The Real Leo StraussBy JENNY STRAUSS CLAY
Recent news articles have portrayed my father, Leo Strauss, as the mastermind
behind the neoconservative ideologues who control United States foreign policy.
He reaches out from his 30-year-old grave, we are told, to direct a "cabal"
(a word with distinct anti-Semitic overtones) of Bush administration figures
hoping to subject the American people to rule by a ruthless elite. I do not
recognize the Leo Strauss presented in these articles.
My father was not a politician. He taught political theory, primarily at
the University of Chicago. He was a conservative insofar as he did not think
that change is necessarily change for the better.
Leo Strauss believed
in the intrinsic dignity of the political. He believed in and defended liberal
democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best
form of government that could be realized, "the last best hope." He was an
enemy of any regime that aspired to global domination. He despised utopianism
— in our time, Nazism and Communism — which is predicated on the denial of
a fundamental and even noble feature of human nature: love of one's own.
His heroes were Churchill and Lincoln. He was not an observant Jew, but he
loved the Jewish people and he saw the establishment of Israel as essential
to their survival.
To me, what characterized him above all else was
his total lack of vanity and self-importance. As a result, he had no interest
in honors within the academy, and was completely unsuited to political ambition.
His own earliest passion, he confessed, was to spend his life raising rabbits
(Flemish Giants) and reading Plato.
He was first and foremost a teacher.
He did not seek to mold people in his own image. Rather, he was devoted to
helping young people see the world as it is, in all its misery and splendor.
The objects of his teaching were the Great Books, those works generally recognized
as the foundation of a liberal education. But that alone was not a sufficient
reason for reading them.
He began where good teachers should begin,
from his students' received opinions, in order to scrutinize their foundation.
At that time, as is still true today, academia leaned to the left; hence
such questioning required an examination of the left's tenets. Had the prevailing
beliefs been different, they too would have been subject to his skeptical
Among the received opinions of the time was an unquestioned
faith in progress and science combined with a queasiness regarding any kind
of moral judgment, or "relativism." Many young people were confused, without
a compass, with nothing substantial to admire. My father's turning them to
the Great Books was thus motivated not merely by aesthetic or antiquarian
interest, but by a search for an understanding of mankind's present predicament:
what were its sources and what, if any, were the alternatives? The latter
he found in the writings of the ancient Greeks.
Furthermore, he insistently
confronted his students with the question of the "good life." For him, the
choice boiled down to the life in accordance with Revelation or the life
according to Reason — Jerusalem versus Athens. The vitality of Western tradition,
he felt, lay in the invigorating tension between the two.
saw reading not as a passive exercise but as taking part in an active dialogue
with the great minds of the past. One had to read with great care, great
respect, and try, as he always said, to "understand the author as he understood
himself." Today this task, admittedly difficult and demanding, is dismissed
in fashionable academia as impossible. Rather, we are told, each reader inevitably
constructs his own text over which the author has no control, and the writer's
intentions are irrelevant.
The fact is that Leo Strauss also recognized
a multiplicity of readers, but he had enough faith in his authors to assume
that they, too, recognized that they would have a diverse readership. Some
of their readers, the ancients realized, would want only to find their own
views and prejudices confirmed; others might be willing to open themselves
to new, perhaps unconventional or unpopular, ideas. I personally think my
father's rediscovery of the art of writing for different kinds of readers
will be his most lasting legacy.
Although I was never a student of
my father's, I sat in on a class of his in the 1960's; I think it was on
Xenophon's "Cyropaedia." He was a small, unprepossessing and, truth be told,
ugly man (daughters are their parents' worst critics), with none of the charisma
that one associates with "great teachers." And yet there was something utterly
charming. One of the students would read little chunks of the text, and my
father would comment and call for discussion. What marked this class was
a combination of an engagement with questions of the highest seriousness
(in this case, what is the best form of government) with the laughter of
It was magic. If only the truth had the power to make the misrepresentations of his achievement vanish like smoke and dust.
Jenny Strauss Clay is a professor of classics at the University of Virginia.