Leo Strauss


Leo Strauss was a twentieth-century German Jewish émigré to the United States whose intellectual corpus spans ancient, medieval and modern political philosophy and includes, among others, studies of Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. Strauss wrote mainly as a historian of philosophy and most of his writings take the form of commentaries on important thinkers and their writings. Yet as he put it: “There is no inquiry into the history of philosophy that is not at the same time a philosophical inquiry” (PL, p. 41). While much of his philosophical project involved an attempt to rethink pre-modern philosophy, the impetus for this reconsideration and the philosophical problems that vexed Strauss most were decidedly modern. Strauss especially worried about the modern philosophical grounds for political and moral normativity as well as about the philosophical, theological, and political consequences of what he took to be modern philosophy’s overinflated claims for the self-sufficiency of reason.

In 1937 Strauss accepted a visiting lectureship in history from Columbia University. The following year Strauss became a visiting researcher at the New School for Social Research, home to many European émigrés. Strauss’s position at the New School became permanent, and he remained there for ten years.

The decade that Strauss spent at the New School was arguably the most productive, and certainly the most pivotal, of his intellectual career. In his first years at the New School, Strauss published the seminal essays that would become the book Persecution and the Art of Writing, published in 1952. In these essays, Strauss argued that, when reading certain pre-modern thinkers, it is necessary to read between the lines. The possibility of persecution gives rise to a certain type of writing that allows one set of the readers, the majority, to receive one message while allowing a second set of readers, the philosophical elite, to take away another message. While this type of writing is often referred to as “esoteric,” it is more properly understood as “exoteric,” that is, writing that outwardly vales a secret teaching of some sort. For Strauss, Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Spinoza were all exoteric writers. Despite the profound differences between them, Maimonides and Spinoza both outwardly teach that philosophy and revelation are reconcilable with one another. Yet, according to Strauss, the careful reader will notice that their respective arguments actually suggest the opposite: that philosophy and revelation are in fact irreconcilable. Halevi, on the other hand, outwardly teaches that philosophy and revelation are irreconcilable. But whereas Halevi’s dismissal of philosophy in the face of revelation seems to suggest that philosophy is not a challenge for revelation, Strauss argues that the careful reader will notice that Halevi’s argument in fact suggests the opposite: that philosophy is not just a challenge for revelation but a supremely dangerous challenge.

During his New School years, Strauss also delved more deeply into ancient philosophy to explore the themes of persecution and writing. Strauss’s fourth book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s “Hiero,” was published in 1948. In this study, Strauss offers a close reading of the rhetoric of Xenophon’s dialogue, which highlights, on Strauss’s reading, the tension between the philosophical quest for truth and the requirements of society.

Source: Batnitzky, Leora, “Leo Strauss”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Photo: University of Chicago or New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/07/10/arts/10conn_CA0ready.html. via Wikipedia. Web. Nov 09 2014.