The Strauss Story

Steven Smith, who himself has recently published on Leo Strauss, reviews two new biographies of the “skeptical friend of democracy.” Here’s a bite:

Central to Strauss’s understanding of the Medieval Enlightenment [of Farabi and Maimonides] was the claim that revelation is the medium of the moral and political life of the community. No community, not even the modern liberal state, can entirely escape theology. Philosophy must therefore pay its respects to religion by concealing its deepest and most disturbing truths by adopting a rhetoric of piety and obedience to the law. The model of this kind of “noble rhetoric” can be found in Plato. It was in Farabi’s interpretation of Plato that Strauss first discovered the famous doctrine of the “double truth” to which he gave expression in his famous 1941 essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing.”

Like every reader of Strauss, Mr. Tanguay wants to know whether Strauss’s recovery of esoteric writing was intended purely as a historical insight or whether he incorporated the techniques of Plato and Farabi into his own writing. “Why did Strauss,” Tanguagy asks, “who lived all his life in democratic regimes where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, feel the need to employ an art of writing that is justified in part by fear of persecution?”

Strauss did not live in fear of persecution; he was not a paranoid. But his adoption of this “Farabian” rhetoric was his way of protecting his adopted homeland from the skepticism that is the mark of all true philosophy. Strauss’s use of a rhetoric of discretion was his way of showing respect for democracy.


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