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The philosopher

The late Leo Strauss has emerged as the thinker of the moment in Washington, but his ideas remain mysterious. Was he an ardent opponent of tyranny, or an apologist for the abuse of power?

ODD AS THIS MAY SOUND, we live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, a controversial philosopher who died in 1973. Although generally unknown to the wider population, Strauss has been one of the two or three most important intellectual influences on the conservative worldview now ascendant in George W. Bush's Washington. Eager to get the lowdown on White House thinking, editors at the New York Times and Le Monde have had journalists pore over Strauss's work and trace his disciples' affiliations. The New Yorker has even found a contingent of Straussians doing intelligence work for the Pentagon.

Yet while the extent of Strauss's influence is wide, his writings are frequently obscure, and his legacy is hotly disputed by admirers and critics alike. Certainly, Strauss was no ordinary Republican idea-maker: Steeped in ancient philosophy, he had dark forebodings about democracy, religion, technology, and nearly everything else that can claim the allegiance of the contemporary conservative (or liberal, for that matter).

At first glance, a University of Chicago professor who spent most of his life pondering old books would seem an unlikely master-thinker for the policy wonks, career bureaucrats, and pundits who make up Washington's unelected elite. Strauss held that politics was a central human activity, but he also believed that ''all practical or political life is inferior to contemplative life.'' He participated in the battle of ideas not by issuing political manifestoes or angling for bureaucratic power, but by writing recondite and difficult books.

A typical Strauss volume is a densely packed commentary on a classic text like Plato's ''The Laws'' or Machiavelli's ''The Prince,'' festooned with footnotes drawing on an array of hard-won languages from ancient Greek and Latin to medieval Arabic. It's often difficult to discern where Strauss's paraphrases of dead writers leave off and his own views begin-and this has only deepened the mystery that attaches to his work.

Despite his life of quiet scholarly obscurity, Strauss has exerted a strong posthumous sway among those who bustle through the corridors of power. Washington Straussians have included Robert A. Goldwin, who had the bizarre and unenviable task of organizing weekly seminars in political theory and practice attended by President Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s; Carnes Lord, National Security Council advisor in the Reagan administration; and William Galston, deputy domestic policy adviser in the first two years of the Clinton administration. Irving Kristol, an intellectual whose name is virtually synonymous with neoconservatism, has named Strauss as a major influence, and Straussian writers and ideas regularly grace the pages of magazines like National Review, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard, which is edited by Irving's son William Kristol. The Bush administration's Straussians include the Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, who studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago, and the bioethics adviser Leon Kass, a colleague at Chicago.

Strauss also claims a large, if rather clubbish, following in the academy, especially among scholars of political theory and American constitutional history. And yet even those academics who know Strauss's work best often sharply disagree about its fundamental meaning. There are East Coast Straussians, West Coast Straussians, and even some Straussian Democrats. Clifford Orwin, a professor at the University of Toronto strongly influenced by Strauss, describes him as a wise teacher who counseled prudence and moderation. But Shadia Drury, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and the author of ''Leo Strauss and the American Right,'' completely disagrees. For her, Strauss was nothing less than ''a Jewish Nazi'' whose pretense of American patriotism and piety hid a cynical and extremist antidemocratic ideology.

Was Leo Strauss a friend of liberal democracy, or an elitist who wanted society to be ruled by a secretive cabal? An ardent opponent of tyranny, or an apologist for the abuse of power? An atheist or a pious Jew?

To understand Strauss, we need to look beyond the famous students and self-styled acolytes and examine the man himself.

Born in 1899 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany, Leo Strauss learned at an early age that religion and philosophy are always vulnerable to the threat of political persecution. As a young man, Strauss was a liberal rationalist who nursed the hope, widespread in German Jewish circles, that assimilation into a liberal democracy would end anti-Semitism. As an undergraduate at the University of Marburg, his mentor was Hermann Cohen, a philosopher whose reconciliation of Kant's philosophical ethics and biblical morality seemed to suggest that there was no contradiction in being a German Jewish liberal.

In the 1920s Strauss became increasingly disillusioned with modern liberalism. Philosophically, he was shaken by his encounters at the University of Freiburg with Martin Heidegger, the philosopher whose powerful critique of rationality's delusions seemed to undercut the guileless liberalism of Kant and Cohen. Politically, the instability of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism proved to Strauss that liberals were also weaklings in practical matters, unable to protect society from explosions of popular fanaticism. Furthermore, the rise of a new and more virulent strain of anti-Semitism demonstrated that assimilation had failed to solve the problems of German Jewry.

These political and philosophical problems fused together in the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power-and won the applause of Heidegger. By this point Strauss had left Germany for France, where he was studying medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy on a Rockefeller scholarship, but he continued to view events in his native country with dismay.

Strauss believed that Martin Heidegger possessed the greatest mind of the 20th century. But unlike those Heidegger admirers who excused the philosopher's flirtation with Nazism as a mere personal failing, Straus believed it showed that modern philosophy had gone deeply astray. Orwin explains: ''Strauss's question always was, What was it about modern thought that could have led Heidegger to make these disastrous practical misjudgments?''

In Strauss's mature work, he would argue that Plato and Aristotle were wiser than modern thinkers like Machiavelli and Heidegger. This exultation of ancient thought wasn't merely a nostalgic celebration of the good old Greek days. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes observes, Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped a still-vital truth: Inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition.

For Strauss, the modern liberal project of using the fruits of science and the institutions of the state to spread happiness to all is intrinsically futile, self-defeating, and likely to end in terror and tyranny. The best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind.

Such a philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption. For example, it may find that its city's prosperity derives ultimately from ''force and fraud,'' or that the gods do not exist. Aware that Socrates was executed for blasphemy, ancient thinkers realized that philosophy was dangerous: It had to be kept for the intelligent few rather than the ignorant many. Therefore ancient philosophers (and their medieval followers) wrote in code. Using metaphors and cryptic language, they communicated one message, an ''esoteric'' one, for an elite of wise readers and another, ''exoteric'' one, for the unsophisticated general population. For Strauss, the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity.

Although Strauss's ideas had been developing for years, they really coalesced when he moved to London in 1934, and then to the United States later in the decade. Like many European emigres, he found refuge at New York's New School of Social Research, where he taught from 1938 to 1948, and then at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in the late `60s. While his teachings and books bewildered mainstream American social scientists and drew many hostile comments, students flocked to this odd and beguiling refugee scholar.

Many would go on to become important academics in their own right, including the philosopher Stanley Rosen (a leading light at Boston University), the historian Harry Jaffa (who later wrote speeches for Barry Goldwater), and Allan Bloom, whose 1987 bestseller ''The Closing of the American Mind'' would-paradoxically-bring Strauss's thought to a mass audience.

Mindful of the collapse of Weimar Germany's fragile democracy, Strauss was distrustful of American liberals; he believed they were too weak-minded and trusting to fight communism. In fact, Strauss believed that the United States shared certain ills with Soviet communism: Both societies put the material well-being of the masses ahead of the cultivation of virtues among an elite. But Strauss also saw America's constitutional government as the last, best hope for excellence in a modern world besotted with egalitarianism. Many of his students would go on to champion the US Constitution-with its separation of powers and its provision for a strong executive branch-as a political masterpiece that put limits on popular rule.

Stanley Rosen observes that Strauss's earliest students were often indifferent to politics and interested mainly in philosophy. Robert Goldwin became one of the first Straussians to work in practical politics when he joined the campaign of Charles Percy, a Republican candidate for the governorship of Illinois, in 1964. As it turned out, this migration of Straussians into the world of politics helped fill a vacuum in the Republican party, which, aside from free-market economists like Milton Friedman, had few well-educated intellectuals to fill policy-making positions. Once in Washington, Straussian conservatives could carry on their war against modern liberalism's moral relativism at home and naive pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union abroad.

The Straussian milieu was a closely knit one, where professors and pundits cultivated their favorite disciples with devotion. As Holmes points out, Strauss once wrote of ''the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in return.''

With his teachings about philosophers who write in code and secret doctrines for the elect, Leo Strauss can seem like a conspiracy buff. In fact, some of Strauss's followers like Allan Bloom and Willmoore Kendall do use the word ''conspiracy'' to describe the history of Western thought. Not surprisingly, conspiracies have flourished around Strauss himself. The followers of Lyndon H. LaRouche, the fringe presidential candidate who believes that the world is being governed by Jewish bankers inspired by a Babylonian cult and that the Queen of England is a drug dealer, argue that Strauss is the evil genius behind the Republican Party. More sensible folk, like the New York Times writer Brent Staples, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Chicago in the 1980s, have also decried the ''sinister vogue'' of Strauss.

Certainly, Strauss's embrace of obscurity is part of his appeal. When it comes to religion, the obscurity can get especially thick. Strauss, who wrote on Jewish issues all his life, held that atheism was not a viable public philosophy. And yet he often interpreted religious figures in an impious way. He suggested once that the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides secretly believed that reason and revelation were incompatible while pretending to reconcile the Bible with philosophy. In his book ''The Anatomy of Antiliberalism,'' Stephen Holmes maintains that, in Strauss's view, only philosophers can handle the truth: that nature is indifferent to human values and needs.

So where did Strauss really stand? ''He was an atheist,'' says Stanley Rosen flatly. ''They [Straussians] all are. They are epicureans and atheists.'' (The epicurean comment is perhaps a reference to the late Allan Bloom, who was legendary for his enjoyment of the high life. After his death, Bloom's esoteric life as a closeted gay man turned out to be very different from his outward posture as a proponent of traditional values.)

While some Straussians dispute the idea that the master was a godless cynic, it does seem that Strauss wanted a regime where the elite lived by a code of stoic fortitude while governing over a population that subscribes to superstitious religious beliefs. ''He agreed with Marx that religion was the opium of the masses,'' says Shadia Drury. ''But he believed that the masses need their opium.'' Sociologically, Strauss's approach would seem to work well for the Republican Party, which has a grass-roots base of born-again Christians and a much more secular elite leadership-at least in its foreign-policy wing.

Some traditional and religious conservatives have become deeply wary of Straussians. ''They certainly believe that religion may be a useful thing to take in the suckers with,'' notes Thomas Fleming, editor of the right-wing journal Chronicles. ''Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don't appear to hold to. One of Allan Bloom's students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is just absurd. Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe.''

Clifford Orwin sees nothing objectionable in the alliance between Strauss-inspired neoconservatives and fundamentalist Christians. ''The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is a big tent in which a great many people have to coexist who disagree on a great many things,'' notes Orwin. ''There is nothing sinister about that.''

But just how ''sinister'' was Leo Strauss himself? The answer depends on how a reader approaches his books. If you read Strauss with a well-disposed spirit, he can be interpreted as a genuine friend of American liberal democracy. He worked to create an elite that was strong, sober, and sufficiently free of illusions about the goodness of man to fight the totalitarian enemies of liberal democracy-be they fascists, communists, or Islamicist fundamentalists.

But if you read Strauss with a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers, a more disturbing picture takes shape. Strauss, by this view, emerges as a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity. The worst thing you can do to Leo Strauss, perhaps, is to read his books with Straussian eyes.

past coverage
A series on the thinkers who have shaped the Bush administration's view of the world.
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART ONE: The philosopher (By Jeet Heer, 5/11/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART TWO: The analyst (By Neil Swidey, 5/18/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART THREE: The farmer (By Laura Secor, 5/25/03)
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