There are few thinkers who engender as much debate about their legacy as Leo Strauss (1899 –1973). His critics and biographers often don’t even agree about what scholarly discipline he practiced. Political theory or philosophy? Was he a proto-neoconservative or a middle-of-the-road Cold War defender of liberal democracy? He is often depicted as a major intellectual influence on sections of the national security state right, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush when he was portrayed as a puppeteer pulling from the grave the strings of such notable hawks as Paul Wolfowitz.
But the writings of Strauss often go unexamined. That is partly because they lean towards the abstruse. Strauss was not a general-audience-friendly public intellectual in his day and much of the homage to and attacks on him at this point are to be found in the pages of academic journals and in the halls of think tanks.
We are fortunate, therefore, that we can turn to the 2021 book, Leo Strauss on Democracy, Technology, and Liberal Education (SUNY Press) by Timothy W. Burns for elucidation of Strauss's thinking about how we can preserve liberal democracy in the face of apathy from moderates, classical liberals and traditional conservatives flummoxed by the rise of an aggressive left that questions whether the United States is a democracy at all and an alienated alt-right that regards liberal democracy as now practiced as a character-sapping anachronism leading to civilizational decline.
We learn from Burns of Strauss's admiration for Winston Churchill and touting of him as an exemplar of greatness within democracy. In one of the most absorbing sections of the book we learn of a 1941 lecture by Strauss entitled, “German Nihilism” in which he examined the arguments of such groups as rightist German students in the 1920s that liberal democracy fostered moral mediocrity.
Burns contrasts in detail the ideas of Strauss and Martin Heidegger and shows that Strauss foresaw that the other man’s emphasis on resoluteness would metastasize into Heidegger’s support for Nazism. Burns tells us that Strauss can speak to us today via his call to defend democratic constitutionalism and its spiritual and religious traditions.
That call can lead to charges of elitism against Strauss because it entailed his championing of the idea of an “aristocracy within democracy,” a cadre of cultivated, well-educated leaders who would help maintain the intellectual and cultural moorings of democracies.
Let’s hear now from Professor Burns about who Leo Strauss was and what he actually wrote and thought.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.