Leo Strauss

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The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.

Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899October 18, 1973) was a German-Jewish philosopher who specialized in the study of classical political philosophy.

Quotes[edit]

All political action aims at either preservation or change.
Dream is akin to aspiration. And aspiration is a kind of divination of an enigmatic vision.
The truth of the ultimate mystery — the truth that there is an ultimate mystery, that being is radically mysterious — cannot be denied even by the unbelieving Jew of our age.
Science is susceptible of infinite progress.
But how can science be susceptible of infinite progress if its object does not have an inner infinity?
We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise. We are seekers for wisdom, philo-sophoi.
  • All political action aims at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change for the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is then guided by some thought of better or worse.
    • "What Is Political Philosophy" in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 19 (1957) by the Southern Political Science Association, p. 343
  • The kingdom is Yours, and You will reign in glory for all eternity. As it is written in Your Torah: "The Lord shall reign for ever and ever." And it is said: " And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: on that day the Lord shall be One, and His name One."
    No nobler dream was ever dreamt. It is surely nobler to be a victim of the most noble dream than to profit from a sordid reality and to wallow in it. Dream is akin to aspiration. And aspiration is a kind of divination of an enigmatic vision. And an enigmatic vision in the emphatic sense is the perception of the ultimate mystery, of the truth of the ultimate mystery. The truth of the ultimate mystery — the truth that there is an ultimate mystery, that being is radically mysterious — cannot be denied even by the unbelieving Jew of our age. That unbelieving Jew of our age, if he has any education, is ordinarily a positivist, a believer in Science, if not a positivist without any education.
    • Commenting upon the Aleinu prayer, in "Why We Remain Jews" (1962)
  • Science, as the positivist understands it, is susceptible of infinite progress. That you learn in every elementary school today, I believe. Every result of science is provisional and subject to future revision, and this will never change. In other words, fifty thousand years from now there will still be results entirely different from those now, but still subject to revision. Science is susceptible of infinite progress. But how can science be susceptible of infinite progress if its object does not have an inner infinity? The belief admitted by all believers in science today — that science is by its nature essentially progressive, and eternally progressive — implies, without saying it, that being is mysterious. And here is the point where the two lines I have tried to trace do not meet exactly, but where they come within hailing distance. And, I believe, to expect more in a general way, of people in general, would be unreasonable.
    • "Why We Remain Jews" (1962)
  • No bloody or unbloody change of society can eradicate the evil in man: as long as there will be men, there will be malice, envy and hatred, and hence there cannot be a society which does not have to employ coercive restraint.
    • The City and Man, p. 5 (1964)
  • We are confronted with the incompatible claims of Jerusalem and Athens to our allegiance. We are open to both and willing to listen to each. We ourselves are not wise but we wish to become wise. We are seekers for wisdom, philo-sophoi.
    • Athens and Jerusalem : Some Preliminary Reflections in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (1985), p. 149
  • The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.
    • Jewish Philosophy and the crisis of Modernity : Essays And Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, p. 327 (1997)
  • The emancipation of the scholars and scientists from philosophy is according to [Nietzsche] only a part of the democratic movement, i.e. of the emancipation of the low from subordination to the high. … The plebeian character of the contemporary scholar or scientist is due to the fact that he has no reverence for himself.
    • Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, p. 186

Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952)[edit]

  • Education, they [philosophers] felt, is the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question par excellence, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.
    • p. 37

Natural Right and History (1953)[edit]

  • According to our social science, we can be or become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but we have to be resigned to utter ignorance in the most important respect: we cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of our choices, i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness... We are then in the position of beings who are sane and sober when engaged in trivial business and who gamble like madmen when confronted with serious issues.
    • p. 4
  • Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance or in the notion that everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands happiness; but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance.
    • p. 6
  • Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them anymore... In order to live, we have to silence the easily silenced voice of reason, which tells us that our principles are in themselves as good or as bad an any other principles. The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism...
    • p. 6
  • Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true.
    • p. 6
  • Philosophizing means, then, to ascend from public dogma to essentially private knowledge.
    • p. 12
  • History teaches us that a given view has been abandoned in favor of another by all men, or by all competent men, or perhaps by only the most vocal men; it does not teach us whether the change was sound or whether the rejected view deserved to be rejected. Only an impartial analysis of the view in question, an analysis that is not dazzled by the victory or stunned by the defeat of the adherents of the view concerned—could teach us anything regarding the worth of the view and hence regarding the meaning of the historical change.
    • p. 19
  • To avert the danger [posed by theory] to life, Nietzsche could choose one of two ways: he could insist on the strictly esoteric character of the theoretical analysis of life—that is, restore the Platonic notion of the noble delusion—or else he could deny the possibility of theory proper and so conceive of thought as essentially subservient to, or dependent on, life or fate... If not Nietzsche himself, at any rate his successors [Heidegger] adopted the second alternative.
    • p. 26
  • It is of the essence of traditions that they cover or conceal their humble foundations by erecting impressive edifices on them.
    • p. 31
  • Nothing ought to be said or done which could create the impression that unbiased reconsideration of the most elementary premises of philosophy is a merely academic or historical affair.
    • p. 31
  • By realizing that we are ignorant of the most important things, we realize at the same time that the most important thing for us, or the one thing needful, is quest for knowledge of the most important things or quest for wisdom.
    • p. 36
  • It is true that the successful quest for wisdom might lead to the result that wisdom is not the one thing needful. But this result would owe its relevance to the fact that it is the result of the quest for wisdom: the very disavowal of reason must be reasonable disavowal.
    • p. 36
  • Philosophy has to grant that revelation is possible. But to grant that revelation is possible means to grant that philosophy is perhaps something infinitely unimportant. To grant that revelation is possible means to grant that the philosophic life is not necessarily, not evidently, the right life. Philosophy, the life devoted to the quest for evident knowledge available to man as man, would itself rest on an unevident, arbitrary, or blind decision. This would merely confirm the thesis of faith, that there is no possibility of consistency, of a consistent and thoroughly sincere life, without belief in revelation. The mere fact that philosophy and revelation cannot refute each other would constitute the refutation of philosophy by revelation.
    • p. 75
  • Men must always have distinguished (e.g. in judicial matters) between hearsay and seeing with one’s own eyes and have preferred what one has seen to what he has merely heard from others. But the use of this distinction was originally limited to particular or subordinate matters. As regards the most weighty matters—the first things and the right way—the only source of knowledge was hearsay.
    • p. 86
  • The sophist, in contradistinction to the philosopher, is not set in motion and kept in motion by the sting of the awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction or belief and genuine insight.
    • p.116
  • [The sophist] is concerned with wisdom, not for its own sake, not because he hates the lie in the soul more than anything else, but for the sake of the honor or the prestige that attends wisdom.
    • p. 116
  • The character, or tone, of a society depends on what the society regards as the most respectable or most worthy of admiration. But by regarding certain habits or attitudes as most respectable, a society admits the superiority, the superior dignity, of those human beings who most perfectly embody the habits or attitudes in question. That is to say, every society regards a specific human type (or a specific mixture of human types) as authoritative. When the authoritative type is the common man, everything has to justify itself before the tribunal of the common man; everything which cannot be justified before that tribunal becomes, at best, merely tolerated, if not despised or suspect. And even those who do not recognize that tribunal are, willy-nilly, molded by its verdicts.
    • p. 137

Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958)[edit]

The silence of a wise man is always meaningful.
  • The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.
    • p. 13
  • The silence of a wise man is always meaningful.
    • p. 30
  • The most superficial fact regarding the Discourses, the fact that the number of its chapters equals the number of books of Livy's History, compelled us to start a chain of tentative reasoning which brings us suddenly face to face with the only New Testament quotation that ever appears in Machiavelli's two books and with an enormous blasphemy.
    • p. 49
  • We believe that failing to call a spade a spade is not scientific.
    • p. 50

What is Political Philosophy (1959)[edit]

  • The belief that value judgments are not subject, in the last analysis, to rational control, encourages the inclination to make irresponsible assertions regarding right and wrong or good and bad. One evades discussion of serious issues by the simple device of passing them off as value problems, whereas, to say the least, many of these conflicts arose out of man’s very agreement regarding values.
    • p. 23
  • Men are constantly attracted and deluded by two opposite charms: the charm of competence which is engendered by mathematics and everything akin to mathematics, and the charm of humble awe, which is engendered by meditation on the human soul and its experiences. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to succumb to either charm. It is the highest form of the mating of courage and moderation. In spite of its highness or nobility, it could appear as Sisyphean or ugly, when one contrasts its achievement with its goal. Yet it is necessarily accompanied, sustained and elevated by eros. It is graced by nature's grace.
    • p. 40
  • Our understanding of the thought of the past is liable to be the more adequate, the less the historian is convinced of the superiority of his own point of view, or the more he is prepared to admit the possibility that he may have to learn something, not merely about the thinkers of the past, but from them.
    • p. 68
  • “Our ideas” are only partly our ideas. Most of our ideas are abbreviations or residues of the thought of other people, of our teachers (in the broadest sense of the term) and of our teachers’ teachers; they are abbreviations and residues of the thought of the past. These thoughts were once explicit and in the center of consideration and discussion. It may even be presumed that they were once perfectly lucid. By being transmitted to later generations they have possibly been transformed, and there is no certainty that the transformation was effected consciously and with full clarity. ... This means that the clarification of our political ideas insensibly changes into and becomes indistinguishable from the history of political ideas.
    • p. 73
  • The clarification of our political ideas insensibly changes into and becomes indistinguishable from the history of political ideas.
    • p. 73
  • When speaking of a “body of knowledge” or of “the results of research,” e.g., we tacitly assign the same cognitive status to inherited knowledge and to independently acquired knowledge. To counteract this tendency a special effort is required to transform inherited knowledge into genuine knowledge by revitalizing its original discovery, and to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious elements of what claims to be inherited knowledge.
    • p. 77
  • The adjective “political” in “political philosophy” designates not so much the subject matter as a manner of treatment; from this point of view, I say, “political philosophy” means primarily not the philosophic study of politics, but the political, or popular, treatment of philosophy, or the political introduction to philosophy—the attempt to lead qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life.
    • p. 93
  • [The philosopher] is ultimately compelled to transcend not merely the dimensions of common opinion, of political opinion, but the dimension of political life as such; for he is left to realize that the ultimate aim of political life cannot be reached by political life, but only by a life devoted to contemplation, to philosophy.
    • p. 91

Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968)[edit]

  • “Culture” means … the cultivation of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind. Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, the mind needs teachers. But teachers are not as easy to come by as farmers. The teachers themselves are pupils and must be pupils. But there cannot be an infinite regress: ultimately there must be teachers who are not in turn pupils. Those teachers who are not in turn pupils are the great minds.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 3
  • It was once said that democracy is the regime that stands or falls by virtue: a democracy is a regime in which all or most adults are men of virtue, and since virtue seems to require wisdom, a regime in which all or most adults are virtuous and wise, or the society in which all or most adults have developed their reason to a high degree, or the rational society. Democracy, in a word, is meant to be an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy. … There exists a whole science—the science which I among thousands of others profess to teach, political science—which so to speak has no other theme than the contrast between the original conception of democracy, or what one may call the ideal of democracy, and democracy as it is. … Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.
    • “What is liberal education,” pp. 4-5
  • A mass culture is a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual or moral effort whatsoever. … Liberal education is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.”
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 5 [The phrase “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” is from Max Weber]
  • Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 5
  • Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 5
  • Life is too short to live with any but the greatest books.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 6
  • Education to perfect gentlemanship, to human excellence, liberal education consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 6
  • It is as absurd to expect members of philosophy departments to be philosophers as it is to expect members of art departments to be artists.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 7
  • We somehow believe that our point of view is superior, higher than those of the greatest minds—either because our point of view is that of our time, and our time, being later than the time of the greatest minds, can be presumed to be superior to their times; or else because we believe that each the greatest minds was right from his point of view, but not, as he claims, simply right.
    • “What is liberal education,” pp. 7-8
  • The facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation all amount to this: that we are, or can be, wiser than the wisest men of the past. We are thus induced to play the part, not of attentive and docile listeners, but of impresarios and lion-tamers.
    • “What is liberal education,” p.
  • We cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance; and this act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noesos, and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 8
  • By becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith the goodness of the world, whither we understand it as created or uncreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 8
  • Liberal education, which consists in the constant intercourse with the greatest minds, is a training in the highest form of modesty. … It is at the same time a training in boldness. … It demands from us the boldness implied in the resolve to regard the accepted views as mere opinions, or to regard the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange or least popular opinions
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 8
  • Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for “vulgarity”; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful.
    • “What is liberal education,” p. 8
  • It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself as fully as what it is.
    • p. 225
  • Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli's teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.
    • p. 223
  • At the time and in the country in which the present study was written, it was granted by everyone except backward people that the Jewish faith had not been refuted by science or by history.... one could grant to science and history everything they seem to teach regarding the age of the world, the origin of man, the impossibility of miracles, the impossibility of the immortality of the soul, and of the resurrection of the body, the Jahvist, the Elohist, the third Isaah, and so on, without abandoning one iota of the substance of the Jewish faith.
    • p. 231; from the "Preface" to Spinoza's Critique of Religion


Misattributed[edit]

  • All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable, which makes you see something you weren't noticing, which makes you see something that isn't even visible.
  • I may never have experienced a centaur, but by imagining one, I know that I can also imagine others that resemble this one and yet are different. But the God of the Bible is not only One, but the only possible One. As such, He cannot become an object of knowledge. And He cannot be imagined. A god that can be imagined would be a pagan deity (of which their always can be many), but not the One of the Bible. This is why the second of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of images; that is to say, it forbids any suggestion that God can become an object of knowledge by being an object of perception. It is because He cannot become an object of knowledge that He can, and indeed must, be an object of faith.
    • Harry V. Jaffa, citing ideas of Strauss, in "Leo Strauss, the Bible and Politics" in Leo Strauss : Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker (1994) edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski, p. 197; portions of this have become attributed to Strauss on the internet.
  • I cannot know anything of which there is and can only be one. If God is One, and if there be no other God, there can be no idea of God. God is unique in that in Him no distinction can be drawn between the universal and the particular, which is the ground of all intelligibility within the dispensation of unassisted human reason. God is therefore unknowable. This is the fundamental premise of the Bible.
    • Harry V. Jaffa, citing ideas of Strauss, in "Leo Strauss, the Bible and Politics" in Leo Strauss : Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker (1994) edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski, p. 197; portions of this have become attributed to Strauss on the internet.

External links[edit]

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