Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a native of Germany. “I was,” he reported near the end of his life, “brought up in a conservative, even orthodox Jewish home some­where in a rural district of Germany.”[1] Strauss received his doctorate from Hamburg University in 1921. In 1938, he emigrated to the United States and commenced teaching political science and philosophy at the New School for Social Research to escape the Nazi holocaust. Joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1949 as a professor of political philosophy, Strauss subsequently was named Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor at that institution. After his retirement in 1968 from the University of Chicago, Strauss held teaching positions at Claremont Men’s College in California and at St. John’s College in Maryland. At the latter institution he was named the Scott Buchanan Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, and he held that position at the time of his death.

A prolific scholar, Strauss authored over a dozen books and in excess of eighty articles. Moreover, he spawned a generation of admiring students who have attained the highest ranks in the academic profession. One admirer eulogized, “At the University of Chicago his lectures at the Hillel Foundation were events. In a university that prided itself on intellectual distinction, he was widely regarded as most distinguished.”[2] Another admirer offered, “He surely was the most learned man of our time in the great writings…worth being learned in….”[3] In particular, conservative intellectuals were enamored with Strauss’ work. For example, Walter Berns succinctly explained, “He was the greatest of teachers.”[4] In his assessment, Danto Germmo concluded, “Strauss’ impact on American philosophy and political science has been one of almost astonishing proportions.”[5] With unreserved praise, Harry V. Jaffa wrote, “For us who have had the privilege of knowing him as a teacher and as a friend we can only say that of the men we have known, he was the best, and the wisest and most just.”[6] William F. Buckley, Jr. observed that Strauss “is unquestionably one of the most influential teachers of his age,” while the always exacting Willmoore Kendall referred to Strauss as “the great teacher of political philosophy, not of our time alone, but of any time since Machiavelli.”[7] Among Strauss’ books, these having the greatest impact upon American conservative thought would include The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1936), Natural Right and History (1953), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), and What Is Political Philosophy? (1959). Concerning the latter two works, Kendall exclaimed, “Both of these should be not required reading but scripture for everyone who likes to think of himself as a conservative.”[8]

What was the essence of this powerful spell that Leo Strauss cast over his students—nay, his disciples? His message was disarmingly simple. He commenced with this admonition:

However much the power of the West may have declined, however great the dangers of the West may be, that decline, that danger, nay, the defeat, even the destruction of the West would not necessarily prove that the West is in a crisis: the West could go down in honor, certain of its purpose. The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose.[9]

The key to the resolution of the crisis lay in a restoration of the vital ideas and faith that in the past had sustained the moral purpose of the West. It was necessary to go back to the origins and to explore deeply the fundamental problems. Specifically, it was imperative to study the great thinkers of the past, be they teachers of good or evil, and to pore over their enduring works; it was essential to understand these thinkers as they understood themselves, and from that base the task of revitalization could commence. Who are the teachers of Good? They will be found, Strauss responded, in the classical Greek and biblical heritages; inescapably, the soul of the historical West is rooted in these intellectual traditions, and here are found the metaphysical foundations of what Strauss called “The Great Tradition” of Western politics.


Classical Greek PhilosophyStrauss’ affection for classical Greek political philosophy is a pervasive characteristic of all his work. Strauss cautioned that when a person “engages in the study of classical philosophy he must know that he embarks on a journey whose end is completely hidden from him. He is not likely to return to the shores of our time as exactly the same man who departed from them.”[10] Why study the classics? Strauss instructed, “It is not…antiquarianism nor…romanticism which induces us to turn…toward the political thought of classical antiquity. We are impelled to do so by the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West.”[11] The fact that classical political philosophy had been replaced by modern utopian ideologies was, according to Strauss, “the core of the contemporary crisis of the West;” consequently, “the indispensable starting point” for rekindling the idea of “the very possibility of high culture” lay with a return to the classics.[12] Indeed, Strauss concluded, “After the experience of our generation, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who assert rather than on those who deny that we have progressed beyond the classics.”[13]

A subtle yet key point in Strauss’ affinity for the classical heritage is his preference for the Platonic emphasis over that of the Aristotelian. Although generally laudatory of Aristotle, it is in Plato that Strauss finds the summum bonum of classical political thought. Strauss elaborated:

Plato never discusses any subject…without keeping in view the elementary Socratic question, ‘What is the right way of life?’… Aristotle, on the other hand, treats each of the various levels of beings, and hence especially every level of human life, on its own terms.[14]

Or as Strauss wrote on another occasion, “Aristotle’s cosmology, as distinguished from Plato’s, is unqualifiedly separable from the quest for the best political order. Aristotelian philosophizing has no longer to the same degree and in the same way as Socratic philosophizing the character of ascent.”[15]

“The character of ascent,” Strauss contended, leads to The Great Tradition of political philosophy:

The Great Tradition of political philosophy was originated by Socrates. Socrates is said to have disregarded the whole of nature altogether in order to devote himself entirely to the study of ethical things. His reason seems to have been that while man is not necessarily in need of knowledge of the nature of all things, he must of necessity be concerned with how he should live individually and collectively.[16]

The ascent commences with acknowledgment that the highest calling of man is in the role of philosopher, for he alone relentlessly pursues “knowledge of the whole”—and it is essential to underscore that the quest is for knowledge (episteme), not opinion (doxa). The philosopher perceives a “nature of things” which is “intelligible” and “knowable,” and to a comprehension of the Truth of this whole he bends his will and talents. In keeping with the Socratic heritage, for Strauss the first step in seeking comprehension is piety: “The beginning of understanding is wonder or surprise, a sense of the bewildering or strange character of the subject matter.”[17] More simply, “[P]iety… emerges out of the contemplation of nature,” and in so doing man learns “to see the lowliness of his estate.”[18] In perceiving his lowliness, man is acknowledging a hierarchy of being. At the pinnacle of this hierarchy is transcendent Truth or the Good. To know the Truth, to go out of the Platonic cave and to know fully the essence of the sun, would he inexpressibly exhilarating and would be the ultimate in attainment and satisfaction for the philosopher. Needless to say, total comprehension of the whole, including the Truth at the pinnacle, eludes the full grasp of mortal man; yet, it is from knowing in the marrow of his intellectual being that the hierarchy of the whole exists that the philosopher is driven unrelentingly in pursuit of knowledge of the whole. To the philosopher, the logic of the matter is inexorable: Man is not self-produced; he is a part of a larger scheme of things; and no greater challenge lies before man than to attempt to discern, however dimly, the essence of that whole.

Platonic thinkingAs imperfect as our knowledge is, from the Platonic-Strauss perspective, we have learned some truth; that is, there is such a thing as human knowledge, and, in fact, knowledge about important matters. For example, we know in our understanding of the whole that things have unalterable essences; more particularly, we know “that there is an unchangeable human nature.”[19] Similarly, individual men have fixed natures that are not amenable to fundamental alteration or change. The initial task is to know ourselves, to perceive our fixed natures, and to attune ourselves accordingly. To the extent that we know our inner beings and accept our fixed essences as integral parts of the hierarchy of the whole, we have glimpsed the essence of classical Justice: “We shall then define justice as the habit of giving to everyone what is due to him according to nature.”[20] Conversely, “Justice means attending to one’s own business, bringing oneself into the right disposition with regard to the transcendent unchanging norm.”[21]

The political implications of classical Platonic thinking are profound. As a consequence of the general concern for ascent, piety, knowledge, truth, justice, and kindred concepts, the Platonic tradition stresses the quest for “the best political order”—the summit of the political hierarchy. As Strauss explained, the best political order entails government by “good men:”

The claim to rule which is based on merit, on human excellence, on “virtue,” appeared to he least controversial [in classical Platonic thought]…. Good men are those who are willing, and able, to prefer the common interest to their private interest and to the objects of their passions, or those who, being able to discern in each situation what is the noble or right thing to do, do it because it is noble and right and for no ulterior reason.[22]

Thus virtue emerges as the controlling ingredient in establishing the best political order: “[T]he chief purpose of the city is the noble life and therefore the chief concern of the city must be the virtue of its members….”[23] And what is the hallmark of virtue? “Pseudo-virtue seeks what is imposing and great, true virtue what is fitting and right.”[24] Moreover, “Virtue is impossible without toil, effort, or repression of the evil in oneself.”[25] Strauss summarized:

The classics had conceived of regimes (politeiai) not so much in terms of in­stitutions as in terms of the aims actually pursued by the community or its authoritative part. Accordingly, they regarded the best regime as that regime whose aim is virtue. [26]

It was then “the character, or tone, of a society” which was the key datum to the classical thinkers in the quest for the best regime. The cornerstone in building the best political order was the character of the individual. As the society was only the individual writ large, it was “the formation of character” in the individual that preoccupied the classical thinkers. Neither in­stitutions, environmental changes, nor science, according to classical thought, were capable of redeeming man and ushering him into the political promised land. Indeed, it was beyond the potential of mortal man to redeem himself; however, he could seek the best attainable by aspiring to ascend and this required developing the intellectual and moral character of the individual.

There is the element of universalism in classical political thought: “By the best political order the classical philosopher understood that political order which is best always and everywhere…. ‘The best political order’ is, then, not intrinsically Greek: it is no more intrinsically Greek than health.”[27] This quest for the finest universally is not to be confused with egalitarianism; in fact, it is the antithesis of egalitarianism: “But just as it may happen that the members of one nation are more likely to be healthy and strong than those of others, it may also happen that one nation has a greater natural fitness for political excellence than others.”[28] The concept of the hierarchy of things, that moving from lower to higher was an immutable component of classical thinking, and it indelibly etched an antiegalitarianism into classical political thought. Strauss observed, “The basic premise of classical political philosophy may be said to be the view that natural inequality of the intellectual powers is, or ought to be, of decisive political importance.”[29] Similarly, he wrote, “The founding of the good city started from the fact that men are by nature different and this proved to mean that they are by nature of unequal rank.”[30]

Although classical political thought sought an understanding of the ideal or best political order in order that man might aspire to ascend, it was categorically anti-utopian. Strauss explained, “The classics thought that, owing to the weakness or dependence of human nature, universal happiness is impossible, and therefore they did not dream of fulfillment of History…. [T]hey saw how limited man’s power is.”[31] In contrast to the utopian, Strauss noted,

[T]he philosopher…is free from the delusions bred by collective egoisms…. [H]e fully realizes the limits set to all human action and all human planning…he does not expect salvation or satisfaction from the establishment of the simply best social order.[32]

Concisely stated, “The best regime and happiness, as classical philosophy understood them, are impossible.”[33]



“Perhaps Socrates,” Strauss speculated, “does not primarily intend to teach a doctrine but rather to educate human beings—to make them better, more just or gentle, more aware of their limitations.”[34] In sum, classical political philosophy “is free from all fanaticism because it knows that evil cannot be eradicated and therefore that one’s expectations from politics must be moderate. The spirit which animates it may be described as serenity or sublime sobriety.”[35] We return to that originating principle of piety, or as Strauss explained, “Classical political philosophy was liberal in the original sense.”[36] Conversely, Strauss concluded, “The classics were for almost all practical purposes what now are called conservatives.”[37]


In Strauss’ thinking the Judeo-Christian heritage is the second pillar of the Great Tradition of political philosophy. Unequivocally, he found the religious tradition of the West as vital to the Great Tradition as he did the classical heritage. Revealing of Strauss’ affinity for the religious basis of Western thought is his intense admiration of Moses Maimonides, described by Strauss, as “the greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages.”[38] Maimonides’ major work was The Guide for the Perplexed, which is directed, Strauss explained, “[T]o those believing Jews who have, by reason of their training in philosophy, fallen into doubt and perplexity.”[39] Or, as Maimonides himself wrote:

I address those who have studied philosophy and have acquired some knowledge, and who while firm in religious matters are perplexed and bewildered on account of the ambiguous and figurative expressions employed in the holy writings.[40]

Did Strauss feel that Maimonides had been successful in resolving this perplexity? Strauss answered, “The Guide as a whole is not merely a key to a forest but is itself a forest, an enchanted forest, and hence also an enchanting forest: it is a delight to the eyes. For the tree of life is a delight to the eyes.”[41]

Maimonides “is the Jewish counterpart” of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Maimonides reconciles reason and revelation by identifying the distinctive aim of…divine law, with the aim of philosophy.”[42] Regarding their respective emphases upon the classical heritage, Strauss noted a basic difference between Aquinas and Maimonides:

For Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle is the highest authority…in political philosophy. Maimonides, on the other hand, could not use Aristotle’s Politics, since it had not been translated into Arabic or Hebrew; but he could start, and he did start, from Plato’s political philosophy.[43]

Thus Maimonides did out of necessity what Strauss had done by choice: both drew more heavily from Platonic than Aristotelian thought. Maimonides was able to harmonize the Platonic and Judaic traditions, Strauss related, for both heritages sought the Ideal; specifically, Judaism became the “perfect law in the Platonic sense” of the Ideal.[44]



Strauss’ admiration for Maimonides takes on a particularly important dimension in view of the deep religious orthodoxy of Maimonides. In Strauss’ words: “The remedy for this perplexity [the perplexity the philosopher has about religion] is the… explanation… that restores the faith in the truth of the Bible, that is, precisely what Maimonides is doing in The Guide.”[45] The basic tenet of Maimonides’ thinking is rooted in Platonic-Biblical piety: “Maimonides finds… that given man’s insignificance compared with the universe man’s claim to be the end for which the world exists is untenable.”[46] According to Maimonides, “human reason is inadequate for solving the central problem;” consequently, he affirms the indispensability of revealed religion.[47] As Strauss concisely stated the matter: “Maimonides defines his position by two frontiers. In the face of orthodoxy he defends the right of reason, in the face of philosophy he directs attention to the bounds of reason.”[48]

Profoundly significant in terms of impact upon Strauss’ professional career was the approach in studying scripture recommended by Maimonides. Maimonides offered these maxims: “The deeper sense of the words of the holy Law are pearls, and the literal acceptation of a figure is of no value in itself;” “Their hidden meaning, however, is profound wisdom, conducive to the recognition of real truth;” and “Your object should be to discover…the general idea which the author wishes to express.”[49] As to reading The Guide, Maimonides requested, “Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually; for you will then find the solution to those important problems of religion, which are a source of anxiety to all intelligent men.”[50] Maimonides then concluded with an observation which Strauss could only relish:

Lastly, when I have a difficult subject before me—when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools—I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.[51]

The technique of study advocated by Strauss in his professional career is unmistakenly vintage Maimonides. There is that emphasis upon careful textual analysis in which one eschews literalism and looks for the “deeper sense” and “the hidden meaning.” In addition, as noted, there is that strong Platonic biblical willingness, if necessary, to ignore “the multitude” and “to address” oneself to “one intelligent man.” Indeed, the point is compelling: Strauss not only drank deeply of the substance of Maimonides’ thought, he not only attempted to reconcile the classical and biblical views, but in addition he borrowed extravagantly from Maimonides’ method of study, and it is not too much to say that he cast himself in the role of a modern Maimonides.

Theologico Political TreatisejpgFurther underscoring Strauss’ commitment to the biblical heritage, is his disdain for Spinoza. Maimonides and Spinoza were both of Jewish heritage. The former was devoted to preserving the biblical roots, while the latter through his major work, Theologico-political Treatise, sought to free himself and his readers from biblical guidance. Strauss was lavish in his praise of Maimonides, and unsparingly critical in his analysis of Spinoza. Strauss wrote, “Spinoza rejects both Greek idealism and Christian realism…. Spinoza’s God is simply beyond good and evil…. Good and evil differ only from a merely human point of view; theologically the distinction is meaningless.”[52] Spinoza’s initial error is to reject the classical-biblical concept of piety: “To humility Spinoza opposes composure of mind as the joy that springs when man contemplates himself and his power of action.”[53] Having rejected piety, Spinoza, according to Strauss, called for “an open attack on all forms of orthodox biblical theology.”[54] Spinoza “denies revealed religion” and rejects outright the biblical conception of sin:

Does there exist [in Spinoza’s thinking], apart from all humanly constituted law, a law plainly imposed on all men, and of which transgression is sin? Is there human action which contravenes the will of God? For Spinoza, this is the question regarding the lex divina, and to the question understood in this sense his answer is No.[55]

As Strauss explained even more succinctly, “Spinoza’s real view [is that] every man and every being has a natural right to everything; the state of nature knows no law and knows no sin.”[56]

Strauss continued, ”Spinoza…charges full tilt…with the wholehearted scorn of the realist free of illusions who knows the world.”[57] According to Spinoza, Strauss noted, the error of religion is that it causes man to place “his trust in others rather than in himself, rather than in his own powers of rational reflection.”[58] Thus, unlike Maimonides, Spinoza was “convinced…of the adequacy of human capacities for the guidance of life,” and he demanded of “Judaism that it should justify itself before the tribunal of reason, of humanity.”[59] In sum, Spinoza, “taking his stand on the unambiguous evidence and of reason,” points directly to the mind and spirit of the Enlightenment:

Interest in security and in alleviation of the ills of life may be called the interest characteristic of the Enlightenment in general. This movement sought in every way open to it to assure greater security and amelioration of life…. Nothing could be more odious to the Enlightenment than the conception of God as a terrible God, in which the severity of mind and heart, and the spirit of the Book of Deuteronomy, finds its ultimate justification.[60]

What is the end result of Spinoza’s view? “[T]he humanitarian end seems to justify every means; he plays a most dangerous game; his procedure is as much beyond good and evil as his God.”[61] More specifically, Strauss wrote, “The explicit thesis of the Theologico-political Treatise may be said to express an extreme version of the ‘liberal’ view,” and thus Spinoza ultimately “found his home in the liberal secular state.”[62]

Not only in his differing reactions to Maimonides and Spinoza does one see the religious facet of Strauss’ thinking, but also in stating directly his personal views, Strauss reveals a deeply religious dimension. Note this somewhat cryptic remark: “It is true that the successful quest for wisdom [that is, philosophy] might lead to the result that wisdom is not the one thing needful.”[63] Extensively throughout his work, Strauss employs this biblical phrase, “the one thing needful.” And is there any doubt as to the religious implications of this statement by Strauss: “The insecurity of man and everything human is not an absolutely terrifying abyss if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure.”[64] Strauss contended that reason is inadequate for a comprehensive explanation, for it “knows only of subjects and objects.”[65] Similarly, naturalism is inadequate, for it “is completely blind to the riddles inherent in the ‘givenness’ of nature,” and finally “humanism is not enough…. Either man is an accidental product of a blind evolution or else the process leading to man, culminating in man, is directed toward man. Mere humanism avoids this ultimate issue.”[66]

Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss

The answer lay Strauss reasoned, “Only by surrendering to God’s experienced call which calls for one’s loving Him with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s might can one come to see the other human being as one’s brother and love him as oneself.”[67] In addition, Strauss cautioned, “The absolute experience will not lead back to Judaism…if it does not recognize itself in the Bible and clarify itself through the Bible.”[68] Concerning the Bible, Strauss wrote, “[I]t is true… I believe… that the Bible sets forth the demands of morality and religion in their purest and most intransigent form” and he further reflected, “[T]he orthodox answer rests upon the belief in the super­ human origin of the Bible.”[69] Strauss charged that without “biblical faith” it was not possible to see “human beings…with humility and charity.”[70] Moreover, men of “unbelief ” are “haunted men. Deferring to nothing higher than their selves, they lack guidance. They lack thought and discipline. Instead they have what they call sincerity.”[71] Strauss continued with this profoundly religious observation: “One can create obstinacy by virtue of some great villainy, but one needs religion for creating hope.”[72] Compelling is this final observation, “The genuine refutation of orthodoxy would require the proof that the world and human life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of a mysterious God.”[73] There is no question that Strauss looked upon biblical knowledge of this “mysterious God” as an indispensable step toward “knowledge of the whole.”

Although his personal heritage was Jewish, there is not a trace of antagonism in Strauss’ writing toward Christianity. Indeed, probably the most moving dimension of Strauss’ thinking was his effort to afford “recognition of that common ground” between Judaism and Christianity:

What can such recognition mean? This much: that Church and Synagogue recognize in each the noble features of its antagonist. Such recognition was possible even during the Christian Middle Ages: while the Synagogue was presented as lowering its head in shame, its features were presented as noble…. Even the pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle remained friends… because each held the truth to be his greatest friend. The Jew may recognize that the Christian error is a blessing, a divine blessing, and the Christian may recognize that the Jewish error is a blessing, a divine blessing. Beyond this they cannot go without ceasing to be Jew or Christian.[74]

In pursuing his “common-ground” theme, Strauss argued:

The common ground on which Jews and Christians can make a friendly collatio to the secular state cannot he the belief in the God of the philosophers, but only the belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God who revealed the Ten Commandments or at any rate such commandments as are valid under all circumstances regardless of the circumstances.[75]

As Strauss viewed it, “The agony of the Jew and the agony of the Cross belong together; ‘they are aspects of the same agony.’ Judaism and Christianity need each other.”[76] Thus, to Strauss it was essential to understand that “over against scientism and humanism Judaism and Christianity are at one.”[77]

Beyond “the common-ground” argument, Strauss wrote with affection for the specifically Christian contributions to Western thought. For example, regarding Catholicism he observed:

Anyone who wishes to judge impartially of the legitimacy or the prospects of the great design of modern man to erect the City of Man on what appears to him to be ruins of the City of God must familiarize himself with the teachings, and especially the political teachings, of the Catholic church, which is certainly the most powerful antagonist of that modern design.[78]

Be it in their “common ground” or in their separate contributions, he spoke then approvingly of the Jewish and Christian heritages. It is to be cautioned that Strauss was not advocating a maudlin ecumenical synthesis of Judaism and Christianity. Strauss insisted, as noted, that beyond “the common ground” neither faith could go “without ceasing to be Jew or Christian.” Strauss did not conceive it as the task of mortals to dilute the essence of either faith; to attempt to do so would reflect impiety in its rankest form.


To Strauss the issue was clear: ”Western man became what he is and is what he is through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.”[79] As had Maimonides and Aquinas, Strauss saw, in spite of certain irreconcilable antagonisms, a mutuality of interest between “Plato and the prophets.” To commence with, both the classical and biblical heritages renounced human pride or hybris and commended piety as the key virtue: “According to the Bible, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord; according to the Greek philosophers, the beginning of wisdom is wonder.”[80] Moreover, as a corollary premise, Strauss noted both traditions “made very strict demands on self-restraint. Neither biblical nor classical morality encourages us to try, solely for the sake of our preferment or our glory, to oust from their positions men who do the required work as well as we could.”[81] Similarly, “Neither biblical nor classical morality encourages all statesmen to try to extend their authority over all men in order to achieve universal recognition.”[82]

Michelangelo-creation-of-adam-indexIn addition to instructing on the virtues of piety and self-restraint, “Plato teaches, just as the Bible, that heaven and earth were created or made by an invisible God whom he calls the Father, who is always, who is good and hence whose creation is good.”[83] Furthermore, in biblical and classical thought “justice is compliance with the natural order” of creation.[84] The wisdom of Jerusalem and Athens requires discernment of the natural order of things and man’s attuning himself to that order. That is, man is not the Creator, he is the creature; he is not the potter, he is the clay. It is then man who adapts to creation, not creation to man—to propose the latter is to propose perverting the natural order of things. On these essentials, on the essence of God, creation, and Justice, Plato and the prophets were as one.

In his analysis of the “coming together” of the wisdom of Jerusalem and Athens, Strauss cautioned, “Yet the differences between the Platonic and the biblical teaching are no less striking than the agreements.”[85] First, there is the inescapable problem of “the opposition of Reason and Revelation.” By its essence Reason accepts as true only that which has withstood the probing power of human logic and scientific understanding. In contrast, by its nature Revelation assumes there are truths beyond the intelligence of man to grasp. Man is finite and limited in his understanding; therefore, those ineffable truths beyond the ken of human reason are knowable only through Revelation. Thus, the clear thinker yields, from the human vantage point, because of their respective essences, Reason and Revelation are not fully reconcilable.

Likewise, Jerusalem and Athens take opposing positions on the fundamental question of whether we are pursuing truth or whether we already possess truth. Strauss explained:

The philosopher is the man who dedicates his life to the quest for knowledge of the good, of the idea of the good… According to the prophets, however, there is no need for the quest for knowledge of the good: God ‘has shewed thee, o man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.'[86]

Plato and prophets are agreed that truth is the goal, but by the very nature of their differing perspectives, the clear thinker again concedes that from the standpoint of human understanding complete reconcilability is not possible. Differing essences cannot be forced into a common mold, to attempt to do so does violence and irreparable harm to the vital nature of each.

As he had done in his efforts to find “the common ground” between Judaism and Christianity, so Strauss had done in his analysis of the classical and biblical views. He looked for the mutual foundations and artfully defined and boldly asserted them; however, he resolutely refused to force either component into an unnatural synthesis of human design. The essence of things had to be respected. The philosopher­ theologian could carry the matter of synthesis to the highest level possible consistent with his understanding of the nature of things; yet, it was gross error—perversion—to force the unnatural union of differing essences. We would have to learn to reconcile ourselves to the irreconcilable. This was acceptable to learned men, for classical and biblical piety had instructed it was not in the nature of things that mortal man should have total knowledge of the whole.


The cardinal error of modern ideologies was to war against the nature of things, and to attempt to superimpose a strictly new design solely human in origin. With the thinking of the Renaissance, Strauss wrote, commenced the heresies of modernity: “[W]ithin the Renaissance an entirely new spirit emerged, the modern secular spirit. The greatest representative of this radical change was Machiavelli.”[87] In Machiavelli, Strauss contended, lay the theoretical foundations of the modern age:

The founder of modern political philosophy is Machiavelli. He tried to effect, and he did effect, a break with the whole tradition of political philosophy. He compared his achievement to that of men like Columbus. He claimed to have discovered a new moral continent. His claim is well founded; his political teaching is ‘wholly new.’ The only question is whether the new continent is fit for human habitation.[88]

Machiavelli launched the “first wave of modernity” as he broke sharply with the classical and biblical heritages, as he broke with the Great Tradition of Western political thought. Regarding Machiavelli’s break with the classical tradition, Strauss observed, “Machiavelli refers so rarely to philosophy and philosophers: in the Prince and the Discourses taken together, there occurs only one reference to Aristotle and one reference to Plato.”[89] Concerning the key concept of piety in classical thinking, Strauss noted, “[O]ne does not find a trace of pagan piety in Machiavelli’s work.”[90] Similarly, “Wisdom is not a great theme for Machiavelli because justice is not a great theme for him;” consequently, there is “a movement from excellence to vileness” as Machiavelli, in departing from the classical view, “denies that there is an order of the soul, and therefore a hierarchy of ways of life or of goods.”[91] In repudiating the classical view, Machiavelli denied ”the possibility of a summum bonum,” and thereby “Machiavelli abandoned the original meaning of the good society or of the good life.”[92] The “character of ascent,” characteristic of classical thought, is destroyed by Machiavelli.

Nor, Strauss continued, is Machiavelli any less devastating in his attack upon the biblical tradition. In his clever and subtle attack upon the biblical legacy, Machiavelli employs a conspiracy of silence: “He silently makes superficial readers oblivious of the biblical teaching.”[93] “As one would expect,” Strauss explained, “Machiavelli is silent about God’s witnessing or the relation between the conscience and God.”[94] Moreover, in neither The Prince or The Discourses does Machiavelli make a “distinction between this world and the next, or between this life and the next; nor does he mention in either work the devil or hell; above all, he never mentions in either work the soul.”[95] On this latter point, Strauss concluded, “[H]is silence about the soul is a perfect expression of the soulless character of his teaching: he is silent about the soul because he has forgotten the soul, just as he has forgotten tragedy and Socrates.”[96] Thus, “Machiavelli unambiguously reveals his complete break with the biblical tradition, and…he ascribes to all religions a human, not a heavenly, origin.”[97] Briefly, Machiavelli “is certain that the Christian religion will not last forever. It is [merely] ‘the present religion.'”[98]



The cleavage between Machiavelli and Christianity is sharply reflected in fundamentally differing attitudes on the meaning of “virtue.” To Machiavelli virtue (virtù), properly understood, meant the pursuit of worldly power and honor. As Strauss elaborated, “Not trust in God and self-denial but self-reliance and self-love is the root of human strength and greatness.”[99] Succinctly, “God is with the strongest battalions.”[100] In contrast, to Machiavelli Christian virtue had “led the world into weakness… by lowering the esteem for worldly glory [and by] regarding humility, abjectness and contempt for things human as the highest good.”[101] In summing up Machiavelli’s position, Strauss wrote, “The sins which ruin states are military rather than moral sins. On the other hand, faith, goodness, humility, and patience may be the road to ruin, as everyone understanding anything of the things of the world will admit.”[102] Machiavelli was indifferent to the truth of the biblical view. He proceeded to substitute politics for religion, and in his “spiritual warfare” on the historical faiths of the West, he raised a banner which proclaimed “there is no sin but ignorance.”[103] Had Machiavelli’s assault upon the established faiths succeeded? Strauss retorted, “The problem posed by biblical antiquity remains behind him like an unconquered fortress.”[104]

Yet in spite of his failure to convince Strauss, the latter acknowledged the powerful impact Machiavelli has had upon the modern mind. Machiavelli was a bold “innovator” who sought to discover “new modes and orders” in the moral realm. He was “a rebel against everything that is respected,” and he “liberated himself completely from belief in any authority.”[105] Indeed, he attempted to establish a new authority spun from wholly new cloth. This new authority was rooted in Machiavelli’s well-known proclamation “that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed.” This meant, Strauss explained, that

the primacy of Love must be replaced by the primacy of Terror…. Therefore the perfection envisaged by both the Bible and classical philosophy is impossible…. Man cannot rise above earthly and earthy humanity and therefore he ought not even to aspire beyond humanity.[106]

In Machiavelli is found then an “attempt to replace humility by humanity,” and the practical result is “to lower man’s goal.”[107] The purpose of lowering the goal is “to increase the probability of its attainment.”[108] The new standard is “low but solid” and “its symbol is the Beast Man as opposed to the God-Man: it understands man in the light of the sub-human rather than of the super-human.”[109] Machiavelli’s conception of the Beast Man leads to the threshold of modern tyranny which “has its roots in Machiavelli’s thought.”[110] Ironically, Strauss observed, “A stupendous contraction of the horizon appears to Machiavelli and his successors as a wondrous enlargement of the horizon.”[111]

In reference to The Prince, Strauss wrote, “The characteristic feature of the work is precisely that it makes no distinction between prince and tyrant: it uses the term ‘prince’ to designate princes and tyrants alike.”[112] In Machiavelli’s own words:

[F]or how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation…. Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good.[113]

In pursuing worldly honor and the praise of men, Machiavelli further instructed that the prince “must imitate the fox and the lion,” must, that is, alternate between cunning and violence, and “in the actions of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means. Let a prince therefore aim at conquering and maintaining the state.”[114] Strauss summed up Machiavelli’s instructions to the fledgling prince­ tyrant: “He must pursue a policy of iron and poison, of murder and treachery…. [T]he patriotic end hallows every means however much condemned by the most exalted traditions both philosophic and religious.”[115] “There can be no doubt regarding the answer,” Strauss concluded, “the immoral policies recommended throughout the Prince are not justified on grounds of the common good, but exclusively on grounds of the self-interest of the prince, of his selfish concern with his own well-being, security and glory.”[116]

An additional result in Machiavelli’s “lowering the goal” is that he “replaces God…by Fortuna.”[117] “Fortuna is malevolent,” Strauss explained, and she “mysteriously elects some men or nations for glory and others for ruin or infamy.”[118] Furthermore, “[T]he end which Fortuna pursues is unknown, and so are her ways toward that end.”[119] In brief, Fortuna is what is conventionally called chance, and she is the essence of human existence. Unlike the classical and biblical views, Machiavelli sees no hierarchy of order, nor does he perceive that things have essences and substances, that there is a “nature of things” independent of man’s will. From the classical biblical perspective, man is a vital component of the whole, but he is not the creator of the whole, nor does he have full dominion over it. The matter is otherwise with Machiavelli Strauss noted, for “Fortuna is like a woman who can be vanquished by the right kind of man.” Thus, “if Fortuna can he vanquished, man would seem to be able to become the master of the universe. Certainly Machiavelli does not recommend that Fortuna be worshiped: She ought to be beaten and pounded.”[120] As Machiavelli himself explained, in the case of “great men…fortune holds no sway over them.”[121]

If fortune holds no sway over man, as Machiavelli proclaimed, and “if there is no natural end of man” in the Machiavellian view, then Strauss maintained, “[M]an can set for himself almost any end he desires: man is almost infinitely malleable. The power of man is much greater, and the power of nature and chance is correspondingly much smaller, than the ancients thought.”[122] And what are the practical implications of the notion that man is “infinitely malleable?” Strauss elaborated:

Machiavelli takes issue with those who explain the bad conduct of men by their bad nature: men are by nature malleable rather than either bad or good; goodness and badness are not natural qualities but the outcome of habituation. [Thus] what you need is not so much formation of character and moral appeal, as the right kind of institutions, institutions with teeth in them. The shift from formation of character to the trust in institutions is the characteristic corollary of the belief in the almost infinite malleability of man.[123]

It was to “the young” that Machiavelli took his call to join with him, as with a hold Columbus, in establishing “new modes and orders” and in settling a new “moral continent.” Machiavelli stated, “I certainly think that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman…. And therefore like a woman, she is always a friend to the young, because they are less cautious, fiercer, and master her with greater audacity.”[124] “Machiavelli tries,” Strauss continued, “to divert the adherence of the young from the old to the new teaching by appealing to the taste of the young,” and thereby “he displays a bias in favor of the impetuous, the quick, the partisan, the spectacular, and the bloody over and against the deliberate, the slow, the neutral, the silent, and the gentle.”[125] In Machiavelli’s thought, Strauss reasoned, “Reason and youth and modernity rise up against authority, old age, and antiquity.” The result is “the birth of that greatest of all youth movements: modern philosophy.”[126]

In The Prince, Machiavelli instructed youth with this superficial and callow doctrine: “Only those defenses are good, certain and durable, which depend on yourself alone and your own ability.”[127] “Machiavelli thus establishes,” Strauss wrote, “a kind of intimacy with his readers par excellence, whom he calls ‘the young,’ by inducing them to think forbidden or criminal thoughts.”[128] Strauss asked, “How can we respect someone who remains undecided between good and evil or who, while benefiting us, benefits at the same time and by the same action our worst enemies?”[129] “If it is true,” Strauss maintained, “that only an evil man will stoop to teach maxims of public and private gangsterism, we are forced to say that Machiavelli was an evil man.”[130] After all, Machiavelli himself had proclaimed in The Discourses that “evil deeds have a certain grandeur.”[131] In sum, the Florentine is “a teacher of evil,” and it is only “the incredibility of his enterprise which secures him against detection, i.e., against the detection of the intransigence and awakeness with which he conducts his exploration of hitherto unknown territory and thus prepares the conquest of that territory by his brothers.”[132]


Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Although Machiavelli had laid the primary theoretical foundations, Strauss considered Thomas Hobbes as one of those “brothers” assisting in launching the “first wave of modernity.” In fact, earlier in his writing career Strauss viewed Hobbes as the key figure in introducing modern Western thought; however, subsequently, he wrote, “Hobbes appeared to me [earlier] as the originator of modern political philosophy. This was an error: not Hobbes, but Machiavelli, deserves this honor.”[133] “It was Machiavelli, that greater Columbus” Strauss decided, “who had discovered the continent on which Hobbes could erect his structure.”[134] To understand this “structure” erected by Hobbes, it was imperative, Strauss instructed, that “the fundamental difference” between Hobbes’ thinking “and the classical as well as the Christian attitude should be grasped.”[135] Succinctly stated, it was essential to understand that “the shifting of interest from the eternal order to man… carried to its logical conclusion… leads to Hobbes’ political philosophy.”[136] As had Machiavelli, Hobbes broke completely with the Great Tradition of Western thought.

Under the tutelage of Plato, the classical perspective yearned for “the truth hidden in the natural valuations and therefore [sought] to teach nothing new and heard of;” rather, it sought to discover and articulate the “old and eternal.” In contrast, Hobbes lusted after the “future and freely projected;” he searched for the ”surprising new, unheard-of-venture.”[137] Hobbes then, at war with the classical legacy, unleashed a violent outpouring of the modern spirit. He denied the notion of the soul and he rejected the idea that there was a supreme good. Moreover, he denied the concept of the natural law, he repudiated the notion that there was an order of being, and that there was a hierarchy of value and gradation in the nature of things. Likewise, Hobbes renounced any ideal of an objective moral order, that justice could be perceived, and that there was a natural end of man. As Strauss reported it, Hobbes was “elated by a sense of the complete failure of traditional philosophy.”[138]

Hobbes turned with comparable vehemence on the biblical heritage and, Strauss maintained, he preached a doctrine of “political atheism.” As to the Christian tradition, Hobbes differed with it “by his denial of the possibility that just and unjust actions may be distinguished independently of human legislation.”[139] To Hobbes, man “has no reason to be grateful to the ‘First Cause’ of [the] universe,” and “there is then no reason for believing in the authority of the Bible.”[140] Thus “unbelief is the necessary premise of his teaching about the state of nature.”[141] Shockingly, in Hobbes’ hands impiety is converted into a virtue.

According to Strauss, Hobbes taught a corollary doctrine of “political hedonism.” In the Hobbesian scheme of things, death is “the primary and greatest and supreme evil, the only and absolute standard of human life, the beginning of all knowledge of the real world.”[142] As fear of death is the primary evil, it follows that “self-preservation” is the most basic of all rights, particularly self-preservation against violent death. In effect, Hobbes upended the classical and biblical heritages and made self-preservation the summum bonum of the human experience; thus, the ultimate sacrifices of self by Socrates and Christ in the pursuit of truth become odious perversions—evil—in the Hobbesian view. Self-preservation is the supreme Right: It is the foundation of political morality and it is antecedent to all things political. Classical and biblical notions of duty, service, and sacrifice to higher transcendent callings are summarily rejected. The Hobbesian goddess is sovereign power, for she alone can offer security against violent death, the supreme evil. Strauss wrote, “[O]ne may call Hobbes’ whole philosophy the first philosophy of power.”[143] He did find a nuance of difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli: “[W]hereas the pivot 0f Machiavelli’s political teaching was glory, the pivot of Hobbes’ political teaching is power.”[144] Power and glory emerge then as key pillars of modern thought; they stand in stark contrast to the classical biblical notions of piety and service.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

After Machiavelli and Hobbes, Strauss maintained, “The second wave of modernity begins with Rousseau. He changed the moral climate of the west as profoundly as Machiavelli.”[145] Rousseau unleashed the romantic radical spirit of modern Jacobinism. Whereas Machiavelli and Hobbes had subtly (and even on occasion gracefully) undermined the Great Tradition, Rousseau with glee and bravado wielded the ideological sword against the classical biblical heritage. He was obscenely impious: He repudiated God and reason and declared human passion as the center and measure of all things. Through Rousseau’s concept of the General Will, which is no more than collectivized human passion, we see erected the modern idol of collective man. The wreckage lies all around and the end of the destruction is not yet in sight. Strauss concluded, “[T]he restitution of a sound approach is bound up with the elimination of Rousseau’s influence.”[146]

Upon the heels of Rousseau, Strauss asserted, Nietzsche ushered in “the third wave of modernity.” At least in Rousseau there was the potentially redeeming virtue of the “noble savage” exuding compassion in his tranquil and blissful state of nature. However, Nietzsche offered no redeeming virtue; rather, he raised the preaching of evil to the nth power. He struck savagely at the twin pillars of the Great Tradition—with barbaric frenzy and sadistic pleasure he openly and explicitly condemned Jerusalem and Athens. The heritage of Plato was rejected out-of-hand because of its emphasis on reason in the pursuit of the Good. As did Rousseau, Nietzsche turned from reason to sentiment and passion, and he repudiated categorically any notion of an existing transcendent Good. Rather than the “character of ascent” of the classical view, Nietzsche led to descent into the world of the animal—the beast. In speaking of man, Nietzsche wrote, “[The] hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness.”[147] In the same breath, Nietzsche renounced the biblical view by declaring “God is dead.” In addition, he uttered the heretofore unthinkable blasphemy that “man is god in the making,” and he dismissed Christianity as no more than a “slave morality.”

In place of the classical Good and Christian love, Nietzsche offered the “will to power.” He wrote, “A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”[148] In the Nietzschean view, Strauss observed, “Man derives enjoyment from overpowering others as well as himself. Whereas Rousseau’s natural man is compassionate, Nietzsche’s natural man is cruel,” and the result is that the “harmony and peace” of the classical biblical view are replaced by “terror and anguish.”[149] Nietzsche prefers Dionysus to Apollo; that is, he prefers the egotistic and orgiastic to the humble and contemplative. In converting man, the creature, into God, the creator, Nietzsche commits the ultimate blasphemy. The result is, Strauss wrote, “Man is conquering nature and there are no assignable limits to the conquest.”[150] As God, Nietzschean man knows no authority higher than himself. He repudiates all authority and guidance provided by traditional theology, philosophy, and history. Released from the restraining forces of classical reason and biblical love, with a frenzied craze Nietzschean man grasps for the levers of power and deliberately directs that power to the destruction of man—to the obliteration of self. Strauss concluded, Nietzsche “thus has grasped a more world-denying way of thinking than that of any previous pessimist,” and the result is the “adoration of the Nothing.”[151]


In breaking with the Great Tradition of the classical and biblical legacies, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and kindred spirits spawned the modern “isms.” Foremost among these are positivism and historicism. “These are the two most powerful schools in the West today,” Strauss observed.[152] Strauss underscored the positivist dimension in Machiavelli’s thinking: “He may be said to exclude dogmatically all evidence which is not ultimately derived from phenomena that are at all times open to everyone’s inspection in broad day­ light.”[153] Precisely stated, “Positivism is the view according to which only scientific knowledge, as defined by modern natural science, is genuine knowledge.”[154] Positivism looked only to the factual and the material; it refused to think in terms of the transcendent and the spiritual. In sum, the essences of the Great Tradition were beyond its comprehension.

“Positivism,” Strauss explained, “necessarily transforms itself into historicism.”[155] From the viewpoint of the historicist, “History… became the highest authority…. [N]o objective norms remained.”[156] Strauss elaborated, “The typical historicism of the twentieth century demands that each generation reinterprets the past on the basis of its own experience and with a view to its own future. It is no longer contemplative, but activistic.”[157] The historicist values “change from epoch to epoch; hence it is impossible to answer the question of right and wrong or of the best social order in a universally valid manner.”[158] Historicism led its followers to the pursuit of temporal honor and glory as successful “sons-of-the-times.” In substance, the modern historicists were ancient sophists in new garb. Machiavelli was a historicist in his pursuit of “Power,” “realism,” and “new modes and orders;” similarly, Hobbes and Rousseau, in their respective pursuits of “sovereign power” and the “General Will,” were historicists in orientation; Nietzsche’s individual “will to power” was, Strauss maintained, no more than an extreme form of “radical historicism.” Although varying in technique, in all cases these thinkers had repudiated notions of the transcendent and enduring; they sought solace and understanding in the mortal clay of specific times and places. In so doing, they broke with the Great Tradition and laid the foundations of modern historicism.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Historicism fragmented into corollary isms. The “radical historicism” of Nietzsche led to existentialism. Strauss asserted “[I]t became clear that the root of existentialism must be sought in Nietzsche.”[159] Existentialism rejected “the assumption that being is as such intelligible,” and it pitted the “will to power” of each individual against an indifferent, sometimes hostile, and always meaningless universe. It was a pathetic mismatching of power: The individual invariably lost for, in searching solely within himself for the resources to prevail, man found his stock of private resources woefully inadequate, and he inevitably succumbed to his infinitely more formidable opponent: blind fate. Under these despairing circumstances, the ineluctable end was nihilism. “Let us popularly define nihilism,” Strauss wrote, “as the inability to take a stand for civilization against cannibalism.”[160] Indeed, to those caught up in the depressing web of existentialism and nihilism, cannibalism was an acceptable alternative for it offered escape even though through self-destruction.

Finally, the “three waves of modernity” led to the great heresy of utopianism. The classical and biblical traditions were rooted in piety, and thus, though they strove powerfully to perceive the transcendent Ideal, there were no illusions that the human condition was perfectible: It was not inherent in the nature of things. From the classical perspective, mortal man could never expect to completely escape the limitations of the Platonic cave; in the biblical view, only God’s grace, not human effort, could folly redeem. The philosophical founders of the modern age contended otherwise. They did promise an earthly utopia. Machiavelli had proclaimed that Fortuna or chance could be conquered, and that man could be “master of the universe;” Hobbes assured his listeners that “not divine grace, but the right kind of human government” would allow man to escape the limits of nature; Rousseau likewise maintained that man was “infinitely perfectible” and that there were “no natural obstacles” to human progress; and Nietzsche brazenly asserted, in Strauss’ words, “that man is conquering nature and there are no assignable limits to that conquest.”[161] As Strauss assessed, the impulse of modern utopianism, it was predicated on the notion of “man’s conquest of nature for the sake of the relief of man’s estate.”[162] Hence, “[t]he modern project…demands that man should become the master and owner of nature” and it holds out the promise not only of “emancipation” but of “secular redemption.”[163] This was a powerful ideology that had come to grip the modern imagination and moved with confidence and relentlessness.

To Strauss, modern utopianism was little more than ancient tyranny. Its essentials were well-known to classical and biblical thinkers (after all, “there is nothing new under the sun”), and it was antithetical to the Great Tradition of Western political thought. While the latter tradition stressed piety, the order of things, Truth, justice, love, service, hope, and the attunement of man to the ordained nature of things; the legacy of tyranny was founded upon pride, egalitarianism, relativism, perversion, terror, power, despair, and the rebuilding of the human condition from new foundations of strictly human design. Strauss summarized, “In limitless self-love, in frenzied arrogance, the tyrant seeks to rule not merely over men but even over gods.”[164] Tyranny was a massive heresy. Its roots were Machiavellian and it found its fullest expression in modern totalitarianism, in National Socialism and Communism.

The armed ideology of National Socialism had been halted by World War II, and in that Strauss rejoiced. It was the relatively unchecked growth of contemporary Communism, the ultimate in tyranny, that deeply troubled him. “The victory of Communism would mean,” Strauss wrote, “the victory of the most extreme form of Eastern despotism.”[165] What of those “new” political scientists who expected Communist regimes ”to transform themselves gradually into good neighbors?”[166] They were “criminally foolish,” retorted Strauss. They knew nothing of the immutable ideological character of the Marxist-Leninist mind and, because these thinkers had ceased to draw intellectual and spiritual nourishment from the Great Tradition, as “old-fashioned political scientists” had done, they appeared incapable of discerning tyranny, let alone condemning it. In probably his most famous statement, Strauss lamented:

Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.[167]

In Conclusion

Although Strauss saw contemporary Western society gravely threatened by the modernisms, he was not a teacher of despair. “Not anguish but awe is ‘the fundamental mood,'” Strauss advised, and he added it is false to assume “that a prophet is true only if he is a prophet of doom; the true prophets are also prophets of ultimate salvation.”[168] Even when confronted with the monstrous evils of contemporary totalitarianism, Strauss counseled, “There will always be men who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds.”[169] This rich prophecy, perhaps symbolized in the figure of a Solzhenitsyn, gives assurance that out of the very crucible of degradation springs hope and thereby power; thus, out of evil itself emerges good. If this was the case, and Strauss contended it was, hope inhered in the nature of things. There is cause then for joy, not despair. The bottom metaphysical line in Strauss’ thinking is one of affirmation, not negation.

John Locke

John Locke

Building successfully on the foundations of hope is not likely to be accomplished through merely offering alternative isms of a more alluring and comforting nature. John Locke, who conventional wisdom considers the theoretical patron saint of American democracy, does not point to the needed solution, for “Locke is closer to Machiavelli than he is generally said or thought to be…. Locke enlarged self­ preservation to comfortable self-preservation and thus laid the theoretical foundation for the acquisitive society.”[170] The Lockean tradition negated notions of duty and service, of excellence and virtue, and offered instead tantalizing visions of ever­ expanding rights which fostered egoism—Locke was a “political hedonist.” Nor, continued Strauss, did libertarianism in general possess the theoretical strength and depth to withstand the evils of the modern isms. Rooted also in hedonism and egoism, libertarianism soon produced cloying and aimlessness, and life degenerated into “the joyless quest for joy.”[171] Libertarianism left the “ultimate sanctity of the individual as individual unredeemed and unjustified.”[172] Similarly, there was no redemptive power in modern statist liberalism. Its ethical foundations were appallingly thin: It challenged no one to virtue and service; rather, it openly, unrelentingly, and arrogantly pandered to hedonism by promising material surfeit through governmental planning and edict. Knowledge no longer had “the character of ascent” toward the transcendent and enduring; it existed exclusively to serve the ever escalating material demands of the unrestrained human ego. Strauss concluded, “There is undoubtedly some kinship between the modern liberal and the ancient sophist.”[173]

Moreover, it was unlikely that some form of traditionalism alone could restore the needed metaphysical foundations. Strauss was not hostile to traditionalism if it was properly understood as a corollary to a deeper metaphysics. As a corollary theorem, it had the value of restraining men from engaging in mindless and reckless innovation; it served as a preventive to impiety, the rankest and most ancient of heresies. However, the potential error of unassisted traditionalism was its equating “the good with the ancestral.”[174] Strauss warned, “But not everything old everywhere is right.”[175] “Prudence,” Strauss cautioned, “cannot he seen properly without some knowledge of ‘the higher world’—without genuine theoria.”[176] In sum, the ultimate goal is ascent to the Truth; unexamined traditional­ism frequently serves as a deterrent to that upward thrust.

The only course open to a restoration of the essential theoretical foundations seemed clear. Contemporary man had succumbed to the petty dogmas and harsh ideologies of the modern thinkers. To restore the intellectual vitality of the Western tradition, to alleviate the crisis of modernity and to avert disaster, it was imperative to reject the modern isms and to repair to the restorative powers of the classical and biblical heritages—to the Great Tradition of Western politics. Strauss never defined his intellectual position as “conservative;” perhaps there was the risk that any newly spawned ism, no matter how nobly conceived, would degenerate into another fleeting variant of historicism. Yet American conservatives happily accepted Strauss on his terms. They drew incalculable sustenance from him, many shared his belief in the restorative powers of the Great Tradition, and finally, conservatives instinctively knew that Strauss, the teacher, was correct: To endure and to prevail it was imperative to escape the stifling clutches of historicism.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 1977).


[1] The College (April, 1970), 2.

[2] Commentary (August, 1974), 64.

[3] The Academic Reviewer (Fall-Winter, 1974), 5.

[4] National Review (December 7, 1973), 1347.

[5] Beyond Ideology (1967), 149.

[6] National Review (December 7, 1973) , 1355.

[7] American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (1970), 398; National Review   (March 12, 1960), 175.

[8] National Review (March 12, 1960), 175.

[9] The City and Man (1964), 3 (hereafter cited CM). 

[10] Social Research (September, 1946), 331.

[11] CM, 1.

[12] Ibid., 2, 11.

[13] What Is Political Philosophy? (1959), 101 (hereafter cited WPP).

[14] Natural Right and History (1953), 156 (hereafter cited NR).

[15] CM, 21 (italics added).

[16] Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse (1970), 83.

[17] Social Research (March, 1947), 129.

[18] On Tyranny (1963), 108; History of Political Philosophy (1972), 45 (hereafter cited HPP).

[19] Jerusalem and Athens (1967), 22 (hereafter cited JA).

[20] NR, 146-7.

[21] The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1952), 161 (hereafter cited PPH).

[22] WPP, 85-6.

[23] CM31.

[24] PPH, 146.

[25] HPP, 17.

[26] NR, 193.

[27] WPP, 87.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Social Research (December, 1947), 485.

[30] CM, 113.

[31] WPP, 131-2.

[32] lbid., 120.

[33] Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), 243 (hereafter cited TM).

[34] CM, 59.

[35] WPP, 28.

[36] Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), 29 (hereafter cited LAM ).

[37] TM, 298.

[38] Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), 9.

[39] Spinozas Critique of Religion (1965), 163 (hereafter cited SCR).

[40] The Guide for the Perplexed (Dover Press, 1956), 5.

[41] LAM, 142.

[42] SCR, 165.

[43] Isaac Abravanel (1937), 96.

[44] Ibid., 99, 104.

[45] LAM , 170.

[46] SCR, 190.

[47] Ibid., 158.

[48] Ibid., 148.

[49] The Guide; 6, 8 (italics added).

[50] Ibid., 8 (italics added).

[51] Ibid., 9.

[52] SCR, 18.

[53] Ibid., 201.

[54] Ibid.,. 225.

[55] Ibid., 171-2.

[56] Ibid., 203.

[57] Ibid., 225.

[58] Ibid., 222.

[59] Ibid., 160, 164.

[60] Ibid., 172, 209.

[61] Ibid., 21.

[62] WPP, 226; SCR, 170.

[63] NR, 36.

[64] SCR, 11.

[65] Ibid., 9.

[66] Interpretation (Summer, 1971), 7; The State of the Social Sciences (1956), 420 (hereafter cited SSS).

[67] SCR, 8-9.

[68] Ibid., 9.

[69] TM, 133, 32.

[70] LAM, 261. 

[71] Ibid., 261.

[72] TM, 150.

[73] SCR, 29.

[74] LAM, 266.

[75] Ibid., 265-6.

[76] Ibid., 267.

[77] Ibid., 270.

[78] WPP, 281. 

[79] JA, 3.

[80] Ibid., 5.

[81] WPP, 111.

[82] Ibid.

[83] JA, 20.

[84] Political Philosophy: Six Essays by Leo Strauss (1975), 86 (hereafter cited PP).

[85] JA, 21.

[86] Ibid., 27.

[87] Church History (March, 1961), 101.

[88] WPP, 40.

[89] TM, 224.

[90] Ibid., 175.

[91] Ibid., 295.

[92] WPP, 180; NR, 178.

[93] TM, 176.

[94] Ibid., 194.

[95] HPP, 278.

[96] TM, 294.

[97] Ibid., 142.

[98] Ibid., 170.

[99] Ibid., 190.

[100] Ibid., 199.

[101] Ibid., 178-9.

[102] Ibid., 191.

[103] Ibid., 13.

[104] Ibid., 94.

[105] Ibid., 132, 136.

[106] Ibid., 167.

[107] Ibid., 207-8.

[108] NR, 178.

[109] TM, 296-7.

[110] Ibid., 13-4.

[111] Ibid., 295.

[112] WPP, 289.

[113] The Prince, ch. 15.

[114] Ibid., ch. 18.

[115] TM, 67-8.

[116] Ibid., 80.

[117] Ibid., 209.

[118] Ibid., 214-5.

[119] Ibid., 215.

[120] Ibid., 221.

[121] The Discourses, Book Three, discourse 31.

[122] WPP, 42.

[123] TM, 279; WPP, 43.

[124] The Prince, ch. 25.

[125] TM, 82.

[126] Ibid., 127.

[127] The Prince, ch. 24.

[128] HPP, 287.

[129] TM, 282.

[130] Ibid., 9.

[131] The Discourses, Book One, discourse 27.

[132] TM, 9, 107.

[133] PPH, xv.

[134] NR, 177.

[135] PPH, 5.

[136] Ibid., 100.

[137] Ibid., 163-4.

[138] NR, 170.

[139] PPH, 23. 

[140] WPP, 185.

[141] Ibid., 189-90.

[142] PPH, 23.

[143] NR, 194.

[144] WPP, 48-9.

[145] PP, 89.

[146] Social Research (November, 1939), 539.

[147] Genealogy of Morals, 476-7,

[148] Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings, 211.

[149] PP, 97-8, 94.

[150] Interpretation (Winter, 1973), 112.

[151] Ibid.

[152] The Predicament of Modern Politics (1964), 91 (hereafter cited PMP).  

[153] TM, 203.

[154] PMP, 91.

[155] WPP, 25.

[156] NR, 17.

[157] Ibid., 59.

[158] PP, 82.

[159] Relativism and the Study of Man (1961), 151.

[160] SSS, 422.

[161] WR, 292, 221, 184, 271; Interpretation (Winter, 1973), 112.

[162] SCR, 2.

[163] Ibid., 15, 17.

[164] PPH, 147.

[165] CM, 3.

[166] Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (1962), 317.

[167] Ibid., 327.

[168] WPP, 260; JA, 25.

[169] WPP, 130.

[170] WPP, 218; HPP, 273.

[171] NR, 251.

[172] lbid., 294.

[173] LAM, 56.

[174] NR, 319.

[175] Ibid., 83.

[176] Ibid., 321.

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