In today’s America, there are two conventional ways of understanding Leo Strauss’s ideas. These two perspectives, predictably, reflect the opposite poles of the established political spectrum. On the Left, critics have portrayed Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who escaped the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, as an enemy of liberal democracy who built a vast intellectual movement in the United States in order to foster a right-wing agenda that is devoted to sexism, class hierarchy, and fascist wars of conquest. Shadia Drury’s The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988) was only the first volley that leftist opponents have leveled against Strauss. Leftists like Stephen Holmes, Nicholas Xenos, and William Altman have continued to portray Strauss as an evil elitist bent on creating a Platonic regime that would feed “noble lies” to the ignorant masses in order to cajole them into embracing perpetual war against the forces of social progress.
On the Right, Strauss’s numerous disciples and neoconservative fellow travelers insist that their master was a sincere defender of the democratic regime and the liberal ideals of freedom and equality. These supporters, who are usually either his students or students of his students, contend that Strauss was a supporter of a classical liberal tradition that is now facing deadly threats from the Left. This kinder, gentler version of Strauss can be easily found in the writings of Thomas Pangle, Michael and Catherine Zuckert, Harry Jaffa, and Peter Minowitz, all of whom insist that this quiet, reserved teacher of the “Great Works” of political philosophy sincerely admired Anglo-American democracy, celebrated Lincoln and Churchill as stalwart defenders of liberty, and viscerally opposed Nazism and Communism as grave threats to western civilization. In their view, the best evidence for Strauss’s democratic credentials comes from his lifelong opposition to noxious ideas like “historicism” and “relativism” that fail to distinguish the virtues of democracy from the vices of tyranny.