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The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism, by William F. Altman. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. 589 pp. $90.00.
There are many ways in which to read this book, depending on which of its various levels one chooses to focus on. On the most general level, it can be read as a counter-piece to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s warning about the pernicious influence of German nihilism, relativism, and historicism on American academic education took its cue from their critical analysis in the writings of his teacher Leo Strauss. Altman turns the tables on Bloom, arguing that in fact Strauss was an exponent rather than an opponent of the intellectual currents he decries. In support of this argument, he turns the tables on Strauss, reading the latter’s work esoterically, scrutinizing its surface for a hidden teaching. From his dissertation on Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi through his rediscovery of medieval and ancient political philosophy, according to Altman, Strauss opposed the public, exoteric rationalism and liberalism of the Enlightenment and esoterically endorsed a radical atheism, nihilism, and authoritarianism that he continued to carefully hide under the surface of his writings.
Characteristic of Strauss’s radicalism is his predilection for stark oppositions such as between Athens and Jerusalem or between Ancients and Moderns, and his concomitant rejection of mediations, compromises, and middle grounds. This attitude, according to Altman, is fundamentally antithetical to the spirit of liberalism and its specifically modern solution to the theologico-political problem: the secular separation between church and state, which should be regarded as a Christian legacy (p. 390). Like Bloom, Altman seeks to inoculate his reader, but this time against the threat that emanates from Strauss’s thought.
On a deeper level, Altman’s book interprets Strauss’s work as an ingenious pendant of Heidegger’s notorious Der Spiegel interview of 1966. Underneath the veneer of Strauss’s ostensible friendship for liberal democracy, it detects not just a profound and enduring support for fascism in the spirit of Rome, but even sympathy for National Socialism as an anti-liberal and anti-religious movement. According to Altman, Strauss’s criticism of Heidegger’s and Schmitt’s decisionism may exoterically fly the flag of ancient prudence, moderation, and the Platonic concern for truth and virtue, but in fact it hides a esoteric Nietzschean will to power that surpasses that of his two contemporaries.
However, beyond its project to expose and condemn Strauss, the book may also be read as an autobiography, if its structure may be taken as an indication of what is fundamentally at stake. Near the end, Altman inserts lengthy digressions on his own encounter with Strauss’s work and students, and he leaves the reader no doubt as to his own allegiances: “I am a believer and a philosopher, a Platonist and a Christian, a Liberal Democrat and a Jew” (p. 391), animated by “a rock hard belief in God, a deep love for the Ideas of Plato, and a recent acceptance of the Law of Moses” (p. 398). Given this avowal, it comes as no surprise to learn that “Strauss and Schmitt are necessarily my Enemies” (p. 523). In order to counter Strauss’s posthumous attempts to seduce and corrupt his readers and to subvert liberal democracy, Altman proposes a “return to Plato and the Bible” (p. 528), to a genuine moral realism that can be the only viable foundation of American society.
On all three levels, the book will come as a vindication of the long line of critics who, even before 9/11 and Iraq, castigated Strauss as a sinister Machiavellian elitist and spiritual godfather of neo-conservatism’s global ambitions. Unlike most of these critics, however, Altman is exceptionally well-versed in Strauss’s work, as well as in the latter’s ancient, medieval, and early modern sources. Still, while his critical readings yield many interesting insights, the framework within which they are presented—the apocalyptic final battle between atheist nihilism and combative Christian Platonism for the soul of the Republic—finally risks turning scholarly exposure and autobiography into epic poetry.