Taking Leo Strauss Seriously as a Philosopher

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography, Yale University Press, 2011.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss. Une biographie intellectuelle, Grasset, 2003.

The way Leo Strauss is read in France and in the French-speaking world differs from his reception in the United States. Americans read his books as an introduction to classical political philosophy. They see him more as a commentator of great texts or as a historian of ideas than as a philosopher in his own right. Strauss himself made the distinction between `scholars’ and `great thinkers,’ and he placed himself squarely into the first category. If American commentators acknowledge his distinct contribution to the world of ideas, it is to discuss his teaching’s political underpinnings, with sterile references to his alleged influence over the neoconservative agenda. Only rarely do they refer to his early texts on medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers. Or if they do, it is to lock him up in a communitarian cage, and to consider that he was « déjà Jew all over again. »

French philosophers discovered Strauss’s works in several waves. The German refugee was in familiar terms with Alexandre Kojève, Alexandre Koyré, and Raymond Aron. He shared with them the same philosophical references and intellectual horizon. But the French translations of his essays came rather late, and they were discussed in conjunction with other authors such as Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt, in what amounted to a renaissance of political philosophy in France. Consequently, French commentators are more ready to engage Strauss as an original thinker and, looking for entry points into his work, to find common threads and patterns of ideas that unify his thinking into a coherent whole.

Reading Strauss between the lines

Daniel Tanguay, a Canadian academic who writes in the tradition of French or continental philosophy, is inclined to see a constant motive in Strauss’ work, which needs to be read between the lines and below the veneer of commentary, as Strauss himself thought we should read the classics of political philosophy. But, like Poe’s stolen letter, the main message or code that allows the reader to grasp Strauss’s work as a coherent whole needs not be hidden from sight or buried in a secret place: it is placed in evidence for all people to see. As Strauss wrote in Thoughts on Machiavelli, « the problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things. »

Reading Strauss on the surface provides the reader with several tropes: the Ancients versus the Moderns, the opposition between natural right and history, the esoteric art of writing, the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. Daniel Tanguay’s angle into Strauss’s work is provided by the recognition that the theologico-political problem has always been the dominant theme of his enquiries. The young Strauss was already obsessed by God and politics, or rather by the compatibility between divine revelation and human law. He felt that one should either be « the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy. »

His early foray into political theology–a commentary of Spinoza’s Tractacus Theologico-Politicus–arose in the context of the debates surrounding Zionism and assimilation into German society in the 1920s. But much more was at stake than the fate of Jewish identity and of religious affiliation in a secular democracy. As a representative thinker of the Enlightenment, Spinoza’s goal was to protect reason against the dark forces of religion, tradition, and superstition. But Strauss was not satisfied with the rationalist approach, against which he waived the charge of historicism. Had divine revelation really been refuted and superseded by modern philosophy? What if reason itself was resting on an act of faith, a will to make sense of the unfamiliar that was no less arbitrary than the belief in the truths of God’s revelation?

Beyond Jerusalem and Athens

To pursue the inquiry further, he found it necessary to go back in time to the point where the conflict between religious orthodoxy and rational reasoning first emerged. He therefore turned to the « Medieval Enlightenment » of Jewish and Muslim thinkers like Maimonides, Averroes and al-Farabi, with the hope of discovering « new, unheard-of, ultra-modern ideas ». This detour through medieval lights allowed him to revisit the stage where the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were first imagined, and also to find the missing link connecting modern political thought–Hobbes and Machiavelli–to the classical political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato.

Strauss’s reading of Farabi and other contemporaries also led to his discovery of the « esoteric art of writing. » In questioning established opinions, or in investigating the principles of morality, medieval and antiquity philosophers found it necessary to convey their messages in an oblique manner, so as to escape the threat of the Inquisition or comparably obtuse tribunals. Philosophy in Muslim and Jewish traditional cultures had a more precarious statute than in the Christian world: Christian theology had integrated the teachings and methods of philosophy at an early stage, whereas for the other religions of the Book the pursuit of philosophy had to be justified before the Law. Paradoxically, this precarious positioning led to a flowering of philosophy–and of poetry–that had no equivalent in Christianity. Whereas the Church submitted philosophical inquiry to strict ecclesiastical control, Jewish and Muslim philosophers were free to pursue their art in a detached and private manner, just like the Greeks had done in Socrates’s time.

Strauss’s close reading of Farabi and of the Muslim Aristotelians allows us to mention in passing a recent controversy that has caused quite a stir in French intellectual circles. In Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel , a provocative essay published in 2008, Sylvain Gouguenheim took the opposite view from traditional historiography that considers Muslim thinkers as key transmitters between the ancient Greek heritage and the Christian West. Farabi, Avicennes and Averroes, it is argued, had only a superficial knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, which they could access only through translations made by Syriac Christians. In any case, they had little influence over the rediscovery by late Medieval Christians of their Greek roots, from which they had never been completely cut off in the first place.

These historical musings led to an outcry by French historians and philosophers, who wrote volumes of commentary to denounce the methodological shortcomings and ideological biases of Gouguenheim’s claim. They would have been perceived as equally strange and ludicrous by Leo Strauss, who insisted he came to Plato through Farabi, and to Farabi through Maimonides. It is a historical fact that while Muslim Aristotelians had access to the whole corpus of classical political philosophy, Christian Europe wrote many commentaries on Aristotle’s Politics but did not know Plato’s Laws or The Republic until the fifteenth century. For Strauss, the `Farabian turn’ is a restoration of Socratic wisdom: Farabi and Maimonides are true disciples of Plato. They rediscovered the original meaning of Socratic dialogues over and beyond the interpretations of Aristotelians and Neoplatonicians.

A Straussian moment in political philospophy

Daniel Tanguay’s book is not an intellectual biography in the strict sense of the word. There are no references to Strauss’ life events, and the text only deals with the development of his thinking. It concentrates on his earlier writings, and leaves a large part of the Straussian corpus out of its scope. But the portrait that emerges from this intellectual journey is compelling. Far from limiting himself to commentary and teaching, Strauss wrestled with the most fundamental questions in philosophy. The theologico-political problem, as he named it, is the most challenging question a person can face, and Strauss addressed it head-on, without bias or roundabouts. If `great thinkers’ are defined by their ability to address the great questions facing mankind while `scholars’ only limit themselves to commentary, Leo Strauss may well belong to the first category.

Catégories : Book reviews