Leo Strauss’s greatness, according to Dan Klein

1.       A sense of virtue/justice/right that is large and challenging.

2.       An appreciation of wisdom as something different than progressive research programs/specialized academic fields and disciplines.

3.       An understanding of the sociology of judgment, in particular the role of great humans.

4.       An epic narrative, from Thucydides to today.

5.       Rediscovery, analysis, elaboration, and instruction of esotericism.

6.       Close readings and interpretations of great works.

7.       Inspiring, cultivating serious students and followers.

I should add that Dan also is developing a counterpart list, of weaknesses in Strauss’s outlook and approach.


We shouldn't overlook the ability to form a cult.

Was Freud a wiser psychologist than, say, William James? Of course not, but he was better at being a cult leader. Were Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard better middlebrow novelists than Robert Heinlein? No, but they wanted to be cult leaders, while Heinlein couldn't be bothered.

Who is this Strauss chappie? The Blue Danube fellow, or the other one?

When people talk about Strauss's cult what are they referring to? The fact Bill Kristol took a few classes with him? Did Socrates try and form a cult? What about Plato? Cults are characterized by bitter power struggles over who assumes the mantle of leadership when the founder dies. In Strauss's case that was completely absent because there was no cult apparatus in existence to fight over. He was just a charismatic professor who inspired devotion from undergrads.

Doesn't the Bloom-Jaffa divide fit the bill Sam?

Yes, but then, with cults "you have more fun as a follower, but you make more money as a leader"
(Creed, The Office)

Yes, on the weakness side--a failure to wrestle with the fact that you might be wrong about some things, a realization that could have usefully tempered all his teachings.

Sure. You should always throw a temper tantrum when someone even mildly suggests you might be wrong. Call them names. Cast them out. Refuse to ever speak to them again. Call them recently evolved apes in print.

Then you might be as famous and influential as Marx.

Strauss was captivated by the Greeks; they were indeed astonishing. They were also pre-Darwin; as was the essential Strauss. Too bad.

But there is a synthesis of Darwinian and Straussian thought in Larry Arnhart's work.

Arnhart's amazing discovery that evolution suggests classical liberalism for happy sapiens can now be extended to the broader animal kingdom. See Carl Safina's remarkable book, Beyond Words.

"5. Rediscovery, analysis, elaboration, and instruction of esotericism."

Esotericism is a good topic -- obviously, there's a lot of esotericism going on these days as thinkers try to avoid getting their careers Watsoned -- but Strauss acolytes tend to miss the point about why the esotericism of Aristotle and the like is not headline news:


For example, here's the tale of a coed at Brown U. who (I would guess) read books by Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) and Charles C. Mann (1491 / 1493) and summarized them into opeds for a school newspaper, only to have her columns denounced as hateful Crimethink by the university president in what appears to be a major crisis at Brown:


Kids these days need to study how to be esoteric to protect themselves from hysterical grown-ups.

"Kids these days need to study how to be esoteric to protect themselves from hysterical grown-ups."


Strauss is the esoteric substitute for philosophers who r rightly regarded as Nazis. I mostly read politically correct philosophy instead, and I find that it feels more correct in other ways, too

Poor you.

All the interesting work done lately has been done by open Nazis or by people who are often accused of being Nazis. The Political Correct are, at best, mildly entertaining. Heidegger was a philosophical giant. Compare Stephen Jay Gould with E. O. Wilson (who is definitely not a Nazi but he isn't politically correct either) or Bill Hamilton.

> All the interesting work done lately ...

Apparently for you, "lately" means 50-100 years ago. If you were only capable of taking Rawls or Zizek seriously you wouldn't have this problem (though Zizek, Foucault, Vattimo etc. are essentially nazi).

For someone not into analytics or post-modernists, there has really been noone seriously interesting since Strauss.

No one in their right mind takes Zizek seriously.

Seriousness and interestingness are different things

So Much For Subtlety says:

"Heidegger was a philosophical giant."

Kierkegaard once remarked that people often use language not to hide their thoughts, but to hide the fact that they do not have any thoughts. Far as I can tell, Heidegger was a master of that art ... page upon page of intellectual poverty hidden underneath impenetrable prose. If that is roughly what you mean by "philosophical giant", then I agree that he was one.

Hey, it worked well for Derrida. And Lacan. Quite a few people really.

But while Derrida is utterly vacuous, I am not sure that is true of Heidegger. He is hard work, certainly.

"Hey, it worked well for Derrida. And Lacan. Quite a few people really."

Yes, the list of tenured charlatans is long indeed. I don't really see a difference between Derridada and Heidegger in this regard, but if you found some worthwhile ideas buried underneath the latter's hideous prose, I'd be curious to know what it amounted to.

> if you found some worthwhile ideas buried underneath the latter’s hideous prose, I’d be curious to know what it amounted to.

Bliksem, Strauss himself regarded Heidegger as a serious figure. Check the chapter by Michael Gillespie in the Straussian bible for an intro.

Derrida's writings on Carl Schmitt and really the whole book The Politics of Friendship are really good. Mostly because modern unlike a lot of the ideas Derrida excavates the significance of friendship over time has shifted so dramatically. As strange as a work like Phaedrus is to our modern minds- love as a concept was experienced by Ancient Greeks and current day Westerners in a smiliar fashion. Meanwhile Aristotle's and even Montaigne's views on friendship are just strange. Derrida brings them to the surface.

> 2. An appreciation of wisdom as something different than progressive research programs/specialized academic fields and disciplines.


And relatedly:

- the attempt to escape the constraints of thought and biases of one's own era

- the attempt to understand great thinkers "as they understood themselves".

Perhaps its well known, but there is an online audio archive of Strauss' course lectures at Uchicago in the 60s. Tends to cover a lot of the same material as his books, but it's fascinating to here the man himself lecturing.

Straussians are just one in a long line of Gnostics: the enlightened possessors of a secret knowledge revealed only to them, the possessors and defenders of the Holy Grail. That's why when two or more Straussians gather, there are likely to be as many evangelical Christians as there are neoconservatives, both modern-day Alexanders hell-bent on spreading the philosophy, morals, law, economy, culture, language, and government of an enlightened civilization and saving humanity from the barbarism to which it had descended. Whether Straussians actually possess a secret knowledge revealed to them by Leo Strauss is beside the point, as cults of every kind must have their inspirational leader. And like every cult, the followers are impervious to conflicting ideas or criticisms, even those of their inspirational leader.

What a laughable claim. The overlap of Straussian and evangelical thinkers is almost non-existent. Evangelicalism is completely opposed to Gnosticism in every fashion. You've got the cranky old man tendency of cramming all your hobby horses together. Just talk about how much you hate Christians and Straussians in seperate posts old timer.

Strauss' inspiration into the esotericism thing was Maimonides, who was explicit about his esoteric style (not a contradiction in terms, if you assume no one is going to read the introduction to your philosophical writings...). And I think Maimonides (and much of the rest of the radical medieval theological crew) probably did self-consciously write in the esoteric style, for all the reasons that Strauss and his modern intellectual heirs point to. I wonder if they don't take a local historical thesis far too far...

This list strikes me as a lot of puffery. Just admit that Strauss makes you feel like part of a special club!

1. A sense of virtue/justice/right that is large and challenging.

Literally, anyone can develop or promulgate a system of virtue/justice/right that is large and challenging. All religions and most philosophers do this. The question is whether that system is convincing. Did Strauss develop or uncover a system/theory of virtue/justice/right that is convincing? What is it? Absent some actual detail this sounds like an invitation to his admirers to pat themselves on the back for being special.

2. An appreciation of wisdom as something different than progressive research programs/specialized academic fields and disciplines.

It's no achievement to say that wisdom is different than the modern academic apparatus. All religions say this and pop culture is awash with the notion that eggheads lack wisdom. This is only a noteworthy insight if Strauss has an actual view regarding what wisdom consists of and that view is convincing.

3. An understanding of the sociology of judgment, in particular the role of great humans.

Huh? You have a very low bar for admiration of you like Strauss just because he rejected early 20th century Marxist historiography. If you are saying that there is some unchanging and uncontested "sociology of judgment" that Strauss helpfully uncovered, please give us the details.

4. An epic narrative, from Thucydides to today.

Again, anyone can dream up an epic narrative that links the thinkers of today to Thucydides. The key is whether or not that narrative makes sense. So what is Strauss's narrative and why do you find it insightful and/or convincing?

5. Rediscovery, analysis, elaboration, and instruction of esotericism.

I think this is wrong. Strauss did not "rediscover" or analyze esoteric writings such as the Kabbalah or the Gnostic Gospels. People had been reading these texts for years. The late 19th and early 20h centuries were awash with esotericism. Rather than focus on actual esoteric works, Strauss specialized in the canonical greek philosophers, especially Plato. He argued that canonical philosophers prior to the 19th century tried to protect themselves from persecution by incorporating irony, paradox, and impenetrable verbiage into their works. Thus he contended that canonical works (like the Republic) contain insights that were intended only for those readers who could pierce the irony, paradox and bad writing. This is a useful insight that is obviously prone to abuse.

6. Close readings and interpretations of great works.

It is preposterous to give Strauss credit for the idea that canonical works should be closely read.

7. Inspiring, cultivating serious students and followers.

Probably true. And credit to him for cultivating serious students. (FWIW, Cultivating "followers" is antithetical to cultivating serious students who actually engage with difficult texts, ideas and data). But there are thousands of professors who have done this. This is not the reason he is being celebrated.

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/10/leo-strausss-greatness-according-to-dan-klein.html#comments

I think this is wrong. Strauss did not “rediscover” or analyze esoteric writings such as the Kabbalah or the Gnostic Gospels.

The "esotericism" that Klein is speaking about refers to Strauss' practice of reading classic texts as containing "hidden meanings" aimed at the few who are qualified to appreciate them.

Which is what I said. That insight cannot be called the rediscovery or analysis of "esotericism", which refers to the study of non-canonical texts.

Sometimes we use the same word for different things.

The highlight of the dialogue between Cowen and Peter Thiel occurred when one of them mentioned Gnosticism, and they gave each other a knowing look and smiled. I assumed they were being ironic (I laughed out loud); but maybe not, maybe they share hidden knowledge buried in some ancient or contemporary esoteric text. Just saying.

You all should read the Metzer book, Philosophy Between the Lines, one of the truly great works of our time. It will change the way you look at many things -- important things. And it is a pleasure to read. Dan is smart to devote a semester to it.

However, that work is not really about Strauss per se. I'm not sure where Dan's list of Strauss's virtues comes from. A lunchtime conversation with Tyler?

Also, I notice Dan's seminar reading list contains no works of Strauss. I have no beef with Dan's list, but I would like to know its basis.

Hi Kent,

I've been reading a fair amount of Strauss, most significantly Natural Right and History. That gives the epic narrative, at least down to Burke, you get from Melzer and others. I've been reading and talking to Melzer, Peter Minowitz (I was his colleague at Santa Clara), Nelson Lund and Jeremy Rabkin (GMU colleagues in the law school). Been reading other Straussians, such as Catherine and Michael Zuckert on Strauss (the 2006 book, I haven't gotten the more recent one they did), explaining East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest Straussianism, as three ways of resolving the tensions between three Strauss tenets: (1) America is modern, (2) modernity is bad, (3) America is good.

I'm teaching a course this term called The Esoteric Adam Smith. I did a lecture on three dissembling-the-true-targets in TMS:


Now finishing Thomas W. Merrill's outstanding "Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment." I am very excited about this book, for several reasons, one being that it directly upsets Strauss's take on "the moderns" and "the enlightenment." Merrill is speaking tomorrow Saturday in our seminar.

BTW, I highly recommend Michael Zuckert's "Launching Liberalism" and "Natural Rights and New Republicanism."


I was pretty sure you were NOT like 90% of those who comment on Strauss without reading any of his works.

NRH is definitely the place to start, as it is his most wide-ranging and comprehensive work. But all of his other works also deserve careful study.

The Zuckerts are excellent, as you say, and I recommend their more recent work, Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, which I think is the best secondary work on Strauss's thought. But it does presuppose a pretty good knowledge of Strauss's writings and political philosophy in general.

Michael Zuckert's writings on Locke and early liberalism are the best around.

How to understand the Enlightenment is one of the great questions Strauss raises, and that Melzer also addresses. I look forward to reading the new Merrill book on Hume, and I hope to see more and better discussion of the 'what was the Enlightenment' question. Would that I were around to hear Merrill tomorrow!

Your comments in your podcast about Adam Smith's esotericism were fascinating, and it was obvious Melzer himself found them quite stimulating. I hope you eventually publish on this subject...for now i'll catch the youtube.
Best regards,

Thanks Kent, best, /Dan

Aren't points 2 and 5 contradictory? Or is that it only makes sense in the original German?

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