Interest in Leo Strauss is greater now than at any time since his death, mostly because of the purported link between his thought and the political movement known as neoconservatism. Steven B. Smith, though, surprisingly depicts Strauss not as the high priest of neoconservatism but as a friend of liberal democracy—perhaps the best defender democracy has ever had. Moreover, in Reading Leo Strauss, Smith shows that Strauss’s defense of liberal democracy was closely connected to his skepticism of both the extreme Left and extreme Right.
Smith asserts that this philosophical skepticism defined Strauss’s thought. It was as a skeptic, Smith argues, that Strauss considered the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation—a conflict Strauss dubbed the “theologico-political problem.” Calling this problem “the theme of my investigations,” Strauss asked the same fundamental question throughout his life: what is the relation of the political order to revelation in general and Judaism in particular? Smith organizes his book with this question, first addressing Strauss’s views on religion and then examining his thought on philosophical and political issues.
In his investigation of these philosophical and political issues, Smith assesses Strauss’s attempt to direct the teaching of political science away from the examination of mass behavior and interest group politics and toward the study of the philosophical principles on which politics are based. With his provocative, lucid essays, Smith goes a long way toward establishing a distinctive form of Straussian liberalism.
Though German philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) is referred to as the father of neo-conservatism, Yale political science professor Smith argues that relationship is a "mountain of nonsense" and that Strauss was "a friend of liberal democracy-one of the best friends democracy ever had." In his examination of Strauss's lifelong occupation with the "theologico-political problem," Smith explores Strauss's ruminations on the dilemma of destiny versus free will. Strauss identified complications with both and conceded there is no way to reconcile the two, but as Smith notes, "the peculiar heroism of the philosopher consists of...keeping alive an awareness of the problems as things that defy permanent solutions." Strauss advocated the separation of state and society as the most practical (but not perfect) way to address the theologico-political problem, prompting Smith to call Strauss's politics "liberalism without illusions." In addition to scrutinizing Strauss's works (Natural Right and History and On Tyranny, among others), Smith also considers Strauss's writings on Spinoza, whom he regarded as "the prophet of a new kind of ethical culture," and Heidegger as well as his correspondence with colleague and friend Gershom Scholem. Smith quietly builds a persuasive case that Strauss's work "makes clear that the danger to the West comes not from liberalism but from our loss of confidence in it."