I don't think, in recent times at least, there's been a more vilified intellectual figure — at least in certain circles — than Leo Strauss. And especially, so long-deceased an intellectual figure. A German-Jewish émigré, Strauss, who died 33 years ago, taught philosophy for the most part for several decades at the University of Chicago. Few outside of some rarefied circles had heard of him until recently, when a barrage of criticism was unleashed, the gist of which was that during his quiet tenure in the halls of academe he was, in fact, preparing "an intellectual putsch, which would take place 30 years after his deathand culminate in the war in Iraq."
Or at least that's one of the many points made (and often disputed) in a recent piece by Edward Rothstein, critic at large of The New York Times, called "Democracy's Best Friend or Antidemocratic Elitist?" It appeared in the Arts section of the July 10 paper.
Rothstein explained the controversy as follows: Strauss' "students and followers, these critics say, learned their lessons well and like good soldiers began a long march through a variety of institutions, seeking control. They maneuvered into foundations, institutes and departments of state and war. Then they began their shadow rule, leading the nation into foolhardy war. Presumably, their mentor gazes down from the heavens (or upward from the other place), beaming with satisfaction."
Rothstein admitted that he was exaggerating slightly to make a point, but only slightly. This argument has been made in many newspaper and magazine articles and various books. Strauss has been characterized as "an antidemocratic ultraconservative: the shadowy intellectual figure behind some of the men who planned the Iraq war. He has been called a cynical teacher who encouraged his students to believe in the use of 'noble lies' to manipulate the masses. And he has been linked (with variable accuracy) to, among others, Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense; and Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld."
Rothstein's article then moved on to a discussion of a new book by Steven B. Smith, a political scientist at Yale University, titled Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism. The book — a collection of essays — was recently published by the University of Chicago Press, and is a spirited defense of its subject and his views.
According to Rothstein, Smith argues that "Strauss, far from being a conservative, was a 'friend of liberal democracy — one of the best friends democracy has ever had.' Moreover, despite the assertions of his critics, he 'saw politics neither from the Right nor from the Left but from above.' "
Rothstein noted that Smith's "close readings" are too detailed to "quickly summarize," but that he made clear just how misunderstood Strauss has been. Rothstein's clarity is equaled Smith's step by step.