U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Listening to Leo Strauss

The perfect book or speech obeys in every respect the pure and merciless laws of what has been called logographic necessity.  The perfect speech contains nothing slipshod; it in there are no loose threads; it contains no word that has been picked at random; it is not marred by errors due to faulty memory or to any other kind of carelessness; strong passions and a powerful and fertile imagination are guided with ease by a reason which knows how to use the unexpected gift, which knows how to persuade and which knows how to forbid; it allows of no adornment which is not imposed by the gravity and aloofness of the subject matter; the perfect writer rejects with disdain and with some impatience the demand of vulgar rhetoric that expressions must be varied since change is pleasant. 

— Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), p. 121

Let me say only this: Don’t pay too great attention to that [unintelligible] of mine. What I said about this prehistory of Hegel–Kant and Spinoza–was a deliberately provisional statement to lead up to this new kind of thinking. If you have any difficulty, forget about it. . . .  

Just forget about it. Don’t worry too much.  I just tried…And you are not a…you probably have no teaching experience. As a teacher one has to lead up from all parts of the horizon to something. And, uh, one is not always successful at that. That has to be…I mean, teaching can never become a scientifically conductible affair. 

–Leo Strauss, Seminar on Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, University of Chicago,
 Winter Quarter 1965, Session 1, January 5, 1965

In my post several weeks ago on Embodiment and Intellectual History, I mentioned the audio recordings of courses taught by Leo Strauss that are now available at the website of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago.  Here are a few preliminary thoughts about them…

I

Those of us who study the last century-and-a-quarter or so of history have at least the possibility of hearing the voices of the people about whom we write. Some historical voices are familiar to almost all of us who study the past.  My guess is that the voices of every President going back to FDR are familiar to those who read this blog.  So are the voices of other major political figures of the recent past, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Other voices may be less familiar but are readily available…especially in the age of the internet. The voices of poets, for example, have been of interest since the beginning of sound recording. At the click of a mouse, you can hear Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell,   Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, or virtually any other well-known poet of the recent past.

But away from politics and literature, the ability to hear voices from the past is a bit more hit-and-miss. While some of the people about whom I wrote in my first book have voices that are familiar to me–Orson Welles, Franklin Roosevelt, even Frank Capra and Hannah Arendt–I know others only through their literary voices.  My guess is that there are plenty of sound recordings of Erich Fromm, Bruno Bettelheim, Dwight Macdonald, and Clement Greenberg, but if I’ve heard them, I forget the qualities of their voices.  I don’t know if there are any readily available recordings of many of the other, more obscure, figures about whom I wrote, like Calvin B. Hoover, the Duke University economist who was one of the first to use “totalitarian” as a term to link Stalinism and Nazism, and my guess is, if such recordings exist, they’d be harder to come by.

Encountering for the first time the (actual) voice of someone whose literary voice is familiar is always an odd experience, one which we often have with the living as well as the dead. Sometimes the voice is exactly what one expects. Or, at least, it matches one’s literary experience. I remember, for example, the first time I heard J.G.A. Pocock give a lecture and being struck by both the oddness of his voice and how perfectly it fit the voice on the page.

More often, at least for me, the voices I hear of those whose words are familiar to me are somewhat different from what I expected. Mind you, I don’t usually formulate a precise expectation of someone’s voice by reading her prose. But like literary characters whom we meet in novels, we fill in the blanks about real people whom we encounter on the page. And the initial experience of hearing their voices is often like encountering a familiar literary character in a film or stage adaptation.  What we hear is often not what we imagined.

But there is of course a big difference. Especially if we are careful readers, the image of a literary character that we develop from the page has at least as great a claim to authenticity as the adapted versions we see on the screen. To the extent that those screen versions begin to displace the versions we imagined for ourselves, something real is lost.  But the voice we hear in a recording of an historical person is that person’s voice…or at least a good deal closer to it than any imagined reconstruction we come up with when reading their prose.

I’m not sure how I imagined that Leo Strauss would sound, but I was surprised when I first encountered his voice, which reminded me in many ways of my Russian grandfather, who was just a few years younger than Strauss and who learned English well after becoming fluent in German and earning a PhD at a German university (at least that’s my best explanation of whatever similarity I hear).  But now that I’ve heard it, Strauss’s voice is inseparable in my mind from Leo Strauss, who has become more concretely embodied for me than he was before.

II

As I wrote in my post on embodiment, Strauss’s recorded seminars are of particular interest because of the esteem in which his students held him as a teacher.  Richard G. Stevens’s claim that Strauss was “the greatest classroom teacher in the history of Western civilization” is only the most extravagant of countless celebrations of his pedagogical charisma.

As the Strauss Center’s webpage notes, for years, transcripts of these recordings were passed around among a select group of Strauss’s students and his students’ students, always with the admonition “Recipients are emphatically requested not to seek to increase the circulation of the transcription.”

The preciousness, care, and even secrecy with which these transcripts were treated reflect Strauss’s peculiar notions about the relationship of oral philosophical teaching to written philosophical works. The former can be much more frank than the latter, as they are addressed to a select audience and are not available to the vulgar.*

One of the things most immediately striking about the recordings of Strauss’s seminars is how different they are from his writings. Not so much in content–I have yet to encounter any “secret teachings” in my listening–as in tone.  The two passages I quote above–the first in writing about writing, the second on tape about oral teaching–capture at least part of the theoretical aspect of this difference.  The second comes from Strauss’s answer to a student’s question about Strauss’s very condensed discussion of Kant, Spinoza, and Jacobi with which Strauss had begun his introductory meeting of his seminar on Hegel’s Philosophy of History.  In this quotation, Strauss puts forward a vision of classroom teaching that is utterly different from his notion of philosophical writing, which is, in turn, nicely captured in the quotation above it from his Thoughts on Machiavelli.  Strauss’s method of reading philosophy entails assuming that serious philosophers are simply incapable of making errors…so any apparent error in a philosophical text (or at least in a pre-modern philosophical text) is an indication of some sort of esoteric teaching.  But clearly Strauss understands the task of oral instruction differently.  I suspect I am not alone, among those who find Straussian (written) hermeneutics hard to swallow, in finding Strauss’s humility about the provisional nature of teaching refreshing.

And indeed the feeling of Strauss’s seminar lectures (and these are very much lectures) is utterly different from the feelings of his writings.  Strauss’s written work is dense, allusive, and often elusive.  Although followers of Strauss deeply value these written for, among other things, their style, many non-Straussians find them exquisitely dull.  “It is a general observation,” Strauss writes in his essay “How to Study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise” from Persecution and the Art of Writing, “that people write as they read.”**  And Leo Strauss certainly treated the writings of other philosophers as esoteric puzzle palaces.

His lectures, on the other hand, seem different.  They are much more typical of good lectures in their approach than his books are typical of good books. Strauss emphasizes and reemphasizes important points. He incorporates examples from current events to illustrate his points. He interacts with his students in a way that indicates both that he takes them seriously, but that he knows exactly where he wants to lead them (his pedagogical persona is, unsurprisingly, old-fashioned in this regard).  While they certainly do not move me to agree that he was the greatest teacher since Plato, Strauss’s pedagogical charisma is clear in them.

III

Now broadly available, the lectures provide an excellent new (to the rest of us) way to get a sense of Leo Strauss’s approach to political philosophy. Take, for example, the Introduction to Political Philosophy that Strauss offered at the U of C during the Winter Quarter of 1965.  Like most of the courses for which recordings are available, this one is incomplete; only nine of the sixteen sessions are preserved on tape. As far as I can tell, the recordings represent nine of the first ten class meetings, with the last five meetings missing (the recordings are numbered one to nine, but there appears to be a lecture skipped in the midst of them).

For those unversed in Strauss, the arrangement of material might seem odd. Strauss begins his opening lecture by noting that political philosophy, in the classical sense, seems utterly impossible today.  He then spends the next six, hour-and-a-half-long sessions elaborating the reasons for this sense of impossibility. All of the first two lectures and the beginning of the third concern Auguste Comte and positivism.  The rest of Lecture Three, all of Lecture Four, and the beginning of Lecture Five concern the notion of value-free social science…and its inadequacy in Strauss’s view.  The remainder of Lecture Five and all of Lecture Six concern historicism.

Strauss thus spends more than the first third of his class meticulously describing three of his major bêtes noires: positivism, the fact-value distinction, and historicism. All of this, again, is by way of explaining why political philosophy seems impossible in 1965.

Finally, in Lecture Seven, Strauss begins to tackle the history of political philosophy, which, Strauss argues, unlike political philosophy itself, is still seen as necessary.  He begins discussing the history of political philosophy by way of another great Straussian trope, the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. This then leads to a discussion of Hobbes and Rousseau, who represent what Strauss sees as the first and second waves of modernity.*** 

Lecture Eight continues to describe the ways in which modern political philosophy departs from classical political philosophy, which Strauss has still not discussed at any length. At various times, Kant, Descartes, Hegel, and Nietzsche, the last the representative figure from Strauss’s third wave of modernity, come into the discussion.  The lecture concludes with the thought that, unlike modern political thought, which locates itself outside the realm of everyday politics, classical political philosophy “has its stand within the political sphere.”

In Lecture Nine, Strauss finally works his way to classical political philosophy and a discussion of Aristotle’s Politics.

Strauss’s extraordinarily long journey to the subject at hand in these lectures seems to instantiate his notion  (in his written works) of modernity’s constituting a second cave from which we must crawl merely to find ourselves in the “natural” cave described by Plato.  The lectures also provide a concrete answer to what is sometimes seen as a core paradox of Strauss’s work: the fact that this implacable foe of historicism appears to have devoted his career to explicating the history of political philosophy.  As Strauss explains in exhaustive detail in the early lectures, given that political philosophy seems impossible today, while the history of political philosophy seems not only possible but necessary, that history must be our path back to political philosophy itself.

I’m not sure that I would have gotten all of this out of these lectures had I not first read much Strauss, and much about Strauss. And from the point of view of intellectual history, the status of these seminars is complicated: they are both public and private documents, depending on how one looks at them. But they are a fascinating resource.
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* For more on this issue, see Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), esp. Chapter 2.  This is also not to say that Strauss is being entirely frank in his seminars. But he is certainly addressing a more select audience.

** Persecution and the Art of Writing, 144.

*** Strauss does not talk of the three waves in this lecture, but the idea structures his discussion of modern political philosophy here in many ways.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, this is such a rich post. A great read.

    To your catalog of various ways of experiencing the relationship of spoken voice to authorial voice, I’d add one more: the experience of becoming acquainted with someone’s spoken voice first, and then encountering his/her written voice on the page. I suppose this happens with increasing frequency the longer one is in academe — you study with someone, or take classes with someone, or hear someone give a talk at a conference, and then some time later you find this person “speaking” from the page. And you might say, “Yeah, I could hear her saying something like that,” or, “I can’t imagine him saying this phrase.” When the spoken voice and the written voice “match,” that’s always a pleasant experience.

    • Excellent point, L.D. My guess is that this was actually the lived experience of most first-generation Straussians, the overwhelming majority of whom studied with Strauss and probably encountered him in the classroom before meeting him on the page.

  2. Ben- Thanks for the interesting post. I was wondering about the quote from “Thoughts on Machiavelli”. Given the subject matter of the quote I find the second sentence rather inelegant even clumsy. Was Leo Strauss expressing irony or were you in posting it? No snarkiness intended,I say this knowing I live in a glass house.

    • Very good (and perceptive) question, Paul!

      Let’s separate Strauss’s irony from mine.

      There’s perfectly good reason to think that Strauss was being ironic in the way that sentence is constructed. Such irony is certainly a tool of his writing (and discovering and analyzing such irony one of his reading). The larger point in the passage from which this quotation is taken is intended entirely seriously. The larger passage concerns 1) the need to read–and translate–Machiavelli in a different way from how one ought to read a “vulgar” text and 2) the very complicated relationship between the dense and ironized way in which Machiavelli reads Livy and the similar way in which we must read Machiavelli. I won’t speculate on the particular reasons for Strauss’s ironizing this statement about perfect writing. Thoughts on Machiavelli is a very difficult book. Straussians find it endlessly rich. Others, not so much.

      As for ironic intent on my part…I hadn’t thought of it as irony, but perhaps, in a sense I did mean it ironically. As I suggest above, I find Strauss’s classroom voice a good deal more appealing than his written one. And this passage about literary perfection instantiates that to some extent.

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