Strauss, Leo

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1899-09-20
Death 1973-10-18
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Leo Strauss was born on September 20, 1899, in Kirchhain, Hesse, Germany, to Hugo Strauss and Jennie David, owners of a small agricultural business. He graduated from the Gymnasium Philippinum in 1917, then served in the German army through the end of World War I.

Following the war, Strauss studied philosophy in Marburg, Frankfurt, Berlin and Hamburg, receiving a PhD in 1921 from Hamburg University for his dissertation "Das Erkenntnisproblem in der philosophischen Lehre Jacobis." He continued his studies, with a focus on history, in Freiburg, Giessen and Marburg. Publication of the essay "Cohens Analyse der Bibelwissenschaft Spinozas" in 1924 led to his 1925 appointment to Berlin's Academy of Jewish Research, where his research on Jewish philosophy formed the basis of his first major work, Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft (1930). Strauss also translated Moses Mendelssohn's work from the Hebrew for the Academy's Mendelssohn Edition. In Berlin, Strauss met several scholars with whom he began long and substantive correspondence. Among them were Alexandre Kojeve, Karl Löwith, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacob Klein and Gershom Scholem.

In 1932, Strauss was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in the social sciences, with the aid of which he studied medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy in Paris and Thomas Hobbes in England. Unable to return to pre-war Germany, he continued his work on Hobbes at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, publishing The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Genesis in 1936. In 1937, he emigrated to the United States, first taking an appointment as Research Fellow in the Department of History at Columbia University, then a professorship at the New School for Social Research, where he remained until 1948. Strauss served as associate editor of Social Research from 1941 to 1948.

Strauss became Professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1949. He remained at Chicago until 1968, and was named Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor in 1960. Natural Rights and History (1953) was based on lectures delivered at the University in 1949. An effort by Strauss and other faculty to establish a chair in Jewish Studies was unsuccessful.

Strauss served as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1953. In the early 1950s, he corresponded with Martin Buber about a chair in sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He taught in Jerusalem as a visiting professor in 1954 and 1955, but chose to remain at the University of Chicago. Lectures delivered in Jerusalem were the basis for the title essay of Strauss' What is Political Philosophy? (1959).

In 1965, following the translation of many of his works into German, Strauss was awarded an honorary doctorate in Economy and Social Science by the University of Hamburg. From 1965 until his death, he was the Scott Buchanan Distinguished Scholar in residence at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. During his later years, he worked mainly on interpretation of ancient Greek philosophers. His last major work, The Argument and Action of Plato's "Laws" was published posthumously in 1975.

Strauss married Marie (Mirjam) Bernson on June 20, 1933. The couple raised two children, Thomas (Petri), Bernson's son from her first marriage, and Jenny Ann Kraus, the orphaned daughter of Strauss' sister, adopted by the Strauss' in 1946. Other members of Strauss' immediate family died in a German concentration camp in 1942. Strauss became an American citizen in 1938. He died in Annapolis, Maryland on October 18, 1973.

Leo Strauss is known mainly for five books, each of which has been widely translated and regularly reprinted: Die Religionskritik Spinozas (1930), The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1936), On Tyranny (1948), Natural Right and History (1953) and Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958). While much of Strauss' writing is known mainly to scholars, On Tyranny and Natural Right and History deal with more general issues of political philosophy in a public context. On Tyranny wrestles with the ethical problems of dictatorship, as reflected in Xenophon's Hiero. Natural Right and History, closely related to Strauss' study of Hobbes in the 1930s, deals broadly with the philosophical and historical problems of the liberal state, brought to the forefront of Western consciousness by political events of the 1930s and World War II.

Strauss' five major works demonstrate the intertwining themes on which Strauss focused throughout his career. In a letter to Dr. Cyrus Adler (November 30, 1933) he described the genesis of his related interests:

My studies of Spinoza's Theological and Political Treatise have shown me a connection between the theological and political problem. These studies have led me to Spinoza's Jewish medieval predecessors, especially Maimonides, on the one hand, and Hobbes' political science on the other hand. During the pursuit of these sources, I formed the plan to make 1. the political science of Hobbes and 2. the theory of prophecy in Jewish and Islamic philosophy of the Middle Ages the subject of my future studies…. After finishing my book on Spinoza, I was charged by the Akademie to analyze Gersonides' Milchamot Hashem. I started with an analysis of Gersonides' Teaching on Prophecy. The research on his sources led me from Maimonides to Islamic philosophers, of whom I studied several in Arabic manuscripts – and made me realize that the connection between medieval Jewish and Islamic teaching on prophecy and Plato's Statesman and Laws had not yet been thoroughly evaluated.

Though Strauss maintained a deep interest in Jewish religious thought and philosophy, his study of Jewish thinkers culminates with his writings on Spinoza in the 1930s. He was particularly sensitive to the legacy of medieval Jewish thought, which he saw as essential to understanding developments in later European thought. He concerned himself also with contemporary perceptions of Spinoza and with the image of the Jew in German literature of the Enlightenment.

Strauss believed that the roots of Western Civilization could be found in Jewish and Greek philosophy. His early classical humanistic education included extensive study of Latin and ancient Greek, and his later studies of philosophy broadened his knowledge of classical languages and deepened his appreciation of the humanistic method of tracing concepts and beliefs to their roots in primary material. After 1960, Strauss turned increasingly toward the study of Greek philosophy.

From the guide to the Strauss, Leo. Papers, circa 1930-1997, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

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