The Magazine

Becoming Leo Strauss

The philosopher who teaches how to think.

Apr 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 29 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
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Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem

by Heinrich Meier

Translated by Marcus Brainard

Cambridge, 224 pp., $60

IN RECENT YEARS, the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) has become something of a household name. This has been a mixed blessing.

With a few notable exceptions, reports in the press, journals, and even the odd book have betrayed a scandalous incompetence in their presentation of Strauss's thought and his "sinister" influence. Of course, these efforts will soon be forgotten, their damage to the study of Strauss's thought minimal. Strauss's work is of such a character that it will inevitably receive the attention of the thoughtful and open-minded. Still, it would be a great misfortune if this opportunity to introduce the newly famous/infamous Strauss to students today were squandered. For this reason, Heinrich Meier's excellent Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem is particularly timely and welcome.

With its publication, Meier is bound to begin to receive the sort of attention here that he has enjoyed in Europe as a prominent interpreter of Rousseau, the political theologian Carl Schmitt, and, above all, Leo Strauss. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that his monumental editorial labors and outstanding scholarship have made Meier--director of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation and professor of philosophy at the University of Munich--largely responsible for making Strauss a subject of serious study in Europe. Those editorial labors have already produced three massive volumes of Strauss's collected writings, with two more slated to appear in the coming years. He has made widely available Strauss's early books on Spinoza and Maimonides (in the original German), as well as all of the young Strauss's shorter works, including some whose existence was previously unknown. In addition, Meier has uncovered a complete, hitherto unknown Strauss manuscript on Hobbes's critique of religion, and has published the remarkable correspondence between Strauss and some of his most distinguished contemporaries, including Jacob Klein and Gershom Scholem.

According to Machiavelli, there is no good thing, however splendid, that does not have its accompanying "inconvenience." Whatever the general merits of this contention, it certainly holds true in the academic world. Scholars have a gift for alchemy, of a peculiar kind: They transform the valuable into dust. Meier's focus on the early Strauss in the first volumes of the collected writings was, in part, dictated by the "scholarly" desire to fill the gaps in a remarkably incomplete historical record. Yet far more fundamental was his desire to understand, and to make understandable, the philosophic thoughts of the mature Strauss, the author of such works as Natural Right and History (1953) Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), and Socrates and Aristophanes (1966). In seeking to explicate "How Strauss Became Strauss," Meier does not provide a genetic account of Strauss's "development" that reduces the philosopher Strauss to a product of the opinions and influences of his youth. Yet, in recent years, Meier's labors have occasionally been used (and abused) by academics as part of their procrustean attempt to reduce Strauss to another case study in 20th-century intellectual history.

Put another way, the scholars in question seek to understand the late Strauss in light of the early one. Meier takes precisely the opposite approach: He seeks to understand the young Strauss in light of the mature one. He attempts to uncover the key insights that allowed, or caused, Strauss to become Strauss. In doing so, he takes guidance from the handful of personal statements Strauss made in his later years regarding the decisive moments in his philosophic education.

Three such statements stand out. In his 1965 "Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion"--the "autobiographical preface"--Strauss speaks of "a change of orientation" in his thought that was first given voice in a 1932 review essay of Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political. In 1970, Strauss remarked that it was coming across a sentence of the Arab philosopher and physician Avicenna--"The standard work on prophecy and revelation is Plato's Laws"--that allowed him, as a young man, to begin to understand Maimonides. That understanding, in turn, led to his famous rediscovery, in the late 1930s, of exoteric writing. Finally, there is Strauss's statement in his 1965 preface to the publication of the German original of The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1936):