Smith knows that Straussians come in many varieties, and he rejects the notion that they represent some kind of conspiracy.
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His own aim is at once theoretical and political: to demonstrate not just that Strauss was no reactionary, as his detractors contend, but that he was a committed friend of modern liberal democracy. The product of a household that was religiously observant but not learned, he was a profound if controversial interpreter of Jewish thought, as well as a commentator on Jewish issues.
Strauss rejected the notion, common among secularists, that modern thought had succeeded in refuting religious orthodoxy. Though he devoted much of his prodigious interpretive talent to the writings of Spinoza, the first and greatest partisan of the atheistic Enlightenment, Strauss thought that modern philosophy had achieved at most a stand-off in its confrontation with the biblical tradition.
Leo Strauss—A Political Realist
By his lights, the sharpest insight into the tension between revelation and reason could still be found in the work of Maimonides, who in the 12th century had made the defense of Judaism his first priority even while acknowledging the power and reach of Aristotelian thought. There he hoped to find a form of rationalism that was more compatible with political moderation and decency.
In The Republic , which most contemporary scholars had dismissed as a blueprint for totalitarianism, Strauss discovered instead a profound meditation on the boundaries of politics. Unlike their 20th-century counterparts, Strauss suggested, ancient thinkers recognized the unbridgeable gulf between theory and practice.
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If they encouraged their readers to think radically, they also encouraged them to act moderately. By contrast, Smith emphasizes, Strauss always considered evil a permanent aspect of the human situation, and just as he stood against liberal illusions on this score, he would have objected no less strenuously to the illusions of present-day neoconservatives.
About the effort to pigeonhole Strauss as a neoconservative, Smith is undoubtedly right. But, to deal with last things first, his own effort to recruit Strauss to the anti-war cause is every bit as dubious.
Reading Leo Strauss by Steven B. Smith - Commentary
It is also an open question whether the current architects of American foreign policy have really been seized by the naive expectation of ending evil—as opposed merely to recognizing the need to fight it. Of one thing we can be sure: in politics, Strauss always insisted on calling things by their proper names. Far more important is the task of coming to terms with his thought.
As Smith makes clear, Strauss was not a political partisan in any usual sense.
On Leo Strauss’s Legacy
He viewed both liberalism and conservatism from above rather than from within. His real concern was with the broader question of how to preserve the constitutional polities within which alone such distinctions are meaningful. His pathbreaking return to ancient thought, which his enemies mistake for proof of his antagonism to modern liberty, was, as Smith shows, precisely the opposite.
He would go anywhere in search of allies to defend the political achievements of the West—and he found them among the ancient philosophers, with their irony, prudence, and moderation. On the other hand, it doesn't make unique or forceful enough arguments to be interesting to someone already in the loop. View 2 comments.
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