Leo Strauss died back in 1973. But in the last few years it’s been hard to come up with a figure who has been more loved and reviled among those who study and write about political philosophy. And even among those who love him, there seems to be a very catty rage over just who are the proper “Straussians.”
A lot of this of course has to do with the Neoconservative movement, which properly claims roots in the writing and thinking of Leo Strauss. The obvious starting point would be to note that while it may be true that the Neocons are Straussians, the suggestion that Strauss is a Neocon is more than doubtful. After all, he died in 1973, and this would seem to attribute to him rather firmly developed notions about a number of things as to which he had no documented position whatsoever.
Among the new books is Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile published by Brandeis University Press, a superior work from the more critically inclined camp which I have been thinking of reviewing in the near future (stay tuned). But what draws my immediate attention is Harvey Mansfield’s review of the book in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books (“Timeless Mind.”)
Mansfield is the consummate American Straussian. His career seems to be marked with a preoccupation with Straussian themes and writers, and his work ranges from the brilliant (especially his Machiavelli writings) to the comical (though perhaps not intentionally so, Manliness). Mansfield hastens to the lists to be Strauss’s defender. But his defense doesn’t persuade me. Neither am I entirely convinced by the critique. Both seem to strain to make Strauss into something which he isn’t. (I don’t know whether Strauss himself would be flattered or embarrassed to be the subject of this intellectual jousting.)
A focal part of Mansfield’s defense relates to a letter that Strauss wrote to Karl Löwith on May 19, 1933, which I translated and commented upon in my essay “The Letter.” The letter is the most significant document from the time of Strauss’s initial exile that casts light on his politics during that point of historical catharsis. Here is Mansfield’s comment:
In it Strauss shows a “shocking” (Sheppard’s term) receptivity to conservatism in speaking of how to deal with what he called the “shabby monster” of Nazism. Instead of a “laughable and pathetic” appeal to the rights of man—the fixed truths of liberalism—Strauss proposes resorting to the principles of the Roman empire, in Virgil’s words, “to spare the subjects and subdue the proud.” This is what “men of science” should say. The shocking thing is that Strauss says they should speak to right-wing Germany (as it had become) in terms of right-wing principles: “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” The implication of this progression of terms is that the fascist ordering that consigns Jews like Strauss to the status of natural Untermenschen can be best opposed by consenting to the need for authority , but replacing the principles of the Third Reich with those of the Roman Empire. Strauss says that the “men of science,” including himself, have no place to stay but only seek (non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus). It is as if they, from their platform above, were refuting Nazi “natural right” with Roman rather than liberal natural right, replacing vicious right-wing principles with benign ones.
This letter certainly confirms Strauss’s disgust with the liberalism of Weimar Germany, a pitiful and cowardly liberalism unable to defend itself against the Nazis because it had abandoned its own fixed truths and absorbed much of the relativism of German nihilism. . . Obviously this was not the case with all liberalism in 1933, for Strauss fled the Nazi enemy to France, then England, and finally, the United States—all liberal democracies and the last two, it turned out, not incurably infected with appeasement. In effect, Strauss’s letter warns Löwith against putting his trust in the liberals (and Christians) of Germany who had given false assurance of security to German Jews.
Mansfield does an amazing job of projecting back to the first years of Strauss’s emigration attitudes that he developed over a career of writing after he came to the United States. Essentially he’s presenting Strauss as a dynamic new kind of liberal, who is prepared to act robustly (and militarily) to defend democratic institutions. This argument presents a strange contortion of liberalism, just as the main themes of neoconservatism present a departure from the traditional conservatism of the Anglo-American world. But it seriously distorts Strauss’s attitude towards fascism at the time of emigration.
It’s common in speaking about this period to conflate Nazism and fascism. But Strauss certainly would not have done so. Nor would Strauss have labeled himself a “liberal.” Indeed, a historian of the last years of the Weimar Republic would be hard pressed to identify these cowardly Weimar “liberals” of whom Mansfield speaks. The closest candidate would have been the Deutsche Demokratische Partei, associated at its start with Max Weber. It had started the post-war years with a significant stake of the vote (18.5% in 1919), but it faded quickly and by 1928 fell below 5%. The problem with Weimar’s liberals was not, as Mansfield would have it, that they were feckless but that they didn’t exist. Liberalism had been pilloried by the left and the right in Germany. For the great majority of the German electorate, “liberalism” was a foreign political ideology, associated—as Strauss makes plain in this letter—with the values of the French Revolution, or as Thomas Mann would have said in his earliest phase of political consciousness (Gedanken im Kriege, 1914), “Manchestertum,” namely the political philosophy of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Germany was torn between left (by which I mean socialist) and right (on a spectrum between the traditional conservatives of the Wilhelmine period to the Nazis). The liberals could have provided a stable platform from which to defend the values of the republic. . . except that there weren’t many of them, certainly not enough to form a government.
Strauss is arguing that fascism may be an antidote to Nazism. His fascism turns to the Italian model of Mussolini, which drew intensely from the thoughts and concepts of the Roman empire. It was to be sure chauvinist and tinged with racism, but had not in 1933 manifested anything like the anti-Semitism that was being seen in Germany. And Karl Löwith, who was to become one of the best Nietzsche scholars of the last century, was just the proper audience. Like Strauss, Löwith was a cultural conservative who was repelled by Nazism and found a curious attraction, for the moment at least, to Italian fascism—indeed he was living in Italy at the time. Löwith was also fascinated by Martin Heidegger, and was shortly to feel utterly betrayed by him—just as Strauss did. Löwith’s escape, like Strauss’s, was possible thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation — whose generosity saved several dozen prominent German Jewish scholars from a horrifying fate. He has left us with a fascinating memoir of this period, My Life in Germany Before and After 1933, and he catalogues this period roughly between pp. 47-90. Strauss does not appear explicitly, but several of Löwith’s portraits of German-Jewish academic émigrés sound close to the mark.
The key to understanding the letter lies in the political themes that Strauss adopts, “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” And the key phrase that can be used to understand “imperial” in Strauss’s sense is supplied when he quotes one of the most famous passages from the sixth book of the Æneid,
Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos
But more important than what Strauss quotes is what he elides. The full text reads:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hæc tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.
You, Romans, take care to rule the world
(for such are your arts), and to crown peace with justice,
To spare the vanquished and to crush the proud.
Throughout the time Strauss was pursuing his university education, Virgil had appeared as a very important figure on the German intellectual stage, mirroring the status he had long held south of the Alps. He was the object of a great deal of contention. For cultural conservatives, like Strauss, Virgil was the philosopher-poet of the Roman Empire, justifying the grandeur, glory and power of authoritarian rule backed by a firm military tradition and a state church. The fascists used the images of imperial Rome as a powerful tool to sell their political thinking. It was, they argued, merely a modernization of these hallowed images. And it was decidedly the Roman empire, not the republic, that was their focus. For those standing on the left-critical side of the spectrum, Virgil was torn between the values of empire and republic, perhaps openly embracing the empire out of political expedience while retaining an inner commitment to republican ideals (this for instance is the Virgil who emerges from the masterwork composed by Strauss’s contemporary and fellow émigré Hermann Broch in Der Tod des Vergil). For Catholics, Virgil was presented as “the father of the West,” and an important forerunner of Christian doctrine. The latter view was being popularized just as Strauss was writing this letter, for Theodor Haecker’s Vergil: Vater des Abendlandes was one of the bestsellers of 1933. Each of these schools had their own reading of the Æneid and particularly of this passage of book six. For the Christians and the left, the key phrase was the commitment to peace and justice, just the words that the right-leaning Strauss has edited out.
Equally revealing are lines that Mansfield neglects to mention, namely Strauss’s condescending remarks about the “entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat is assembled” in Paris. Let’s keep in mind some of the names about whom Strauss is speaking so disparagingly—Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Heinrich Mann and Kurt Tucholsky, for instance. For Strauss they are “rabble,” but for most of the scholarship of the period, they are major figures and Strauss is a footnote.
And finally, Strauss’s own writings in the period up to and right around the letter leaves no ambiguity as to his ideas about Anglo-American liberalism. He despised it. This emerges especially in several of the essays he authored in connection with the Jubiläumsausgabe of the works of Moses Mendelssohn, and in particular the writings surrounding Lessing and the so-called Spinozastreit. Within the context of German Enlightenment thought, Lessing emerged as an enthusiastic advocate of the American revolution, though his proximity to the Hanoverian crown required him to be discreet about it — this happened based largely on reports of the Philadelphia convention Lessing received from Georg Forster. But Strauss’s criticisms of Lessing and his embrace of political concepts of the Enlightenment are withering. In fact, he picked this issue for his dissertation (Das Erkenntnisproblem in der philosophischen Lehre Fr. H. Jacobis, 1921), completed under the supervision of the great Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, of course, was the man who coined the word “nihilism” and who advanced the view that a state religion was an essential adjunct of any successful state: a proposition rather sharply at odds with the American Founding Fathers. Incidentally, Strauss was not much pleased with his dissertation and hesitated to have it translated and published – with good reason, I think. It’s far below the standards of the works on which his reputation rests, and he grew, over time, rather distant from the ideas espoused in it.
So what does this letter tell us? Strauss is not by any stretch a “liberal,” no matter how you want to qualify that. He is concerned with the hold the Nazis are taking on Germany, and he is looking for a tool to try to pry Germany’s conservatives away from Nazism. There is no doubt that he sees real appeal in fascism, Mussolini style. Strauss’s instincts lie in a pure traditional cultural conservatism. He has no affinity for what followed the collapse of the second Kaiserreich and thought very little of liberal, secular democracy. Probably, like the core of German conservatism, he would have been supremely happy with a resurrection of the Kaiser and his authoritarian rule with minimalist democratic attributes. But he is also remarkably open to a dalliance with fascism.
So there’s good reason for Straussians like Mansfield to be troubled by this letter and what it says about Strauss the man. But we should keep in mind that this is a snapshot in time. Strauss went on to England, and ultimately he made a new homeland in the United States. He clearly changed his attitudes as he came to see that the American project was not the unsustainable horror he first made it out to be. But much of Strauss’s tinkering and his thoughts about “bolstering” American democracy go back to the Caesarism that was common coinage in the days of his university schooling. It clearly has been extremely influential. And not necessarily in a good way.