Friends of Leo


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft reviews Robert Howse's Leo Strauss: Man of Peace:

Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace is an effort to rehabilitate Strauss without supporting those whom he terms the “Straussians.” Howse both defends Strauss against his caricature as a “cult figure of the right,” and argues that Strauss favored peace (while acknowledging that violent force is sometimes necessary) rather than bellicosity, as some Strauss detractors have claimed. Howse wrote his book with the benefit of hundreds of Strauss’s recorded lectures, placed online by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. The availability of these lectures does much to increase the transparency of Strauss’s literary estate, particularly after so much opprobrium has been heaped on his name, and Howse is quite right to say that “The release of the recordings […] reflect[s] the shock therapy of the Iraq accusations on the Straussian cult.”[5] But beyond Howse’s meditations on Strauss, war, and peace, this thoughtful, inventive, and well-argued — if, as I will explain, sometimes uneven — book also makes an important contribution by inquiring into Strauss’s views on philosophers and political life. Howse frames this in the following terms: “What can we, as scholars and as citizens, learn from the dramatic encounter between philosophy and political violence in Strauss’s own thought?”

While Howse emphasizes violence, for Strauss the problem of how philosophers understand “political violence” — of how they guard against it both for their own good and for the benefit of their political communities — was effectively a sub-question beneath the larger question of the relationship between philosophy and politics, or philosophy and action in the world more broadly: how do philosophers relate to their non-philosophical neighbors? Strauss articulated his doubts about philosophers directly participating in governance — during a famous exchange with his friend, the great Hegel interpreter Alexandre Kojève — to which Howse attends with skill and care. Howse notes that the controversy between them really involved not only philosophy’s action-potential but also its fundamental meaning, which for Kojève was revealed by history’s unfolding. But doubts about the mixture of philosophy and politics had turned up early in Strauss’s career, roughly at the same time two of his illiberal influences — the jurist Carl Schmitt and the philosopher Martin Heidegger — joined the Nazi Party.

Howse’s “man of peace” discussion involves two central, intertwined claims: first, that Strauss was not a foe of liberalism, constitutionalism, or democracy, as he is commonly taken to be. Howse’s Strauss looks beyond the limiting polarization of liberalism and anti-liberalism, is willing to support constitutional democracy (just as the historical Strauss was, of course, happy to live within the constitutional democracy of the United States), and asks how philosophers might contribute to constitutional thought. Howse’s book thus demands to be read next to Steven Smith’s 2006 Reading Leo Strauss: Philosophy, Politics, Judaism, which presented Strauss as the best friend liberal political thought ever had, working not to attack liberalism but to shore up any weaknesses within liberal thought.[6]

Howse’s other claim is biographical: he argues that we should see Strauss’s development in terms of t’shuvah (Hebrew for “repentance”) performed for the youthful sin of illiberal and nihilistic thinking: he calls this “Strauss’s self-overcoming of anti-liberalism,” a form of surrogate repentance not through religious piety but by philosophical means.

More here.