William Altman’s voluminous study of German Jewish political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973) does not break any new ground in trying to link its subject to the far Right. The author’s theme has been amply treated in multiple monographs and in feature articles in the New Yorker, New York Times, The New Republic, Le Monde, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But Altman’s brief will probably not receive the frenzied attention that has been lavished on such earlier critics of the “right-wing Strauss” as Shadia Drury, Anne Norton, and Nick Xenos. His bulky book may be largely unintelligible to most people who try to get into it.
Although Altman wisely refrains from calling his subject a “Jewish Nazi,” the author finds that Strauss’s interpretations point in an ominously anti-Jewish direction. While other German Jews were fleeing the Nazis, Strauss, we are told, was sojourning in Paris, where he received a Rockefeller grant to do research in 1932. He was not notably alarmed about Hitler’s accession to power because his thinking and that of the Nazi tyrant allegedly overlapped. Indeed, all of Strauss’s work, starting with his doctoral thesis on the German Protestant critic of rationalism F.H. Jacobi, is thought to provide evidence of his far-right mindset.
In the past, such assaults on Strauss have not gone unchallenged. They have evoked responses from Strauss’s well-placed disciples, who typically complain about professional isolation from such places of exile as Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Yale. The most widely read of these defenses is by two of Strauss’s former students at the University of Chicago, Michael and Catherine Zuckert. In The Truth About Leo Strauss, the Zuckerts devote 300 pages to demonstrating that their mentor’s way of reading texts was intellectually serious and that Strauss was never an enemy of American democracy.
According to the Zuckerts, Strauss held the pro-American and pro-English views that were characteristic of German Jewish exiles. Strauss fled from the Nazis in the 1930s and after stays in France and England landed up in the U.S., where he launched a meteoric academic career. A scholar of classical texts who did well in his adopted land, Strauss was always effusively grateful to the American government and to Anglo-American democratic institutions, a sentiment expressed emphatically in his public addresses and in the lecture hall.
As another disciple, Steven Smith, stresses in his book on the master, Strauss held what were essentially Cold War liberal views in American politics. He was friendly to the concept of the democratic welfare state but was also strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and the Communists generally. Strauss took this position not out of fascist sympathies but because he thought the Soviets threatened American democracy and were hostile to the Jewish state of Israel.
It is possible to read Strauss’s voluminous works in English and German, ranging over such figures as Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Nietzsche, Locke, and Maimonides, without reaching conclusions that are different from Smith’s. Strauss’s disciples, almost all of whom have subsequently instructed the neoconservatives, are not misrepresenting their teacher or their teacher’s teacher—in the case of those who studied with Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, Michael Zuckert, or other celebrated epigones of Strauss—when they view him as being politically like themselves.
But Altman understands that there are other ways to read Strauss, for example by pointing to isolated statements about the pitfalls of democracy or to his generally favorable assessment in 1932 of a key piece of writing by the German authoritarian conservative Carl Schmitt. These texts supposedly establish that Strauss was anything but a democrat. Note there is little in this general indictment that has not been tried out before. It is only the tortuousness of Altman’s exposition that makes his work stand apart.
Unfortunately, his exposé rests on very shaky foundations. Steve Smith correctly notes that Strauss was attracted to Schmitt’s critique of liberalism, as expressed in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, because Strauss was reacting against German Jewish assimilationists. When Strauss famously complained that Schmitt had not gone far enough “beyond the horizons of liberalism” as a critic of modernity, he was not registering support for European fascism. Rather he was giving voice to his ardent Zionist commitment.
Zionists were not typically German nationalists. Most of them in the interwar period, Strauss included, intended to leave Europe and settle in Palestine. Altman is correct that the Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement, to which Strauss in Germany belonged, talked, like the German Right, about creating a Volksgemeinschaft, or national community. But this appeal to a specifically Jewish ethnic community does not indicate that Strauss supported the German far Right.
It is almost impossible to make sense of Altman when he argues that even if Strauss as a “committed young Zionist … acknowledge[d] no loyalty to the Reich [the Second Empire] . … Strauss was nevertheless born and raised in Germany and was unquestionably a German before he made that decision.” Here we are speaking not about the accident of birth or the use of a particular language. The question is one of self-identification, and before we can conclude that Strauss welcomed the German far Right as soul mates, one would have to show that he was at least a nationalistic German.
It takes some doing to read into Strauss’s call for Jewish solidarity what Altman finds there. Unlike another German Jew, the historian Joachim Schoeps, who did declare for an explicitly German far Right, Strauss repudiated his Germanness before Hitler arrived on the scene. If occasionally he considered Hitler’s rise to power in the German context as inevitable, that did not signify support for Nazism or even for more traditional German nationalism. Here Strauss’s apologists have demonstrated the obvious.
Among the weirdest interpretations of Strauss’s texts intended to prove his fascist, and indeed anti-Semitic, sentiments is one in which Altman stresses Strauss’s emphasis on God’s act of creation ex nihilo as proof of right-wing mischief. Altman agrees with the Jewish socialist Michael Walzer, who places theological and political emphasis on the exodus from Egypt. Both value this account as an archetypal legend of social liberation. By not sharing this predilection, Strauss was supposedly devaluing the Old Testament and expressing at least implicit contempt for the Jewish, as opposed to the Greek, heritage.
Note that ancient pagan scholars and later the excommunicated Jew Spinoza questioned the idea of Creation from nothing. But Strauss here was not expressing contempt for Jewish or Christian traditions. He was following medieval and ancient Jewish exegetical practice by treating Creation as the most significant miracle in the Pentateuch. Although the Jewish Left may disagree, Strauss was not being anti-Jewish by failing to embrace its liberation narrative with sufficient fervor. Equally problematic, Altman makes an unsuccessful attempt to treat any statement of religious skepticism by Strauss—and there were many—as evidence that he was deploring the “Judaization of the world.” Why can’t religious skeptics be just that?
Altman’s textual proofs don’t prove what they’re supposed to. Altman makes much of the fact that Strauss devoted an essay, “Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism,” to the German antidemocratic philosopher Heidegger. In that article Strauss characterized this father of existential thought as “the most brilliant thinker” he’d ever encountered. The same essay praises Nietzsche and speaks slightingly about the moral vision of democracy, Kantian ethics, and other things that Strauss as a liberal democrat should have admired.
Of course, Strauss was telling the unvarnished truth about Heidegger’s philosophical brilliance. He also notices his subject’s unacknowledged dependence on the Old Testament account of God the Creator for his understanding of the Ground of Being. And though in this essay Strauss examines what may appear to be the seamy side of democratic cultures, these remarks by no means typify Strauss’s expressed opinion about democracy. Why should we assume that his true political view can be found in his interpretation of Heidegger but not in his far more numerous favorable references to liberal democracy?
On May 19, 1933, Strauss wrote a letter from Paris to a longtime correspondent, the intellectual historian Karl Löwith, in which he mocked the “rights of man” and went on to praise Roman-style authoritarianism. In this letter, Strauss undoubtedly disparaged the global democratic doctrines today represented by his disciples. But this too should be understood contextually. After Hitler’s accession to power, Mussolini was widely regarded as the major adversary to Hitler on the continent. This continued to be the established view, even among Jewish exiles from Hitler (or half-Jewish ones like Löwith), until the late 1930s, when Mussolini threw in his lot with Nazi Germany.
Strauss’s comments about rooting for Roman authoritarians show the mindset of those fleeing from the Nazis, refugees who believed that the democracies were not going to help them. By the time Strauss arrived in England the next year, however, he was singing the praises of Churchill, the would-be German-slayer.
One has to wonder why Straussians provide fulsome endorsements for works that treat Strauss as little better than a running dog of the Third Reich. Last year Zuckert penned a flattering blurb for a denunciation of the “fascist” Strauss produced by two Randians, C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook. After being told for years that Strauss was a nice liberal democrat, his defenders are talking up Strauss’s most slanderous and perhaps least plausible detractors.
Even more baffling, the Straussians as a group have never had the time of day for Strauss’s methodological critics on the Right. They have never condescended to answer Claes Ryn, Barry Shain, Kenneth McIntyre, Grant Havers, and other critics identified with the traditional Right who have questioned their hermeneutic. Such scholars have focused on the erratic or nonexistent treatment of historical contexts among Straussians and assaulted their claims to be able to grasp what Strauss called “secret meanings.” All such critics have argued that these claims to reveal secret intentions are arbitrary and tell more about what the interpreter believes than about the author to whom the intention is ascribed. But Straussians have consistently ignored such critics and in some cases have gone out of their way to thwart them professionally. Why then do they show a warm spot for those who unfairly cast aspersions on their teacher?
Although these questions have relevance for understanding the Straussians as a force in American politics, and particularly in academic politics, they seem less critical for assessing the reaction to Altman’s work. Most Straussians, except for Peter Minowitz and a quasi-Straussian German Evangelical theologian now working at Boston University, Michael Zank, have not paid any attention to Altman. Why bother with diatribes that will not impact public discussion?
For those who may find his title baffling, one should note that Altman borrowed it from the main figure in Plato’s Laws, the Eleatic Stranger. This is a text that Strauss and his disciples have examined in considerable detail. Altman’s “stranger” is not an ancient philosopher from Southern Italy, but a 20th-century outsider, namely Strauss, who presumed to observe the world through suspiciously Teutonic lenses. His quintessential foreignness is supposedly confirmed by the fact that even after years in the U.S. he continued to speak with a “strong German accent.”
The other stranger we are supposed to have in mind is the one found in a movie taking place in a New Hampshire town and dating from 1946. This flick features Edward G. Robinson and is about a Nazi war criminal who has disguised his true identity. Let’s not make our hints too obvious!
Altman does to Strauss what Strauss did to other dead white males, reading esoteric projects into texts that one could reasonably read altogether differently. Observing how Altman engages in this practice, it seems that he has produced a well-deserved parody on the “German stranger.” He ends by listing those figures that he as a self-described Jewish leftist has placed on his personal honor roll. But by this point—on page 528, we have not even reached the selected bibliography—the reader’s interest may have waned.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College.