When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, conspiracy theorists suspected that a puppet master was behind him. No, not Dick Cheney. The alleged puppeteer was the late Leo Strauss.
The famous professor of political philosophy, who died in 1973, had many disciples in the Bush administration, and journalists had frequently misquoted Strauss as arguing that “one must make the whole globe democratic.” Opponents of the war who were looking for a more sinister scapegoat than faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction put two and two together: Strauss had given his pupils an imperialist itch, and now that they were in power, they were scratching it.
Thanks to the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, where Strauss taught from 1949 to 1967, this myth will soon face stricter scrutiny. The center is uploading to its website written and audio recordings of Strauss’s lectures, many made by graduate students in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, students world-wide will be able to take courses by Strauss, free of charge.
“[Our project] vastly increases the amount of material available,” says the center’s director, Nathan Tarcov, who adds that records of Strauss’s lectures are two-to-three times as long as his published works. As it remasters and updates the original material, the center is discovering forgotten jewels. “There’s one course on [Thomas] Hobbes where… the tape is twice as long as the transcript because so much had been omitted,” Mr. Tarcov says.
Greater familiarity with Strauss’s lectures may demolish this myth of him as a neoconservative Svengali. Instead, people may come to recognize him as, among other things, an engaging teacher.
Students loved Strauss because he rebelled against his profession’s norms, especially historicism—the belief that all thought is the product of its time and place. Aristotle, historicism contends, believed the Greek city-state was the best regime because he lived in one. His insights are inapplicable to a modern liberal democracy.
This tenet still infects political science today, causing students excruciating boredom in their (typically, required) classes on political theory. Why should students care about Plato if they’re taught that his philosophy is obsolete?
Listening to the tapes, you hear Strauss’s different approach. He believes that thought—at least by great minds—can transcend its time and place. In other words, he believes there is such a thing as truth.
Instead of cataloging philosophers for rows of classroom note takers, he throws students into an ongoing argument: How should we live? He forces students not merely to study political philosophy but to engage in it.
For example, in one class he asks whether a leader should have guiding principles or he should judge each situation independently.
On the tape, we hear Mr. Levy, a student, ask cheekily, “Did Montgomery have to know anything about Aristotle to win the battle of El Alamein?”
“That is an entirely different question,” Strauss replies—referring to Aristotle’s written works—”whether rules means rules to be found in this or that book.”
“I was just using that as an example,” Mr. Levy fires back.
“There was one thing I believe which was quite clear in the case of Montgomery,” Strauss responds, “that he had to win it…. [I]n the case of politics as distinguished from generalship, the end is somewhat more complicated…the political good consists of a number of ingredients which cannot be reduced to the simple formula, victory.”
Not that Strauss’s relationship with his students was antagonistic. In fact, he spent so much time answering students’ questions that his class often ran past its allotted time. “At times a course went on for so long that Mrs. Strauss had to come in and stop it,” says Werner Dannhauser, a former student of Mr. Strauss.
The reason for Strauss’s energetic exchanges was that he took students seriously. “He said, ‘When you’re teaching always assume there is a silent student in the class who knows more than you do,'” remembers Roger Masters, another former student.
Once the Leo Strauss Center at Chicago finishes its work, today’s students will profit from these exchanges—that is, if it finishes its work. Although the center has paid for the remastered tapes with grants and donations, it still needs about $500,000 to complete editing the transcripts and digitizing Strauss’s papers. Mr. Tarcov plans to begin a fundraising campaign in September.
Here’s hoping he’s successful. Political scientists who refuse to bend to their field’s reigning ideology need a standard-bearer. And what a quizzical standard-bearer Strauss was: a chubby, balding little man with a thick German accent, a squeaky voice and a constant cigarette in his hand.
“You would not think that this man either in his appearance or in his speech would be a Pied Piper to students,” says Jenny Strauss Clay, his daughter. “It wasn’t for reasons of style or eloquence; it was for something else.”
It was for his love of political philosophy, which—despite critics’ objections—he believed to be more than an academic exercise. For him, it was a way of life. Soon, it will be so for hundreds more.
Mr. Bolduc, a former Robert L. Bartley fellow at the Journal, is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.”
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