Reading that my jaws dropped wide open

Who was Leo Strauss? He was born in Germany in 1899 and died in the United States in 1973. As was the case for many German Jewish intellectuals of his generation, he was active in Jewish youth groups in the 1920s. The ones that he was involved with were mostly inspired by the German nationalist youth movement. In Strauss's case, he admired the sense of spiritual unity that was promulgated in these German youth groups and it was that sort of nationalist or spiritual element that was appealing to him. He wrote a book on Spinoza published in 1930 and left Germany in 1932 on a Rockefeller Foundation grant for research on Thomas Hobbes in Paris and London. He was thus in Paris when the Nazis took power. However, Strauss should not be confused with the anti-Nazi refugees who soon arrived in the French capital, because at this time he was a committed anti-liberal, in the German sense of anti-liberal, which is to say, among other things, an anti-parliamentarian. Also in 1932, he wrote an extended review of a book by the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt entitled The Concept of the Political, in which Schmitt articulated his notion that the core of the political problem is the distinction between friends and enemies. Schmitt later became a member of the Nazi party and a leading figure in the main legal organization of the Third Reich. In Strauss's review, he criticized Schmitt from the political right. He argued that "the critique introduced by Schmitt against liberalism can . . . be completed only if one succeeds in gaining a horizon beyond liberalism. In such a horizon Hobbes completed the foundation of liberalism. A radical critique of liberalism is thus possible only on the basis of an adequate understanding of Hobbes." His point was that Schmitt was, in his criticisms of liberalism, working within the bounds of liberal society because liberalism had become so dominant that it was difficult see beyond it anymore, and it was thus necessary to go back to Hobbes to see what was there before. What was there before was a very strong sense of the absolute dichotomies of good and evil. For Strauss, Hobbes represents the foundation of liberalism and modernism in the claim that these notions of good and evil are nominalist; they simply do not exist in anything other than our judgment about them. So Strauss was suggesting that you had to go back before liberalism to reconnect with the sort of absolutist distinctions upon which Schmitt was attempting to ground the political.

German scholar Karl Löwith. This letter is included in an edition of Strauss's works and letters that has not been translated. Strauss wrote to Löwith in May 1933, five months after Hitler's appointment as Chancellor and a month after implementation of the first anti-Jewish legislation, that "Just because Germany has turned to the right and has expelled us," meaning Jews, "it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. To the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the right - fascist, authoritarian, imperial [emphasis in original] - is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to 'the inalienable rights of man' to protest against the mean nonentity", the mean nonentity being the Nazi party. In other words, he is attacking the Nazis from the right in this letter. He wrote that he had been reading Caesar's Commentaries, and valued Virgil's judgment that, "under imperial rule the subjected are spared and the proud are subdued." And he concluded, "there is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world the spark glimmers of Roman thinking. And moreover, better than any cross is the ghetto."

Two months later, in July 1933, he wrote to Schmitt - he did not realize that Schmitt had joined the Nazi party, or seemed not to fully understand what the regime was about in terms of its anti-Semitism - asking for help in getting entrée to Charles Maurras, the French right-wing Catholic leader of the Action Française. What all of this suggests is that in the 1930s Strauss was not an anti-liberal in the sense in which we commonly mean "anti-liberal" today, but an anti-democrat in a fundamental sense, a true reactionary. Strauss was somebody who wanted to go back to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism. Like Schmitt, what Strauss hated about liberalism, among other things, was its inability to make absolute judgments, its inability to take action. And, like Schmitt, he sought a way out in a kind of pre-liberal decisiveness. I would suggest that this description of fascist, authoritarian, imperial principles accurately describes the current imperial project of the United States. Because of this, examining the foundational elements of Strauss's political theory helps us to see something important about our current situation, independently of any kind of Straussian direct influence, although there is certainly some of that.

From Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror by Nicholas Xenos (


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