Leo Strauss on Greatness and Democracy: An Interview with Timothy W. Burns

Leo Strauss was an extraordinarily generous writer, by which I mean that he went to great pains to present the best case he could for the arguments of a serious thinker with whom he disagreed, before offering any tentative critique of that thinker. One never finds in his writings mere polemic or straw men. He invites the reader to take seriously and try fully to understand and spell out the serious and deepest thoughts of those whose thought he is confronting, even if he disagrees.
Custom library

Editor’s note: On 27 October 2022, Hope Leman, of the New Books Network, interviewed Timothy W. Burns about his latest book, Leo Strauss on Democracy, Technology, and Liberal Education. The podcast of the interview can be found here. Time constraints precluded about a third of the planned interview, which we here publish.

Hope Leman: What was Strauss’s attitude to Edmund Burke?

Timothy Burns: Strauss was actually a great admirer of Burke or of Burkean politics, and admired Burke’s attempted return to the prudence that begins with what is particular and known and old, or (in Burke’s phrase) “homebred and prescriptive.” One often hears students of Strauss claim that according to Strauss Burke is historicist. Strauss never says this, though. The closest he comes is indicating how Burke paved the way for Hegel in some crucial ways, but Strauss doesn’t call Hegel a historicist either. Strauss sees Burke as giving rise in England to something very similar to the German historical school of jurisprudence in Germany (Carl von Savigny, Otto von Gierke, etc.). Both arise in response to the modern, revolutionary doctrine of natural rights and its uprooting of a people’s traditions in the name of what is allegedly universal and also low: the autonomous and self-interested individual. Strauss’s account of Burke’s thought comes at the end of Natural Right and History and is meant, as it seems to me, to indicate how Burke’s Christian faith in divine providence underwent a characteristically modern transformation from faith in inscrutable providence into faith in discernible providence, which eventually became, in others, a faith in the mysterious process of history.

HL: Strauss seemed quite interested in the subject of power, which is not terribly surprising given that he had had to flee Germany after the rise of Hitler and lived the rest of his life in the Cold War Era. He also witnessed the identification of his colleague Martin Heidegger with the Nazis—at least for a few years after their assumption of power in 1933. And yet you make clear in the book that Strauss was a constitutionalist. Could you discuss Strauss’s ideas about power—and are they much studied by political scientists today?

TB: Strauss knew that “power” was a word that appeared sometimes in the speeches of classical statesmen—in Pericles’ famous funeral oration, e.g., Pericles invites the Athenians to gaze on the power of Athens and become erotic lovers of her. But Strauss also knew that power was not the driving force of political life, nor the heart of the explanation of political life, prior to modernity. He calls attention to the fact that chapter 10 of Hobbes’s Leviathan is the first philosophic disquisition on Power, and why that is so: Hobbes defines “power” as the means to some future apparent good, and the central question for pre-modern thinkers was: okay, so what is the good? Knowing what is truly beneficial to human happiness would be crucial to understanding the best means to it. Hobbes’s argument is: we don’t know what is good; opinions vary on that, even in individuals from moment to moment. There is no summum bonum or finis ultimus. So let’s look at what humans do in light of this fact: they pursue the means to any future apparent good they happen to crave or need. Those means are infinitely varied. “Power” thus becomes something amorphous, understood to be pursued in all kinds of ways—reputation, physical strength, intelligence, artfulness, religious prophecy, science, etc. Power so conceived is something like money: you never know what you are going to spend it on, and you can never have enough of it. All human life therefore comes to be redefined as a quest for power after power. Even constitutional government comes to have branches of government called “enumerated powers.” Strauss sees this as part of the highly abstract character of modern political thought; he invites us to consider and take seriously the much wider range of vocabulary that one finds in ordinary human speech and judgment about the common good, and not to dismiss it cynically as just another means to power.

Strauss also knew that power was not the driving force of political life, nor the heart of the explanation of political life, prior to modernity.


HL: Could you please tell us about Strauss’s advocacy of an aristocracy within democracy? Is that a concept that has any traction in these days of anti-elitism and a deep distrust of the expert class, both on the Right and on the Left? Are there figures today that qualify as such aristocrats?

TB: Contemporary elites aren’t at all what Strauss has in mind, as it seems to me, especially corrupt elites. He has in mind not intellectuals, historians, or scholars as such, but those whose souls, whose mores and tastes, have been shaped by thoughtful reflection on human life, gained through the study of great poets like Dante or Shakespeare or Goethe or Lessing or Stendhal, and who wish to learn and teach others in accord with this. I think the example of Kurt Riezler that I gave earlier is helpful on this.

HL: You discuss in the book Strauss’s admiration for Churchill and Strauss’s claim that Churchill’s greatness as a statesman was equaled by Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times. I doubt most historians would agree with that assessment, and it is interesting that Strauss was so impressed by a book about Marlborough (1650–1722), who was far from being a democrat.

TB: Strauss was making clear, I think, two things. First, the life of the mind is every bit as important as even the most important political deeds, which are ultimately in the service of the life of the mind. Second, Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times is about a man who lived already in the modern world and accommodated himself to its “changed circumstances,” as Strauss calls them, and did so without either abandoning his principles or declaring them outdated. Churchill brought out that Marlborough was no second Cromwell, as Tories like Swift alleged, nor a duplicitous intriguer, as Whigs like Macaulay claimed. Strauss thought that Churchill had shown how an elevated, carefully cultivated commonsense morality can direct political life in modernity just as it could in pre-modernity.

HL: Could you discuss Strauss’s concept of greatness within democracy? Whom might he have attached that label to in our lifetimes? Nelson Mandela? Vaclav Havel? Margaret Thatcher? Ronald Reagan? De Gaulle?

TB: Yes, De Gaulle, and Havel, and Solzhenitsyn, as Dan Mahoney has shown. Perhaps Nelson Mandela toward the end of his life, when he championed liberal democracy, not as the Stalinist leader of the ANC. I recently concurred with my friend Jim Stoner that Strauss would probably have considered both John Paul II and Pope Benedict to be great men.

HL: Interestingly, you make the point that, for all his interest in great men, Strauss also was not enamored of a boastful “manliness.” Could you discuss that? Did it have much to with the carnage of World War I (he served in the German army during the last year or so of the war) and the thuggishness of the Brownshirts in the waning years of the Weimar Republic? What did the greatness of Churchill consist of? Rhetorical power and principled, consistent anti-Nazism on a democratic basis?

Strauss thought that Churchill had shown how an elevated, carefully cultivated commonsense morality can direct political life in modernity just as it could in pre-modernity.


TB: Certainly thuggishness had nothing to do with greatness for Strauss, though the ability to inflict lawful punishment, he knew, was sometimes necessary. Concerning the carnage of World War I: it was required to shake the faith of others in modernity more than it was required in Strauss’s case—he was already reading Nietzsche.

With regard to the greatness of Churchill: he used commonsense judgment; he recognized the need to defeat the bloody tyrant, Hitler, and to sacrifice in order to do so. As Strauss put in his eulogy of Churchill in a class the day after Churchill’s death: “The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.” Churchill moved the British people to do what they knew to be the honorable course of action, not flinching in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming odds against Britain. He elevated the cause of freedom and enlisted the crucial support of the United States in its defense.

HL: Could you please discuss the term “natural rights” and that term’s relationship to natural law, if any? What do you mean by the “incoherence of the doctrine of individual rights?”

TB: Natural laws, a term that appears in Cicero, more frequently in Augustine, but whose classic exponent is Thomas Aquinas, are those natural obligations that one has by dint of being a human being, with certain natural inclinations. Its principles are known by every sane adult, through a faculty called the conscience. These natural laws possess you; you do not possess them. That is, they bind you, in the sense that if you do things contrary to them, contrary to justice, you experience guilt. The Ten Commandments are, at least their second part, known to unassisted human reason. You know it’s wrong to lie, to cheat, to steal, to murder, etc., and you are deserving of punishment when you do these things.

The doctrine of natural rights (plural) is, by contrast, a modern doctrine. We talk about these rights every day, as if they are perfectly obvious. But as I noted before, they are first articulated by Hobbes. You are not possessed by them. Rather, you possess them. They are justified, selfish claims, not duties. Now, if no one talked about them before, how did Hobbes convince the world that this is the way to think? What is his argument? On what grounds does he say that we have, possess, natural rights, claims? It is this: we are, each of us, compelled to pursue our own self-interest. Above all, we are compelled by nature to preserve ourselves. Being compelled, we cannot help it. That means that we can’t be blamed for anything we do in accord with it. We have as it were a gun pointed at our heads all the time. And as we all know, justice doesn’t ask the impossible, as is clear in things such as first-, second-, third-degree murder, or involuntary homicide: these designations are made with a view to culpability, compulsion, and moral freedom.

Hobbes’s claim is that, in the state of nature, we are compelled to preserve ourselves in any way we deem necessary, adding to or augmenting our dominion, as he puts it. And so such adding to or augmenting of our dominion is generally allowed in such circumstances. Hobbes adds: “It ought to be allowed.” It is a moral right. Now, why is that argument incoherent? Because Hobbes is saying, in one breath, that we are compelled to act in accord with our self-preservation. We can’t ever help it or give it up, again. And so he speaks of an inalienable right. But in the next breath he is appealing to the very sense of moral freedom and responsibility that this claim of universal compulsion denies. He is saying: in normal circumstances, that is, in civil society, not only is it prudent or clever or smart not to kill or cheat or lie, it is something you ought not, morally, to do. That is the contradiction. He claims that we are compelled by nature, and then he reaches back to this commonsense understanding that we are not compelled but free, morally free and responsible. If we act in accord with our aggrandizing vanity, we are acting not just stupidly but immorally. This is the great problem of Hobbes but also the glory of Hobbes.

HL: You make the important point that Strauss felt that the weakening of traditional faith and values was not a bug of modernity but a feature. Could you discuss that—and he seems to have been only too correct about that. What do you mean by the Enlightenment leading to disenchantment? You use the term the “successful pretense of a union with Christianity” when discussing modernity. Does the Left even bother trying to maintain that pretense anymore, or does it prefer regarding Christianity as passé or engaging in open hostility to it?

TB: On the weakening of religious faith: Strauss presents the question of guiding one’s life by faith or by unassisted reason as the most serious question for a human being, and he further sees it as the guiding, fruitful tension that characterizes the West. He understands the ancients to have had a way of settling that question, one that did not involve any attempted transformation of political or social life, or did not involve universal enlightenment and certainly not technology.

He understands the moderns, on the other hand, as having been unaware of the Socratic or classical intention of resolving the challenge that faith poses to reason. He understands the moderns as having, therefore, embarked on a project to settle the question by means of technological science, by the transformation of the world, by means of a new “civilization;” such that, with the global conquest of nature, orthodoxy would be not refuted—for the moderns knew or learned that it couldn’t be refuted—but instead “outlived.” Outlived. What does he mean? It is visible in the phrase that one sometimes hears as if it were a decisive refutation: “Oh, no one believes that anymore.” The charge is that an opinion is primitive, archaic. It belongs to a benighted, barbaric past, when human consciousness was less advanced than it is now.

Strauss presents the question of guiding one’s life by faith or by unassisted reason as the most serious question for a human being, and he further sees it as the guiding, fruitful tension that characterizes the West.


The notion of an advancing human consciousness, one that gives to the world whatever meaning it has, was baked into the cake of modernity from the start. Being as we frequently say now, “behind the times,” or in more solemn versions, “on the wrong side of History”—this was a charge that the moderns expected from the beginning to become decisive. (So Francis Bacon has one of his characters in The New Atlantis speak of native Americans as a thousand years “younger” than Europeans.) “Progressive” or “enlightened” was to replace “right,” and “reactionary” was to replace “wrong.” For all their recent attacks on science, this remains the position of our “progressives.” And certainly since Marx, the Left has abandoned any pretense that there is a union of progress with Christianity. In his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Marx calls Christianity and Judaism and all religious faith a “snakeskin” that is being shed, now that we have outgrown it.

HL: What is historicism?

TB: It is the contention that all human thought is determined by changing historical circumstances, that there is no escape from the particular “cave” into which we have been born by time and place, or the situation into which we have been “thrown,” to use Heidegger’s term.

HL: I was rather surprised to read in your book that Strauss thought that philosophy was “non-edifying.” What did he mean by that?

TB: Well, he says something like that toward the end of his essay on liberal education; and it is, I think, directed at Heidegger, who made clear in his rectoral address that he thought that philosophizing, authentic questioning in the new historical situation unprotected by gods, could be edifying, exhilarating, even conducive to “joy.” Heidegger, the heir to modernity’s attempt to bring about the rational society, expected far too much of everyone, immoderately, and he continued the modern attempt to bring about a philosophic morality, in his case through the articulation of authentic, resolute existence. Strauss’s argument is that philosophy can be only “intrinsically edifying.” What did he mean? Best to see how he puts it in that essay:

We cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance; and this act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noeseos, and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God. This experience is entirely independent of whether what we understand primarily is pleasing or displeasing, fair or ugly. It leads us to realize that all evils are in a sense necessary if there is to be understanding. It enables us to accept all evils which befall us and which may well break our hearts in the spirit of good citizens of the city of God. By becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith the goodness of the world, whether we understand it as created or as uncreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind.

HL: Could you talk about the shift from the idea that people needed to be instilled with a sense of public-spiritedness, to the idea that they needed to be “enlightened?”

TB: Strauss discusses this in the essay titled “Liberal Education and Responsibility.” The goal of the moderns is enlightenment, and that means the disenchantment of the world: the coming of everyone to understand human life as intelligible through the findings of technological science, without recourse to gods or God, such that we look to science, to human means, to attain contentedness, in rationally self-interested ways. We were to become rationally, peacefully calculating, rather than, or without need to be, public-spirited.

HL: Is part of Strauss’s appeal to some on the Right, who detest the globalizers and forever wars, that he had a much more modest view of the international role of liberal democracies?

TB: Yes, though he also warned that isolationism would mean abandoning some nation-states to the brutal aggression of leaders of other nation-states, as we see with Putin.

HL: Could you please discuss the concept of deep ecology?

TB: I would first refer you, as I did in the book, to one of its proponents, Michael E. Zimmerman, and then to eco-critic Jonathan Bate, and then to Charles Rubin’s impressive studies of deep ecology and of its debt to Heidegger. According to the Deep Ecologists, there is no technological solution to our ecological crisis or to our technologically transformed dwellings. Human beings, and their enframing technology, are the problem. Perhaps a joke once made by my friend Mark Lutz might help: the deep ecologists would be perfectly content with a planet inhabited by Sasquatch, a being who leaves behind no visible evidence of his even existing. To the Deep Ecologists, our very presence in what had once been pristine nature represents the beginning of its fall, its incipient domestication. People are a plague. Strauss for his part notes the following: humans who might somehow, say, by nuclear war, have returned to a pre-technological state of pristine nature, would be humans who would soon find themselves with a certain natural relation to a venerated past, conceiving themselves as under a divine law, and at the same time curious about the various and contradictory accounts of that venerated past.

HL: A great theme of Strauss’s work, and of your book, is the idea that the break between science and philosophy has led to a loss of wisdom in science. How did living in the Atomic Age and at the height of the Cold War affect Strauss’s thinking about technology? Did the advent of nuclear weapons sharpen his worries about technology, or were his worries already well established before the advent of the bomb?

TB: They were already well established. The bomb was something that he sometimes cited simply to show that the promise that science once held out to ever improve our lot was now evident, “even to the meanest capacity,” to have been a highly problematic promise. Modern science increases our power; it does not and cannot increase our ability to know what we should do with that power. We are now capable of annihilating human life altogether. Should we have put ourselves in this situation? Can we at least see that technology is not an unmitigated blessing?

HL: In your chapter on “German Nihilism,” you outline the contours of the Open Society and suggest that it is “open” only to that which is not traditional. Could you please situate Strauss’s lecture on German Nihilism in our current “culture wars”—such as the dismissals by the Left of concerns about transgenderism as merely instances of “moral panics” of the Right?

TB: I want to stress first Strauss’s primary, philosophic interests rather than any desire to transform politics, as some cultural warriors wish to do. The open society is of course embraced today above all by the Left, which associates “closed” with close-mindedness and the nation-state. Hence the name, for example, of George Soros’s organization, “The Open Society.” Strauss stressed that the alleged openness of such a society is deceptive: it is in fact closed to certain things, such as excellence, in its demand for the elevation of openness and inclusion and belonging (of anything and everything). It is closed, and must remain closed, in an absolutist fashion, to any alleged natural or divine limits to what is permissible, and to notions of what is outstanding; it denigrates claims to excellence, even as it arrogates to itself an allegedly elite insight or privileged consciousness about humanity. It will not tolerate a whole host of things, even as it claims to be open. Often it condemns, with rather astonishing historical ignorance and parochialism, the Christian and orthodox Jewish opinion of excellence as “fascistic.” Its hallmark is political correctness, a term that captures how it both proclaims a certain moral relativism and demands absolute adherence to it, on pain of social ostracism. And this means, of course, that it is in fact deeply intolerant of traditional ways of life, which liberalism has always negated even as it has been reliant on those ways of life for character formation. The flashpoint now, yes, is the family and the pelvic stuff.

HL: You make the point that, though Strauss was known for advocating the study of the great works of the past, he also warned against the “temptation to fall back from an unimpressive present on an impressive past.” Do you think that Strauss had a rather rosy view of the Greece of Plato—after all, it was a society in which slavery was commonplace.

TB: Not at all, no. He was quite aware of the ugliness of slavery. He also could see that Plato and Aristotle and Aristophanes were aware of it, though their critiques of it, which he brought out for us, were more muted. Strauss’s recovery of classical political philosophy is not an attempt to recover Greek political practice, but rather to recover the commonsense understanding of morality through which citizens guide their lives, and from which Socratics ascended to the philosophic life, as the right way of life, and to recover the serious challenge to the Socratic way of life as disclosed, on one hand, from religion and, on the other, from the poets.

HL: Could you please discuss the difference in modern religion between the days of “I know that my redeemer liveth” to more mealy-mouthed phrases about “belief”?

TB: Strauss speaks in the autobiographical preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion of his early effort to discover whether the victory of the Enlightenment over religious orthodoxy was a deserved victory in every respect. In many ways, he found, it was not; it left untouched the possibility of a mysterious, creator God; it did not refute that possibility. But he calls to our attention the limited victory that was achieved by the Enlightenment, namely, that while pre-Enlightenment religion contended that its most important teachings could be and were known as true, on the basis of natural theology, post-Enlightenment religion tended to fall back on the claim that its teachings were not known but believed. This appears for example in Hume’s Dialogues on Religion. Faith is of course a theological virtue, for Christians, together with hope and love. But faith was not thought before modernity to be in simple defiance of reason, but rather to correspond with it. Modern science has shaken what one might call the natural worldview, and thereby set orthodoxy back on its heels.

HL: Strauss began his career writing in German, I believe. Is his prose in English easy to read?

TB: Sometimes. It is certainly not Germanic. One finds, in Strauss’s correspondence from the ’30s with Gerhard Krüger—one of Heidegger’s most prized students—, interesting and frequent requests to comment on the clarity of his writing. One finds there, that is, an eagerness to achieve clarity, the avoidance of jargon.

This carried over into his English writing, once he had mastered English. He also was an extraordinarily generous writer, by which I mean that he went to great pains to present the best case he could for the arguments of a serious thinker with whom he disagreed, before offering any tentative critique of that thinker. (Non-serious thinkers suffered a different fate.) One never finds in his writings mere polemic or straw men. He invites the reader to take seriously and try fully to understand and spell out the serious and deepest thoughts of those whose thought he is confronting, even if he disagrees.

Strauss followed, one could say, the art of writing practiced by the ancients, suitably adapted to contemporary circumstances. So his writing is not always easy, but rather his writing rewards attentive re-readings.


I’ve noticed, by the way, that this has, in our day, the unfortunate result that sometimes his readers mistake what Strauss is explicating in someone else’s thought as if Strauss were saying it in his own name. Frequently one sees great precision, which is not always appreciated. It is a precision that at the same time allows less careful readers to take away from his presentation little more than a confirmation of their prejudices, or to miss his radicalness. He will for example deploy a series of statements with disjunctive “or’s,” not stating which of the stated alternatives is most sound, but leaving that to the reader to figure out. He will spell out in illuminating detail things that are only suggested or pointed to in a text, but he will also sometimes only suggest or point to things himself, sometimes only in footnotes. He will sometimes visibly hold back, and sometimes state things frankly. He followed, one could say, the art of writing practiced by the ancients, suitably adapted to contemporary circumstances. So his writing is not always easy, but rather his writing rewards attentive re-readings.

HL: Strauss was very much a classics guy. Does that spell trouble for his legacy, given the move away from dead white males these days, or does it actually suggest a renewed emphasis on his thinking given the turn in some circles away from divisive woke politics?

TB: Strauss’s thought and legacy will likely not be understood for a long time; I myself have scarcely made a beginning. But to your point: Current developments that would censor the thought of the past, on historicist grounds, or on racialist grounds, are in general worrisome to anyone who wishes to learn from the thought of thinkers from other times and places, the thinkers whose thought Strauss explicated. But I’m somewhat optimistic that Strauss has begun to break many of his readers free of their historicist prejudices, so that these books can be read afresh and not reduced to the time and place in which they were written. He has, as Arthur Melzer has pointed out, opened up afresh the study of ancient texts, by his rediscovery of ancient writers’ esoteric writing, of philosophizing between the lines.

HL: Did Strauss have any reaction to the works of Friedrich Hayek? They were both German-speaking, both born in 1899 and both were refugee intellectuals and interested in the subjects of freedom and liberty.

TB: I haven’t found many references to Hayek (there is an overlap of concerns about Hans Kelsen’s rejection of natural right), though I have to say that I haven’t been looking. It is a more curious thing to me that Hayek, a proponent of free markets, with their innovation and destructiveness of traditions, would be so loved by those who call themselves conservative. I say that in full awareness of, and deeply appreciative of, how the principles of classical liberal economics are far more conducive to liberty, the rule of law, economic prosperity, and the preservation of the private realm and of civil society, than is the current economic alternative, that is, socialism, and its enlargement of the administrative state. But it remains the case that conserving the principles of liberal capitalism is conserving principles that were intended, after all, to destroy tradition, and this is something with which conservatives must grapple. As for Strauss, while he was deeply aware of the totalitarian nature of communist regimes—and saw clearly, in a way that Heidegger did not see, the great practical difference between a regime of individual freedom and modern tyrannical communist and fascist regimes—he was more interested in the determinative principles of modernity, in its political as well as its economic forms, which could be seen more clearly in the writings of its originators, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, who knew their serious opponents, than in the work of its latest economic spokesmen. And he spoke of conservatism as in general “the wise maxim of practice,” but as something that is out of place in philosophic thinking, which aims not at what is most cherished as old and one’s own, but at the truth, wherever that may lead one.

HL: What recent developments in science do you think might concern Strauss? Gene editing?

TB: The current transhumanist movement represents the avant-garde of the abiding, self-conscious hope in the technological overcoming of—transformation of—humanity, and there is nothing in liberal individualism to stop it.

HL: Do you think Strauss would agree with many on the Left that American democracy is facing some sort of crisis, or is that just a ruse to curtail speech that questions woke ideology? Do you think Strauss would regard American democracy as resilient or fragile?

TB: Strauss spoke sometimes of the crisis of the West, which is larger than the crisis of American democracy. It is a crisis of purpose, brought about, ultimately, by the misguided attempt to establish, as he says, the rational society. The faith in that attempt had been severely shaken, even before World War I. In this crisis liberal democracy certainly has resources that other modern regimes lack, not least of which is constitutional government. To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is a great deal more ruin in liberal democratic nations than in others. But yes, there are now some serious problems that need to be faced and addressed, with all the prudence and courage we can muster.


Subscribe to Public Discourse