Making Leo Strauss Possible

Michael Millerman’s “Beginning with Heidegger”: An Excerpt

Emil Fackenheim may have been exaggerating when he said that one day Martin Heidegger would be remembered only for making Leo Strauss possible.1 But that Martin Heidegger somehow did make Leo Strauss possible is not far-fetched. Strauss himself indicates as much. Heidegger, he writes, “made it possible for the first time after many centuries…to see the roots of the tradition [of philosophy] as they are and thus perhaps to know, what so many merely believe, that those roots are the only natural and healthy roots.”2 Strauss is deeply in-debted to Heidegger for awakening that possibility.

As Strauss argued in his debate with Kurt Riezler, the search for a “natural frame of reference,” rather than a relativistic one, by which to understand societies, may be aided “by recovering the frame of reference used by the classics.”3 This “natural frame of reference” is precisely what Strauss calls “the roots of the tradition.” We do no injustice to Strauss by characterizing his lifelong project as the unparalleled endeavor to expose “the roots of the tradition” of philosophy to show that they are “the only natural and healthy roots” or that they constitute the “natural frame of reference,” in contrast to both the unnatural and the supernatural frames of reference.4 Meticulously and intently, Strauss pursued the question of “whether a better understanding of our frame of reference,” which is “the outgrowth of the combination of two radically different traditions,” Biblical and Greek, “will not liberate us from its limitations,”5 moving us beyond our frame of reference to the natural frame of reference, which is not properly speaking “ours” but, as natural, accessible to man as man.

In short, the tension between the universally natural (the philosophical)6 and the locally unnatural or conventional (the legal); between natural roots (the ancient) and the unnatural tradition that has covered over those roots (the modern); between the claims of the natural (Athens) and the claims of the supernatural (Jerusalem) — these are the well-known themes of Strauss’s studies. On his own account, the proper treatment of these themes is indebted to Heidegger.7

Strauss held Heidegger in the highest esteem as a thinker. In an age when the problem of a “world society” urged itself upon social scientists, Heidegger was “the only man who has an inkling of the dimensions of [that] problem.”8 Heidegger was one of those few thinkers Strauss would characterize as “outstanding,” such a man as is one’s good fortune if “there is a single one alive in one’s time.”9 As with all great thinkers, neither critics nor followers have “understood [him]…adequately.”10 In comparison to Heidegger, “Max Weber, till then regarded by me as the incarnation of the spirit of science and scholarship, was an orphan child,”11 with respect to “precision, and probing, and competence.”12 Until he heard Heidegger lecture, Strauss “had never before seen such seriousness, profundity, and concentra- tion in the interpretation of philosophical texts.”13 “We saw with our own eyes,” Strauss says of him and his generation, “that there had been no such phenomenon in the world since Hegel.”14

The high regard Strauss had for Heidegger can be seen in the following statement summarizing one of the central problems occupying Strauss: “I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism. Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight. But here is the great trouble, the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger.”15

However, Strauss also thought that Heidegger had erred severely in matters of great consequence. Strauss did not deny that there is a link between Heidegger the thinker and Heidegger the Nazi: “One is bound to misunderstand Heidegger’s thought radically if one does not see” the “intimate connection” of the facts of Heidegger’s political life “with the core of his philosophic thought.”16 Yet, these facts “afford too small a basis for the proper understanding of his thought.”17 Thus, most of Strauss’s critical engagement with Heidegger proceeds on a different, deeper level than that afforded by his political life alone or primarily. It takes aim at Heidegger’s “historicism” as philosophically flawed.

Of particular importance among Strauss’s criticisms of Heidegger, given the central role played by Plato and Socrates in Strauss’s recovery of the “natural frame of reference,” is Strauss’s judgment that “what [Heidegger] says about the apriori in Plato and particularly on the idea of the good is simply wrong.”18 As late as 1970, Strauss pre- sented his study of “Socrates” (the quotation marks are his), as part of the study of “classic natural right,” (again his) in contradistinction to relativism, the most serious form of which is historicism, whose “hard center” and radical core is Heidegger.19 Thus, Plato (or Socrates) is in a sense the fulcrum point on which the disagreements Strauss has with Heidegger hinge. As Velkley writes, quoting Strauss on Heidegger, “The central issue for Strauss [was] ‘whether he is right in his critique of Plato.’”20 In the following section, I try to understand and evaluate these disagreements through an examination of Strauss and Heidegger on the idea of the good in Plato.


At the end of his reading of the cave allegory, Heidegger argues that we must turn to study the question of untruth. Why? If truth is unconcealment, as Heidegger says it is for Plato and the Greeks, then, inasmuch as it is defined negatively as not or no longer concealed, concealment is the fundamental phenomenon. This reasoning leads Heidegger to consider the Theatetus, and later also the Sophist, in order further to clarify the aletheiaic occurrence in the philosopher.

But whereas Heidegger looks to the Theatetus and the Sophist   to help clarify the essence of truth as discussed in the cave allegory, Strauss refers to the Theatetus and the Sophist as components of a trilogy that includes the Statesman.21 Our first hint about the disagreement Strauss has with Heidegger concerning Plato, is this question of the theme or figure of the “Statesman” in relation to the themes of truth, sophistry (untruth), and philosophy. Strauss includes what Heidegger does not, that is, the “statesman” as a key part of the question of the relation between truth and untruth, and as a key component of philosophy.

Heidegger’s question, “my unique question,” as he calls it, in which what is at issue is “what is most unique,” i.e. “the question of the truth of beyng,” in Strauss becomes the “theological political question,” the theme or highest question for Strauss. Heidegger’s question of Being (Strauss never uses the term “beyng,” but that is what he means here) “evades” Being in its neglect of “the statesman” or the political.22 Is Strauss’s critique of Heidegger, then, the critique of any philosophy that does not attend to the political? If so, does this criticism concern the essence of philosophy, or merely its public presentation and political consequences?

What does it mean to say that the “statesman” belongs to the study of philosophy? For Strauss, it would seem to mean that the horizon that opens up the question of Being is fundamentally the political horizon: the question of Being passes through or is raised on the basis of the question of the city, i.e., of law.23 Richard Velkley, for instance, advances this interpretation of the disagreement between Strauss and Heidegger: Heidegger fails to recognize that “the tension between philosophic inquiry and authoritative custom is at the heart of the articulation of human openness to the whole.” We might say that Heidegger regards as the “authoritative custom” the philosophic tradition itself, rather than the political cave.24

Socrates “is the founder of the study of politics as offering philosophic access to the character of Being.”25 But what is most important, on this interpretation, is that “the character of Being” and of human being is not uncovered properly if it is not accessed through the study of politics or starting from the political things. Politics is the sole path to ontology. As Velkley writes, “[t]he whole or Being as problem or question can come into human view only because humans occupy a part of it that has an imperfect and ordinarily deceptive completeness.”26 “One can restate this,” he continues, summarizing Strauss, “by saying that there could be no opening to the question of ‘What is?’ or of Being without the difference (or limit) inherent in politics.”27 The “problem of the true whole,” in short, “cannot come into view unless one starts with man as political.”28

We can say more than Velkley does, however, about the point of disagreement between Heidegger and Strauss. We must proceed to interrogate not merely the political aspect of philosophy in Strauss — the importance of the political as potentially pointing man toward the whole — but also the philosophical aspect of philosophy. As the most concrete and important example of the presupposed philosophical aspect of Strauss’s political philosophy, we can do no better than to turn to the question of nature in Strauss.

The “zetetic” or “skeptical” thrust of Strauss’s understanding of philosophy is well known.29 But something in his presentation of philosophy remains uninterrogated in the scholarship. Philosophy, Strauss writes, “is…the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole.” We are dealing here with three matters that are thematic for Heidegger (opinion, knowledge, “the whole”), but this third matter (“the whole”) at least must be made more precise. Strauss thus adds in explanation that “[i]nstead of ‘the whole’ the philosophers also say ‘all things’,” i.e., the whole is an articulated whole. “Quest for knowledge of ‘all things’ means quest for knowledge of God, the world, and man — or rather quest for knowledge of the natures of all things: the natures in their totality are ‘the whole.’”30 Philosophy is the quest for knowledge of all things, i.e., of the natures of all things.

Recall that for Heidegger the very essence of philosophy is up for decision in the transition to the other beginning. Does Strauss’s definition of philosophy accord with or decide for the first beginning or the other beginning? Evidently, it decides for the first beginning, especially in making knowledge of the natures of all things” the aim of philosophy.31 For Heidegger, philosophy is not the attempt to acquire knowledge of “the natures of all things.” Heidegger does ask about world, man, and the divine, to be sure. But he does not ask about them to inquire about their natures or whatness, which he regards as an inquiry bound to Platonic philosophy, to the interpretation of Beyng as idea (the emphasis on “beings” rather than “Being” or “Beyng” is reflected in the statement by Strauss that philosophy is a quest for knowledge of “all things” or of “all the beings”).

Strauss is in agreement with Heidegger that “[g]enuine knowledge of a fundamental question through understanding of it, is better than blindness to it, or indifference to it, be that indifference or blindness accompanied by knowledge of the answers to a vast number of peripheral or ephemeral questions or not.”32 Yet throughout his work Strauss seems not to call into question or to treat as a fundamental problem the notion of “nature”  that is constitutive of his definition  of philosophy, “quest for the knowledge of the natures of all things” and a fortiori of his definition of political philosophy, “the attempt to replace opinion about the nature of political things by knowledge of the nature of political things.”33

It is no counterargument that Strauss’s most famous book is precisely dedicated to the theme of nature in the guise of natural right. In the introduction Strauss writes that no “adequate solution” to “the problem of natural right” is accessible without solving the problem of the “fundamental, typically modern dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man,” which Natural Right and History “cannot deal with,” limiting itself “to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences.”34 To say that the problem of natural right remains within the confines of the social sciences and does not deal with the fundamental problem of nature is to say that Strauss’s treatment of nature in his book on natural right does not rise to the level of philosophical analysis and thus remains subject to philosophical critique, such as Heidegger has to offer.

Strauss would hardly have subjected the notion of nature to proper philosophical critique in a book, one of whose aims was to provide a defense for political purposes of “natural right” against the alternatives of positivism and historicism and the “inescapable practical consequence of nihilism,” i.e., “fanatical obscurantism.”35 Or should we say that he would not have done so explicitly? Is there evidence in Natural Right and History of a potential philosophical critique of the concept of nature? Can we find Strauss’s philosophical response to Heidegger between the lines?36

Excerpt from: Michael Millerman’s “Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political”

1 Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): 114. 2 Richard L. Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 7. 3 Colen, José A. and Svetozar Minkov. 2014. “Leo Strauss on Social and Natural Science: Two Previously Unpublished Papers.” The Review of Politics 76 (4): 619–633. 4 Colen and Minkov, “Leo Strauss on Social and Natural Science.”Colen and Minkov, “Leo Strauss on Social and Natural Science.” 5 Strauss, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Political Philosophy,” 29: “Almost throughout its whole history political philosophy was universal while politics was particular. Political philosophy was concerned with the best or just order  of society which is by nature best or just everywhere or always, while politics is concerned with the being and well-being of this or that particular society…that is in being at a given place for some time.” 6 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 7. Thus, “[o]ne could almost say that Heidegger is the unnamed presence to whom or against whom all of Strauss’s writings are in large part directed.” Steven B. Smith, “Destruktion or Recovery? 7 Leo Strauss’s Critique of Heidegger,” The Review of Metaphysics 51, No. 2 (1997): 346. 8 Leo Strauss, “Existentialism,” Interpretation 22, No. 3 (1995): 317. 9 Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press): 317. 10 Leo Strauss, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983): 30. 11 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 5. 12 Strauss, “Existentialism,” 304. 13 Strauss, “Existentialism.” 304. 14 Strauss, “Existentialism.” 304. 15 Strauss, “Existentialism.” 304. 16 Strauss, Platonic Political Philosophy, 30. 17 Strauss, Platonic Political Philosophy, 30. 18 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 58. 19 Strauss, Natural Right and History, vii; Strauss, Platonic Political Philosophy, 30. 20 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 55. 21 Leo Strauss, “Plato,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (Chicago: Rand McNally and Company): 42. 22 Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 212. Actually, though, Heidegger does not neglect the political, so much as he con- stitutes it differently than Strauss and his version of the tradition of Platonic political philosophy does. See Michael Gillespie, Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): 139–143. 23 Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 65–76. 24 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 73. 25 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 75. 26 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 76, emphasis added. 27 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 76. 28 Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy, 78. Steven Smith agrees. Steven Smith, “Destruktion or Recovery?” 363. Compare Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘the Ister’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996): 118. 29 Crystal Paris, “Leo Strauss: Theology, Politics and Zetetic Philosophy” European Journal of Political Theory 93, No. 3 (2010). 30 Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959): 11. 31 See Christopher Bruell, “The Question of Nature and the Thought of Leo Strauss,” Klesis — revue philosophique 19 (2011), available online at: http://www. [Accessed January 2, 2018]. 32 Bruell, “The Question of Nature.” 33 Bruell, “The Question of Nature,” 11–12. 34 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 8. 35 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 6. 36 The Zuckerts’ call Natural Right and History the source of Strauss’s pri- mary “philosophical response to ‘radical historicism.’” Michael P. Zuckert and Catherine H. Zuckert, Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014): 53. They also write (on page 264) that he “responded most fully and emphatically both to Heidegger’s analysis of human existence and to the history of philosophy on which he later based his radical historicism in Natural Right and History.”

Michael Millerman is a scholar of political philosophy. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto and has published extensively on Leo Strauss and taught political theory for several years.

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