Reading Leo Strauss

In his review of recent books on Leo Strauss (“A Guide for the Perplexed,” Spring 2007), Steven Lenzner treats especially harshly The Truth About Leo Strauss, by Catherine and Michael Zuckert. In their concern to refute charges that Strauss was an enemy of liberal democracy and even a proponent of tyranny, Lenzner complains, the Zuckerts badly overcompensate, and the result of their efforts is “a Strauss who is formulaic, doctrinaire, and, worst of all, uninteresting.” The reader who looks to theClaremont Review of Books for guidance as to what to read must come away with the impression thatThe Truth About Leo Strauss is not worth his time—that it reduces Strauss to the status of a good-natured partisan ideologue, scarcely less shallow than the tyrannous schemer contrived by his enemies. The review does a serious injustice to the Zuckerts’ excellent book and a disservice to theCRB‘s readers.

The assertion that the Zuckerts’ Strauss is formulaic and doctrinaire refers primarily to their attribution to Strauss of three basic propositions: (1) “America is modern”; (2) “Modernity is bad”; (3) “America is good.” Taken at face value, formulaic and doctrinaire indeed. But the authors make immediately clear that these propositions are not to be taken at face value. They are merely provisional, formulated “in as stark a way as we can”—an amusingly provocative way—to introduce the complexity and seemingly paradoxical character of Strauss’s political philosophy, in particular as it reflects on the country he adopted. At various points in his review, Lenzner seems concerned to suggest that the sharp disjunction between classical and modern political philosophy in Strauss’s thought is illusory, so that modernity as Strauss viewed it was not all “bad,” or destructive of philosophy and of sensible politics, after all. This point is similar to one the Zuckerts make in explaining Strauss’s “restrained but genuine” endorsement of America’s goodness. But their refinements of the provisional formulations go unacknowledged in Lenzner’s review. And at a deeper and more general level, the charge that they render a formulaic and doctrinaire Strauss—a Strauss “far from being a disinterested lover of truth”—is contradicted by the Zuckerts’ pervasive insistence on Strauss’s Socratic view of the activity of philosophizing, characterized above all by the philosopher’s knowledge only of his ignorance of the answers to the deepest human questions. This pervasive insistence on Strauss-as-Socratic goes unmentioned, too, in Lenzner’s review.

The heart of the problem with the Zuckerts’ book, as Lenzner sees it, concerns the weaknesses in their argument concerning how to read Strauss. The Zuckerts deny that Strauss wrote as he read. They contend that by disclosing the secret of esoteric writing, Strauss foreclosed the option for himself of writing esoterically. Decisive evidence against that claim, according to Lenzner, appears in Strauss’s attention to Maimonides’s Introduction to Guide for the Perplexed, where Maimonides openly discloses his own practice of esoteric writing. But whatever the truth with respect to Strauss’s mode of writing, a fair-minded review would at least have made mention of the chapter endnote in which the Zuckerts address the difficulty presented by this text and sketch several grounds for differentiating Strauss from Maimonides on this issue. Instead, beginning from the premise that the Zuckerts’ Strauss “tells the truth—and nothing but the truth,” Lenzner claims that the Zuckerts’ book “asserts” that “attending with care to Strauss’s literary art is…a barren exercise in self-confirmation.” In fact they assert no such thing. The premise that Strauss tells the truth and nothing but the truth, if that is indeed the Zuckerts’ premise, does not entail an inattention to Strauss’s literary art. The key to Strauss’s literary and pedagogical art, in the Zuckerts’ reading, lies in the fact that Strauss declines to tell the whole truth. This is certainly a different sort of art from that which Lenzner finds in Strauss’s speech, but it is not artlessness and in no way justifies his polemical imputation.

Closely related to Lenzner’s objection to the Zuckerts’ argument on reading Strauss is his contention that they “obscure what Strauss taught concerning the necessary tension between philosophy and society.” But this is not the effect of their argument for the justice of the Socratic-Straussian philosopher, which leaves perfectly visible the dangers to political society yet posed by the aporetic character of this sort of philosophic activity. Nor is it the necessary implication of their argument that Strauss’s truth-telling, with respect to esoteric writing and especially with respect to the tension between reason and revelation, stands as a public good in the exceptional circumstances of our time, when some of the greatest philosophic minds have concluded that philosophy is no longer possible. This argument concerning the present philosophic prudence of publicly emphasizing what had been formerly regarded as dangerous truths to be communicated only esoterically represents perhaps the most original and provocative of the Zuckerts’ arguments. Whatever its ultimate soundness as a reading of Strauss or as an argument on its own, this is surely a subtle and ingenious suggestion, and it is indicative of the virtues of the Zuckerts’ book, which manages to be at once publicly salutary and philosophically challenging. One would think that in the CRB above all, The Truth About Leo Strauss would have received a more respectful hearing.

Peter C. Myers
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
Eau Claire, WI


In the Introduction to The Truth about Leo Strauss, Catherine and Michael Zuckert lay out the purpose of their book—to give accounts of the relation between Strauss’s philosophic recovery of the ancients and his qualified political endorsement of modern liberal democracy, of the contributions and differences among his students on the question of American liberal democracy, and finally of the causes of his unexpected recent public prominence. Along the way and “simplifying a great deal,” they hope to provide a broad “introduction to his thought, especially as it bears on the character of American democracy.” Given these goals, one would expect an assessment of the worth of their book to turn, initially at least, on the question of whether they are fulfilled; one would hope a reviewer, especially one as steeped in Strauss’s thought as Steven Lenzner, would first attempt to understand the authors as they understand themselves. Unfortunately, he does not.

The Zuckerts write their book partly out of filial duty—to defend a man whom they deeply respect. Yet they also write because they are puzzled—by the sudden media buzz surrounding Strauss, by the way in which Strauss’s students variously reconcile three apparently conflicting views they find in Strauss (that America is modern, modernity is bad, and America is good), and by the possibility that Strauss at once practiced esotericism and revealed it as no one in the history of philosophy ever had. Because Strauss seems so unsuitable as a shadow on the cave wall, it is of considerable interest both politically and philosophically to trace the process by which he got there. Lenzner dismisses this line of the Zuckerts’ thought too quickly. He focuses instead on their admittedly provocative claim that Strauss did not practice esotericism. But he reads them too coarsely, for he concludes that their Strauss “tells the truth and nothing but the truth.” Their view is considerably more complicated. They describe Strauss as practicing “pedagogical reserve,” itself an art of writing that involves not so much saying what one does not think true as saying only incompletely what one thinks to be true. In the end, something may be lost by this term. If the tension between philosophy and politics is a version of the ineradicable tension between being and appearing, one might better (with Seth Benardete) call the necessary indirectness of the most serious writing “metaphysical esotericism,” thereby preserving its link with the political. Still, something is also gained, for with “pedagogical reserve” the Zuckerts call attention to a crucial issue—that there is a mode of withholding one’s thought in its completeness that is perhaps not best understood in terms of persecution.

Steven Lenzner faults the Zuckerts for making Strauss seem formulaic, doctrinaire, and uninteresting. Ironically, this might more accurately be said of his treatment of them. The readers of the CRB deserve better. The Truth about Leo Strauss is an extremely thoughtful book motivated throughout by serious questions.

Michael Davis
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, NY


Anyone cognizant of the intelligence, diligence, scholarly precision and rectitude of Catherine and Michael Zuckert will suspect, and rightly, that the recent review of their volume on Leo Strauss emanates from a twisted judgment. Their book is valuable not only in decisively laying to rest the misinformed criticisms of Strauss that circulate so widely these days but also in supplying an introductory and connected account of Strauss’s thought. While it may be of the nature of the subject of esoteric writing that it remain controversial, nothing justifies arbitrary dismissal of a reasoned presentation of the matter as is that of the Zuckerts.

Joseph Cropsey
The University of Chicago
Chicago, IL


Leo Strauss has been deeply implicated in the neoconservative culture of deceit and duplicity, which has led to a needless war and the senseless death and suffering of innocent Americans and Iraqis. Surely, Strauss cannot be blamed for all the follies of the Bush Administration. So it is good to see a few Straussians who are brave enough to come to his defence.

In The Truth about Leo Strauss, Catherine and Michael Zuckert make a valiant effort to respond to the critics of Strauss—especially those who think (as I do) that Strauss was a Nietzschean in drag. I regret that the Zuckerts had no access to the updated edition of my book, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (2005), because their claims about the links I make between Strauss and the Bush Administration are purely speculative. Even though I do not share their general portrait of Strauss, I think that they make some valid points. They argue that Strauss did not endorse imperialism, and would not have endorsed the Bush Administration’s rampant imperialism. They display an admirable veracity when they declare that Strauss is a conservative, and a critic of liberal democracy.

In contrast to the frank and forthright approach of the Zuckerts, Steven Smith’s effort to rescue Strauss from the “hostile takeover” of the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration is circuitous and deliberately deceptive. In Reading Leo Strauss, Smith tells us that Strauss was an esoteric writer who communicated by winks, and was so deliberately coy that he refused to walk through an open door when he could enter through a keyhole. Nevertheless, Smith confidently declares that Strauss was not a conservative of any kind (neo- or otherwise), but a “friend of liberal democracy—one of the best friends democracy has ever had.” But much later in the book, we discover that being a friend of liberal democracy is not the same as being a liberal democrat. Smith makes an effort to cover up the contradiction by claiming that a friend is not a flatterer, and that Strauss aimed to rescue liberal democracy from its shortcomings by administering a “counterpoison.” However, as I observed in my own review of Smith’s book, the “counterpoison” turns out to be lethal to liberal democracy.

When Smith responded to my review, he completely repudiated the thesis of his book. He denied that Strauss wrote esoterically, and he compared the relation between Strauss and the neoconservatives to the relation between Nietzsche and the Nazis. That is certainly closer to the truth. I would add that since not all Nietzscheans are Nazis, so, not all Straussians are neoconservatives. Nevertheless, as with Nietzsche, there is a great deal in Strauss’s philosophy that invites vulgarization. For example, Smith’s appetite for deception is a product of Strauss’s penchant for secrecy and his glorification of lying as a noble activity for the elite. In the final analysis, Smith’s effort to defend Strauss backfires. It leaves the impression that the Straussians in the Bush Administration could not possibly have been immune to a vice that is so widespread among the Straussians in the academy.

Both Steven Lenzner and Svetozar Minkov (“Philosophy and Revelation,” Spring 2007) are examples of the plebeian depths into which Straussian scholarship has descended. The more obscure and contradictory a book is, the more they praise it. They are repelled by the clarity of the Zuckerts, beguiled by the esotericism of Smith, delighted by the contradictions of Heinrich Meier, and tantalized by the prospect of navigating the “beautiful labyrinths that are Strauss’s writings.” Despite being a severe critic of Strauss, I do not think that such a serious man deserves a herd of obscenely frivolous “scholars” as his legacy.

Shadia B. Drury
University of Regina
Regina, Saskatchewan


Steven J. Lenzner replies:

It is striking that not a single one of Catherine and Michael Zuckerts’ defenders engage directly my chief criticism of their book, namely, that their emphatic insistence that Strauss did not write as he read is without merit. Only Professor Myers mentions it, but he chooses not to pursue the matter, preferring to focus instead on my alleged neglect of a footnote, an aside, and the like. Almost as revealing is the fact that Professor Cropsey and Professor Davis both explicitly refrain from endorsing the Zuckerts’ characterization of Strauss’s art of writing, and even Myers’s endorsement is ambiguous. What’s more, not a single criticism of my reading of Strauss is offered. Might my critics, then, agree with me on the central question being disputed?

Nor do any of the Zuckerts’ defenders try to explain—to say nothing of attempting to defend—the Zuckerts’ serious lapses from the minimal demands of academic precision. I gave only a few examples of such lapses: offering an interpretation on the basis of a doctored quotation; attributing to Strauss, without evidence, an absurd statement that he was supposed to invoke frequently (“as an émigré, [Strauss] often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics”); attributing a conclusion to Strauss’s Philosophy and Law diametrically opposed to the one the book itself sets forth at considerable length. And so on.

Davis criticizes me for failing to take account of the Zuckerts’ notion of “pedagogical reserve.” My reason for not providing more than an allusion to the Zuckerts’ phrase is that they leave it wholly unendowed. Carefully articulated, the notion of “pedagogical reserve”—though flawed—could capture something of Strauss’s art. Yet the Zuckerts do not even begin to give a serious account, let alone provide a display, of how to read an author who practices an art of “pedagogical reserve.”

Nor, contrary to Davis’s suggestion, was my decision to focus chiefly on the Zuckerts’ central and most extensive chapter arbitrary. The willingness to read Strauss’s works in the manner he read the greatest authors of the past is the necessary precondition for the proper understanding of his writings. It is for this reason that I praised the Zuckerts for putting the question of how to read Strauss so prominently on the table. But as long as, and to the extent that, you answer this question incorrectly, you are bound to misunderstand Strauss. When well-known scholars publish a book designed to introduce students to Leo Strauss that is apt to inoculate them from understanding his thought, they do a serious disservice.

With regard to Myers’s claim that the Zuckerts’ “argument for the justice of the Socratic-Straussian philosopher…leaves perfectly visible the dangers to political society yet posed by the aporetic character of this sort of philosophic activity,” I am not persuaded. One example should suffice. In his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” Strauss writes:

There is therefore a natural attachment of man to man which is prior to any calculation of mutual benefit. This natural attachment to human beings is weakened in the case of the philosopher by his attachment to the eternal beings. On the other hand, the philosopher is immune to the most common and the most powerful dissolvent of man’s natural attachment to man, the desire to have more than one already has and in particular to have more than others have; for he has the greatest self-sufficiency which is humanly possible.


On page 51 of their book, the Zuckerts quote this passage, but they do so in a peculiar way. Rather than provide the passage as a whole, they omit the sentence concerning the weakened character of the philosopher’s attachment to his fellow man. In place of it and the “On the other hand” that opens the last quoted sentence, they substitute their own “Indeed.” They thus transform a point of contrast into an emphatic affirmation. What in Strauss’s hands had been a nuanced account of the philosopher’s ambivalent relation to his fellow beings becomes in the Zuckerts’ telling an ode to the philosopher’s ordinary justice. Because passages of this sort are the rule rather than the exception in The Truth about Leo Strauss, I characterized the Zuckerts’ Strauss as “formulaic, doctrinaire, and, worst of all, uninteresting.”

As for my unwillingness to engage more fully the ostensible dilemma posed by the three “propositions” the Zuckerts discern in Strauss, my opinion is that the desire to understand Strauss’s thought on such complex and problematic matters as modernity and America in terms of whether they are “good” or “bad” stems from a deep misapprehension of the character of his thought. Consider this passage from Thoughts on Machiavelli:

In studying the Discourses we become the witnesses, and we cannot help becoming the moved witnesses, of that greatest of all youth movements: modern philosophy, a phenomenon which we know through seeing, as distinguished from reading, only in its decay, its state of depravation and its dotage.


Can this be well analyzed within the confines of whether modernity is good or bad?

With regard to Professor Cropsey’s letter, I am not inclined to quibble with the first of the two things he finds valuable in the Zuckerts’ volume—their “decisively laying to rest the misinformed criticisms of Strauss that circulate so widely these days.” His words, in fact, echo my review’s assertion that “the authors [of the three books under consideration] easily lay to rest the worst of the canards spread by his enemies in the academy and the media.”

And finally, let me simply note that if Professor Drury’s seeming contention that only a liberal democrat can be a friend of liberal democracy is correct, then Tocqueville was not a friend of liberal democracy.

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Understanding Islam

Algis Valiunas’s essay “Encountering Islam” wrongly insists upon viewing the higher in the light of the lower (Spring 2007). As a highly respected teacher known to many readers of the Claremont Review of Books wisely argued, it is always sounder to view things—even the lower—in the light of the higher.

Valiunas views Islamic civilization in all its aspects as deriving from and reflecting militant Islam. For him, there is an unbridgeable gap between Islamic and Western civilization such that “the clash of civilizations is real.” Consequently, Edward Said’s criticisms of travelers and novelists for portraying peoples of the Middle East as backward, bigoted, and sensual must be deemed incorrect. Valiunas—who demonstrates no knowledge of Islamic culture or of linguistic tools for acquiring it—claims to know about these matters better than Said, who grew up in the Middle East and had an excellent grasp of Arabic. To buttress his judgment, Valiunas appeals to his readers’ prejudices.

How does Valiunas know that Edward Lane’s portrait of Egyptian fanaticism is correct rather than a caricature? Does he believe that it applies to most Egyptian Muslims or even to most Muslims? What evidence buttresses his assertion that Muslims have always hated Jews and that this is not a reaction to Zionism? If an overblown caricature is a sufficient sociological fact for adducing a political lesson, I eagerly await Valiunas’s analysis of how Jews fared under Christians in times prior to and after the 19th century.

What aspects of Arabic and Islamic culture and existence might Valiunas cite as evidence for his claim that they are backward and poor and that Burton’s portrayal of “outlandish aspects of the Muslim faith” and of Islam as “a civilization short on real wisdom” are accurate? If it has to do with people praying en masse in public because such a sight is frightening, perhaps he will share his thoughts about Christmas Eve mass in St. Peter’s Square or of pilgrims at Lourdes—perhaps even about Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Valiunas does not prove the accuracy of what the travelers say with respect to Islam or to Muslims. He notes that they say it and asserts that since they say it, it must be correct. He does it with wit and panache, to be sure, but his ignorance of Islam and of Arabic-Islamic culture is egregious. Someone intent upon learning from others, rather than on subjecting them to his own will, might look to Alfarabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and Ibn Khaldun—and many more could be enumerated—to understand these matters. They learned much from Plato and Aristotle, preserved and interpreted their thought in the light of revelation, and passed a rich heritage on for those who wish to learn rather than to preserve old quarrels or foster new ones.

Charles E. Butterworth
University of Maryland
College Park, MD


Algis Valiunas replies:

It is true enough that I do not know Arabic and that Edward Said did. This ability gave him one more language to lie in.

In his recent book For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, Robert Irwin-whose expertise in Arabic language and literature even so demanding a scholar as Charles E. Butterworth surely does not dispute-calls Said’sOrientalism “a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” In my essay I sought to expose some of Said’s willful misrepresentations: the literature of Western travelers in Muslim lands as he describes it bears scant resemblance to the real thing. This literature often shows sympathy for, or at worst intelligent ambivalence toward, Muslim civilization, rather than the bottomless contempt and imperialist ambition Said and his followers prefer to see in it.

The Muslim hatred of Jews, for which I adduce the observations of Chateaubriand, John Lloyd Stephens, and Edward Lane, all of whom were appalled by it, is immemorial. One of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed is, “Expel the Jews and the Christians from the Arabian peninsula.” The 14th-century thinker Ibn Khaldun, from whom Butterworth says there is so much to learn, teaches that Jews are “renowned, in every age and climate, for their wickedness and slyness.”

Richard F. Burton is a reliable reporter on Islamic civilization’s unwisdom—the proliferation of superstition at the expense of science in its most venerated university, the widespread hatred of the infidel—precisely because he is an enthusiast for certain aspects of that civilization. As for Ryszard Kapuscinski’s remarking on the “ominous” sight of one million Iranians praying together in Tehran’s main square, the prayers of Christian and Jewish worshippers have not been co-opted by a terror regime to speed the extinction of its enemies.

Butterworth is an expert on medieval Islamic philosophers, and, like many experts, evidently believes his field is indispensable to every matter of importance. There is a use for such thinkers here; but it is more to the point to interpret Islamic revelation in the light of what these philosophers learned from Plato and Aristotle than to interpret their thought in the light of Islamic revelation. While Alfarabi and Averroes profess to demonstrate to the pious that universal reason undergirds their faith, in fact they show reason subtly subverting revelation. In The Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi teaches that philosophy, which demonstrates the truth by force of reason, is a superior activity to religion, which merely operates on the imagination. In The Decisive Treatise, Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy, Averroes indicates that there is a way of knowing God, through “a knowledge of intellectual reasoning,” that is superior to the approach through Islamic law. The question Butterworth does not dare ask is what these advocates of reason would think of the current state of Islamic civilization; for that is not a world made by, or even having any resemblance to, the thinking of Averroes and Alfarabi.

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In the first paragraph of Hadley Arkes’s essay “The Constitution and Mr. Bush” (Winter 2006/07), a misprint occurred. The sentence should have read: “What we were trying to do, more fundamentally, was give guidance to the courts when they came to confront that question.”