Philipp von Wussow: Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture

Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture Book Cover Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Philipp von Wussow
SUNY Press
Paperback $33.95

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg (Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

The “Faith”-ful Social: von Wussow on Leo Strauss’ Legacy


I. Orienting: A Premise

Philipp von Wussow has given us an excellent and engaging study of Leo Strauss’ oeuvre in his compact and accessible Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture (SUNY Press, 2020). In the below, although I will consider the book generally, particular focus shall be given – as von Wussow himself does – to the centrality and importance of Philosophy and Law, Strauss’ publication of 1935, and then to a lesser extent his 1967 talk/essay “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections”, which repeated Philosophy and Law’s underlying thematic thrust. With the reader’s permission I will endeavor to do so from my own perspective, one prompted both by Strauss and by von Wussow’s interaction with Strauss, a viewpoint which situates itself around the idea that, as with every human structuring, politics of course always gets involved in religion; but further: religion itself (as revelation, as a social(ly-oriented) phenomenon) is political. What this means for praxis, ritually and conceptually, we shall try to draw out, and thus we join the game of Strauss that von Wussow teaches and illumines. While we may be unlikely to find any hard conclusions therefrom, we might nevertheless arrive at some enlightening reflections of our own.

II. Philosophy and Law: Finding the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow declares this text to be “one of the greatest philosophical works of the twentieth century, along with the Tractatus, Being and Time, and Dialectic of Enlightenment” (p. xvi; referencing Wittgenstein 1921, Heidegger 1927, and Adorno and Horkheimer 1944, respectively). These are extraordinarily illustrious fellows, and the assertion immediately alerts us to the esteem with which von Wussow holds Strauss’ book. We are advised to read Strauss as an author who made “directional” arguments, indicative of and instructional on comprehensive movements. He wrote philosophy as drama, with the concepts being the characters in the play (and I do intend “play” here in both senses of “theatre” and of “amusement”); already we may remark on how such an informed approach stands philosophy against yet within religion: exterior to the sturdiness of a belief as that-which-is-accepted (full stop), but interior to the shifting flow(s) of a being-in-the-world. Strauss indeed is said to be a proponent of the rational in the ‘reason versus revelation’ debate (as “Jerusalem and Athens” would consider too), but the outright impression one gets from von Wussow is that this was never definitively settled for Strauss, that even for him the question was one of (perhaps undecidable) struggle. Each was a type of wisdom, and the tension in the dialogue between we shall need to consider in the next section of our review. Still, for Strauss (and, we might add, for us) it is necessary for philosophy to differentiate itself from the thinking of a numinous lifeworld; whether or not such is truly (totally) achievable in any philosophy which includes a robust metaphysics and does not merely parade logical tools and/or associated analyses as its entirety may also be an open question. (In philosophy – as we who practice it know all too well – sooner or later one often simply has to take a stand; at such times any boundary between that “stand” and an arguably quasi-faith type “belief” is a blurry line at best, a broken one at worst.)

Von Wussow begins by giving a background to the book and its historical setting, doing so in a very accessible manner which is open to all readers regardless of familiarity with Strauss and his works (and kudos to the author are well deserved on this). Moving first through the text’s Introduction we are informed of Strauss’ fundamental position that “compromises and syntheses are untenable”, that “a new movement remains entangled in the premises of what it opposes” (68), and thus in his (i.e. Strauss’) reaching back to Maimonides and medieval reasoning in the manner he does a way of thinking/approach might thereby be found which need neither be one of the Enlightenment nor of the orthodox sort vis-à-vis a rational methodology fit for the present age. The insight here Strauss yields is that:

one can believe in miracles, in God’s creation of the world, and His [sic.] revealing Himself [sic.] to man [sic.]; and there is no decisive counterargument as long as one believes in a thorough and sincere manner… Religious or nonreligious beliefs and attitudes are a matter of choice, an act of the will. Religious and antireligious discourses are a matter of rhetorical persuasion. (71)

Every matter within these discourses (and indeed every other) are already interpreted, we come to understand, and interpretation itself is a matter of the will (this point is given its Nietzschean due); hence ultimately, we might infer, the entire issue – the “clearing” in which we stand and wherefrom our vantage point extends (stealing (and slightly distorting) some Heideggerean imagery here) – becomes non-consciously derivative from the default influence(s) of said prior choice (employing our own terms now; the emphasis being on the aspect’s absence of cognitive awareness while it yet retains a deep psychological reach). Let us then think about what it might entail to “take a stand” in such a manner in light of our own opening (our orienting) central premise that religion is itself political.

Maimonides (or Rambam) and his Islamic predecessors and contemporaries (a member of the Sephardic Jewish community, he was born in Spain in 1138 CE and died in Egypt in 1204 CE, living in and under the rule of the Islamic Golden Age) placed philosophy (“reason”) as justified through revelation, indeed even divinely commanded to be pursued by those capable of it (the born thinkers; this is an elite). Thus for these medieval theo-philosophers there simply was no ‘battle’ to be had between reason and revelation: one stood under the other, and it took its place and purpose from that positioning, as did its practitioners. Although – to my knowledge – this was not explicitly stated in the historical record that has been bequeathed to us, upon examination the profoundly political stance of such is manifest: reason/philosophy is hereby a device designed (by “Heaven”?) to be employed for the service of revelation (religion), as both apart from yet paradoxically housed within. (We might further add that in this facet at least it is not terribly unlike how Christian medieval theologians were arguing, only with very different means and – as compared with the Christians – vastly more unfettered in form). Philosophy here, as under Law (Torah), is one of a suite of tools for the service of religious self-structuring and religiously inflected societal edifice building. This is critically not an interplay, not an interaction, but instead is the twinned existence of religion and the appended political functioning of the metaphysical, the ontological conclusions; in short, the result is an emergent religiopolitico: a singularity. Conceptually, and probably practically, Law does have precedence in that philosophy takes its rationale thence; yet given its divine sanction – and again, even command – philosophy becomes not merely a potentiality of religion but a necessary aspect of it. Revelation instructs (demands) reason to be a part of it; revelation does not ‘birth’ reason so much as bodily adhere it: analysis as a prophetological prosthesis, and that carried always into the social realm. (The call of the prophet may be a voice in the wilderness, but it is one that is heard.)

If the Enlightenment Project was designed to safely rid the world of orthodoxy (but notably, as is visible from such systems as Deism, not eliminate faith per se) – and this orthodoxy is understood as a cipher for Law – then clearly it has failed, as Strauss pointed out, von Wussow discusses, and we can surely agree with. This reflection in itself shines fascinating new light (from an older source) on the current ‘culture wars’ and reaffirms how very relevant Strauss’ book is for our times today, already approaching a century from its publication (which itself is hard to think; 1935 a century ago?). Revelation, religion, the meanings for and in human lives; these are impulses apparently destined to ever be with us (there are echoes here of Pascal’s famous “God-shaped vacuum”). Strauss, in this work, calls on us to return (a supremely Jewish idea: our, everyone’s, teshuvah); not, of course, to an orthodoxy for ourselves, but rather that we re-attune our comportment in facing the challenges that confront us. As von Wussow puts it, quoting from Strauss:

Strauss instructed his imaginary readers to make a change in perspective and consider the possibility that the situation is insoluble only “as long as one clings to the modern premises.” Hence, the entire discourse on orthodoxy and the Enlightenment, and the indefatigable insistence on the insolubility of the conflict between the two, serves as a preparation for the turn to medieval philosophy: “One sees oneself induced…to apply for aid to the medieval Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of Maimonides.” (p. 89; p. 38 in Philosophy and Law)

Having thus placed his audience/partner, Strauss moves to a consideration of his contemporary Julius Guttmann’s efforts on the history of Jewish philosophy, arguing against many of Guttmann’s conclusions based on understandings of the parameters and implications of “culture” (as variously defined, and over whose definition many arguments were themselves then being made, particularly in wider extant scholarly contexts). Here Strauss proposes that religion (and the political) cannot be found within a cultural framing since such “are not spontaneous products of the human mind” but somehow “transcend” culture (p. 97). This is somewhat curious, and unless one is willing (again: a willed, determinedly chosen interpretation) to grant a literalness to revelation (an actual exotericism to it) it is hard to accede that what are ultimately abstractions may exist prior to the brain processing them. Personally I have difficulty agreeing with Strauss on this point since I take whatever numinousness there might be in the cosmos (about which I have no unshakable dogmas) to of necessity work through the existentially given; in this I suppose Strauss might accuse me of being insufficiently Maimonidean (i.e. reason within revelation, philosophy under Law), and he may be right. Perhaps then we have a clear example of the need for the very third path Strauss has been proposing, and I am revealed to be ‘too Enlightenment’ myself.

Strauss continues working with/against Guttmann to present a “resolute return” wherein the political philosopher’s task is to take revelation as relevant; it certainly was heavily influential in medieval thought. For Islamic and Jewish philosophy of the period (which is represented in Strauss by Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198 CE), Maimonides, and Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon (or Gershom), 1288-1344 CE)), “philosophy is commanded by the law, free before the law, and bound by the authority of the law… By presupposing the law, the Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are continuously referred to something beyond human reason.” (p. 112; emphasis in the original) A presumption of this sort would obviously provide the foundation for the transcendence which I seem to be having trouble with; our question is: Why accept it? Why should we – in will, in chosen lifeworld interpretation – follow suit? Strauss thinks this allows us to philosophize better, that revelation can therefore become a topic (an object) for reason, but “not the first or most important one…although – or precisely because – the law is not the most important topic of philosophy, it attains a systematic omnipresence in the whole of philosophy”, and – to my mind the most tenuous – “this inconspicuous systematic omnipresence of the law ultimately safeguards the rationality of philosophy.” (117) Philosophy can certainly become midrash (as it were), but Strauss has still not convinced me of why this stance if preferable over one which, for example, simply rejects revelation as a grounding for religion and shears it away from religion, replacing the latter as a culture (product of the human mind) and tabling the former (epoché) for sheer inability to know what to do with it (the struggle over/for a faith). Nevertheless, in its incessant referral to the Law, Strauss saw in medieval philosophy a radical foundation whereby its version of rationalism attained superiority over modern incarnations. Von Wussow very helpfully summarizes Strauss’ endpoint:

for a rationalism with belief in revelation there is no excess of revelation over the sphere of reason. Nothing in the content of revelation transcends reason [recall that the transcendence alluded to above was over culture]. The content is identical with reason, and reason is capable of knowing this content. There is no conflict between reason and revelation. (118)

That last – “there is no conflict” – is perhaps the ultimate consequence in that it therefore ‘solves’ the conflict inherent in the entire revelation versus reason debate, transforming its entirety to the effect that the “versus” becomes an “encompassing”, or maybe even a “cradling”: revelation as mother to reason, whose babe then looks upon her with eyes of a loving search. This establishes Strauss’ other contention – with which I have no qualms about agreeing – that prophetology must be taken as a part of the political. Only thusly, Strauss argues, can there be an explanation for its purpose and “final end”: why else rely on prophets? There is a kind of Platonic element at work here (I am thinking along lines drawn from Republic), but the added layer of revelation certainly does contribute to the interest of the view being espoused. Further, Strauss puts forth that such a comprehension, as against the psychological take on prophetology, enables political objectives to override any mantic ones. This is quite striking, and so let us briefly pause at this juncture: what is being claimed is that the politics – which we understand as social, as policy for the body politic – actually supersedes the divinatory aspects of the prophetic utterance. Reason as within revelation has already blurred the distinctions that might have been made, but ‘the political’ is not necessarily ‘the rational’. (Indeed, looking around one the thought hits that it is hardly ever so!) However, in the doubly tweaked religiopolitico monad we have proposed this does make sense; yet it does so without the need for a substantive revelation, and thus we are still somewhat at odds with Strauss (unless of course I misunderstand him, which is entirely possible).

Strauss has an answer for this, and it too calls upon Plato, in explaining how the medieval philosophers (and therefore too how we ought to become) were contextualized as bound, but thereby unexpectedly free:

The Platonism of these philosophers is given with their situation, with their standing in fact under the law. Since they stand in fact under the law, they admittedly no longer need, like Plato, to seek the law, the state, to inquire into it: the binding and absolutely perfect regimen of human life is given to them by a prophet. Hence they are, as authorized by the law, free to philosophize in Aristotelian freedom (p. 130; pp. 132-133 in Philosophy and Law; emphases in the original)

By having the outlines, their being-in-the-world, defined and determined at the outset through revelation (or “revelation” if we do not will the belief as such), philosophers of this ilk are declared liberated to thereby pursue other issues. Yet I must protest here that for me at least the really crucial question in being is that of being: I want to search a being-in-the-world, even if I recognize how much easier life is in having such gifted. Perhaps I am ungrateful in this desire, but the reader may understand. Whatever we might or might not feel in this regard, I think von Wussow is correct to highlight that Philosophy and Law “forces us to rethink the social and political responsibility of philosophy” (132), and if our small offering in this review (religiopolitico) is at all valid then that duty must apply within any religious system possibly even more so than it does without, for the two – the religious and the political – are not two, they are one.

III. “Jerusalem and Athens”: Thinking further on the Religiopolitico

Von Wussow judges “Jerusalem and Athens” to be a beautiful text but one without a great deal of depth; in the large I agree. It is very readable, highly interesting in parts, contains some wonderful remarks and comments, but does not boast any particularly provocative prods. Perhaps this is due to its inception as an inaugural address in a series of public talks (the Frank Cohen Memorial Lectureship at City University of New York), or for other reasons personal, mundane, or the like. (The entirety can be found in the collection: Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. and intro. by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1997); pp. 377-405.) As von Wussow explains, “the guiding question of ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ is how to approach the Bible and Greek philosophy.” (p. 262; emphases in the original) Does one favor one or the other? It seems impossible not to; yet which? Why? On this query of method, Strauss begins by stating that, “By saying that we wish to hear first and then to act to decide, we have already decided in favor of Athens against Jerusalem” (in Jewish Philosophy, p. 380). In other words, through the assertion of an initial openness one has – possibly without meaning to – enacted a closure: revelation is shut off because it, by its nature, requires an initial act of acceptance, not restraint. Choosing not to choose is itself a choice, and it is the philosopher’s (Athens’) choice.

Yet when regarding this topic, this “and/versus”, we are dangerously apt to apply anachronisms, and these manifest clearly in the “tension between its [the West’s] double heritage [i.e. Jerusalem and Athens, revelation and reason], or its two foundational traditions”, as per von Wussow (271). For example, it is a simple enough matter for a contemporary person to reject miracles outright, without the slightest bat of an eye, and thence dispose of large parts of revelation and its sacred books; Strauss, however, wisely teaches that “we cannot ascribe to the Bible the theological concept of miracles, for that concept presupposes that of nature and the concept of nature is foreign to the Bible.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 381) Hermeneutically we start from our “prior defaults” (as above), and busily go about reading into what was never intended (since not thought: disparate “prior defaults”) in any body of a claimed revelation. How does this affect the debate, the dialogue, the flowing and the tremor betwixt letter and eye?

It is a matter of some importance, particularly for Strauss, of whom von Wussow writes, “By the late 1920s, Strauss had convinced himself that the conflict between belief and unbelief was the everlasting theme of philosophy”, and that “the right and the necessity of philosophical reason could become evident only vis-à-vis revelation” (i.e., it could only be questioned or challenged on religious grounds; 272 and 274, respectively). Reason (philosophy), it seems, is not only justified by revelation (religion) – as with Maimonides – but actively needs it to establish itself; one apparently cannot even have reason without revelation, if we correctly follow this lecture and its place within Straussean thought. Again, though, we have hereby circled back to the issue of transcendence, and whence to our same doubts, our troubles – our discomfort – in what appears a necessitated embrace of the unempirical and the aethereal; what (for or by us) is to be done? Strauss, regarding the “ingredients” of the admixture here (Plato/reason/human nature as unchangeable on the one hand (Athens) over that of prophets/revelation/human nature as changeable (Jerusalem) on the other), states: “Since we are less certain than Cohen [i.e., referencing the context of the Memorial series] was that the modern synthesis is superior to its pre-modern ingredients, and since the two ingredients [i.e., the two triads just mentioned] are in fundamental opposition to each other, we are ultimately confronted by a problem rather than by a solution.” (Jewish Philosophy, p. 399) Or, as von Wussow expresses it, we arrive at a “standstill”: summarizing the figurative argument of “Jerusalem and Athens” as a “Socratic atheism” – i.e., the restraint on human thought and the refusal of divine thought preceding revelation (and that last presumably agreed upon as being undeniable) – he writes: “The enigmatic figure of Socrates assisting the god by trying to disprove the god’s reply [re: Apollo proclaiming through the oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates, which Socrates then set out to challenge], only to find out that it is true, is the image in which the whole semantic process eventually came to a standstill.” (282)

In reading through and trying to work out along with Strauss – ‘along with’, but also alongside-cum-beside(s) (paralleling) him – this abiding doubled call of revelation and reason as alternative foundations, we discover the forked path remains forked (a dead end?), and we are yet adrift. That is, unless perhaps we might trade out that conjunctive in the title (and further still: all conjunctives) such that there is neither an “and” nor a “versus” in our “Jerusalem…Athens” binary, but rather a grouping more akin to: “Jerusalem under/with/enclosing Athens”, or “Athens on/of/in Jerusalem”. If we decide here – if we will it – a positivity, then we might understand the complex as a required never-ending work in progress, a dialectic bound to give more strength than it takes. (To borrow a phrase from Torah study: We turn the religiopolitico and turn it again, for all is in it.). We might do this; we might seek a resolution through an either/both and a neither/nor: it is a choice, it is a will, it is a belief. Religion is political, reason is political; what politics do we want? What social do we seek?

IV. Generalities: Contents and Tangibility

Strauss, in later university courses he gave on his chosen “great books” of collective Western heritage, encouraged his students to read so that they might “free the text from the debris of its own afterlife” (285) as von Wussow puts it, and naturally he would have us do that for Strauss too; and so we should, indeed. In this excellent labor on, over, and within the decades of Strauss’ scholarship, von Wussow surveys: Part I: Strauss’ relationship with the Neo-Kantians of his time, the then relevant debates over the categorization and systematic elements of ethics and politics (five chapters); Part II: the main work Philosophy and Law (in great detail, as expressed above; four chapters); Part III: his arguments on “German Nihilism” and the roots of National Socialist thought (two chapters); Part IV: ideas on culture and relativism (especially as related to developments in anthropology; four chapters); and Part V: “Jerusalem and Athens” (one chapter) with a final conclusion on the “natural way” of reading (one chapter). Throughout von Wussow’s book is highly readable, always enjoyable, and often quite gripping. Von Wussow writes with evident passion for his topic and displays an enviable erudition.

Physically speaking (I was sent an e-copy for review, but who can stomach e-copies? I bought the paperback), the work is very attractive, packaged exceedingly well by SUNY Press in a pleasant layout with a becoming format, logically adjusted margins and a font and print size that are easy on one’s eyes (if only Routledge could learn a thing or two from SUNY on these matters). As one might expect, there are numerous notes to the main text; these are grouped together in a single section at the end. While I typically prefer footnotes, in this case von Wussow’s extras beyond the usual referencing material are not overly done, and thus they might be skipped without any harm coming to one’s comprehension of and appreciation for the subject. Here again we can compliment von Wussow and the production team. I would happily recommend this book to any reader interested in twentieth century German and/or German Jewish thought and culture, its interstices with American schools during and after the Second World War, and of course with the nexus that is religion and politics as bound into culture: what we have called the religiopolitico. To such may we find ourselves “faithful”.

Yohanan Friedmann, Christoph Markschies (Eds.): Religious Responses to Modernity, De Gruyer, 2021

Religious Responses to Modernity Book Cover Religious Responses to Modernity
Yohanan Friedmann and Christoph Markschies (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 77,95 €

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, 2020

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Lukács to Strauss Book Cover German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Lukács to Strauss
Julian Young
Paperback £26.39

Philipp von Wussow: Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture, SUNY Press, 2020

Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture Book Cover Leo Strauss and the Theopolitics of Culture
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Philipp von Wussow
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Leo Strauss: On Hegel

On Hegel Book Cover On Hegel
The Leo Strauss Transcript Series
Leo Strauss. Edited by Paul Franco
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00

Reviewed by: Max Morris (KU Leuven)

One thing is clear regarding Leo Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel—he took him very seriously as a philosopher. We understand this not only from the fact that Hegel’s philosophy was the explicit theme of Strauss’ long-standing engagement with the Russian-French philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, but also from the fact that Strauss considered Hegel to be “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”[1] and an important contributor the development of historicism, which Strauss considered to be the primary antagonist to political philosophy in the 20th century.[2] The publication of Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel’s Philosophy of History at the University of Chicago—currently under review—serves only to reinforce the view that Strauss considered Hegel to be a formidable figure in philosophy (163, 300). It is therefore surprising that Strauss never devoted any of his texts to an in-depth examination of Hegel’s philosophy. Even in his debate with Kojève, where Strauss apparently speaks of Hegel more than anywhere else in his work, he never takes issue with Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel. Throughout Strauss’ work, Hegel is considered either only in passing or as part of a genealogical sketch of modernity. Hence, the most obvious merit of On Hegel is that it grants us a more comprehensive insight into Strauss’ mature (he died in 1973) view of Hegel’s philosophy than we find elsewhere in his work.

On Hegel constitutes the fourth of Strauss’ lecture series to be published (following An Introduction to Political Philosophy, On Plato’s Symposium, and On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra). When the content of a publication has been transcribed, the editorial work can have an immense impact on the text and must therefore come under scrutiny. The first aspect of the editorial work that strikes the reader of these lectures is the chapter names, which, it would seem, have been given by Paul Franco, the editor, as opposed to Strauss himself. In this connection, it is worth noting that “The Germanic World”, constituting the fourth and final part of the English translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, has not been included in the names of any of the chapters. Secondly, the editor frequently indicates when the students and/or Strauss himself laugh during the lectures in square brackets ([laughter]), but he is not consistent in this practice. For instance, on p. 83, Strauss says “you have to use strictly superficial distinctions now, like preliterate and literate, not to say underdeveloped and developed. They have found a new one: emerging and nonemerging. It is very interesting to see how here the strictly scientific motivation, no value judgments, goes along with a democratic, i.e., value-inspired motivation not to hurt anybody’s feelings”. The paradox to which Strauss alludes in the last sentence is met with a significant amount of laughter, and yet the editor fails to indicate laughter in square brackets. Another associated problem—although this is obviously not due to an error on the part of the editor—is that Strauss’ intonation cannot be discerned in the publication, unlike in the recordings, and his voice has a distinct timbre when he is joking. One such case is where Strauss says “this concept of nation [the commonsensical definition] had infinite practical consequences, as you all know, for the self-determination of nations. And especially in the case of the underdeveloped, alias emergent, nations, where you don’t know who makes them nations” (343). All of this indicates only that the reader often lacks the privilege, afforded to Strauss’ students, of being able to easily detect the cynicism of the old German lecturer.

A third and not unimportant point is that the editor has been inconsistent in showing Strauss’ emphasis. For example, Strauss says that “the Negroes, the Chinese, and the Hindus say: ‘this is the good life’” (158). The editor fails to italicize “the”, and while this does not change the meaning dramatically, it serves to detract from the central point that Strauss is trying to make here: all of these groups are making a claim about the same thing, and they are therefore not merely in conflict, but they rather contradict one another. Relatedly, certain words have been wrongly transcribed, some of which are of little or no importance, such as “clarification”, which should be “qualification” on p. 77, whereas others change the meaning significantly. For an example of the latter, Strauss asks “is Hegel another Plato or Aristotle, as he in a way claimed to be, who arrives at the time when the West has arrived at its dusk?” (99). The editor writes “task”, instead of “dusk”, and “task” in fact conveys the opposite of the intended meaning. The intended meaning, as Franco himself explains in the introduction of On Hegel, is that “philosophic understanding appears on the scene only when a civilization is in decline” (14).

Lastly, certain omissions have been made, the most extensive of which is at the end of chapter eight, where about ten and a half minutes of the recording have not been transcribed. Franco lists the topics contained in the omitted passage in note 29 on p. 390, and he excuses such omissions by indicating that they are either “unproductive or largely inaudible exchanges with students” (16). The end of chapter eight is audible, so we must assume that Franco found it to be “unproductive”. It is worth mentioning this only for the sake of indicating to the reader that he/she is not being issued with a complete transcription of the text, including, for example, certain passages which the editor did not find to be “productive”. It is unclear whether or not the editor has always exercised good judgment when making such omissions, and the fact of this dependence on the judgment of the editor will in all likelihood strike the more devout of Strauss’ followers as a problem with this publication.[3]

One significant merit of the publication, which one should not fail to mention, is that Franco provides very interesting notes to the text, which frequently include relevant transcriptions of Strauss’ earlier 1958 course on Hegel’s Philosophy of History, where the 1965 lectures are lacking in one way or another. This allows the reader not only to gain further insight into Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but also to understand how Strauss’ view of Hegel or his expression of it developed over time. It is on the basis of both lecture series that Franco writes the introduction to On Hegel.

Franco’s introduction can be divided into three sections: first, he contextualizes Strauss’ lectures within Strauss’ published works; secondly, he presents Strauss’ defense of Hegel; and finally, he explains Strauss’ criticism of Hegel.[4] In the first section, Franco proposes that Strauss’ lectures should be situated within three aspects of his work: his early Hobbes studies, his engagement with Kojève, and his genealogy of modernity (1). Franco notes that, in his Hobbes studies, Strauss mentions the similarity between Hegel’s master–slave dialectic and Hobbes’ fear of violent death, in terms of the foundational role that these concepts play in the two thinkers’ political philosophies, and between Hegel’s and Hobbes’ use of history as a means to guarantee the actualization of the best regime (2). In his engagement with Kojève, Hegel appears to take centerstage for the first time. Kojève critiques Strauss’ study on Xenophon’s Hiero from a “Hegelian” perspective, and Strauss’ response to Kojève would therefore seem to be a critique of Hegel. But it is patently clear—and the lectures only serve to reinforce this view—that Strauss did not consider Kojève’s position to be properly speaking Hegelian. In On Hegel, Strauss goes so far as to say that Kojève’s Hegel “is clearly no longer Hegel himself” (274). To be sure, Franco indicates that Kojève has an “idiosyncratic version” of Hegel’s philosophy (2), but he considers what Strauss says in his exchange with Kojève to be relevant to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel. If it is true that Strauss considered Kojève to be a completely different philosopher from Hegel, then what Strauss said about and to Kojève does not necessarily have anything to do with what he thought about Hegel. If one wanted to make such an association, one would have to show what Strauss took to be the distinction and common ground between Kojève and Hegel. But I think such an effort would mask one of the merits of On Hegel—we see, for the first time, Strauss discussing Hegel’s philosophy directly and extensively. If we had the benefit of Strauss discussing Heidegger’s philosophy directly and extensively, for example, it would be a gross injustice to simply conflate this with Strauss’ discussion of Heidegger in Natural Right and History and, for that matter, his response to Kojève.

The third context in which Franco situates Strauss’ 1965 lectures on Hegel is Strauss’ genealogy of modernity (4–5). Strauss considers Hegel as part of the second “wave” of modernity, in which the ideal or best regime is reconceived in such a way as to make it necessarily realizable in the here-and-now. Instead of judging actual political affairs in accordance with an external standard of the good, Hegel sought to show how the best regime “is necessarily actualized by the historical process without men’s intending it”.[5] Nothing external to the historical process was therefore considered necessary for bridging the gap between the ideal and the actual; the general will was considered a sufficient answer to the question of the good.[6]  For this reason, it is hard to understand why, later in the introduction, Franco explains that Strauss understood Hegel to be “a believer in natural right” (10). The only evidence that Franco adduces in support of this claim is Strauss’ insistence on Hegel being a proponent of “the rights of man” (10–11). However, Strauss is clear, even in On Hegel, that Greek natural right means “the common good”, and this is to be distinguished from “the right of subjectivity” (233). “The right of subjectivity” is distinguished from “the common good” in a number of important ways for Strauss. Perhaps most importantly, the common good implies “nature as a cosmos. And in Hegel there is no cosmos” (81–2, 296). Thus, although it would seem that Franco has simply misused the term “natural right”, it is imperative that these things be distinguished from one another.

Franco then proceeds to explain how Strauss defends Hegel against many of the charges that have been brought against him. Strauss disposes of Karl Popper’s claim that Hegel was a proponent of totalitarianism by showing that Hegel “rejects Plato’s political philosophy precisely because he considers it ‘totalitarian’” (5). He defends Hegel’s empirical procedure in his philosophy of history by showing that Hegel’s objectivity is not hindered by his importation of categories: Hegel wants to understand cultures as they understood themselves, and to achieve this, he looked at their religion, namely, what they took to be the highest or most sacred (6). Similarly, Strauss argues that the standards by which Hegel distinguished between what is important and unimportant in history “are not arbitrary standards” (7), and far from being racist (7),[7] he shows Hegel’s philosophy to be entirely congruent with liberalism, constitutionalism and the rights of man (10).

However, while in On Hegel, Strauss does not explicitly criticize Hegel for his methodology in Philosophy of History, he does not, as Franco seems to suggest, simply defend it. Strauss indeed proposes that Hegel sought to understand cultures as they understood themselves (89, 241, 331). But he also indicates that, for Hegel, the philosopher is “the son of his time” and hence the philosopher must understand himself historically in order to understand himself accurately (29–30). There is a contradiction here, which Strauss admittedly does not make explicit in On Hegel, but which is certainly implied. The contradiction is brought out in Strauss’ What is Political Philosophy. Hegel may have sought to understand each culture, including each philosopher, as it understood itself, but what of those cultures or philosophers of the past that did not understand themselves historically and instead “claimed to have found the truth”? Hegel must nonetheless understand them historically and thus in a different way from the way in which they understood themselves.[8] The fact that Strauss makes both points in On Hegel, i.e., that Hegel seeks to understand cultures as they understood themselves and that he considers all philosophy to be historical, indicates that Strauss does not merely defend Hegel’s methodology. However, perhaps his failure to make the abovementioned criticism explicit is one of the ways in which he defends Hegel against the skepticism of his students, and to this extent, we may agree with Franco (6, 32).

The most interesting point that Franco makes in relation to Strauss’ defense of Hegel is that Strauss defends the morality of Hegel’s world-historical individual. A world-historical individual is, for Hegel, one of those characters in history that usher in a new age, e.g., Julius Caesar.[9] More often than not, such a character acts in base ways and brings about a shift in world history without being conscious of the necessity of their actions for that shift.[10] Hegel defends these actions by showing their necessity for the progress of history, which culminates in the modern rational state.[11] But while this bears a great similarity to Machiavelli’s procedure, as Hegel himself admits,[12] Strauss claims that Hegel’s world-historical individual is “more moral” than that of Machiavelli (8, 57). This is indeed an interesting point and one whose explanation is not entirely forthcoming in the lectures. Franco makes mention of a related discussion in the 1958 course, in which Strauss proposes that Hegel would never have excused the actions of Stalin (9). But from the passage that Franco draws our attention to, it would seem that Strauss proposed that Hegel would have only taken issue with Stalin on political grounds. In any event, in the 1965 course—and here, the dates are not entirely irrelevant—Strauss says: “I don’t know whether Hegel would have gone so far as to defend the action of Stalin” (72). Furthermore, to explain his claim that Hegel was “more moral” than Machiavelli, Strauss says that Hegel “moralizes the [world-historical individual] and thus brings about the union between the universal and particular” (57–8). In another place, however, he says that Kierkegaard, “a moralist [of all things!] who does not expect as much from politics as Hegel does”, criticized Hegel on the grounds that in his “social-political solution… the concern for purity of the heart has lost its meaning almost completely” (304–5). Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, with which it appears Strauss agrees, clearly echoes Strauss’ claim that Machiavelli had “forgotten the soul”.[13] Thus, contrary to what Franco says, it is certainly not completely clear, from what Strauss says in On Hegel, why Strauss considers Hegel to be “more moral” than Machiavelli. To answer this question would require a comparison of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli with On Hegel, and this fact potentially indicates something of the great value of the latter.

Franco understands Strauss’ critique of Hegel as two-fold. First, there are two fundamental problems that remain unsolved in Hegel; and secondly, Hegel is ambiguous regarding whether the end of history is desirable. The first of the unsolved problems in Hegel that Strauss sees, and Franco comments on, is that Hegel was a liberal, in that he believed in the rights of man, yet he recognized that there was no solution ready to hand to the inevitable “agitation and unrest”, which would result from that (11). More importantly, however, Franco indicates that Strauss does not find an adequate solution to the “theologico-political problem” in Hegel (11). Religion is regarded as the necessary glue holding society together, yet the rational state supplants religion. “Christianity has become fully understood, i.e., religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin. The true theology is Hegel’s philosophy, i.e., it is no longer theology proper”. Thus, while it remains necessary for every citizen to be a member of some religion (252), “the modern state, the rational state, is indifferent to religion”. However, unlike religion, Hegel’s philosophy “has no comfort” for “the common people” (300). According to Franco, the problem is this: “the common people gradually lose their naïve faith, but they have nothing to replace it” (12). The glue holding society together is lost, which calls into question the rationality of the modern state.

The second part of Strauss’ critique of Hegel, according to Franco, is associated with Hegel’s notion of the end of history. Franco insists that Strauss was of the view that Hegel believed that history had reached its final stage in his time (13). According to Strauss, the primary evidence that Hegel did not believe that the end of history had come is the passage in which he claims that America is “the land of the future”.[14] “But”, Strauss rejoins, “the question is: was this of any importance to Hegel? I think one can definitely say no” (100). As Franco notes, history ends, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, when “all the fundamental problems have been solved” (14), and Hegel’s important passage on America does not “suggest that any ‘new principle of fundamental importance’ will emerge in America” (13). According to Franco, this notion of the end of history in Hegel is problematic for Strauss because Hegel is ambiguous as to whether or not it is desirable (14). The flourishing of society may be concomitant with the suppression of man’s “highest desire, the desire for knowledge” (55). As Strauss says in his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”, the end of history may be “the end of philosophy on earth”.[15] Yet, in On Hegel, Strauss says that, for Hegel, “religion is primary but religion is not the highest. The highest is philosophy” (78). Hence the “ambiguity” to which Franco refers (11).

Franco concludes his introduction in a somewhat problematic way. He claims that, according to Strauss, Hegel in fact recognized the primary problem concerning “the fundamental tension between knowledge and political life” (15)! As Strauss says in the 1958 lecture series, “Hegel accepted… [that] there is a fundamental disharmony between the peak of society and the peak of knowledge” (381n14). To Franco, this shows that Strauss had great “respect for Hegel as a thinker” (15). But does it not also show an important point regarding Strauss’ critique of Hegel? When we bring what Franco considers to be the two parts of Strauss’ critique of Hegel together, one notices another point of central importance, which Franco does not discuss: Hegel contradicts himself. Strauss shows that Hegel claims that history has ended, which requires that the fundamental problems have all been solved, but he also shows that Hegel accepted that there is at least one fundamental problem that remains unsolved. This contradiction explains why Strauss claims that Hegel thought that history had come to an end (100–101) and yet insists on this being “the crucial question” in Hegel (30–31). Is Strauss contradicting himself? Franco seems to take it for granted that Strauss was of the view that Hegel thought that history had come to an end, but on p. 100–101 and 122, to which Franco refers, Strauss only claims that it was Hegel’s view that “no new principle of fundamental importance will emerge” (101). This is not the same as the view that “the fundamental problems are solved” (59, 254). It is entirely possible that there will never be a “new principle” and yet a fundamental problem remains unsolved. Perhaps there are perennial problems that are unsolvable by a new principle. In other words, as Strauss says in the “Restatement”, perhaps “the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics, is insoluble”.[16] Yet, society is capable of “tyranniz[ing] thought”, and “from the Universal Tyrant there is no escape”.[17] Thus, in Strauss’ mind, a perpetual, universal and totalitarian regime, which could preclude a new principle, is entirely possible, but its materialization would not necessarily coincide with wisdom, i.e., the solution to all fundamental problems. Fundamental problems may be “solved” on the political plane and yet remain unsolved in reality. “Fundamentally there can no longer be a revolution”, according to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, but “the trouble” with the idea that “all fundamental questions, theoretical and practical, are solved” is that “when you are at such a peak there is also at least the possibility of going down”, and “this is intimated by Hegel more than once” (58, 255, emphasis added). It is a question, albeit “an old question”, as Strauss notes in his 1960 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics, whether “the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the polis”.[18] But according to Strauss, this remains a question for Hegel (381n14).

We must therefore object to Franco’s insistence that Strauss was convinced that Hegel was of the view that the end of history had come. Both the impossibility of a new principle and the solution to all fundamental problems are inextricably linked with the notion of the end of history for Strauss (59, 100–101, 122, 254–5). While it is true that Strauss was convinced that Hegel thought there would never be a new principle of fundamental importance, he was far from convinced that Hegel considered all of the fundamental problems as solved. It seems that Strauss’ criticism of Hegel therefore goes further than Franco suggests. Strauss does not merely argue that Hegel is “ambiguous” about whether or not the end of history is desirable, but also that Hegel’s endorsement of the modern rational state, as the end point of history, removes the fundamental question regarding the relation between philosophy and politics from the purview of philosophy, without adequately answering it. In other words, in praising the end of history, Hegel assumes that philosophy and politics are not radically different things, but rather entirely compatible. Yet, Hegel believed the question of their relation to be exactly that—a question. What Franco does not recognize is Strauss’ emphasis on the relevance of Hegel’s political action, i.e., his writings and lectures, as compared with whatever may have been his private view. If Strauss is right that “religion has been transformed into philosophy taught by Hegel at the University of Berlin” (300), then this philosophy is not only theoretical, but also practical.

The most important practical implication of Hegel’s philosophy that Strauss points to in n Hegel is the destruction of the exoteric/esoteric distinction. The decisive passage reads: “Hegel and his contemporary Schleiermacher were more responsible than any other individuals for the fact that the distinction between esoteric and exoteric writing has ceased to be of any importance” (289).[19] It is hard to determine what is more remarkable—this passage or the fact that Franco fails to mention it! Strauss devoted much of his philosophical effort, throughout his life, to the revival of that very distinction, and now we know that his primary opponent in this effort was Hegel. How does Strauss think Hegel destroyed the exoteric/esoteric distinction? In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss explains this distinction explicitly and extensively. Simply stated, the distinction pertains to the way in which philosophical texts are written. Philosophers who hold “heterodox views” have not always been able to express those views publicly for political reasons.[20] To avoid persecution or, conversely, to avoid exposing the uninitiated to “the terrible truth” of philosophy, the philosopher would write “with circumspection”, i.e., “between the lines”.[21] This meant that, in the same text, the philosopher would present the truth to the philosophers esoterically and only “an approximation of the truth” to the non-philosophers exoterically.[22] To achieve this, the philosopher would employ a number of devices, such as irony, deliberate self-contradiction, etc.[23] Of course, these devices would only successfully hide the heterodox views of the philosopher from the non-philosophers—and they would seemingly only have a purpose—if it is true that “thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers”.[24] In some places, this “axiom”, upon which the esoteric/exoteric distinction rests, is expressed in natural terms: such philosophers “believed that the gulf separating ‘the wise’ and ‘the vulgar’ was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education”.[25] This quote leaves us in a good position to understand how Hegel justified his abandonment of the esoteric/exoteric distinction for Strauss.

In On Hegel, Strauss shows that Hegel “presupposed” the Enlightenment view that “by the spread of knowledge the people become enlightened and opinion is changed” (298–299). In other words, there is no “basic fact of human nature” separating the rational from the irrational or nonrational; as Strauss says elsewhere, man is “a free agent… [with] almost unlimited perfectibility or malleability”.[26] If this—“the most relevant difference among human beings”—has therefore “practically disappeared”, there appears to be no need for exoteric writing.[27] Neither will the philosopher be persecuted for his/her heterodox views, nor will the expression of such views be detrimental for non-philosophers. On the contrary, Strauss claims that Hegel believed that through enlightenment, “the rational and the actual necessarily coincide”, a state of affairs that Strauss thinks both the ancients and moderns considered under the rubric of “the best regime” (299, 322).[28] According to Strauss’ interpretation of Hegel, “the human mind necessarily progresses, and its results necessarily spread” (298). There must therefore be a time—for Hegel, his time—when this process reaches a culminating point. Put differently, the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics is resolved in history.

Now, Strauss emphasizes the fact that Hegel contradicts himself regarding the status of religion in the modern state. The modern state supplants religion, but it is nonetheless necessary for everyone to be a member of one religion or the other (252, 300, 330). Why? Because, Strauss makes clear, Hegel has no answer to this “grave problem”: “how do these people that can partake of reason only via religion still partake of reason when religion is no longer there as the most socially potent force?” (394n10). In other words, Hegel is not convinced that there is no “basic fact of human nature” preventing the actualization of the rational state. Yet, his lecture theater takes the place of the church. We come then to a better understanding of Strauss’ claim that “Hegel has no comfort for us here” (300). Strauss does not simply mean, as Franco suggests, that Hegel has no comfort for “the common man”. This smacks of Marx’s opium of the people, and Strauss’ understanding of religion is far more profound than Marx’s. What Strauss is saying—and hopefully this is already clear—is that the problem with substituting philosophy for religion is that it destroys the conduit for the conversion of the non- or potential philosopher into a philosopher. As Strauss says in On Hegel, “isn’t this the status of religion, namely, that the philosophers transform the religious truths into philosophic truths?” (253). In other words, as he says elsewhere, “philosophy, in the full and original sense of the term… [is] the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole”.[29] Hegel transforms religious truths into philosophic truths (58), opinion into knowledge, but he issues his philosophic truths as transformed religious truths in his lectures and in his writings; his philosophic truths simply replace the religious truths. Those who are not already philosophers are therefore deprived of the very conduit through which Hegel became a philosopher himself.

One may object to this reading of On Hegel by stating that, for Strauss, Socrates actualized the philosophic potential of certain individuals by himself, i.e., without the help of religion. Since I cannot adequately respond to this objection here, suffice it to say that, for Strauss, Plato employed the art of poetry,[30] and Strauss makes clear that Hegel had no time for poetry (246, 300–301). But this is not the only unanswered question that remains after reading On Hegel. Why was Hegel not able to overcome the problems concerning the relation between philosophy and politics and between philosophy and religion, according to Strauss? How does religion serve as a conduit for the conversion of the philosopher and what would constitute a viable substitute? While On Hegel provides some further insights into how Strauss understood modern philosophy, it is not a bottomless pit, like Thoughts on Machiavelli. In a word, On Hegel serves to further illuminate Strauss’ understanding of the theologico-political problem and how Hegel, in his treatment of that problem, absolutized the tradition that Machiavelli merely put in motion: “Obfuscation”.[31]

[1] Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 58.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2014), 294–5. To be sure, Melzer could not be counted among the orthodox Straussians, although this passage shows a typically Straussian view regarding editorial work.

[4] It should be noted that the latter two sections are based on Strauss’ Hegel lectures.

[5] Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, edited by Hilail Gildin (Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1989), 91.

[6] Ibid., 91–2.

[7] Any modern reader who has read just the subsection of Hegel’s introduction to Philosophy of History, entitled “Geographical Basis of History”, is liable to make such an allegation. See: G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, translated by Ruben Alvarado (Wordbridge Publishing: Aalten, 2011), 73–94.

[8] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 68.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 285.

[10] Ibid., 28–30.

[11] Ibid., 91, 285.

[12] Ibid., 365.

[13] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (The Free Press: Glencoe, 1958), 294.

[14] Hegel, Philosophy of History, 80.

[15] Leo Strauss, “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” in On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 211.

[16] Strauss, “Restatement”, 208.

[17] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000), 27; Strauss, “Restatement”, 211.

[18] Leo Strauss, “Aristotle’s Politics: A course given in the Spring quarter, 1960 in the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago by Professor Leo Strauss”, edited by Joseph Cropsey (1962), 340. Available at:

[19] It is hard to understand why Strauss includes Schleiermacher here. To be guilty of this charge, one would need to have an extraordinary impact on all subsequent philosophy. While Schleiermacher may have had a significant impact in certain circles, especially hermeneutics, Hegel was, according to Strauss, “the outstanding philosopher of the nineteenth century”. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 58.

[20] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), 24.

[21] Leo Strauss, Philosophy and Law (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1995), 37; Strauss, Persecution, 24.

[22] Strauss, Persecution, 19.

[23] An extensive list of such devices may be found in the first chapter of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli. See: Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 15–53.

[24] Strauss, Persecution, 25.

[25] Ibid., 25, 34.

[26] Strauss, “The Three Waves”, 279.

[27] Strauss, “Restatement”, 210.

[28] The distinction between them being only that, unlike the moderns, the ancients left the realization of the best regime to chance (299).

[29] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1965), 30.

[30] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1978), 136–7.

[31] Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 173.

Leo Strauss: Leo Strauss on Hegel, University of Chicago Press, 2019

Leo Strauss on Hegel Book Cover Leo Strauss on Hegel
The Leo Strauss Transcript Series
Leo Strauss. Edited by Paul Franco
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00