A Partial Commentary on Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace

Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prefatory remarks.[1]

Professor Howse has written an ambitious book to make the case for Leo Strauss as a man of peace and to defend him from his critics. That he has to meet both charges is indicative of the state of American politics and academics. In these prefatory remarks, I want to sketch my limited and indirect relationship to Leo Strauss’s students and by extension Leo Strauss before commenting on Professor Howse’s book.

In the early 1990s, I studied at Claremont Graduate School. At the time, a number of Strauss’ students and students of his students were associated with the School. Leo Strauss had taught at Claremont McKenna College for a year in the early 70s. [Correction LS was at CMC in 1969] Since I left, the School became University. However, my time at Claremont had a lasting impact on me. Even though my degree was in International Relations, I had a number of courses, and conversations, with those teachers who would be considered students or disciples of Strauss.[2] When I was there, I never heard anyone refer to themselves as Straussians. Those who were not sympathetic to his teaching or his students usually used the term.

In contrast to others, I had a positive experience with the “Straussians”.[3] I found them intelligent, generous with their time and their knowledge. I was introduced to Strauss by meeting with these students and attending some of the course they took. Given the nature of an academic community and its willingness to descend into a Schmittian view of academic politics, it would only be natural that I would be required, to some extent, to choose sides in the Strauss controversy. I came to Strauss through my mentor Prof Harold Rood when he introduced me to the study of Statesmanship. Statesmanship would prove to be the central theme in my PhD thesis.[4] I learned about statesmanship’s role in grand strategy, its applied form, from Professor Rood. I learned about statesmanship as a political philosophical practice from Leo Strauss’s students. My journey followed a map or a trajectory similar to the one indicated by the table of contents to Professor Howse’s book. I encountered Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political early in my graduate career as well as Strauss’s rebuttal in his famous Notes on the Concept of the Political. Like Strauss, I engaged with the work directly. I was initially attracted to the clarity of Schmitt’s dichotomy between friend and enemy. Yet, Strauss led me away from that view as I learned about statesmanship and tyranny by reading On Tyranny and Plato’s Statesman (Politicus) with a statesman’s responsibility to weave together a web of state. In my thesis I drew on Thucydides concern with the way a city (or a state) reconciles an individual’s love of glory to itself. I saw in that practice a way to understand Lyndon Johnson’s statesmanship as he attempted to reconcile the Vietnam War to the Great Society. In particular, I was interested in Dean Rusk’s work to establish a decent world order based on the principles of international law as contained in the Charter of the United Nations. Despite its best intentions, even America had to recognize the limits of power and the ever present challenge of realpolitik, which lead me to study Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Through this work, I was guided by Strauss’ work on the statesmanship, at least expressed through Stanley Rosen’s book Plato’s Statesman: Web of Politics.[5]

Anyone who attended Claremont and was interested in politics or political philosophy could not avoid hearing about Claremont’s most famous Strauss student—Harry Jaffa. For those with a more particular interest of life at Claremont, they might have heard of the other Harry, Harry Neumann, who was also a student of Strauss, but is less well known even in “Straussian” circles.[6] I never studied with Jaffa or Neumann as Jaffa was retired at that point and Neumann’s courses always clashed with my required courses. However, both Jaffa and Neumann were available and willing to talk with a student who was interested in Strauss or political philosophy. I learned about Strauss, Jaffa and Neumann at the now near mythical conference at Claremont in 1996 on Modern Freedom. At that conference, Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield had their now famous encounter. Tom West has captured the issues well in his essay. [7] A less well known, though still as important of encounter (especially for me), was between Harry Neumann and Mark Blitz on the morning of the second day. If Jaffa and Mansfield were the main card, then Blitz vs Neumann were a worthy undercard. I cannot find my notes from this meeting, but its intensity remains with me and impressed me as a young graduate student. For 30 minutes Professor Neumann and Professor Blitz had as sustained and intense philosophical exchange as I have seen. The audience simply watched as two professors explored and debated the idea of freedom with a rare intensity and directness.

The exchange ignited my abiding interest in Strauss, his project, and his students. It continues to inform my thinking and my reading of Strauss. I approach Professor Howse’s book with that experience. The rest of this post is laid out in the following fashion, after the prefatory comments, I examine the book’s table of contents before turning to chapters 1, 2 and the first half of chapter 3.

The table of contents

In the table of contents, Howse presents an immediate challenge to the attentive reader who wants to understand his ambition within the book. How he arranges the chapters captures our attention and we need to consider his intent. At first glance, it serves a purpose. Following the short prefatory section, there are seven chapters. The fourth chapter, or central chapter, is on Machiavelli: Strauss’s Machiavelli: Fallen Angel and Theoretical Man. If we look for the centre of this central chapter, we find a puzzle. There are 15 subheadings. If we look to the central subheading, the 8th, we find that it titled (Law, Violence, and Political Founding). The topic fits the book’s overall structure. The central section discusses the way political violence is necessary for a political founding and for sustaining the law. The section ends with the view that Christian morality would not be useful in founding a civilisation because Greek, Roman, and Jewish civilisations required a rejection of those principles for the civilisation to exist. This raises two points. The first is whether Christ was a founder of an earthly civilisation or whether he prepared man for salvation and thus founded a different type of civilisation, one that was radically different from what had been proposed previously by the Greek, Roman, and Jewish civilisations. The second is that if we are to discuss civilisations, we have to consider the term’s origin. As Strauss argues in his Notes on the Concept of the Political, Thomas Hobbes initiated the modern understanding of this term. What this suggests, according to Strauss, is that if we view the past in terms of civilisations, we have accepted, either explicitly or implicitly, Hobbes as a guide. It remains unclear whether we can recover an adequate understanding of Christian morality’s effect on politics if we frame it within the concept of civilisation at least as understood by Hobbes. As Howse does not explore these issues, we may have to reconsider what the table of contents is telling us if it does not offer itself to be read as Strauss often suggested especially when considering whether a book is written esoterically. The puzzle may not be a puzzle.

If we return to the table of content and look at how the chapters are ordered, we begin to see a possible pattern or intent. The pattern is important because Howse’s thesis proposes a different view of Strauss and his project by using the term “a man of peace.” To support that view, he suggests an intellectual trajectory to Strauss’s work and the table of content’s structure reflects that intent. An initial pattern that emerges is the use of modern authors and topics or ancient authors and topics. We can view the pattern as follows

  1.  Introduction: Reopening the Case of Leo Strauss [Modern]
  2. Warrior Morality and the Fate of Civilisation: Strauss’s encounter with Carl Schmitt and “German Nihilism” [Modern]
  3. Legitimacy, Legality, Thinking and Ruling in the Closed Society and the World State: the Strauss/Kojeve Debate [Ancient]
  4. Strauss’s Machiavelli Fallen Angel and Theoretical Man [Modern]
  5. Thucydides versus Machiavelli: a moral political horizon of war and law [Ancient]
  6. Justice and Progress: Strauss’s assessment of Modern International Law [Modern]
  7. Conclusion [Modern]

If we look at the table of contents in this way, it would appear that the central chapter is a modern topic sandwiched between two ancient topics. The writers in those chapters are Xenophon, Machiavelli, and Thucydides. What strikes us about these works is that Socrates is absent in all of them. If Howse is trying to convince us that Strauss is a man of peace by the writers he engaged with and what he wrote from that engagement, he chose those topics and writers who were less sympathetic to Socrates as a man of peace. Even Xenophon and Thucydides, contemporaries who can be seen as sympathetic, were both military men (although Socrates was a soldier, he was never a general nor did he lead or direct men in combat.) Even Machiavelli whose service was mainly military and diplomatic offers a different perspective than Socrates who was uninterested in the cities other than Athens. We are given three writers imbued in military matters and foreign policy as a way to understand how Strauss was a man of peace. This is particularly noteworthy because Howse argues that Strauss turned away from Plato and Aristotle in the mature period of his scholarship and focused on men of action like Thucydides and Xenophon. (p.2). In particular, we need to look closely at this order because Strauss’s final books were on Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Socrates and Aristophanes, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws. The other works of this late period were his studies on Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues. Far from leaving Socrates and Aristotle, it would appear that Strauss’s career culminates with Socrates and the enduring question of piety within the tension between reason and revelation. The discrepancy between Strauss and Howse’s view of Strauss suggests that the pattern is not accurate reflection of Strauss’s intellectual trajectory. What we need to do is look at the table of contents in a different way.

If we look at the chapters, we see that the topics initially suggest the possibility that the middle chapter, the modern chapter of Machiavelli, sandwiched between two chapters on ancient writers, is the summit of the work as it is the book’s longest and most complex chapter. This approach suffers from the problem mentioned earlier.[8] Howse may wish to have Machiavelli as the peak of Strauss’s scholarship. However, that suggests that the chapters that follow this peak are a descent. An alternative view would be to see the table of contents indicating an ascent in Strauss’s scholarship as he moved from the political, the domestic realm, through the practical world of politics expressed, to the external realm guided by international law. The idea of progress and a culmination does appear to fit Howse’s stated aim, but is it enough to understand Strauss?

Howse begins with Schmitt and culminates with international law. If we look at the dates of the works, they appear to mirror Strauss’s life. The order of the chapters is a linear progression from earliest writing through to Strauss’s Thucydides essay in City and Man. The sixth chapter is on Strauss’s engagement with International Law, a topic for which Strauss wrote lectures but never published an article or a book or was a topic that received an extended treatment in his published writings. Where he does mention international law, it is a secondary topic or something to illustrate his point or argument. What Howse has attempted to do with his table of contents is lead us along his preferred path from Strauss’s encounter with Schmitt to a mature position relating to international law. [9]He should be applauded for his audacity and his ambition in this task to create his Strauss. The challenge we face is decide whether that helps our understanding of Leo Strauss, his work, or international law. The table of contents does not appear to offer that understanding. What is missing from this approach, if it is an ascent, is that Strauss began with the two interrelated questions “What is Law?” and quid sit deus (What is god?).[10] If we are to understand international law and political violence, especially if violence is the negation of the law, as Howse suggests, then it would have been appropriate if the table of content had dealt with Strauss’s engagement with the law and the related question concerning quid sit deus. We would expect to see such works as Philosophy and Law and On the Minos, where Strauss explored the idea of the law, and finally the Plato’s Laws as explored in the Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws. Moreover, if we are to understand his approach to politics we would need to consider starting with his work on Spinoza. (Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, University of Chicago Press, 1997) Yet, Howse does not offer us that as a starting point. He begins with Schmitt, which means that the story begins in midstream, or rather at a turning point, without the necessary context or foundation to understand Strauss, his project or the turn.

What we seem to miss in the table of contents is that as Strauss progressed in his studies he was going backwards. Even as he reached the height of modernity with Machiavelli, he was returning to Socrates. Seth Benardete expressed this idea well with his review of City and Man.

“That Natural Right and History goes forward from the pre-Socratics to Burke and The City and Man back from Aristotle through Plato to Thucydides, indicates some fundamental changes in Strauss’ way of approaching the ancients. They are no longer the beginning from which, they are now the beginning to which he goes.” [Emphasis added][11]

When we look at Strauss in this way, we see that Howse’s table of contents suggests a trajectory, which leads us to a different understanding of Strauss and one that is not necessarily reflected in how Strauss understood himself. To understand Howse’s argument, we need to look at the chapters in detail to see if our counter argument is correct.

Chapter 1 Introduction: Reopening the Case of Leo Strauss

In this chapter, Howse sets the context for his work. He describes the historical context as well as the overall school that Strauss founded through his students. What will interest some readers are not so much his arguments but rather his omissions or silences.  What is apparent is there is no mention of the “West Coast” Straussians such as Jaffa or West. Other “Straussians” are missing such as Benardete, Rosen, and Harry Neumann. Even if they do not fall strictly into the East Coast-West Coast dynamic, they remain important students, especially Benardete whom Strauss appeared to hold in very high regard. If we fail to see that Strauss had more than his pacific side, he was without a doubt a fiercely intelligent thinker and writer, even if he was a mild mannered. His philosophical project has political consequences and unless we explore or entertain those consequences, we will not understand him or his project. We cannot divorce Strauss from Jaffa and Neumann by omitting the relationship. To do that creates an incomplete image of Strauss. If we are to make the case for Strauss then all parts of the man must be seen to be understood. Is a life in pursuit of virtue one that will be peaceful and uneventful or will it require changes and challenges that will make that pursuit of virtue as challenging as a military campaign even if it is only waged with words, ideas, and students. Another oversight is the way in which Strauss acted as an intellectual or philosophical midwife with his students. Far from being disinterested in them, as suggested by a reference to Bloom’s comment, Strauss understood his students better than they understood themselves.[12] We see that Strauss wrote on Minos and Bloom wrote on Hipparchus and Jaffa wrote on Lincoln but Strauss never wrote directly on American politics. One omission that is problematic is a factual one. Strauss served in the Germany Army in the First World War. Even though he served as an interpreter in Belgium, hardly a post full of martial rigor or responsibility, he still served as a soldier in an army, an occupying army. Without this understanding we lose sight of what it meant for Strauss to look at figures like Machiavelli, Xenophon, and Thucydides or to see how he could have a greater understanding of Socrates’s unquestioned willingness to go to war for Athens.  Finally, and most importantly, what is omitted is that Strauss lived in the midst of the Weimar Republic in which pitched street battles between political paramilitaries was a frequent occurrence.

Howse starts with the goal that he will consider Strauss’s views on the relationship of philosophy and law to political violence. The goal is interesting and one that touches on the fundamental themes within Strauss’s work. However, we are left without a clear understanding of what is meant by political violence. Is it violent politics, or is it violence for political purposes? Is it simply legitimate force used by a community to further its goals? Alternatively, does the community see it as illegitimate force? Either approach takes us into a secondary realm, which is to determine what confers legitimacy.[13] Howse does not define the term so we are left to our own understanding of the term. If the term “political violence” mean the contradiction of modern society in which politics assumes consent or a consensual process or settlement, a state of peace, and violence suggests the failure of politics, where there is coercion, a state of war, then we have to ask whether the term political violence is useful as a starting point to understand Strauss. In his published works, we do not see this phrase used or defined. Unlike Hannah Arendt who did write on violence[14], Strauss never sought to pursue political science like themes. His work was always within a philosophical or rather political context. If Strauss did not use the term, we have to ask whether it provides an advantage to ascribe the term to his approach or his project. If the term is used to defend Strauss from his accusers, we have to ask whether that approach, while well intentioned, distorts the issue. To understand the approach and whether it works, we have to turn to the charges.

Howse writes to defend Strauss from the charges that he taught his students, and his readers, “veiled messages of bellicose imperialism, war without limits, and unbounded executive power” (p. 1) To counter these claims, Howse suggests that Strauss offered a “new, classically inspired philosophy of political violence, but one based on a strong preference for peace over war.” (p.1) I applaud his effort and his work is worth considering as much has been written that distorts Strauss’s work, attacks him and impugns his character. However, we have to be cautious with Strauss because his writing has encouraged many, including his defenders, to project their preferred view of Strauss onto his work. For example, Strauss would never have said nor would he have ever considered the phrase “philosophy of political violence”. One cannot have a philosophy of violence without doing violence, literally, to what Strauss believed about philosophy and in particular political philosophy.[15] Perhaps, this is a small point, but it worth considering given the method used to defend against the charges.

If we start with the idea that Howse wants to defend Strauss against the charges and in doing so discovers Strauss held contrary views, that he rejected political violence understood as the preference of coercion over consent, then we can start to make sense of his project. However, we still face a difficulty. Howse has not clarified adequately, within the book or the first chapter, the difference between what the philosopher can do and what the city, or the community, must do to ensure decent politics and the role of the citizen within that relationship. Moreover, this leaves aside the tension or the problem of a public teaching for that purpose, the Socratic Kalam, and the private teaching, which still supports that community without surrendering to it, that explains the way that the life philosophy is more important that the political life. Unless we disentangle these nuances, we will miss what Strauss may have been teaching, if anything, about political violence.

Before we can begin to explore these issues, Howse makes the now required detour into the personalities and gossip that attracts the most attention about Strauss and “Straussians”. The section offers an abbreviated summary of the issues, personalities, and politics of those most notable participants in this industry. However, there are some omissions that raise more questions about the context or understanding of Strauss. For example, the chapter does not mention Harry Jaffa or what can be term the “West Coast Straussians”. Leaving aside that issue, we are missing other important students who present a nuanced and different, in some cases fundamentally different, view of Strauss, his teachings, and what it means to be a “Straussian” and would have a direct influence on the central questions. We see no mention of Seth Benardete and his work. His review of the City of Man,[16] which became the Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), provides an insight into Strauss’s work on Thucydides and by extension Plato. Without fail, those who wish to discuss Straussians seem to overlook him as a student. The same can be said of Stanley Rosen. He is often overlooked even though he presents a challenge to, and an extension of, Strauss’s teachings, in particular, on Plato.[17] However, there is one key student that is overlooked, especially as Howse starts with Carl Schmitt and his relationship with Strauss, the subject to Chapter 2,–Harry Neumann. If we are to discuss Strauss and Schmitt and understand the consequences of that relationship on Strauss’s students as well as Strauss’s teachings, we have to confront the problem of Harry Neumann. As Harry Jaffa says, and Harry Neumann confirms, he was the one student of Strauss[18] who accepted Schmitt’s challenge and took up his side of the argument with Strauss. Neumann considered his encounter with Schmitt’s Concept of the Political as a turning point. We can leave this omission until the section on chapter 2, where I discuss Neumann, but the omissions detract from the chapter.

Howse explains his approach to Strauss, which is novel, because he combines Strauss’s published work with transcripts and recordings of his lectures.[19] As such, this proves valuable for offering some nuances to Strauss’s writing and thinking, which can be challenging even to the experienced reader. Howse uses this approach extensively in chapters 5 and 6 when he makes his most speculative arguments for Strauss’s views on law and international law. However, the approach has important difficulties. Strauss was well known for his insistence, bordering on obsessive intransigence, regarding the way his writings were presented.[20] One can contrast this with Heidegger who placed greater emphasis on his spoken word and the power of the spoken word as being superior to the written word. Howse ascribes greater weight to the recordings, which are of varying completeness and quality, than I believe they are due. Yes, they provide an insight and they are a valuable resource. However, Strauss would be the first to insist that his published writings are his considered view. He wanted to control his public persona because he understood that this would be the main way that people should and would approach his teaching. Even though he was never indiscreet in his lecturers, at least the few that I have heard, one quickly finds that his sense of humour, his penetrating intellect, and his playfulness come into full force. For example, he makes an ironic statement in discussing the Melian dialogue where the Athenians reassure the Melians that they would not have to pay homage daily, they would only have to do it occasionally so it was not as bad as they make out. Such an ironic statement becomes flat and unemotional when written down, like having to explain a joke. However, he spoke as the situation required and like an excellent philosophical statesman, he modulated his speech to fit the audience. I would say that his lectures provide an insight but cannot substitute for his written work. To extend his unpublished remarks and recordings to the same level or importance as the published writing does violence to Strauss’s project.

The need to publish and promote Strauss’s recordings as a way to defend him and his legacy shows the gap between education and ignorance that has plagued academia concerning Strauss and his teaching. Moreover, it shows the gap between the public or vulgar charges, such as Tim Robbins, and the more potent private, or esoteric, accusation from other academics as well as from Strauss’s students. As Strauss warned in On Tyranny, he wrote his treatise so that students would not need to have such things explained to them in such detail. (OT p.28) However, it appears the academy has fallen behind and is not even aware that it needs the joke explained because it does not even know a joke has been made. What is not considered is how the need to publish his lectures shows the failure of any political project that might have been ascribed to Strauss. If Machiavelli had been as great of influence as Howse appears to argue, he makes his work the central part of his book, Strauss’s exoteric project is rather weak and doubtful. If Strauss had a cover project, it has failed spectacularly as his public persona has attracted such a dubious reputation and is captive of popular or vulgar prejudices even as his core teachings remain unknown, misunderstood, and potentially ineffectual for its dwindling effect on academia and, more widely, the public. However, Howse appears to stay on the surface and seeks to address the public charges relating to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Howse moves onto explore Strauss’s apparent anti-liberalism as a young man. The approach expands on Strauss’s autobiographical statement attached when he published the English edition of Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. However, Howse does not explore the nature of Weimar that Strauss experienced, which would provide context for his statement and his concerns. One can easily see that Strauss would have found it difficult to defend Weimar in its death throes in particular as it has failed to, or was unable to, defend itself against the forces and actors that attacked it. Moreover, given that Carl Schmitt was trying to defend Weimar’s crumbling liberalism with his anti-liberal constitutionalism, it would have been strange for Strauss, while critical of Weimar liberalism, to join Schmitt as he did not agree with his project.  Moreover, Strauss understood he had to engage the harshest critics of Weimar liberalism to understand the philosophical issue at stake. For a person as sensitive and intelligent as Strauss, it would have been impossible to find the weakness of Weimar’s liberalism appealing as it could not stop the political violence; pitched battles in the streets, political murders, and the vicious politically motivated anti-Semitism.

The next section describes a third theme (international law is the first, anti-liberalism is the second), repentance. Howse develops an interesting and novel point about Strauss “atoning” for his engagement with Schmitt and other illiberal thinkers. He points to the term of t’shuvah. (p. 16) The term recurs throughout the book although it is debatable whether it is applicable. The term refers to making atonement, which Howse argues that Strauss did over his lifetime for his encounter with extremism. If we expanded on Howse’s argument, we could suggest that Strauss was conducting the penance that Heidegger (and Schmitt) seemed incapable of doing given his (their) immoderate thinking. Perhaps, this is a roundabout way of describing Strauss as falling just that short of being a true philosopher in that he would allow something to restrain him from such unrestrained thinking that Heidegger appeared to demonstrate. However, this overlooks Strauss’s debt to Socrates rather than Scripture. His moderation is in full understanding of what immoderation means in terms of philosophy and by consequence politics.[21]

Finally, Howse discusses Strauss’s method of writing and raises the point of philosophising as inter-temporal dialogue. He wants to refute those who argue that Strauss had a secret teaching that he provided either in his writing or orally to his students. The goal is laudable, but one has to wonder if it detracts from Strauss’s work and method in his attempts to defend it. Howse points out, as Strauss stressed, that writers in the past wrote monologues. We can only understand them from their writings because we are not contemporaries nor were we in the same room discussing with them. In this, we seek to understand the past thinkers as they understand themselves and that requires us to engage with them directly. We have to begin to think, and perhaps come to philosophize, when we start to wrestle with the problems the older writers and thinkers considered.

He suggests that Strauss imagines dialogues between great thinkers or greatest minds of the past. He says

“Strauss poses his own questions to past thinkers as well as imagining how they would answer to one another in a sort of time warp—what would Thucydides say to Machiavelli about war and necessity, for example?” (p18)

The idea is interesting, and it does help us to understand Strauss’s approach to writers and their texts, but is it true? I can find no reference to where Strauss engaged in such an imaginary dialogue or created one. What we do find is that Strauss engaged these writers, acting as a midwife, to give birth to his understanding of their relationship. He provides us with what he found about war and necessity. In one sense, I doubt that Thucydides and Machiavelli would have much, if anything to say to each other on these issues. As Howse accepts, following Strauss, a dialogue between the greatest minds is impossible. The dialogue between two philosophers is likely impossible because of what it means to be philosophers. To paraphrase Benardete, it would be a silent dialogue. They could talk to each other about insignificant things but they may as well pass the time of day as attempt to philosophize together.

A further problem is what Howse concludes about Strauss’s method. He believes that he is defending Strauss from charges of having a covert teaching that was dangerous to the polity by stating the following.

 “Strauss makes it clear that that one must not assume a hidden meaning unless the tensions or apparent contradictions in the author’s work cannot be lucidly understood even after a careful reading of the surface of the text guided by a plausible notion of the author’s intent.” p 19

I like the ideas and intent of this statement, but like his statement about the inter-temporal dialogue, is it sound? We need to consider what is required for this statement before we can begin to consider the issue of a covert teaching as opposed to public teaching or a teaching simply. The following are a crude attempt to explore this issue of confusing intertemporality with the argument and action of the work.[22]

First, do we recognize the contradictions? Many people can read Strauss’s work, or Machiavelli’s work or Plato’s work, and never notice the contradictions. They simply do not read closely, carefully or with any understanding. If they do not see a contradiction, they will not notice anything within the text esoteric or not. Second, to understand a contradiction, we have to understand the issue. Without that understanding, we cannot see how the statement about the issue creates a contradiction or creates a problem. If we cannot see the contradiction, we cannot begin to consider whether there is a teaching, covert or not. Strauss offered us a roadmap or a toolkit to explore, but that does not mean that the tools can be applied slavishly or unthinkingly. Do we understand the tools? A further problem is what is the surface of the work? To understand the surface of the work, we also have to understand the depth(s) of a work. To assume the surface is everything means that we take everything at face value or literally (we become like Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy). Like those who never notice contradictions, the literal reading offers an understanding but stays on the surface without understanding it as the surface. Once we recognize we are on the surface, we then admit to some depth. Third, how do we know the authors intent? Strauss famously showed the difficulty to determine Machiavelli’s intent. I would not begin to presume I have divined Strauss’s intent in his writings. To understand Strauss’s intent, I follow more experienced thinkers. I have to follow Benardete, Jaffa, and Neumann to deepen my understanding of Strauss’s intent. If we contrast their understanding with Pangle, Bloom, Tarcov and Rosen we suddenly realize that understanding Strauss’s intent is hugely problematic and probably intentional. Lastly, we have the problem of the argument and action. The action of the writing, the context, the setting, and other issues instruct us and shape our understanding. I read Thucydides and Machiavelli much differently now than I did 20 years ago. I know in 20 years I will also read them differently again as my understanding (I hope) and experience deepens. If we are to argue that we understand Strauss’s intent, it would need to be consistent across his works rather than when it would be convenient to the argument being considered. Strauss’s works are known for their footnotes and the argument and action of all of his works, starting with On Tyranny and reaching a pinnacle with Thoughts on Machavelli, has to be considered. If we take Strauss on the surface, we miss too much, just as if we stay within the depths, we miss the point. These are issues that are not considered in detail by Howse.

The availability of course transcripts and recordings, while helpful and insightful, is not a substitute for reading what Strauss wrote. If anything, the course material confuses rather than clarifies the issues. Instead of revealing that Strauss did not have a “secret” teaching, because he did not say it in his recorded lectures, we are left back to where we started before the lectures were made available. We are given more opportunities to choose what suits the reader, the listener, or us rather than attempting to understand what Strauss wrote and intended through the argument and action of his works as he attempted to understand the greater thinkers and philosophers.

Howse concludes the chapter with a roadmap of the remaining chapters. The overview gives a short summary of each chapter. We turn to chapter two where we find the encounter between Strauss and Schmitt.

Chapter 2 Warrior Morality and the Fate of Civilization: Strauss’s Encounter with Carl Schmitt and “German Nihilism”

In this chapter, Howse explores two of Strauss’s early works, one published the other published posthumously. The first is his Notes on the Concept of the Political (hereafter NCP). The second is his lecture on German Nihilism (hereafter GN), which was published from his lecture manuscript. Even though he did not indicate whether it would be prepared to be published, the lecture offers an insight into Strauss’s view of the Weimar period and German war aims as expressed in the thought of key German thinkers. Howse’s stated intent, in this chapter, is to defend Strauss from Schmitt and the claims that Strauss was an authoritarian or fascistic thinker because of his apparently anti-liberal writing, as least suggested by NCP and hinted at within his lecture.

Howse proceeds to defend Strauss against claims that he is a hyper-Schmittian in that he has embraced Schmitt and radicalized his approach. Such an approach, though, when considered against NCP, makes awkward reading. If Strauss was a hyper-Schmittian, then according to Strauss’s analysis in NCP, he would have remained within the horizon of liberalism. As Strauss explains, Schmitt’s critique of liberalism remains within liberalism’s horizon. Thus, a hyper-Schmittian Strauss would be within liberalism so would not, logically, be able to be an anti-liberal thinker nor would he be able to find or suggest a horizon beyond liberalism because as a hyper-Schmittian he could not escape that horizon as he would not understand that he was captured within it. By contrast, Strauss is suggesting that we start with Hobbes to find a horizon beyond liberalism to critique liberalism. Howse suggest that Strauss discovered this horizon in pre-modern thought. Yet, what remains unexplored, by Howse is this process of discovery and Hobbes role in the path to this recovery.

Although it is important to see Schmitt as the turning point in Strauss’s development, he points to the encounter as being the turning point in his thinking, we have to consider what preceded it. Schmitt is important in his own right, but what it means for Strauss, and the larger project concerning law and philosophy, Howse’s aim, only becomes known when considered against the questions that animated Strauss from the start. His first work was on Spinoza and his critique of religion shows the centrality of the question Quid sit Deus. In turn, that informs his thinking on the law, fully understood, that creates the conflict with Schmitt who took a different view on what is the law and what is God. It was only in his encounter with Schmitt, where the question “What is man?” emerges and Strauss was able to articulate the change in orientation, which was latent in his book on Spinoza.[23]

Throughout the book, Howse focuses on Heinrich Meier with the apparent intent of seek an intellectual conflict. For a book on Strauss as a Man of Peace, this seems an odd sub-theme. One can easily see an affinity between Strauss and Schmitt without confusing the two men, their thinking, or their politics. Both engaged passionately and uncompromisingly with the issue. What is clear, and Meier would not dispute this, is that they went in different directions. However, what creates their affinity is they confronted the same problem. They confronted the political problem of Weimar’s collapse and the political philosophical problem of liberalism’s effect on Weimar Germany, which in turn revealed the differences in their views on law, philosophy, and God.[24] Moreover, we cannot deny the evidence that Strauss corresponded with Schmitt and relied upon him for help. However, none of this suggests that Strauss is a hyper-Schmittian, whatever that means, nor does it suggest that Strauss was some sort of right-wing extremist thinker.

Strauss would understand that we often learn from those who will challenge our thinking rather than confirm them and comfort them.[25] Too often liberal democracy relies on an underlying common prejudice so that the any superficial differences can appear extreme. The easy comfort of our liberal democratic prejudices is abruptly disabused by Schmitt and Strauss.[26] That Meier focuses on the three thinkers, Heidegger, Kojeve, and Schmitt, does not invalidate or diminish Strauss’s encounter with other thinkers. However, it does a disservice to Strauss and Meier to suggest that the engagement with Heidegger or Kojeve was on a level or of a consequence as his engagement with Guttman or Vogelin. Vogelin, for example, offered an alternative within the same horizon as Strauss, he was not suggesting a radical alternative that challenged Strauss’s project or his way of life in way that would require a public response from Strauss.[27] Moreover, his public engagement with Vogelin was subsumed within the Kojeve debate over Tyranny. We can see how Vogelin fits within Strauss’s horizon by the questions he raised in his review of On Tyranny and the response that Strauss provided. Their argument is not on par with Kojeve’s.

I believe that Heidegger presented *the* contemporary challenge for Strauss. Velkey offers us an insight into that relationship and the alternatives each presented.[28] I do not want to suggest that Velkey is correct. However, what is inescapable is the relationship between Strauss and Heidegger. One has to remember that Strauss did not have a problem with his students going to study with Heidegger or Kojeve.[29] He never corresponded with Schmitt after the War nor am I aware of any of his students seeking him out as a teacher.

Even though the chapter is focused on Strauss’s encounter with Schmitt, there is relatively little on the exchange. What is there presents a standard view. The section called the Straussian problem with Notes on the Concept of the Political does not provide a new interpretation on the issue. Despite Howse’s efforts and Heinrich Meier’s efforts, I do not believe they have penetrated the core of the issue between Strauss and Schmitt. I believe Meier has done more to illuminate the issues, but neither of these writers has explored Schmitt or accepted his argument. They have not attempted to inhabit it. The only student of Strauss to accept Schmitt’s position was Harry Neumann. If we explore his work we can see the challenge and why German Nihilism was unlikely to have been published in Strauss’ lifetime. Neumann like Strauss marked his encounter with Schmitt as a turning point. Here is how Harry Jaffa describes Neumann. I quote this at length because it draws out the issues that are often submerged in some readings of Strauss and Schmitt.

Neumann is the only one of Leo Strauss’s students who, like Strauss, marked the turning point in his career from his reading of Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political. Although Neumann turned one way, and Strauss another, there are resemblances that transcend this difference in direction. Both are characterized by the greatest moral earnestness. The Jewish contempt for “Epicureanism,” of which Strauss speaks in his autobiographical preface—and which is crucial for understanding Strauss and his entire enterprise—is also at the root of Neumann’s contempt for modern liberalism. Like Strauss, Neumann sees modern Epicureanism as Epicureanism come out of the closet, demanding that all politics be in the service of its demands. Epicureanism in the ancient world was unpolitical and anti-political. In the modern world it is the most virulent form of sectarian and ideological politics.

The world of moral man, the world which sees the human good in its subordination to the laws of nature or of God—the world liberalism would abolish—is the world the Jew characterizes, when he says that “the reward for the fulfilment of the commandment is the commandment.” Neumann, as a Nietzschean nihilist, is satisfied that such a command can be will as much as God willed the creation of the world ex nihilo. Unlike Strauss, he does not think that internal reflection on the intrinsic character of human thought is sufficient evidence “of the true ground of the dignity of man.” He does not say as did Strauss, that awareness of this dignity enables us “to accept all evils… in the spirit of good citizens of the city of God.” Strauss’s interpretation of the fundamental human experience, remains for Neumann an interpretation. As such, it is something, not so much to be believed, as something to be fought for. Nevertheless, Neumann and I agree—and Strauss I am convinced would agree (see my essay on “Leo Strauss’s Churchill Speech”)—that it should be fought for in any case, since the necessity of morality for human well being, even in the world dominated by modern science, remains unchanged.” (p.viii Foreword)[30]

I believe that Strauss (and Schmitt) cannot be understood without exploring his approach. Neumann provides an insight into what it means to accept Schmitt’s side of the argument and what it means for politics and most importantly what it means for political philosophy. Even though the essay German Nihilism offers an insight, which I consider below, it lacks the stark choice that Schmitt’s Concept of the Political.[31] Strauss’ response provides for our analysis and understanding of Strauss’ choice, and consequences, from rejecting (and Neumann accepting) Schmitt’s alternative. The lecture was not a public statement as its audience was different and, most importantly, receptive to, if not already converted, to the explicit cause that it was pledged. By contrast, Strauss’s response to Schmitt was done at a time of great danger and in an atmosphere of crisis, in which a public statement was needed and would offer no ambiguity. Strauss had no choice but to leave after writing his response.

Neumann helps us see that Strauss was only secondarily concerned with the political issues associated with his encounter with Schmitt’s work as the philosophical issue was primary. The issue is not simply the law or the exception, it is the tension between What is man and What is God and therefore What is the law as the best way to live. These questions were emerging at this time in Strauss’s work.[32] He returns to them at different stages in his writings especially in The City and Man. However, that moves us ahead of the discussion. Here the choice, according to Neumann, is between a Spinozist Christian God, beyond the law, beyond Good and Evil, (Schmitt) and a God beneath the law (Strauss). The choice puts the difference between Schmitt and Strauss into its starkest relief and displays its consequences. Without God, which creates a limit or a constraint on Man as he lives in accordance with Him, man faces the abyss of nothingness where his will is all that gives meaning. By contrast, Strauss argues that a different view of God still offers meaning and a need to discover it as the question remains open. For Strauss the life of philosophy still remains possible, but for Schmitt it does not. To put it crudely, Strauss patrols the very narrow wall of the city, where a philosopher walks the ledge, while the political or ideological (Schmitt) remain inside the city, the herd, and outside the abyss of nothingness or nihilism, where man can become a god (or a beast) remains an attractive (or horrific) alternative (the Fuhrer and Heidegger).

Howse does not see the issue in the same way when he argues that Schmitt was fighting against political nihilism. (p. 39) Political nihilism is a term Neumann would have said was a contradiction as politics, according to Schmitt, is to believe, to believe in one’s herd or city, to assert meaning. Nihilism is the belief in nothing, literally, nothing exists, so there is nothing to assert. It is the negation of politics simply put as it does not allow for anything to have meaning or guide one’s life. However, as Strauss showed, in his critique of Schmitt, was that Schmitt’s view was based on a “god, the apotheosis of nihilist freedom, creates everything ex nihilo[33]rather than discover, through philosophy, the best way to live.

Howse’s discussion of Schmitt and Strauss’s debate seems to focus on Hobbes without accepting that Spinoza is the key figure in modifying the debate. Spinoza is the key figure that makes Hobbes problematic for Schmitt and is implicit in what Schmitt and Strauss are debating. I quote this passage from Neumann at length because of the points it raises.

“To be sure, Schmitt’s political theology is compromised by its adherence to what Strauss condemned as Spinozist-Christian Judaism whose god is beyond good and evil (and good and bad). That god, the apotheosis of nihilist freedom, creates everything ex nihilo. His arbitrary will is the ultimate ground of morality, politics and religion. Created by “the one whom man cannot comprehend but only divine in a spirit of faith” his ways (providence) must be inscrutable (fn removed)

Unlike the platonic god (“Demiurge”) of Strauss’s official Judaism who acts sub ratione boni, the will of Schmitt’s Spinozist-Christian god is restrained by nothing—and only nothing! Consequently, in his unsuccessful attempt to convert Schmitt from Spinozist to Platonic Judaism, Strauss prudently refuses to mention the Christian orthodoxies preventing Schmiitt’s theology from being really political—e.g. the corruption of man’s nature through original sin (footnote removed) Strauss, not Schmitt, realized that Schmitt’s determination to rescue illiberalism (religion politics, morality) from liberalism presupposed Platonic no Spinozist (Christian) Judaism, orthodox Judaism not orthodox Christianity. Strauss noted that Schmitt, however reluctantly, remained a prisoner of the liberalism which he loathed. He continued to put his faith in the goodness of an essentially inscrutable—because nihilist—creation and providence, a faith which Strauss held responsible for mankind’s “incredible effeminating or spoiling” (footnote removed) Strauss never forgot what it means to be a Jew, even—and especially—in regimes dominated by the pseudo—liberal orthodoxies of Spinozist-Christian Judaism. He knew those “orthodoxies” were grounded in science and therefore opposed to official Judaism’s philosophic (platonic) core. In this, he was unique. (fn removed)

What we face is the question: Was Strauss right, or Schmitt, or both about Liberalism? If neither was right, where does that leave us? If we accept that Strauss was right, as Howse appears to do as he continues with his book, then we have to ask what it means for us to live within liberalism if we accept that Strauss was correct in his critique. Howse, however, does not explore this issue. Instead, he stays on the surface or treats Strauss abstractly.[34] The choice between Schmitt and Strauss and between Schmitt/Strauss and liberalism has to be made. We cannot be neutral in such a choice nor can we be agnostics as the question, and our answer, determine the way of life we hold to be best or at least the best that can be practiced in these conditions. Without this understanding, we are left uncertain as to why Schmitt is important for Strauss throughout his career. We would be left believing that Strauss was trying to atone for his “youthful indiscretion” rather than understand that the choice is definitive and ever present. As Schmitt presented a powerful alternative, in the critique of liberalism, that others have followed, including some of Strauss’s students whether they understood it or not, but one that Strauss rejected in favour of his own search for a horizon beyond liberalism, we need to consider where the choice leads us.

A related problem is the belief that a horizon beyond liberalism is anti-liberal. (see the discussion of Stephen Holmes p.27) Strauss understood that we, if we are honest about philosophy, could not accept modern liberalism as the best regime or the best way of life. At best, we can take it as indicative of the best way of life or the best way of life currently achievable. To question liberalism and to suggest a horizon beyond it is necessary if, as Strauss argued, one is to remain loyal to philosophy and not become a political man or a nihilist. This is the lesson he learned or rather taught by his confrontation with Schmitt (and Heidegger). Schmitt saw liberalism as a totalitarian ideology culminating in the world state which would bring politics, the search for the best way to live, to an end. There would be a final answer, the world state, which would also undermine the possibility of philosophy. It would appear that to the extent we have become liberal democrats we have forgotten this possibility and we remain firmly embedded or chained in liberalism’s cave. Strauss sought to leave the cave of liberalism, in particular the one presented by Weimar Germany, to seek an alternative in pre-modern thought. To escape, he had to engage in the harshest critics to understand how it failed even as it “liberated” man from pre-modern thinking.

When Strauss arrived in the United States he was an émigré. He was fleeing Nazi Germany and understood the choice he had made to leave. In his essay on German Nihilism, he tried to explain the threat posed by German Nihilism. Howse treats this essay sympathetically but does not explore it in the way that others, such as William Altman or Susan Shell, have.[35] To the extent that he engaged with Altman it was to dismiss his argument. On the surface, the view is correct but it misses the deeper, unintended, truth to Altman’s essay. Altman does provide an important service by engaging the lecture in detail. However, he misses the point. The lecture is not about hiding Strauss or allowing him to avoid persecution, as any philosopher or anyone who is wiling to discuss dangerous truths would fear, because it is focused on a different thinker. The lecture is designed to deal with Heidegger and the threat he, and more widely German Nihilism, or more precisely nihilism, presents.[36]

As Altman notes, Strauss is praising an imperial power at war with another imperial power in a country devoted to anti-imperial powers. Yet, Strauss would have been sensitive to the regime changes since 1933, in Germany and the United States. America in 1933, like Germany, began to change. Although Germany descended into tyranny and self-destruction, America chose a different, though not unrelated path, towards an increasingly powerful federal government with increased power to the executive. By warning the audience of the threat from German Nihilism, Strauss was, in effect, trying to inoculate it against the Heideggarian contagion. It is not surprising that in the wake of 1933, and 1941 that Strauss writes On Tyranny in 1948. America which had been a relatively provincial country in 1932 had, by 1948, become the uncontested master of the world. At the height of that power, which I would be surprised if Strauss was insensitive to given his intellect and experience in Germany, Strauss pens a warning on the threat of tyranny. Yet, that threat was not simply political, or the problem of political power, it was a philosophical warning.

Strauss understood what Heidegger represented and what his decision in 1933 meant for political philosophy.[37] However, he could not warn America directly because that would require him to introduce Heidegger to America, which is not something Strauss would have done nor did he do. Even though he welcomed and shared Heidegger’s efforts to uncover the roots of Western thought, he never made an attempt to introduce him or his thinking to America. If anything, one could argue that Strauss had fled the political consequences of Heidegger’s thought. These are issues that neither Altman, nor Shell nor Howse address and this means we are left uncertain as to why and how NCP and GN connect or what they mean within Strauss’ project.

Howse’s next chapter focuses on Xenophon and Hiero or On Tyranny. At the end of NCP, Strauss says that the path leads us to Hobbes, while GN does not direct us to a different thinker. Howse leads us to Xenophon and the Kojeve debate. There is a logic to that transition, but it assumes too much. We need to understand how Strauss saw Hobbes to see Hobbes’s role in creating the modern state as a precursor, in part, for the universal world state. We need to see Hobbes and the events from 1932-1948 to see how Xenophon provides the basis to confront and critique the modern state as created by modern philosophy and rehabilitate philosophy especially in light of Heidegger in 1933. Like Strauss we have to go forward to go backward and only in going backward can we understand how to go forward.

Chapter 3 Legitimacy and Legality, Thinking and Ruling in the Closed Society and the World State: The Strauss/Kojeve Debate.

In this chapter, Howse will reinterpret the famous debate between Strauss and Kojeve. (p. 20) The chapter looks at Strauss’s On Tyranny, his first book as an American citizen, and the relationship between law, philosophy, and political violence. To this end, he will cover

 “the relation legality to legitimacy and of both to violence; whether and how philosophers and intellectuals out to guide violence political change;’ and whether a world state or universal society is possible, desirable or even inevitable.” p.51

After the introduction, the chapter has 13 sections, which cover On Tyranny and the Strauss-Kojeve exchange it contains. The first four sections focus on Strauss’s intent in On Tyranny. The fifth section moves away from that focus and turns to the way in which Strauss, through On Tyranny, rejected Carl Schmitt’s approach to politics and the limits of legality and constitutionalism. In this section, Howse refers to the idea of t’shuvah where he suggests similarities to Strauss’s moderation that comes from a call to restoration of the classical viewpoint. Sections 6-9 deal with Kojeve’s criticism and Strauss’s response. Section 10 returns to Schmitt with a discussion of the relationship of thinking to political action. The next two sections remain on this theme exploring the life of the mind in the universal state and then, in section 12, looks at the Strauss-Kojeve divide on the world state to move beyond the polemics of On Tyranny. Section 12 relies heavily on Strauss’s course transcripts on Kant and Xenophon. The conclusion draws together the chapter and sets the stage for the book’s central chapter on Machiavelli.

My commentary is limited to the first four sections, which focus on Strauss’s On Tyranny. I have limited myself to these sections because they captures the first book by Strauss in the United States as a citizen and covers the themes, law and political philosophy, that are found throughout Howse’s book.[38]

Howse introduces the chapter by explaining how he will approach the debate and he offers a brief introduction and context for it. He provides a background to Kojeve as well as how some current writers have viewed Strauss’s teaching in On Tyranny. Instead of a detailed look at how Strauss read Hiero, especially what it means for Strauss’s project, Howse provides a relatively discussion of the argument and action of Strauss’s essay. The section in On Tyranny that receives the most attention is “The Teaching Concerning Tyranny”. Howse leaves us uncertain over his view of whether Strauss’s argument is correct, especially concerning the “tyrannical” teaching. Without that detail, we cannot assess whether the section, and more widely, the chapter support or detract from the book’s central arguments concerning the charge that Strauss taught “bellicose imperialism, war without limits, and unbounded executive power” (p.1). Moreover, we are left uncertain as to how he has reinterpreted Strauss’s work in this chapter. Even though the charges that Howse seeks to answer with this book bear some resemblance to the claim that Socrates taught the “tyrannical” teaching, Howse does not explore this resemblance. Moreover, if Howse is to reinterpret Strauss’s work, it suggests that he is able to provide a complete understanding of Strauss’s writing or his project or in the book On Tyranny. He would need to show, through his reading of Strauss’s essay, how he is reinterpreting it. To do that, he would need to show how Strauss’s approach to reading and writing influences the work and how it is understood.[39] In particular, Howse does not refer to the reason for esoteric writing even though, as Strauss argues, all communities attempt to tyrannize thought.[40] The statement seems particularly noteworthy given that the United States was on the cusp of the McCarthy era.

What seems to be missing from this chapter is the historical context for Strauss’s work. Is the focus solely current tyrannies “the immediate context is not the tyrannies of ancient Greece; it is the communist tyrannies of the post-war era?” (p. 55). Yet, if Strauss suggests that all societies seek to tyrannize thought and McCarthyism was emergent, we have to consider why Howse does not explore this issue. Is a democratic tyranny possible? If any society seeks to tyrannize thought in some, then liberal-democracy would do it as well even if its effect were less severe it would be a threat, however, remote to philosophy and the possibility of philosophy. If “tyranny is a danger coeval with political life”, then we need to consider Strauss’s writings in that context.[41]

After discussing Kojeve, Howse reminds us of the contemporary view of Strauss’s legacy as thinker on the “right”. He refers to Nicholas Xenos who sees Strauss as thinker on the “right” because some of Strauss’s students are now associated with “neocons”. Howse suggests that this may be understandable as Schmitt also opposed, like Strauss, Kojeve’s vision of a world state. What is not clear is why Strauss has to be seen as a thinker on the right. Socrates, as we know, had many students who were tyrants and became tyrants. Would we say that Socrates was a tyrant or supported tyrants? He also returns to a common theme, Heinrich Meier, whom he claims also sees “a basic spiritual affinity in the rejection of the world state by both Strauss and Schmitt” p. 53. The reference to Xenos seems strange as Howse repeats uncritically, in the footnote, Xenos’s claim that Strauss accepted the tyrannical teaching.

 “Does Strauss….accept the tyrannical teaching? It seems pretty obvious to all but Straussian interpreters that he does.” (fn 6)


Such a claim appears to be accepted at face value and the narrative continues. Although he will return to Xenos on p.56, he does not explore what Xenos means by the tyrannical teaching and continues with Meier with reference to the problem of Schmitt.

Howse, in his attempt to rescue Strauss from Schmitt, goes so far as to argue that that Strauss and Kojeve agreed against Schmitt that thinking was more satisfying than deciding or ruling. That agreement appears to influence his summary of the dispute between Kojeve and Strauss, which he claims “reduces to a difference concerning what it means to be a thinker, that is, the character of wisdom and the philosophical life and the view of the whole and man’s place in it that this life supposes or implies.” (p.54) By placing this in contrast to Schmitt, we would be led to believe from Howse’s phrasing that unlike the gap between Strauss and Schmitt, the gap between Strauss and Kojeve is smaller. The five areas are fundamental and irreconcilable.[42] If we accept, as Neumann suggested, that there was a possibility that Strauss could have awakened Schmitt to philosophy, but not Kojeve, then it raises the question of whether the common ground between Strauss and Kojeve is large or stable as Howse suggests.

“He [Schmitt] did not perceive, as Strauss did, that his Spinozist-Christian Judaism was the apotheosis of that abyss [liberalism’s abyss]: orthodox Christianity is far closer than orthodox Judaism to Liberalism. Strauss unsuccessfully attempted to alert Schmitt to this danger. He saw Schmitt as potentially philosophic as, in a way, all pious or political men ar. To actualize this potentiality, their politics or piety must be yoked to serious questioning of it, a rare and almost unlikely combination. However, without pious moral-political commitment, philosophy’s necessary condition, Straussian education is impossible. That is why Strauss preferred Schmitt to Kojeve.” [43]p.95

Neumann argues that Strauss had a deeper disagreement with Kojeve than Schmitt. Their differences, as seen in On Tyranny essays and correspondence, cannot be bridged and the political consequences of that difference are decisive.

Howse continues with the theme of thinking by reference to Heidegger. Howse argues that Strauss and Kojeve wrote on the subject of tyranny in part to respond to Heidegger’s failure to resist the siren song of Hitler’s tyranny. In contrast to Heidegger, Strauss and Kojeve understood that thinking as a way of life had to occur within the context of the city, a political community, where tyranny is a constant concern. Tyranny becomes a central problem because of what it means for the thinker and their way of life. The thinker’s response to the issue is a political one and we know Heidegger’s choice and Strauss’s.[44]

Howse turns to a discussion of Hiero and Strauss’s essay On Tyranny with the section “Understanding Tyranny, Ancient and Modern”. He stays on the surface of the work and the issue by looking at how Simonides might help the tyrant, Hiero, reform or at least make his tyranny less oppressive by conferring benefits on his subjects.[45] If the tyrant rules benevolently, then they might be able to rule safely. So long as the people are pleased, they might forget his original crimes to seize control. Howse points out that Strauss understandably sees Hiero as the point at which classical thinking pre-modern political science and modern political science characterised by Machiavelli.

The problem though is that Simonides advice, through Xenophon, is only advice. It is not proven. We can see examples in the modern era where it appears to have worked, but their success has been unstable and does not appear to have been able to sustain itself when challenged. One can look at the Soviet Union’s collapse from a lack of legitimacy. Even though they had their supporters, the regime was not able to overcome their initial illegitimacy to transform that founding into a valid title to rule by conferring benefits, understood with the communist ideology, on the people. Even a stable and benevolent monarchy faces a claim of illegitimacy when measured against consent as the basis for legitimacy.

After a brief discussion of Sartre’s play Les Mains Sale (Dirty Hands), he returns to Xenos. What is curious is that the problem of Dirty Hands disregards the issue of intent and justice. It assumes that to exercise power is to act illegitimately, which accepts a Machiavellian understanding of power and politics and rejects a classical understanding. One would have to accept that no exercise of power is legitimate or justified because everyone is tainted. To govern is to be tainted. Such a view raises a direct question for the American experiment. Such a view considers that a government of the people, by the people, and for any people who are able to govern themselves, is fundamentally illegitimate. Moreover, it suggests that any activity in the public domain, where such decisions are made for the public or common good, is tainted. Such a view encourages, if not requires, a turn to the private domain as the only place for legitimacy. Only the private realm appears to be untainted by Dirty Hands.[46] To promote the private domain over the public domain is a view that would have been alien to the Greeks. They saw man’s highest perfection, as a citizen, in the public domain not the private domain.

When Howse returns to Xenos on page 56, he uses him to explore the ambiguity between tyrannical and non-tyrannical rule.

“Strauss goes far into the argument of the Hiero without any definition of tyranny or a clear-cut distinction between the tyrant and a non-tyrannical ruler. This feature of the text seems to give substance or at least some credence to the views of those like Xenos who, who suggest that Strauss is using Xenophon’s dialogue as a way of indicating his own openness to tyranny and the immoralism it supposes.” p.56

Howse raises this point, without exploring it. We are left uncertain as to why Strauss takes so long to define tyranny or how it justifies Xenos’s argument. If we do not know why Strauss took this long, or even why the delay is significant, how can we assess the statement? We are not clear as to what is meant by tyranny and whether Strauss is alleged to have accepted Xenophon’s teaching, which suggests an openness to tyranny, or whether it is that Strauss accepts Socrates’ alleged tyrannical “teaching.” Lastly, there is no discussion whether Xenophon’s tyrannical teaching, as demonstrated by Simonides, is a complete teaching. Is it flawed, as a superior teaching may exist? In other words, Strauss may accept a tyrannical teaching as it is a flawed teaching and he accepts it in light of a better teaching. We must remember that tyrannical teaching is about a flawed political regime, it does not describe the best regime simply.

We are left uncertain as to the delay, except perhaps to the extent that is implied in that the structure, the argument, and the action of the essay, indicates why a definition of tyranny had to wait until other matters were resolved.[47] What remains confusing is the apparent acceptance, at least by repeating Xenos’s statement without criticism, that Strauss was indicating his openness to tyranny and immoralism. We see no discussion of this contentious statement, which is surprising in light of his claim on p1 that he will defend Strauss from such charges.

He continues this point with apparently off-hand comments about Xenophon’s teaching as described within Strauss’s work.

“On the one hand, in Strauss’s view, it is clear from the outset that a wise man would have no doubt about the superiority of private life to tyranny from the perspective of pleasure (OT, p.38). On the other hand, there is really nothing in Strauss’s extensive elaboration of the setting and action of the dialogue that suggests why Xenophon, whom Strauss presents as a Socratic, would think it undesirable for a wise man to teach a pupil to be tyrannical. Even if the wise man finds being a tyrant to be much less pleasurable than his private life, preparing someone else for tyrannical rule is another matter” p56-57

When we look at the two sections, it suggests that pleasure guides the wise as they would prefer private pleasure to public virtue. However, this does not fit with what Strauss argued within On Tyranny, as pleasure is not the highest goal for the wise man. Moreover, if teaching is a political art it suggests that the wise man might gain pleasure from the political, or public, act of teaching. Moreover, we are left uncertain as to whether the philosopher shared the same view as the wise man as Strauss implicitly contrasted Simonides a “wise” man with Socrates. The context of the statement needs to be understood and cannot be seen as Strauss’s final statement on the issue as it raises the question of whether Simonides is truly wise. (see p32-33 also fn2 chpt 4)

Howse’s second sentence raises more questions. We are uncertain what he means by the phrase “to teach a pupil to be tyrannical”. Does he mean the “tyrannical” teaching, which is what Socrates was accused of teaching? Or does he means tyrannical teaching simply? I will take it that Howse meant the “tyrannical” teaching that Socrates was accused of teaching. On the surface, Howse’s statement appears contrary to the text. On page 43, Strauss discusses why Hiero would fear the wise man because he might overthrow a tyrant by teaching others to be tyrants or by becoming a tyrant. Although this does not directly state that it is undesirable, it indicates it might not be prudent to teach pupils to be tyrannical. Alternatively, to be known to do this especially if one lives in a tyranny or in any city which may fear a tyrant would not be wise. Moreover, if we look at fn32 (p. 110) we have to consider why a just man (the wise man) would want to teach injustice, the tyrannical art. Moreover, Socrates, as Strauss argues on p.33, does not teach the tyrannical art, but the royal art. If the wise man were to teach a pupil to be tyrannical, it would be unwise to the extent that it would encourage the vulgar to view the wise man as a threat to the city by confirming the prejudice that wise men are a threat to the city and its opinions.

At the same time, we are left uncertain as to what Howse means by the statement “to teach a pupil to be tyrannical” as the issue does not arise in the setting or action sections. Why make this point? If he means that it is simply to teach someone to be a tyrant, why mention this point? If he means the “tyrannical” teaching (practical and theoretical) that Strauss mentions in chapter IV The Teaching Concerning Tyranny and on p.33 of The Title and The Form, we need to consider whether it is the full teaching (pathology and therapeutic) and whether it is the practical teaching, the theoretical teaching, or both. If we accept the subtlety of Strauss’s work, the distinction has an importance for Xenophon’s, Socrates’ and Strauss’s teaching. If we take the practical teaching, this statement appears misplaced. The only pupil for the practical teaching is an actual tyrant not a potential tyrant (see OT p.66-67). If the pupil is a tyrant, and willing to learn, then we return to the point of the whole work.

If we leave aside the practical teaching, we still face the theoretical teaching, that is the teaching that “expounds the view that a case can be made for beneficent tyranny, and even for a beneficent tyranny which was originally established by force or fraud.” (p. 76 OT) Why would a wise man teach a pupil to be tyrant if he would have to teach him to be a beneficent tyrant? Unless, Howse means would the wise man teach the pupil the Socratic teaching, the “tyrannical” teaching on how to recognize a flawed regime and improve it and thus appear as a tyrant to those who do not understand or appreciate the “tyrannical” teaching.

If tyranny is illegitimate rule over unwilling or unwilling subjects, it does not seem to be something that can be taught. This would mean the wise man will teach his pupil to be illegitimate, but can this be done? A teaching may create legitimacy (education to create wisdom) but what is it about tyranny that can be taught? Moreover, the reverse point is not discussed. Is there anything in the dialogue that indicates why the wise man thinks it desirable to teach his pupil to be tyrannical? If we are discussing the ways to seize power, we have moved away from the issue of legitimacy and legality. However, Xenophon is looking at a way to improve the tyrant to move from tyranny simply to tyranny at its best. The wise man, it would appear, cannot turn a tyrant into anything but a better tyrant. They lack the ability to teach virtue or the royal art. We have to ask whether the tyrant is able to learn or to become wise enough to recognize their need to improve their rule and if they are that wise, why are they not wise enough to know they need to rule according to virtue and seek out the royal art? Strauss suggests that the tyrant is not wise and lacks what is necessary to become wise simply even though they may become wise in term of tyranny, become a better tyrant or an educated tyrant, but never wise simply. To become wise simply would suggest that they stop being a tyrant.

Howse continues to explore the issue and he moves to the section called “Teaching concerning tyranny” where he provides us the deeper insight within Hiero.

“The basic thought behind Simonides entire proposition to Hiero, unspoken by Simonides and unwritten by Xenophon, suggests a much more morally questionable or shocking opinion than that contained in the explicit advice. Simonides entire proposal supposes and indeed exemplifies the proposition that the criminal acts a tyrant had to carry out to become a tyrant are not fatal to his capacity to govern in a benevolent or beneficent way.” p. 57

The passage appears correct, but we have to consider that this is proposed rather than demonstrated. As we see, the possibility of a beneficent tyranny is a proposal by a poet where no examples are provided of it succeeding. Moreover, it assumes that a tyrant takes power by acts that are so criminal that they appear unforgettable. Yet, a tyrant can come to power by invitation where the people, suffering from a worse ruler, welcome a tyrant to improve their situation. We may suggest that people may embrace tyranny because it conforms to what their community wishes in which case consent, fully understood, may create what appears to be tyrannical to those who wish to live the examined life. Thus, their acts, while bloody or criminal, are justified by the community. Yet, their “founding” acts can be seen to have been criminal when they usher in a worse regime and move beyond what the community wants. Although Howse returns to the “tyrannical teaching” on p57-58, the remarks by Xenos on p. 52 and 56 are left unaddressed.

Howse turns to “The Teaching Concerning Tyranny”. Here we see what appears to be a reinterpretation of the debate. Howse appears to present a view that modifies or alters Strauss’s intent by avoiding the nuance of his approach. As readers of Strauss will notice, much is hidden, or found, in the footnotes. If we avoid the context or the nuances they contain, we miss part of his argument. In particular, if we look at the footnote to these sections, they begin to tell us a different story, a different view, that far from embracing tyranny or rejecting it, Strauss starts to reveal to us how all society contains a tyrannical element.

Howse presents Strauss’s argument in a way that does not follow the text and it is difficult to understand Howse’s intent in presenting Strauss’s work this way. On page 57 Howse refers to the Strauss’s first definition of tyranny. ”A tyrant must be supposed to suffer from the lack of a valid title to his position.” (OT p.64) He says that Strauss refines or reformulates the reference to a valid title to rule.

“But, Strauss reformulates his original statement that a tyrant is a ruler who lacks a valid title to rule in the following way: “Being a tyrant, being called a tyrant and not a king, means having been unable to transform tyranny into kingship or to transform a title which is generally considered defective into a title that is generally considered valid” (OT, p.75).”

The statements appear to make sense as they follow the argument and the action of the text. The statement on p.64 leads to p.75. However, instead of showing us how the statement on p.64 creates the statement on p. 75, Howse argues that Strauss reverses his position set out on page 75.

“But Strauss again revises and refines his formulation of the distinction between legitimate and tyrannical rule. Tyrannical rule is without a lawful title and rule over unwilling subjects. Tyrannical rule is compared to another sort of rule by one person, monarchy, which is rule with lawful title over willing subjects” p.58

The passage does not have a reference to On Tyranny. Strauss does not refine the distinction between legitimate and tyrannical rule. Instead, p.64 and p75 bracket a subtle and complex argument where tyranny commonly understood is distinguished from tyranny at its best. As Howse does not cite a passage, it appears problematic. In the text Strauss never says tyrannical rule is without lawful title nor does he say that monarchy is rule with lawful title. He is consistent that tyranny is without a *valid* title and kingship is rule “in accordance with the laws of the cities” (OT p.68). We cannot assume that Strauss intended that lawful title should be understood as valid title nor can we assume that valid title is the same as lawful title. Much turns on whether he intended lawful for valid. If he had, we would expect something in the text to indicate his intent. Howse does not refer to anything in Strauss’s text to support this statement. If this is a reinterpretation of Strauss, then the reader needs to know that it is what Howse interprets and not what Strauss said. In particular as the idea of law and the role of law in relation to tyranny is an integral part of the argument.

If Howse is arguing that a tyrant lacks a lawful title to rule and a king has a lawful title to rule, it would suggest that the lawfulness of the regime determines the difference between tyranny and kingship. Strauss never makes this argument. Ruling according to the laws does not mean that one has a lawful title to rule. To make this argument we need to have explored what is law and what confers validity. Yet, Howse does not do that in the text.

Howse’s reference appears to amalgamate two ideas and statements by Strauss. Howse appears to combine a statement on page 68 and one on page 75. Here are the two statements.

“Tyranny is defined in contradistinction to kingship: kingship is such rule as is exercised over willing subjects and is in accordance with the laws of the cities; tyranny is such rule as is exercised over unwilling subjects and accords, not with laws but with the will of the ruler.” OT p. 68


“Being a tyrant, being called a tyrant and not a king, means having been unable to transform tyranny into kingship, or to transform a title which is generally considered defective into a title which is considered valid (fn51)” (OT 75)

Strauss does not explicitly connect willing or unwilling subjects with what provides or can transform a title to rule. Howse does not appear to make this argument, that consent, or the willingness of the subjects, can determine or contribute to the validity of rule. Moreover, fn51 suggests that Cyrus was able to make this transformation. Leaving aside that issue, we still have the problem of how Howse interprets Strauss’s argument. The unsourced statement becomes problematic because Howse claims (p. 58) that a further shift occurs in Strauss’s argument.

“Strauss signals a further shift in yet in the definition of tyranny through a subtle variation in terminology. The relationship of tyranny to law is reformulated by interpreting the opposition of tyranny to law not in terms of the tyrant lacking a legal title to acquire power but in terms of the tyrant exercising his power “without laws”—that is, absolutism.”

Howse does not cite a page for that passage where Strauss’s signals the change. Howse appears to argue that Strauss emphasized the way the tyrant ruled rather than the legitimacy of the rule as determinative. Yet, it is not simply ruling without laws that is problematic as legal laws used unwisely can be tyrannical as p120fn47 suggests. The nearest reference in the text to support Howse’s statement appears to be from p. 68 of On Tyranny.[48]

Tyranny is defined in contradistinction to kingship: kingship is such rule as is exercised over willing subjects and is in accordance with the laws of cities; tyranny is such rule as is exercised over unwilling subjects and accords, not with laws, but with the will of the ruler. This definition covers the common form of tyranny, but not tyranny at its best. Tyranny at its best, tyranny as corrected accord to Simonides’ suggestions, is no longer rule over unwilling subjects. It is most certainly rule over willing subjects. But it remains rule “not according to laws,” i.e it is absolute government. OT p. 68

Thus, we have gone from p. 64 to p.75 and then back to page 68 without explaining the transition. We see a couple of problems emerging in this view that we need to consider. First, Howse has presented Strauss’s argument from OT p.68 as following the argument on p.75. It appears to reverse the argument. The statement on p.75 follows from p. 68 and comes after Strauss has refined his argument. What is crucial to understand is the change from p. 68 to p. 75. The definition of tyranny is modified by the discussion of “What is Law”. Strauss leads us to believe that the law (and what it is and how it is understood) modifies the idea of tyranny by indicating the problems of the source of authority as well as the source of validity for a ruler. As laws are not necessarily beneficent, (p.74) the beneficent absolute ruler will be superior to them especially if to be just is to be beneficent. However, this is not the same as saying that tyrannical rule is rule without a lawful title and rule over unwilling subjects nor is it defined by the way the tyrant exercises his power. We cannot ascribe this argument to Strauss as Howse appears to indicate.

In the argument Howse has not explained why he has transposed the statements and suggested that Strauss has refined his argument to be something that the original does not appear to support. We need to consider this in particular as Strauss says on p.75 that beneficent tyranny appears to have been defined, following the discussion of what is law, as “the rule of a tyrant who listens to the counsels of the wise…” What we find, though, is Strauss refines the definition of tyranny to include the problem of authority.

“Being a tyrant, being called a tyrant and not a king, means having been unable to transform tyranny into kingship, or to transform title which is generally considered defective into a title which is generally considered valid.(fn51) The ensuing lack of unquestioned authority leads to the consequence that tyrannical authority is essentially more oppressive and hence less stable than nontyrannical government.” (p.75)

What remains unresolved is the source of authority and whether the ruled accept or understand that authority.[49] If there is unquestioned authority, then there is no need, or opportunity, for philosophy.[50] Where or how would the wise men learn in such a society?

Howse does draw on this in a fashion when he moves to the next section of the chapter “The Return to Constitutionalism From The Temptation to Absolute Rule”. He goes back to page 74 where Strauss explains that the only valid title to rule is knowledge. He argues that where knowledge is the only valid title to rule, it invalidates the idea of constitutionalism.

“The means by which a ruler comes to power, no matter how violent, how unjust, should not deter wise or reasonable men from advising such a ruler, and if he follows that advice, his rule will be more legitimate than any constitutionalist regime” p.59

We see that this reference to the idea on p.74 changes the structure of Strauss’s argument. Knowledge as the title to rule only comes after the law is defined, and before Strauss discusses the inability to turn a tyranny to a kingship and transform a defective title to rule into a valid title to rule. Howse places it after both steps rather than between them. Moreover, Strauss does not say that the beneficent tyrant who listens to counsels of the wise is simply superior to constitutionalism. Strauss modifies that argument by whether or not the regime listens to the wise.

“Tyrannical rule as well as “constitutional” rule will be legitimate to the extent to which the tyrant or the “constitutional” rulers will listen to the counsels of him who “speaks well” because he “thinks well.” At any rate, the rule of a tyrant who, after having come to power by means of force and fraud, or after having committed any number of crimes, listens to the suggestions of reasonable men, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to such suggestions, i.e., than the rule of elected magistrates as such.” P.75 [emphasis added

Strauss is indicating here that the magistrates will not listen to the wise will demonstrate their illegitimacy relative to a tyrant or tyranny that will listen to the wise. One could argue that they will not listen because the law does not require them to listen. The law is based on what the community has agreed and provides an unquestioned authority. Moreover, the magistrates’ legitimacy is based on the law and an election not on knowledge. In that sense, we could suggest that if they were elected, why should they listen? They have authority and to the extent that everyone accepts the election process and the outcome it produces, their authority would be, narrowly understood, unquestioned. However, what is not explored by Howse is whether they can listen. Can they accept the suggestions of reasonable men? Howse makes this point on p.59 when he points out that if knowledge is the only valid title to rule, then the legitimacy of regimes can be measured by whether they are tractable to reason. Moreover, Strauss goes on to point out that the beneficent tyranny, tyranny at its best, “could hardly, if ever, be realized” not least because the wise may not want to rule or, it would appear, to advise the tyrant. [However, we have the problem of Heidegger]

Howse argues that the alliance between the wise and tyrants is difficult because their essential interests are in conflict. He suggests that freedom is an essential interest of the wise man. (p.59) To support this he refers to on Tyranny p. 84, where we find the sentence. “The wise man alone is free” (fn 27). We cannot conclude that the wise man is as interested in freedom simply understood because they can still find a life of virtue and the philosophical life is possible under regimes that do not have freedom as their aim. (We can see this in the example of Socrates and Heidegger). More to the point, Strauss indicates that the wise are less concerned with freedom to the extent that they do not need it to practice a life of virtue. (See p.71) He also points out, p.43, that the wise do not take risks for freedom as they have a different goal from those who want to restore freedom and have good laws.

From the analysis of the sections that have been covered, we can consider there is a need to explore the question “What is Law?” Here a possible reason for why Strauss took so long to define tyranny and non-tyrannical rule begins to emerge. We have to note that Strauss takes longer in his argument to raise or refer to the question “What is law” than to define the tyrant and by extension a tyranny. Without answering the question of “What is the law?”, we will find it difficult to understand completely what it means to rule with laws, without laws, or in accordance with laws. We have to recall that rule by law is consider inferior to the rule of the wise. However, for the community the rule of law may be associated with a form, or type, of freedom. As Strauss suggests that Simonides is indicating that where there are no laws, there is no liberty.[51] (p.69) What is curious is that at this time when he mentions the law it is the first time in the chapter that Strauss refers to the citizen. A deeper problem is that to understand this modification, we also have to examine how Xenophon’s answer and Socrates’ answer to the question differ.[52] We also return to a question posed at the beginning of this commentary. Why does the chapter with the law as a central issue not discuss the question or answer it? Why does the book, which is focused on Strauss’s understanding of the law, not address the question of the law?

What we find is that the law involves the possible issue of consent or a way to indicate willing subjects.[53] We have to start with Xenophon’s suggestion on p. 73. “The laws which determine what is legal are the rules of conduct upon which the citizens have agreed.” The laws are what the citizens have agreed. The citizens are not defined so they can be the multitude or the few. Strauss sub-divides the few into the rich or the virtuous. What this becomes, after considering the citizen is that “The laws will “depend on the political order of the community for which they are given.” p.73 Here we see the deeper problem within the work. The law expresses the city’s opinion. When the tyrant rules willing subjects it is in that sense with their consent, which is based on the benefits they receive from being protected by the tyrant. For those who are willing subjects to a king, they know the king rules in accord with the laws of the city. However, we cannot understand tyranny at its best without understanding the law. Within the law, we see the limit of Socrates’ theoretical teaching concerning tyranny.

The limit of tyranny, or its beginning, is seen in the way Alcibiades has Pericles define the law within the Memorabilia. The key passage is I 2.41-46 where if a regime rules without consent it is a tyranny. In that vein, we see how Socrates could nominally attempt to obey such laws by questioning them. (see I 2.31ff). Any regime faces the question of the legitimacy by the means by which it rules as well as to the end towards which it rules so that we have the process and outcome as indicated in Minos. The valid title to rule may change depending on the community. For Socrates, the only sufficient title to rule is knowledge.[54] Therein we see the basis for Kojeve’s world-state as the only state that would be non-tyrannical “in which perfectly wise rulers educated all men to share their wisdom” (Neumann (Socrates and Athens) p. 429). Even this is uncertain because the rulers and the subjects would have to agree on the fundamentals. However, even if a regime listens to the wise, it is still illegitimate when measured against the Socrates’ or Alcibiades’ standard. Pure knowledge or pure consent proves impossible to achieve in practice. The laws, agreed by the citizens, limit ruler from being tyrannical and provide an opportunity for consent.

When we consider the law, we start to see tyranny cannot be understood without it. We are reminded that at the start of On Tyranny Strauss explains that tyranny is considered a faulty political order. He does not explain at that time who decides it is faulty, how its fault is determined, or what the fault is. It appears, from Strauss’ chapter the source of the laws, for Xenophon, is the community. Strauss writes; “The laws which determine what is legal are the rules of conduct upon which the citizens have agreed. fn40” (p.73) The footnote refers us to Memorabilia IV 4.13 in which what the citizens agree is the laws and a law abiding person orders his life in the community according to them. After describing that source of the laws, Strauss turns to the question of “What is the law?” According to Strauss, Xenophon’s answer is drawn from Alcibiades questions to Pericles. It is only after raising this question and answering can Xenophon then declare that the rule of tyranny can live up to the highest political standard.

The law is needed to understand the community where and when the “tyrannical” teaching can be expounded. There are two passages where the community and the law are connected in this way. The first is on p.76 law defines community ruled by law and the second is on p.96, with an important qualification.

Strauss writes on p. 76

“If the city is essentially the community kept together and ruled by law, the “tyrannical” teaching cannot exist for the citizen as citizen.”

The law rules the community and keeps it together. As the law is first for the citizen, who has agreed it, they cannot conceive of the “tyrannical” teaching, which suggests a better way exists. We can only understand the nature of tyranny by what it challenges in the sense of the law and the community. If the citizens agree the law, and it is good, there has to be point where they understand the law is not good and is flawed. It would have to be flawed enough to allow the “tyrannical” teaching. In a sense, one could argue that the laws become tyrannical as the community becomes tyrannical thus using the laws for a tyrannical purpose especially if they rule by a lack of consent. Yet, we still have the deeper question of the relationship of the law and legitimacy. If the community creates the laws, then its provides a certain type of legitimacy. Yet, as a result of the “tyrannical” teaching, the question of legitimacy changes.

On page 99 Strauss writes:

“In so far as the city is the community kept together, nay, constituted by law, the city cannot so much as aspire to that highest moral and intellectual level attained able by certain individuals.”

We see that the law no longer rules the city. The law only serves to be the starting point for a city. The “tyrannical” teaching has shown us something else can rule the city offers something the city, as city, cannot achieve. The law may have constituted the city, but it can no longer rule the city because of philosophy. Therein we see the challenge. The law provides an authority that provides stability but it will not tolerate philosophy. If philosophy seeks to rule, it too will be seen as tyrannical, illegitimate, unless the citizens, as citizens, are educated to its charms and necessity. Both approaches, the law and philosophy, have their forms of legitimacy but neither can be proven before the other. They might be known by their effect, but that does not prove their intrinsic worth. The city ruled by the wise offers a possibility of a non-tyrannical rule because it is based on pure, informed, consent. The city ruled by law offers a non-tyrannical approach if it authority is absolute and it does not allow philosophy to intervene as all questions and disputes are resolved by it.[55] However, what remains uncertain is the possibility of revelation to upset this balance which is why neither Hiero nor Simonides refers to the gods. God would offer a standard, other than philosophy, to judge the law as tyrannical and it also offers a basis to reject philosophy. It is not surprising, then that Strauss ends with a reference to piety and the question “What is god?” as neither the law (the city) nor philosophy recognize a limit and in that sense is absolute. Only philosophy can willingly restrain or moderate itself while the city, and the law, can only limit their absolutism by necessity. However, for the city and the law both philosophy and revelation are equally corrosive, which is why the Statesman rather than the Prince is where On Tyranny points.[56] The Prince is only the modern subversion of the Statesman.

Howse provides an entry into Strauss’s thought with his book. From the chapters I have commented on, there is much to recommend it. I would suggest, though, that without an understanding of law as understood by Strauss, the book’s usefulness is limited. We are left uncertain how Strauss understood the law given that in a variety of contexts it can be the speaker’s view of the law (Xenophon’s, Xenophon’s Alcibiades, Socrates’s), or the commonly understood meaning, such as Ancient law or Modern law, or domestic law and international law. Without that clarity, the reader is left to apply their own understanding.

As this commentary has grown beyond my initial intent, I will close by saying that experienced students will benefit from Howse’s book. New students would be better served by studying Strauss’s works before coming to Howse’s book because he requires the reader to bring a developed understanding of Strauss to appreciate fully what the book has to offer.


[1] I would like to thank Professor Howse for providing me with a review copy of his book. I appreciate his time and patience in answering a number of questions on the book. He has always been generous in providing a copy of Nathan Tarcov’s article the Preface to the Japanese translation of On Tyranny.

[2] I studied the Federalist Papers and Cicero with Prof Charles Kesler and I had a course on Thucydides with Professor James H. Nichols. Any mistakes or misunderstanding of Strauss and his work are mine.

[3] One can find that some students, given their immaturity would lack the requisite moderation and would often embrace Socrates’ view as expressed in Apology 31e1-32a3 see also 38a. It is not surprising that people would be a bit defensive, if not aggressive, if they were told the life they were leading was not worth living and it suggested that they were living a less than human life. This is particularly true in graduate school when students face these existential questions from their thesis committee. George Anastaplo explained it best. “A proper education should make one cautious in one’s uses of sources, moderate in the tone of one’s political and social advocacy, and anything but overbearing in one’s assessment of the less enlightened, keeping in mind that it is usually easier to attack than to defend.” https://anastaplo.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/in-re-allan-bloom-a-respectful-dissent-originally-posted-8052010/ (Accessed 15 February 2015)  See also Harry Neumann The Permanent War of Students and Teachers The Journal of General Education, Vol. 21, No. 4 (January 1970), pp. 271-279

[4] My thesis became this book America at the brink of Empire: Rusk, Kissinger and the Vietnam War. http://lsupress.org/books/detail/america-at-the-brink-of-empire/ (accessed 16 February 2015)

[5] Rosen, Stanley, Plato’s Statesman: Web of Politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. http://thegreatthinkers.org/plato/commentary/platos-statesman-web-of-politics/ (Accessed 16 February 2015)

[6] Harry Neumann’s only book is Liberalism (1991 Carolina Academic Press). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Liberalism-Harry-Neumann/dp/0890894558 It is a collection of essays and articles published over several years. However, it also reflects a turn in his career as his earlier works while exploring similar themes have more of an academic and less philosophical or political veneer.

[7] Professor Tom West has captured the encounter and its political philosophical implications in his essay here: http://www.vindicatingthefounders.com/author/jaffa_v_mansfield.pdf (accessed 16 February 2015)

[8] As Strauss writes in Thoughts on Machiavelli p. 295 “Machiavelli does not bring to light a single political phenomenon of any fundamental importance which was not fully known to the classics”

[9] The book’s focus on international law leaves the reader wondering about the law’s, as law, origin and whether that origin is consistent with international law that is a continuation of it or whether international law is a different species of law, with a different origin. Unless we understand what is meant by law and how that relates to international law, and its attendant caveats, we cannot understand fully what Strauss’ project means for it.

[10] We can propose an alternate view of Strauss’ career trajectory by these questions. His first book, on Spinoza, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1930) raises it (p.194) his book On Tyranny 1948 raises it again, we see it in City and Man we see it in his article On the Minos (1968) (Liberalism Ancient and Modern) One could even suggest that it is the implicit theme of The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws.

[11] Seth Benardete Leo Strauss’s The City and Man The Political Science Reviewer 8 (1978): 1–20

[12] Strauss was much more of a midwife to their own souls than perhaps they realized. See Theaetetus 151b-c

[13] One could go so far, as we will see later in the chapter that covers On Tyranny, to argue that any force is illegitimate so politics that requires violence is only what occurs in the second best regimes. However, that does not lead to a regime that is stable or can survive against less scrupulous enemies.

[14] Hannah Arendt On Violence New York : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.  see also  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1969/feb/27/a-special-supplement-reflections-on-violence/ (Accessed 21 February 2015)

[15] Howse does not explore why Strauss has to be defended. We are told it is because Strauss is held responsible for the Gulf War because of his influence on his students who, in turn, had some influence on American foreign policy. However, this is the public teaching. What remains uncertain is why Strauss needs to be defended about a covert teaching that many, if not most, do not articulate let alone understand, even if they have read Strauss. I am struck by this debate over Strauss in the sense that it ascribes a greater influence to Strauss and his students, who have trumpeted Strauss’s teaching, covert and overt, than either would believe. To put the point directly, Strauss is not responsible for Vietnam War, which is closer to what Howse argues about international law as Dean Rusk, and American foreign policy, consistently stressed the defence of international law and a decent world order based on the United Nations Organisation’s principles when it defended South Vietnam against North Vietnam’s aggression. Strauss is not held responsible for Nixon’s realpolitik nor for Carter’s “moralistic” foreign policy, nor for Reagan’s military build-up, active foreign policy, and rhetoric. For some reason, we find that Strauss is responsible for the second Gulf War, which was instigated after an attack on the United States, but is without any influence otherwise or in any policy or political domain. Finally, we have to accept that Strauss’s teachings, his intent, was transmitted and understood by the students of his students and they in turn found a way to turn these “esoteric” statements and intent into practical political action in the face of competing ideas proposed by equally ambitious, tenacious, and powerful actors in academia and Washington D.C. Moreover, it assumes that his students understand Strauss in a coherent and consistent manner. To put it directly, having to defend Strauss from his “critics” is like trying to explain a joke that is not understood. No amount of effort will succeed as the person does not have the requisite sense of humour.

[16] See Benardete The City and Man The Political Science Reviewer

[17] What is curious is that Rosen and Benardete wrote on Statesman but Strauss never published on it directly. His one extended discussion of the Statesman is in the chapter on Plato in History of Political Philosophy. I would argue that the Statesman is central to Howse’s thesis concerning Strauss but he does not explore the work within this context.

[18] Harry Neumann completed his PhD Dissertation in 1954 at University of Chicago The politics of atheism, an analysis of Nietzsche’s political philosophy.

[19] Howse is to be commended for his attempt to blend the unpublished lectures and transcript to provide an insight into Strauss’ work. However, his approach is marred by his criticism of Heinrich Meier in chapter 2, p. 28 fn 14 (“There is no evidence that Strauss ever intended this lecture to appear in print as a public study of, or confrontation with, Heidegger’s thought”). One has to ask why it is wrong for Meier to use this approach but it is ok for Howse. Again, this may be a small point but we need to consider this as reader.

[20] George Anastoplo commented in the following way. “Mr. Strauss, on the other hand, was legendary in his insistence upon the integrity of the texts he carefully prepared. He would have found congenial the injunction issued by a fastidious author to his publisher: “I write; you print.” . https://anastaplo.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/in-re-allan-bloom-a-respectful-dissent-originally-posted-8052010/ (accessed 16 February 2015)

[21] Heinrich Meier has noted that Strauss refused to identify himself as a philosopher. He preferred the term scholar. (See Meier Politico-Theologico problem). See also Alexander Duff’s article Stanley Rosen’s critique of Leo Strauss “At the heart of his most serious critique of Strauss, Rosen identifies this very paradox and makes it the source of his distorting punishment of Strauss. Strauss presents himself as a scholar, not as a philosopher.” The Review of Metaphysics March 2010 http://www.readperiodicals.com/201003/2018920521.html (accessed 16 February 2015)

[22] See for example, Chris Berger’s essay on Seth Benardete Seth Benardete: Finding the Argument in the Action http://www.udaimoniaonline.com/seth-benardete-finding-the-argument-in-the-action-by-chris-berger/ (accessed 5 January 2015)

[23] See Benardete City and Man review

[24] One can see a similar affinity between Strauss and Heidegger on philosophy and the possibility of philosophy, at least on the basis provided by Velkey. Heidegger, Strauss, and the premises of philosophy on original forgetting Richard L Velkley Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press, 2011.

[25] Howse accepts this on p.31 “Strauss has some sympathy with the opposition of the German nihilists to the decline of virtue or moral standards in liberal modernity. “

[26] Reading Schmitt, especially as a student in a liberal democracy where such politics is rarely seen, it presents a rare opportunity to experience Nazi thinking directly. However shocking such a reading is it reminds us of the awareness that liberal democracy is not the only possible regime. If we assume that any critique of liberalism is problematic or that liberal democracy denotes the best regime simply, then political philosophy is at an end. For Neumann, such an approach would indicate how much we are teachers and not students, political and not philosophical. (Neumann Permanent War between Teachers and Students) SeeThe Permanent Crisis of Liberal Education Harry Neumann The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Feb., 1968), pp. 104-10

[27] I would not want to suggest that Voeglin and Strauss were in agreement or there was no difference between them as thinkers. However, what separates them is smaller than what separates Strauss and Heidegger or Strauss or Schmitt or Strauss and Kojeve.

[28] Velkey Premise of Philosophy Forgetting

[29] Howse overlooks this continued relationship. Strauss did not dissuade Laurence Berns from studying with Heidegger. He encouraged Bloom to study with Kojeve. As George Anastaplo explains: “Leo Strauss had, as a young man, studied with Martin Heidegger in Germany. Laurence Berns, upon preparing to go to Germany to improve his German language skills, informed Mr. Strauss that he planned to attend some Heidegger lectures. He was told in response that, of course, he could do so since Heidegger was one of the greatest thinkers of the Twentieth Century, but he was also told by Mr. Strauss that no self-respecting Jew would ever shake the hand of a scholar who had collaborated the way he had done with the Nazis.” https://anastaplo.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/laurence-berns-1928-2011-march-7-2011/ (accessed 21 February 2015)

[30] Harry Neumann Liberalism Carolina Academic Press 1991 See also Philosophers and Intellectuals: the Question of Academic Freedom Social Research Vol. 36, No. 4, Focus—Human Biology and the Social Sciences (Winter 1969), pp. 562-584

[31] Despite William Altman’s attempt to discover such an insight, it does not contain what NCP contains because it is written for a different purpose and a different audience.

[32] As others have remarked Strauss was always interested in God and politics.

[33] See Neumann Liberalism p. 92

[34] I have noticed that with many of the essays on Strauss they treat him abstractly. He is treated in the same way that he described how culture is treated within his essay on Jerusalem and Athens.

[35] I am relying on William Altman’s essay Leo Strauss on “German Nihilism”: Learning the Art of Writing Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 587-612 on German Nihilism as it is focused on the lecture and not  The German stranger : Leo Strauss and national socialism William H F Altman Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books, 2011. See also Susan Shell in “To Spare the Vanquished and Crush the Arrogant”: Leo Strauss’s Lecture on “German Nihilism” in The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss ed Steven B. Smith

[36]I would suggest that Strauss was responding to some extent to Heidegger’s 1940 Freiburg Lecture Course “Nietzsche: The Will to Power (II. European Nihilism) See Martin Heidegger Nietzsche Volume 4 ed by David Farrell Krell trans Frank A Capuzzi 1982 (p. v Editor’s Preface). Strauss focused on German Nihilism while Heidegger wrote about European Nihilism. We note as well that Heidegger begins by referring to Friedrich H. Jacobi as responsible for the first philosophical use of the word nihilism. (On Strauss’ relationship with Jacobi, readers may wish to consider Altman’s interesting analysis of Strauss’ relationship to him and Lesing in (Insert reference) Lastly, I would note that Heidegger’s lectures can be seen in three interconnected parts which do mirror the three parts of Strauss’ Nihilism lecture. Instead of overstating these intersections, I want to draw readers to the timing and the topics.

[37] I would suggest that his work to develop the idea of political philosophy stemmed from that event as Heidegger’s choice and behaviour had demonstrated philosophy’s political unreliability. Strauss would be acutely aware that if philosophy’s relationship with politics was considered suspect he, and others, would be in danger no matter what he professed simply because of previous associations. Moreover, the freedom to philosophise, in such an atmosphere would be severely compromised no matter how welcoming the society and one would not have to write esoterically to hide an unpleasant truth as one was simply writing to avoid any persecution. (See for example Neumann (article where he talks about putting Socrates to death and all societies facing a threat to their survival will not be tolerant of any threat, real or perceived, to that survival. We forget at our peril, and do a disservice to writers like Strauss, how dangerous the world appeared in 1940. One need only note the original introduction to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism when compared with subsequent introductions where the threat had passed.

[38] Strauss considered published writings as public statements. He did not consider lectures as having the same status or See On Tyranny p. 76 “Every written exposition is to a smaller or larger degree a public exposition.”

[39] Howse refers to Steve Smith who wrote that Strauss found his “voice” or his distinctive approach to writing in the years leading up to On Tyranny being published. See footnote 1 on p.51

[40] On Tyranny p. 27. We are reminded of the book’s epigraph, which is a quotation from Macaulay.

[41] Although I do not wish to go as far as William Altman who argues that Strauss’s lecture on German Nihilism is Strauss’s first attempt to display of exoteric teaching, I would suggest that the question needs to be considered. By 1948 Strauss was a US citizen and America was the strongest power on earth even if it did not fully realize that relative power. He chose a topic that seemed to be the farthest removed from American self-reflection as America dealt with the death of the Nazi Tyranny and confronted the Communist Tyranny. Moreover, we still face the question, indirectly raised by Altman, whether Strauss was writing in such a way to protect philosophy.

[42] George Grant suggests that Strauss and Kojeve have almost mutually exclusive views of philosophy, and what it means to think, which makes their discussion rare. (See Tyranny and Wisdom: A comment on the controversy between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve G. P. Grant Social Research, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 1964), pp. 45-72)

[43] Neumann, p. 95 Liberalism.

[44] What Howse does not explore, although it is beyond the chapter and book’s scope, is whether Heidegger understood tyranny better than Strauss and Kojeve. Heidegger, one could say, enacted the Xenophon’s dialogue, as a philosopher trying to “talk” with a tyrant. Although many works on Heidegger have explored his “mistake” with the Nazis, I have not found any that have explored the idea of tyranny with a particular reference to Strauss’s work On Tyranny. Moreover, in light of Strauss’s lecture on German Nihilism, we have to consider whether Strauss was writing in regard to Heidegger’s philosophical tyranny. I would suggest that On Tyranny is more a warning about and reaction to Heidegger than is seen on the surface. In particular, if we consider that Persecution and the Art of Writing warns that esoteric writing is nearly impossible on p.25 “As a matter of fact, this literature [esoteric writing] would be impossible if the Socratic dictum that virtue is knowledge, and therefore that thoughtful men as such are trustworthy and not cruel, were entirely wrong.” One could suggest that Strauss, writing as an American citizen, initiated a political philosophical project to rescue or protect philosophy. In this view, I am influenced, to some extent, by Meier’s work Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem

[45] By remaining on the surface, I mean that Howse does not, for example, explore how Cyrus was able to convert his tyranny into a valid title to rule. (See Strauss p.121 fn51). Thus, the question may not work for Greeks, but it seems possible for other people. If law and legitimacy are the key issue, then a deeper analysis would require to explore what is law and who determines legitimacy and where both find their source. In particular, we would need to explore what these mean for Xenophon or Socrates or Strauss. Howse does not distinguish these points even though Strauss does refer to them.

[46] As Robert Pippin explains in his review article, Kojeve’s praise of Stalin and the need for the bloody revolutions to bring the universal recognition to life, the need for dirty hands, seems naïve in light of what was done in the 30s—50s. (See p.151 of Being, Time, and Politics: The Strauss-Kojève Debate Robert B. Pippin History and Theory, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 138-161).

[47] One could make the argument that Strauss does define tyranny and distinguish between the tyrannical and non-tyrannical ruler earlier in the text. In chapter 1 “The Problem” p.107fn3 where we see the first reference to the “tyrannical” teaching and why Socrates was considered to have taught it, which would indicate what Xenophon meant by a tyrant and tyranny. We see in Chapter 3 “The Setting” p.108fn6 where Strauss refers to a difference between kings and tyrants regarding pleasure-pain and virtue vice. Moreover, one could argue that throughout the footnotes leading up to the chapter “The Teaching Concerning Tyranny”, that Strauss has indicated something of that teaching especially regarding how Socrates behaved in situations where he had to speak about tyrants, which would indicate something about the claim in p.107fn3 regarding the claim he taught the “tyrannical” teaching see in particular p.109fn14.

[48] We can find a discussion of the tyrant as “lawless” from the manner in which he acquired his position and the manner in which he rules in fn7 p.119 (p.69) where Strauss draws upon Rousseau’s understanding of what the Greeks meant by tyrant “According to the Hiero, the tyrant is necessarily “lawless” not merely because of the manner in which he acquired his position, but above all because of the manner in which he rules; he follows his own will, which may be good or bad, and not any law”.

[49] We note on the issue of authority that non-tyrannical rulers appear to have an advantage overt tyrannical rulers. “It is hardly necessary to say that the tyrant’s refraining from openly taking responsibility for punitive action does not bespeak a particular mildness of this rule: Nontyrannical rulers take that responsibility without any concealment (fn18) because their authority, deriving from law, is secure.” p70

[50] See NRH p.84

[51] We have to consider that it is only a practical consequence, which suggests that the theoretical consequences may be different given we are discussing the difference between practical and theoretical teachings. The theoretical consequence of this axiom might suggest that without laws there may be freedom without the laws although the question is who has that freedom from not having laws. On the point of laws and freedom consider Nathan Tarcov’s “Preface to the Japanese Translation of On Tyranny,” Perspectives on Political Science 33, no. 4 (Fall 2004), pp 221-226.

[52] Xenophon says the law is what the community say it is. In the Minos we see, according to Strauss, it is both a process and an outcome as it attempts to reflect what really is.

[53] What is interesting to note, and something beyond the scope of this commentary, is the relationship of subject to citizen and fatherland(s) and citizens. Strauss makes reference to the relationship of citizens and fatherlands. See p. 96 On Tyranny.

[54] The use of the word sufficient reminds the reader that it is not necessary title to rule.

[55] Here we can see why Schmitt would have embraced the Fuhrer. He could not find a way to reconcile the competing claims within the community. The law did not exist in a way that would provide that authority based on what the community agreed. One could suggest that the nation was in a legal civil war. Unlike Great Britain that had recourse to the Royal Prerogative, or the United States that had an appeal to the Constitution, Weimar lacked a final authority or at least one that was willing and able to act. The Fuhrer promised it and when he arrived, he delivered it with devastating consequences.

[56] See Strauss On Tyranny p. 87





About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to A Partial Commentary on Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace

  1. Mike D says:

    Reblogged this on the surface of things and commented:
    Lawrence Serewicz has written an incredible commentary on the first half of Howse’s “Leo Strauss: Man of Peace”. The commentary must be 10,000 words and has ~50 footnotes, and he’s only halfway done. There are many points of disagreement that I have with his treatment of some of Howse’s points (the use of transcripts, for one), some of his interpretations of Strauss (the status of Socrates v. Aristotle, for example), and whether these constitute a refutation of Howse’s project as a whole. But, overall, the quibbles are with details rather than intention. This is a serious treatment of a serious book, that takes no question for granted. Professor Howse is lucky to have such a thoughtful critic, a testament to the quality of his book. I will add one point, in the event I don’t get to writing a longer response. Serewicz’s review has convinced me (and I’m not sure what his intention is, here) that people like him and me are not the intended audience of Howse’s book. Readers capable of the care that he demonstrates in his review would never have been seduced by the popular narrative of Strauss-as-immoderate-neoconserative-imperialist. In a way, debating Howse on the particulars implicitly grants Howse the big picture. This happens to be a big picture I agree with, though one that is for the moment on shakier ground thanks to Lawrence’s review. You should follow him on twitter (@lldzne) and the debate he’s currently having with Rob Howse about this commentary: https://twitter.com/lldzne/status/569134894984663040

    • Mike
      Thanks for your kind words. Yes, it is a long commentary, roughly twenty thousand words including footnotes. I had to stop as I was running out of time to complete it. I have a full time job, I am not an academic, so I have to fit this in on the side.
      I am not sure I grant Prof. Howse the big picture as such. I think there is some agreement as to Strauss and his intent. However, I agree with you in that I do not see the philosophical quest, at least its political consequences, as peaceful. I do not accept that this means that one is immediately a Schmittian only that one accepts that decisive questions about the best way to live may require more than words to resolve. Perhaps this moves us away from Socrates but that is the difference between a political community and a philosophical community built in speech.


      • Thanks for the reply. I think I agree with you on the relation between philosophy and peace, but I must admit this tension is a difficult and dark one to understand. I started outlining a response on the topic of peace in my review here: http://www.e-ir.info/2014/12/07/review-leo-strauss-man-of-peace/ But I’d have to work out a series of formulations that are more careful. I think I’d start with esoteric writing as rhetoric, but now we’re a bit far from the merits of Prof Howse’s book and onto the deeper issues of Strauss’s thought (which, to his credit, I find happens quite often when thinking about the book).

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