Wollen wir die Gegewart so wie sie ist, erkennen, frei von der herrschenden Auffassungen, die wir erst prüfen müssen, so müssen wir allererst von der Gegenwart frei sein. Diese Freiheit fällt uns nicht in den Schoss, wir müssen sie uns erobern. —Leo Strauss, “Religiöse Lage der Gegenwart,” 1930
…wir uns selber nicht von der Modernität befreien können, wenn wir die Modernität nicht verstehen. —Leo Strauss, letter to Karl Löwith, 21 December 1951
The only question of importance of course is the question whether Heidegger’s teaching is true or not. But the very question is deceptive because it is silent about the question of competence—of who is competent to judge…The more I understand what Heidegger is aiming at the more I see how much still escapes me. —Leo Strauss, “Existentialism,” lecture given in February 1956
This thesis is an attempt first to outline, and then to examine critically, Leo Strauss’s critique of Martin Heidegger. Up to the time of this writing, only essays and chapters of books, not to mention paragraphs and remarks, have addressed this relation. Thus, I propose this thesis to be worthwhile for purely scholarly reasons. This is never a good reason for philosophical exploration, however. To indicate this, I quote, hopefully with due consideration of hubris, one of Strauss’s most forthright passages concerning the task of the student of philosophy:
…liberal education consists in listening to the conversation among the greatest minds. But here we are confronted with the overwhelming difficulty that this conversation does not take place without our help—that in fact we must bring about that conversation. The greatest minds utter monologues. We must transform their monologues into a dialogue, their ‘side by side’ into a ‘together.’ (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 7)
I leave the question of the relative stature of Strauss and Heidegger for a more partisan situation. The ‘first’ question that follows from this passage, then, is, why these two thinkers? First, because Strauss was educated in the same intellectual period in which Heidegger had arguably his most decisive influence. Thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Löwith, and Jacob Klein, all of whom students of Heidegger and all of whom engaged in debates of varying depth with Strauss, make up some of the greatest examples of attempts to come to terms with Heidegger’s thought. It is precisely this tradition in which I wish to situate Strauss, and hence this thesis can be seen as an attempt to interpret Strauss in more of a ‘Continental’ way. This fraught appellation is sure to arouse suspicion from both promoters and detractors of Strauss, but I believe that it is not possible to understand the impetus for Strauss’s overall project without understanding the intellectual milieu in which he received his training and, I argue, the initial set of problems with which he continued to grapple for the rest of his life.
Second, it is important to consider the two thinkers in tandem because scholars of Strauss, both friendly and antipathetic, have recognized the importance of Heidegger to understand Strauss’s position. Strauss’s writings engage with Heidegger and his thought repeatedly, from early letters to some of the perhaps better-known thinkers who arose out of the academic situation which Heidegger prepared in Weimar-era Germany, to Strauss’s late writings concerning the problem of Socrates, a problem to which all of Strauss’s writings were arguably intended as a response. Hence, a considered and in-depth discussion of the entirety of Strauss’s engagement with Heidegger is crucial to understand Strauss’s position on a variety of the subjects which served as his guiding lights: the question of ancient versus modern philosophy, the question of philosophy versus politics, and the question of reason versus revelation as two competing bases for the way of living well.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, an examination of Strauss and Heidegger in tandem allows one to see their differing conceptions of some remarkably similar positions and diagnoses concerning the contemporary situation both of philosophy and of politics, not to mention of human existence in light of the two. Strauss and Heidegger both consider their philosophical endeavours as responses to what each thinker calls the ‘crisis of the West;’ both thinkers see certain aspects of this crisis instantiated in the triumph and the danger of modern (physical) science as the perhaps final way to understand human beings and the whole which they inhabit; and both thinkers suggest a critical reexamination of ancient philosophy, one purportedly free of generations, perhaps centuries, of scholarly sedimentation as a means by which to come to terms with that crisis.