80] In like fashion, she tells us what Strauss says about Aquinas but gives us no reason to think that what he says is true.

Oddly, she herself remarks, "None of this [her account of the reason-revelation polarity] is to argue, however, that Strauss's positions are the correct ones, or even adequate to the criteria he posits."(p.205) Her "response" is that although Strauss begs essential questions, leaving the relation between present and past thought unresolved is Strauss's "strength as a thinker."(B, p.208) She appears completely unaware of what it means to argue for a philosophical proposition.

Is she right, though, that Strauss believed that reason cannot refute revelation? Certainly, he said just that; but Meier plausibly suggests that this was not Strauss's final position. Strauss makes some odd remarks about the prophets: he appears to reduce religious prophecies to politics. "Avicenna's statement that the treatment of prophecy and divine law is contained in Plato's Laws disclosed to Strauss a new access not only to the medieval philosophers Alfarabi, Averroes, and Maimonides but also to Plato. . . The Arabic philosophers and Maimonides followed Plato when they grasped the divine law, providence, and the prophet as objects of politics; they relied on the Laws when they treated the teaching of revelation, the doctrine of particular providence, and prophetology as parts of political science (and not at all of metaphysics). . .Strauss can speak of our grasping in Plato the 'unbelieving, philosophical grounding of faith in revelation in its origin.'"(M, p.12)

Strauss elaborated his views with a detailed genealogy of the origin of faith in revelation. I shall spare readers the details, but the gist of it is that revelation is the "radical extension" of belief in the ancestral laws.[M, pp.32-33] The key issue, then, in determining Strauss's position is what he has in mind by revelation. He responds to the Bible through one of his legendary esoteric readings: for him its message does not come from a supernatural God. It is instead a political discourse.5But what of his claim that reason cannot refute revelation? So long as revelation is evacuated of its non-political content, this claim reduces for him to a bare skeptical possibility. It is no more a "live option" that  Bertrand Russell's claim that we cannot prove that the universe, with all our present memories, was not created  a few minutes ago.

Meier takes Strauss's genealogy very seriously; he does not appreciate that as it stands it is a mere unsupported hypothesis. His book has some valuable discussions, e.g., his account of Strauss's claim that Heidegger worshipped death and his comparison of Strauss's political philosophy with the political theology of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt's thought reverses Strauss. Strauss reduced theology to philosophy, but for Schmitt the concepts of political philosophy are secularized  theological concepts. But no more than Batnitzky does Meier have any idea of the nature of philosophical argument. He writes portentously and devotes great pains to teasing out the nuances of Strauss's language. But for him too, the mere statement of a striking hypothesis suffices.

I do not mean to suggest that Strauss himself has no arguments on offer. Quite the contrary, he sometimes presents very good ones, e.g., his argument in Natural Right and History from ordinary language against the fact-value distinction.(His discussion anticipates a famous article by Philippa Foot. Mises, anticipating in his turn R.M. Hare's response to Foot, criticizes Strauss in Theory and History. ) But if we are to get anywhere in evaluating his thought, his followers must set out in detail his claims and offer defenses of them. And what of the political implications of Strauss's thought? These I hope to address on another occasion.

1I do not claim to find a link between Strauss and American foreign policy; but some of Strauss's leading followers, such as Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield, and Carnes Lord, advocate a strong central government, headed by a president of disturbingly great power. See my review of Lord, The Modern Prince, in The Mises Review Winter 2003 and of Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom, in The Mises Review Summer 2001.

2Whether Strauss's view of Averroism is correct is highly controversial. Eric Voegelin took the same view, but some recent writers disagree. For a useful discussion, see Peter von Sivers, Editor's Note in Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume II: The Middle Ages To Aquinas (University of Missouri Press, 1997), pp.195-97).

3Batnitzky makes an error of usage that is one of my pet peeves. To "meld" means "to display cards in a certain sequence", not "to blend or mix things."

4Batnitzky is the author of a well-received book on Rosenzweig, Ideology and Representation (Princeton University Press, 2000)

5I offer a similar analysis of Strauss on religion in my article "Jaffa on Equality, Morality, Democracy" available here: http://www.lewrockwell.com/gordon/gordon5.html


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