The German philosopher who has suddenly become surprisingly popular in the United States was never a leftist, but rather a conservative to the core. We are not talking about Theodor W. Adorno, who would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year, or Herbert Marcuse, whose remains were recently transferred from New Haven, Connecticut to Berlin, but a contemporary of these two founders of the Frankfurt School who has received relatively little attention from German intellectuals: Leo Strauss. Like his contemporaries, Strauss was also a German Jew. He also emigrated to the United States and spent the rest of his life there. This fall will mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death.
Leo Strauss was a remarkable exception among those who were forced to leave Hitler's Germany. Unlike his fellow expatriates, this soft-spoken, diminutive deep thinker quickly obtained a professorship at the major and highly regarded University of Chicago. He was also the only German emigrant to establish a philosophy movement that became widespread in the United States, a movement whose influence extends to within today's inner circles of power in Washington.
What is the story with his students, the "Straussians," who have so often been invoked and described since the end of the Iraq war that they have almost become an intellectual legend? They are viewed as a group of neo-conservative conspirators, as a small, elite order guiding the Bush administration - and when its path becomes crooked, providing it with a good conscience. They can be found among the justices of the Supreme Court, and they work at both the White House and the Pentagon.
Although most of them have learned their particular way of thinking from Strauss, they are more power-conscious than the master was. They want to change and not just interpret America.
The Washington branch of the "Straussians" recently met at a barbecue in a Washington park in July, as it does every year, to play baseball and chat about the past and present. More than 60 members of the inner and outer circles of the administration attended the event. Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's hawkish idea man, was there, as was Abram Shulsky, a Pentagon intelligence expert who co-authored a book with Francis Fukuyama.
William Kristol, publisher of the "Weekly Standard," a paper with a circulation of only 60,000 but with considerable influence in Washington, was there, and so was Leon Kass, whom the President has commissioned to develop guidelines for stem cell research. They too are students of Leo Strauss.
One would think that a family barbecue on a sunny day would be a rather mundane and innocuous event. However, just about everything the "Straussians" do these days is a general target of suspicion. Concerns and fears are being leveled by the left, and they represent an attempt to break the cultural hegemony of the "Neocons," which began with George W. Bush' presidency and has infiltrated a patriotic America since September 11, 2001.
Their central complaint is that although the Strauss clique may be part of a secondary level of power, the ideology it endorses - of the special role America is to play in the 21st century - is one on which the actions of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Bush are based.
Wolfowitz and other Straussians are part of an avant-garde of the conservative revolution that essentially despises the idea of a liberal democracy.
In all of this, the spider in the web is a small, eccentric professor from Weimar Germany, one who despised the Enlightenment and viewed democratic liberalism as a sinful political movement.
The debate on the pages of the "New York Times" and the "New Yorker" has long since spread to Germany. In this country, Strauss was barely acknowledged while he was still alive (he died in 1973). It is only in recent years that Heinrich Meier, director of the Siemens Foundation in Munich, has taken it upon himself to publish and philosophically classify Strauss' body of work.
Meier's own studies on Strauss, particularly on his relationship with Catholic constitutional scholar Carl Schmitt, have suddenly become current as a result of the debate surrounding the intellectual basis of Bushism.*
But where is Strauss' place in the history of German philosophy? In an article in "Die Zeit," Berlin historian Heinrich August Winkler has drawn far-reaching conclusions from the fact that Strauss maintained friendly relations with Carl Schmitt, a critic of parliamentarism and spiritual precursor of the Nazis. According to Winkler, certain parallels exist between the "conservative revolution" prior to Hitler's rise to power and the current situation in the United States.
In Winkler's view, the Straussians have "found in Bush Junior what Carl Schmitten ultimately sought in vain: 'access to the ruler.'"
Nonetheless, it is not quite that easy to determine whether Leo Strauss is truly deserving of his reputation as the demonized "Godfather of the Bush Mafia." According to his own strict standards, Strauss was not a true philosopher, since he did not leave behind a systematic body of work. His strength lay in the interpretation of the great philosophical literature ranging from Plato, through Socrates, Spinoza, Machiavelli and Hobbes, to Martin Heidegger. In his early years, Strauss' thoughts were focused on theology, and only later on political philosophy, on the "question of what is right."
Strauss was about as well-educated as a thorough German professor can imagine. Because he wrote clearly and understandably, his books, though written in the German style of the pre-war era, are still quite readable today.
His daughter Jenny, a professor of Greek and Roman poetry at the University of Virginia, has a photograph of the family house in the Hessian town of Kirchhain (near Marburg) where her father, born in 1899, grew up.
The photograph shows a simple, stately house without the ornaments of the Gruenderzeit. The Strauss family was involved in the grain trade, and also raised chickens and poultry.
Its talented son Leo transferred this modest straightforwardness to his philosophy. In spite of what must have been countless setbacks in the life of a German Jew, a man who served in World War I, emigrated in 1932 and experienced his greatest years in America, Strauss remained true to his roots in developing his philosophy.
In 1921, he earns a doctorate under Ernst Cassirer, and he continues his search for authority and orientation. He initially rejects Neokantianism, the predominant prewar philosophy, and is dissatisfied with Max Weber's belief in the value-freedom of scientific judgements. But then he meets the man whom this generation of young philosophers, which also includes Herbert Marcuse, Karl Lowith and Günther Anders, considers to be the deepest thinker of its time: Martin Heidegger.
Like Heidegger, Strauss drew a radical consequence from the experiences of World War I and the constant threat to the Weimar Republic: In his view, this served as historical proof that the Enlightenment, with its positive view of human nature and its faith in progress, was an illusion. He also believed that faith in a liberal democracy as the governmental and social order of the future was invalid. And Strauss remained true to this theory until his death.
However, what displeased Strauss about Heidegger's principal work "Being and Time" (1927) was its existentialism, which abandoned any justification of morality and worshipped "death as God" (Strauss), making the philosopher from Todtnauberg susceptible to the National Socialists' nihilistic yearning for death. As a result of his conflict with Heidegger, however, Strauss developed a slightly eccentric theory, which was received with surprising enthusiasm many years later in America.
Religion is the opium of the people, but it is an indispensable opium.
As his theory goes, philosophers following in Nietzsche's footsteps could devote themselves to the question of how the death of God and the renunciation of religion impacts thought and being. But without the inner cohesiveness faith provides, states could not exist. For this reason, according to Strauss, religion serves as a binding agent in a stable social order. It is, admittedly, the opium of the people, but it is also an indispensable opium. In Strauss' view, liberal democracies such as the Weimar Republic are not viable in the long term, since they do not offer their citizens any religious and moral footings.
The practical consequence of this philosophy is fatal. According to its tenets, the elites have the right and even the obligation to manipulate the truth. Just as Plato recommends, they can take refuge in "pious lies" and in selective use of the truth.
It is precisely because of these fundamental elements of a political theory Strauss represented throughout his life that he is accused, in today's America, of having used the Nazis to study the methods of mass manipulation. And "Straussians," such as Wolfowitz and other proponents of the Iraq war, are now suspected of simply having used the Strauss' political principles for their own purposes. When seen in this light, the partly fictitious reasons for the war against Saddam Hussein represent the philosophical heritage of an emigrant from Germany.
A conspiracy theory is developing in which Strauss is portrayed as the puppet master and the Bush administration as his puppets. The anti-Semitic overtones of this theory are obvious - Strauss as a "Nazi Jew" -, particularly as many of his students bear Jewish names: Paul Wolfowitz, Abram Shulsky, Harvey Mansfield, William Kristol.
Strauss himself was more interested in antiquity than in the present. Hans Jonas, who was his friend since the 1920s, writes in his "Memoirs" that Strauss was "an unbelievably unworldly and anxious person." In fact, he was deeply pessimistic and tended to believe that history could only bring decline and decay.
Paradoxically, this pessimist was exceptionally fortunate at decisive points in his life. He left Germany in 1932, before Hitler's rise to power. Carl Schmitt, whose study on the differences between friend and foe as the origin of the political was favorably reviewed by Strauss, helped him obtain a fellowship with the Rockefeller Foundation. Strauss first went to France and later to England, where he completed his "Hobbes" book, which remains respected today. Finally, in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II, Strauss arrived in America.
He spent his first winter at the New York "University in Exile," as the New School for Social Research was called, because it had become a magnet for Jewish refugees from countries throughout Europe: Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, Arnold Brecht, Adolph Löwe, Kurt Riezler - 180 intellectual giants in total. They sarcastically referred to themselves as "Hitler's gift to the United States."
Although he was a complete stranger to America, Strauss did not encounter any insurmountable difficulties in adjusting to his new home. Although he spoke many languages, his English remained slightly accented to the end. And is if it were a deceit of Hegelian reason - of all things -, luck was to remain on his side: In 1948, he was offered a position to teach philosophy in Chicago.
At that time, Chicago was an even more preeminent university than it is today. It was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, whose money had been spurned by the elite east coast universities. Moreover, the university's autocratic president, Robert M. Hutchins, had a knack for attracting talented academics. These factors led to three professors teaching at Chicago after the war who were to exert tremendous influence on the elites through the present day.
There was Hans J. Morgenthau, who was also an emigrant from Germany. Unlike Strauss, however, he was oriented toward the theoretical permeation of reality. He achieved his greatest impact with his theses on a new realistic foreign policy, which served as the basis of an non-illusory stance against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and soon became government policy. Morgenthau's most teachable pupil was an emigrant from Fürth, who managed to become National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon: Henry Kissinger. His version of Realpolitik - coexistence, even with autocrats or dictators, provided this advances one's own interests - has only now been dismantled by the neoconservatives. In their view, it is insufficiently moral and too closely aligned with the status quo.
The second Chicago professor whose stature has endured was Milton Friedman, who in 1976 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his theory of monetarism. He was a student of August von Hayek, who also taught at Chicago in 1950 but, to von Hayek's great embitterment, was overshadowed by John Maynard Keynes and his theory of state intervention in times of market crisis.
Friedman was doubly blessed. He was both a popular university professor and a sought-after advisor, consulted by presidents ranging from Johnson through Nixon to Reagan. He recommended that the state withdraw from the market, which led to the theory of supply-side economic policy, which holds that capitalism develops most efficiently when profit and consumption grow as a result of tax cuts. This risky economic policy, which quickly produced a national deficit under Reagan, has been taken up again by the president currently in office - and with the same consequences.
The third professor is Leo Strauss, who possessed neither Morgenthau's sense of the present nor Friedman's ability to interact with the powerful. It seems paradoxical that he has managed to significantly influence politics and politicians after his death. After all, he was a conservative who did not believe things could take a turn for the better. He remained a Weimarer at heart, steadfastly refusing to bestow his blessing on liberal democracy, and directing all his skepticism against its pluralism and relativism. In spite of the fact that America was different, he was unable to trust this project of the modern era.
All Leo Strauss really wanted to be was a teacher who introduces his students to the philosophical world of the ancients. As he saw it, one can study the eternal energy fields in which human beings and states stand at all times, not least of which the present: What is justice, what is the good life, what difference does the state make, where are the limits of our knowledge?
In the present, Strauss argued, these questions pose themselves in the maelstrom of events and remain difficult to comprehend. But in the great writings of the past, they are addressed in terms of pure culture. The disadvantage of this argument, however, is that the professor was satisfied with considering the problems because he did not believe that they could be solved.
However, a few of his students felt a greater urge to take action. They wanted to understand in order to act. They progressed from European theory to practical application in America.
Strauss' seminars and lectures soon acquired cult-like status, and even attracted Catholic priests and representatives of the Chicago establishment. To ensure that his growing audiences could hear him speak, the professor had a microphone attached to his body, which at that time must have involved a major procedure before each lecture. During the 1960s, his students began recording Strauss' lectures, which always took place on Wednesday afternoons at 3:30.
This tremendous success created jealous rivals. They found fault in the fact that a professor of political philosophy preferred to lecture on antiquity without drawing any conclusions for the present - for the bipolar world, the Cold War, the new nuclear weapons. Eternal truths, preferably derived from Xenophon, Socrates, Plato? Refutation of the modern age through refutation of Hobbes? For the first time, those buzzwords were mentioned which still cling to Strauss in the current debate: nihilism, elitism, esotericism.
"A neoconservative is a left-winger who has been ambushed by reality."
His students, however, were fascinated by the world he showed them. Soon the best and the brightest of their classes flooded his lectures, many of them also Jews. Two of the first Straussians, Walter Berns and Werner Dannhauser, who also became professors, say that they were shaped by the war, often with left-leaning tendencies, and were readers of Marx and Freud. They say that the man from Weimar taught them how to think and to respect the great philosophers.
As detached from the world Strauss was, he became all the more topical in the mid-sixties when neoconservatism was born. The true godfathers of the neocons can be found in the Kristol family. Irving Kristol coined the classic sentence: "A neoconservative is a left-winger who has been ambushed by reality."
Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol's wife, discovered Strauss in 1950. She wrote the classic polemic "One Nation, Two Cultures." She not only criticizes the loss of civility and the Protestant work ethic, permissive morality and the sexual revolution, but also sees all of these things as the consequence of unfettered liberalism in a democratic America.
This is Strauss in pure culture, but turned upside-down by cultural warriors. Irving Kristol completed this reversal by taking up Strauss' idea that religion is indispensable in guaranteeing the existence of a state order. Kristol, a brilliant agitator in the role of a journalist, knew America better - at least 150 million more or less religious people, primarily Catholics or Protestants, a mundane form of piety that was organized into countless sects and represented a political power base for the conservatively reborn Republicans.
An original element of the neoconservative ideology was the discovery that the politically decisive battles in America are waged around cultural values. The Left had propagated that the private sphere is political. The "Neocons" are taking them at their word. The state - along with Milton Friedman - should stay out of the economy, but not the bedrooms of its citizens.
Since then, the greatest battles in America have been about abortion and the death penalty, homosexuality or sex before marriage - the moral values of a Christian-minded country suspicious of liberalism as an ethos. For this reason, which judges are appointed to the Supreme Court is of critical importance, since they are ultimately responsible for determining the degree of liberalism that prevails in America, as the most important cases will land in their docket sooner or later. Among the nine justices, the arch-conservative Clarence Thomas is considered a Straussian.
The first phase of the neoconservative revolution came to fruition under Ronald Reagan. The second phase is now taking place under George W. Bush, the born-again Christian who knows exactly how important religion is - to the patriotic cohesion of his nation and to his reelection, for which he desperately needs the votes of the very well-organized Christian groups.
Foreign policy is currently at the center of the conservative revolution. According to the "New York Times," "For conspiracy theorists, the Bush administration is quite clearly a Strauss creation." However, this is by no means the case, since it is an honor that ought to be bestowed primarily on Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who have been arguing for the complete exercise of power by the world's only superpower and for war as a political tool ever since the end of communism.
However, these two neocons are students of a different professor, also with a German name and also a professor at Chicago, although he arrived there shortly before Strauss' retirement: Albert Wohlstetter, born in New York, taught the theory of security policy and made a lasting impression on Wolfowitz (who attended only two of Strauss' courses) and Perle. Aggressiveness instead of passiveness in foreign policy, the will to change instead of the old status quo way of thinking; these are ideas that can be attributed to Wohlstetter, and represent the conditions of the new Pax Americana.
After emigrating, Strauss only returned to Germany once in the fifties, at the invitation of his friend Karl Lowith. His daughter Jenny says that her father felt isolated at the end of his life, and that he was having trouble getting his books re-published. This has now changed.
Heinrich Meier: "Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and 'The Concept of the Political'". A Dialogue Among the Absent. Verlag J. B. Metzler, Stuttgart; 192 pages; EURO 24.90. By the same author, and recently published by the same publishing house: "The Theological-Political Problem." On the Subject of Leo Strauss. 88 pages; EURO 9.95.
Translated by Christopher Sultan