Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Was Leo Strauss the German Stranger?

In my graduate seminar on Leo Strauss, we are now reading William Altman's The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism (Lexington Books, 2011).  Our first discussion of this book was instructive.  All of our discussions in this class have been good, for which I am grateful to the students--David Bahr, Nick Blazer, Anthony Clarke, John Grove, Todd Noelle, Kate Paton, Jesse Peck, and Mike Tolhurst.

Altman's book is the most meticulous, rigorous, and stimulating work on Strauss that I have ever seen.  More than that, it's also an insightful study of the "crisis of liberalism" in the twentieth century, considered against the background of the whole history of political philosophy from Plato to the present.  The depth of Altman's thinking becomes even more impressive when one reads his other book that has just been published--Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the "Republic" (Lexington Books, 2012).

Since I am just beginning to study Altman's work, I haven't yet made up my mind about his arguments.  But I will begin--in this and in some subsequent posts--to raise some questions coming out of my seminar.

Altman's bold claim is that Leo Strauss was a Jewish Nazi. 

He calls Strauss "the German Stranger," because he compares Strauss to the Athenian Stranger in Plato's Laws.  The teaching of the Athenian Stranger corresponds to the teaching of Strauss.  And just as the Athenian Stranger left Athens for Crete, where he sought to impose an anti-democratic regime of repression supported by an atheistic religion that denied Plato's teaching of dualism in the Republic, Strauss left Weimar and eventually settled in the United States, where he sought to subvert liberal democracy while secretly promoting the National Socialist atheism of those like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.  Strauss pretended to do this as a Platonist, but Strauss's Plato was not a Platonist at all.  Strauss's Plato was an atheist who denied the Theory of the Ideas as based on the dualistic separation of Being and Becoming as belonging to two worlds.  Strauss's Plato was not the true Plato, because he was actually the Athenian Stranger of the Laws.  Plato's Laws was Plato's prediction of Strauss and his Nazi program for attacking liberal democracy.

Altman's critique of Strauss depends fundamentally on his disagreement with Strauss's interpretation of Plato.  On the one hand, Altman defends the traditional interpretation of Plato as a Platonist--as one who defended a metaphysical dualism of two worlds that is compatible with Judeo-Christian dualism, and thus he rejects Strauss's reading of Plato as an atheistic monist who denied the eternal, transcendent reality of the Ideas.  On the other hand, Altman disputes the traditional interpretation of Plato as a firm opponent of democracy, because Altman sees a defense of something close to liberal democracy in the Republic, particularly in Book 8 (557c-62e).

Altman claims that under the influence of those like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt, Strauss turned against liberal democracy in favor of National Socialism, but he disguised his position as a "return to the ancients," and particularly a return to Plato, which allowed him to attack liberal democracy as a denial of ancient wisdom.

Altman's book is massive--591 pages in small print.  Our first seminar discussion was limited to the Introduction (1-28) and the chapters connecting Strauss to Heidegger (143-94) and to Schmitt (195-234).  Next week, our readings will go further into the book.  As I have indicated, a fully adequate study of Altman's arguments probably needs to include his book on Plato.

At this point, I will only offer a few scattered comments and questions, some of which come from my students.

(1)  My students are impressed by Altman's research and argumentation.  But they are not convinced that the evidence supports Altman's claim that Strauss was actually a Nazi.  My impression is that most of them are willing to concede that Strauss in the 1920s and 1930s flirted with fascist ideas.  For example, Strauss's letter to Karl Lowith of May 19, 1933, appealing to "right-wing principles . . . fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles," provides such clear evidence for this that many Straussians now admit that Strauss was being seduced by fascist ideas at this time.  But my students are not yet persuaded that the evidence surveyed by Altman proves that Strauss was a Nazi from 1933 to the end of his life.

(2)  If Strauss really was a Nazi, how exactly did he expect to carry out his Nazi project?  Altman is not clear about this.  (Peter Minowitz has made this point in "What Was Leo Strauss?," Perspectives on Political Science, 40 (2011): 218-26, which is the first published Straussian response to Altman.)

Altman explains that "Strauss did what no mere Nazi could have done or even dreamed of doing: he boldly brought his anti-liberal project to the United States. . . . he tirelessly promulgated his 'Platonic' critique of liberal democracy in the belly of the whale" (26).  Apparently, Altman sees this as mostly a negative activity of attacking liberal democracy: "I see the German Stranger's project as primarily destructive; it was the theoretical foundation of Liberal Democracy in general that he sought to annihilate, not some new form of totalitarianism that he aimed to erect."  Altman explains: "it is altogether wrong to think that Strauss meditated the rise of National Socialism in his adoptive home: his goal was less ambitious although no less dangerous as a result.  Strauss was patient, far more so than some of his followers have proved to be.  His purpose was simply to take Germany's western enemy out of the picture: to destroy Liberal Democracy's faith in itself.  In this project, he has been remarkably successful.  In the First World War, a single man in a sealed train had eliminated Germany's eastern enemy: Strauss should be understood as the westward-bound 'Lenin of the Right' in the Second" (516).

Where's the evidence that Strauss "has been remarkably successful" in destroying "Liberal Democracy's faith in itself"?  At the very least, wouldn't Altman have to show that Strauss's leading students have been "remarkably successful" in this?  But surely Harry Jaffa and the "West-Coast Straussians" have been defending liberal democracy, and the "Midwest Straussians" like Martin Diamond have suggested that modern Madisonian liberalism might be defended as superior to premodern thought in promoting human excellence.  Is Altman suggesting that only the "East-Coast Straussians" (Bloom, Pangle, and Mansfield) detected Strauss's true teaching about the need to destroy Liberal Democracy?  But if so, shouldn't Altman explain how they have carried out this "remarkably successful" project?

Would Altman say that those Straussians (like Jaffa and Diamond) who have launched vigorous defenses of liberal democracy have been taken in by the exoteric teaching of Strauss, while ignoring the esoteric teaching that attacks liberal democracy?  Even if that were so, wouldn't that indicate that some of Strauss's most influential students did not try to destroy liberal democracy?  But how then can Altman conclude that Strauss has been "remarkably successful" in his Nazi project if so many of his students have not been advancing that project?

(3)  Is Altman suggesting that Karl Popper's argument for Plato as the original source of modern totalitarianism is at least partially true?  After all, Altman seems to say that Plato's Athenian Stranger really was a proto-Nazi.  Altman rightly draws attention to Strauss's identification of the guardians of the law in Plato's Laws as "secret police" (GS, 25; Strauss, AAPL, 89).  Would Altman say, however, that Popper failed to see the implied defense of liberal democracy in the Republic?  And yet Altman never mentions Popper (but see his Plato, 352-53).

(4)  Altman's reading of Plato's Republic as supporting democracy depends heavily on noting the parallel between the description of democracy in the Republic and Hesiod's Age of Heroes (WA, Plato, 348-58).  Altman picked up this point from Strauss, although Altman says "he doesn't draw the proper conclusions from the parallel he discovered" (294).  But doesn't this at least hint at a Straussian reading of Plato as supporting democracy?  After all, Altman praises Arlene Saxonhouse for developing this idea of Platonic democracy, and she can be identified as leaning towards Straussianism.

(5) Altman writes: "Strauss's discovery that Democracy corresponds to Hesiod's Age of Heroes is one of several great contributions he made to Platonic studies.  Weimar proves to be the Age of Heroes in Germany's history, and had there been any actual German Platonists in the early 1930s, they would have combated Thrasymachus amidst the shadows of the Cave" (13).  But isn't it true that some of the German philosophers who joined the Nazi Party were Kantians who embraced a Platonic conception of eternal values as conforming to the Idea of the Good?  I have written about this in a previous post.

I will have more to say about Altman's book in future posts, which will include a post on historicism and Darwinism.


JG said...

Altman is pretty convincing when attacking Strauss' Plato (though I'll have to read his book to see if his own version of Plato is convincing). I'm becoming more and more convinced that Strauss' Plato (lacking any idea of the good), is Strauss' own conscious invention. The Straussians tend to say that the Plato of the forms was a "Christianized" Plato, but it seems that it's not so much a Christian reading, as the way almost EVERYONE read Plato (including Aristotle). If Strauss intentionally reinterpreted the ancients (in light of Nietzsche, perhaps), then his "return to the ancients" is a ruse. Altman and others have convinced me, then, that there is a modern (or postmodern) agenda behind the return to the ancients, but it's still quite a jump to imply that all this was in service of fascism - for all the reasons you lay out in your post.

I am also intrigued by Altman's interpretation of The Laws. I wish I had the time right now to do some digging there.

Larry Arnhart said...

Will Altman has sent me a copy of his article "A Tale of Two Drinking Parties: Plato's LAWS in Context," POLIS, 27 (2010): 240-64.

In this article, Altman agrees with Karl Popper that "LAWS is indeed a prescription for 'a closed society' that paves the way . . . for the poisonous police states of the twentieth century" (244).

Against Popper, however, Altman argues that this is not Plato's teaching, that the Athenian Stranger is not speaking for Plato.

In this way, Altman is close to Catherine Zuckert in her PLATO'S PHILOSOPHERS, who distinguishes Socrates from the other philosophers who speak in Plato's dialogues. I have heard some Straussians complain that this is not orthodox Straussianism. It certainly seems to contradict Strauss's presentation of the LAWS as crucial for Plato's teaching.

bjdubbs said...

Has anyone ever sat down and written an account of Strauss's Plato? OK I guess Zuckert wrote a chapter, but actually read everything from CAM and AAPL to the pieces on Euthydemus and the classes on Symposium and Meno, and written a full treatment? I recently finished his course on the Symposium, and the depth of the analysis was overwhelming. Each class period had enough material for a dissertation. There are lots of letters exchanged between Strauss and Benardete in the 60s, and I suspect Benardete understood the Strauss Plato better than anyone. Two words: indeterminate dyad.

By the way, Stanley Rosen's book on the Symposium has surprisingly little overlap with Strauss's Symposium lectures. I suspect even Strauss's own students (Benardete excepted) didn't have a clear understanding what he was up to.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what Altman is trying to do here. He can't prove that Strauss was ever a Nazi, or even a Nazi sympathizer, let alone that Strauss's whole life's work was an exercise in crypto-Nazism. To make that claim he is forced to define National Socialism in a way that is far from what most people understand by the term, or what most specialists accept it as signifying. Altman could easily have argued that Strauss was anti-Platonic, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, quasi-fascist, etc., etc., and actually he does argue many of those points pretty effectively by themselves. So going with the more Nazi thesis seems kind of bizarre, and undermines his credibility even if it helps to sell books. So why did he do it?

Anonymous said...


Merely asserting that Benardete was the student that understood Strauss' Plato the best is no argument.

Considering how few people seem to understand Benardete in the first place, you must be very wise!

Troy Camplin said...

I haven't read ALtman's book, but it seems to me that there is an argument being made that Strauss' anti-liberal democracy/fascistic world view has found its home in the conservative postmodernist world view of neoconservatism. Postmodern anti-liberalism is a synthesis of fascism and Marxism. Derrida, for example, liked Schmitt. As Obama has shown, there is no real difference between postmodern progressivism and postmodern neoconservatism. It is in fact this toxic brew of fascism and Marxism in postmodernism that has undermined liberal democracy in the U.S.

bjdubbs said...

Is it really so hard for the anonymouse to come up with a pseudonym? No, it's not so hard. My point about Benardete and Strauss was not a bare assertion, I pointed to the letters exchanged. It's reasonable to think that Strauss's Plato is really Benardete-Strauss joint production. The Benardete correspondence fills
eight folders in the archives, and that's only the letters from Strauss to Benardete. No other correspondent gets more than two folders, Robert Goldwin, and he was advising senators and presidents.

anonymouse said...

Benardete explicitly states (Bow and Lyre, xiv) that he did not understand what Strauss really meant in the exchanges about Plato which they frequently had, and, moreover, that he did not subsequently become certain that he understood what Strauss meant, but, no worries, bjdubbs can assure us that not only did Benardete alone possess a "clear understanding" of "what [Strauss] was up to", but that "Strauss's Plato is really a Benardete-Strauss joint production". And, apparently, expertise in crafting anonymous internet handles is a key to grasping this key point.

Anonymous said...

On your point (2), it seems like the answers to your own questions which you put into Altman's mouth are pretty persuasive. (And Altman does explain how they carried out the project.) The idea that Strauss taught different students different things goes back to Drury.

What I don't think is such a big deal is Altman revealing that Strauss's Plato wasn't a Platonist. That was always kind of obvious.

bjdubbs said...

I don't understand what anonymouse's beef is. It's true, Strauss's Plato is no Platonist, but he's not entirely silent on metaphysics. In the Minos essay he emphasizes that the law is inherently also a metaphysics, and is a way of asserting what is. If you believe Benardete, the City and Man is an indeterminate dyad, as is justice. Klein talks about this in his first book, Aristotle attributes it to Plato, Benardete also discusses it at length. If you want to get a good sense of the indeterminate dyad, read his essay on Phaedo.

Or this scene from Kung Fu is always worth watching.

Julian said...

I read The German Stranger and was struck by how much it comes across as Straussian in spite of itself - not politically, or in terms of substantive conclusions about Plato, but in terms of the method of reading and the style of argument, it reads very much like a Straussian anti-Straussianism (if that makes any sense). Altman actually alludes to this in the autobiographical section of the book, and it is a concern which seems to nag at him. I wonder if that does anything to explain some of the more extreme positions that he takes in his "war" against Strauss - and why he even insists on describing it as a "war". I look forward to reading his Plato book, since that seems like it will be essential to the case that he is trying to make.

Strauss-Man said...


Did you know that the Stanley Rosen file takes up 5 folders (to Benardete's 8), but the 5 folders are double the width of traditional folders, making his file much, much wider? Ha!

@ Julian,

I think you are correct that a look at Altman's Plato book is necessary. I am especially intrigued to read more in-depth account of his analysis of Plato's Laws.

Anonymous said...

It seems possible to agree with Nietzsche that the modern enlightenment is in a crisis, that it is losing faith in itself, without therefore being a fascist or a Nazi. For one thing, one cannnot be a fascist or a Nazi while remaining, at bottom, a rationalist. And Strauss is, above all things, a rationalist. Strauss could believe himself both a classical rationalist and a Nazi only if he radically misunderstands both classical political philosophy and Nazi-ism. Having studied Strauss for many years, I believe that he understood them both very well and that he knowingly embraced the moderation, prudence, and concern with justice of the former and rejected the immoderation, imprudence and indiffernece to justice of the latter.

Anonymous said...

Where does Strauss claim that there is any rational basis for choosing "Athens" over "Jerusalem"?

Anonymous said...

In the new Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion, Strauss says that the last word and ultimate justification for Spinoza's critique of religion is itself "an act of will" or "belief," and, he adds,an act of will that is based on belief is "fatal to philosophy" (p.30). I take that to mean that philosophy must be grounded in something beyond belief or faith in order for it to be a living possibility.

Anonymous said...

^ That is self-evidently not an assertion, let alone an argument, for there being a rational basis for choosing "Athens". You would know this if you had read Altman, who actually has an extensive discussion of this passage. If you want to claim that he's wrong about Strauss, you need to address what he says about it, not just make vague assertions.

Anonymous said...

Very good; now take a look at what he says about "complex-simple philosophy" on the previous page and then harmonize these two mutually exclusive versions of "philosophy" in accordance with what he says about deliberate self-contradiction in "Farabi's Plato," asking yourself why he requires you to have added: "I take that to mean..."

Ericius said...

I find it amusing that anyone who believes themselves to have read anything by Strauss with seriousness of purpose can take seriously this self-appointed accuser and delusional high-priest of the Enlightenment, "Alt-man". When will those who read Strauss be able to see that he too had his Anytuses, Lycons, and Meletuses?
Please go back and read your Apologies, and dont wast any more time pouring over Altman's vain & bilious ejaculations.

Larry Arnhart said...


Have you read Altman's book?

If so, could you point to the specific mistakes in his book that would justify the vehemence of your language in condemning him?

Ericius said...

Mr. Arnhart,
I have not read Altman's "books". But I have read several of his articles in which he tries to "interpret" the works of Strauss. I did not choose the terms "vain and bilious" without thinking about it. I could have also said perverse, because of the way Altman contorts Strauss' utterances to see complex "secret messages" uttered to his initiates in order to corrupt them: this corresponds to the famous charge of "corrupting the young." Strauss' alleged "Nazism" or radical 'illiberalism' corresponds to the accusation of 'not believing in the gods in which the city believes." I would be glad to be instructed as to which accuser Altman resembles most. As Bloom once said frankly to me, 'one has to interpret the attacks on Strauss in light of Socrates.' Now please, let's get back to thinking about Plato's or Xenophon's Apologies - "ars longa vita brevis." Vale.

Larry Arnhart said...

Altman argues that Strauss should be identified not as Socrates but as the Athenian Stranger, because Strauss endorsed the teaching of the Stranger in the LAWS. Why is he wrong about this?

Ericius said...

Mr. Arnhart,
Of course I would not discourage you from reading Altman if you find his writings rewarding. I would only try to encourage others to turn to truly substantial things, like the text of The Laws itself. I do not "identify" Strauss with Socrates. I merely compared the spirit of their accusers and found them to correspond. Strauss questioned the prejudices of his time while awakening the love of truth. What more could he do? Now, I see that someone has recently uploaded the texts of the Strauss transcripts (for anyone who wishes), so let us instead see what we can learn from those discussions about what the truly great authors wrote. ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὀξύς...

Ericius said...

- Mirabile visu! -
Mr. Arnhart,
I have found here [] a representative of another set of accusers of Leo Strauss, considerably different from Altman himself. It is an old hackneyed line they are towing (remember Burnyeat?), but it's interesting to see it persist. These accusers hail from the island of those who respect (& make their bread from) the recent British species of academic historicism. They have tried their best to ignore & dismiss Strauss, but it is proving hard for them. I recall hearing Mrs. Zuckert speak of them with some puzzlement. The author of this attack himself perhaps says it best: "In Britain, neither Strauss nor the Straussians have ever been taken seriously... [his] argument about esotericism is both historically and philosophically incoherent and useless in any methodological sense." Such exaggeration captures well the ill-liberal temper of their minds.

Anonymous said...

We know that Heidegger was an actual Nazi and supporter of Hitler to the end because he said so. The best you can do for Strauss is to point out certain criticisms of liberal democracy, something that is common to Nazis and anti-Nazis. If you want to go down this path, you would have a better argument that Jaffa suffered from fascist tendencies despite his support of the Declaration and Lincoln. For example, Jaffa's tirades against sodomy sound more like something that a totalitarian regime would love rather than a regime based upon limited government and protection of each person's equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Anonymous said...

Some of Socrates' students (mainly everyone other than Plato) misunderstood Socrates. Platonists and neo-Platonists certainly misunderstood Plato. It should not be surprising that silly books like those by Altman would create a fantasy Strauss. Not to say that those who misunderstand philosophers misunderstand everything. But if you start out with a ridiculous premise -- Strauss was a Nazi -- you will be forced to distort evidence to fit your thesis. Altman does not have a clue what is going on in the Laws. Which is strange because he could read Strauss, Benardete, and Pangle on the Laws.

Larry Arnhart said...

How do you interpret Strauss's claim that the guardians of the laws are "secret police"?