Rosman: While Heidegger is consigned to the past, Strauss continues to be a polarizing figure in current American debates. He entered the popular imagination with the ascendancy of the neocons (or Theocons as you call them in one of your books) who are accused of mixing politics with religion. Does he deserve his reputation as a conservative villain? Or has he been profoundly misunderstood, as I believe Voegelin has?
Linker: Yes, I think Strauss has been badly misunderstood, though he deserves some of the blame for this. He founded a school, a philosophical sect, and he must have understood that one’s students cannot be counted on to preserve the founder’s thought in all of its subtlety. Just look at what happened to the students of Socrates. You have Alcibiades, who leads the Sicilian Expedition, which contributes to defeat of Athens to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. You have Plato, who founds The Academy, which preserves his works and trains philosophers for centuries, including Aristotle, who founds his own school (the Lyceum) and one of whose students (Alexander the Great) goes on to conquer the known world. (Compared to Alcibiades and Alexander, Paul Wolfowitz is a pretty minor and benign figure.) Over the following centuries, the Academy breaks apart into rival schools: Old Academy, New Academy, Pyrrhonian skeptics, Stoics, Neo-Platonists. Some are moralists. Some are radical doubters. Some are quasi-religious mystics who feed into the theology of early Christianity. All from Socrates. Do we blame Socrates for Alcibiades and Alexander? Not usually. Or at least the judgment must be balanced by the fact that he also produced Plato and Aristotle — perhaps the wisest human beings who ever lived.
Rightly understood, Strauss was a skeptic. You can see (or hear) his lack of dogmatism in the recordings of his classes that the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago have been making available. The classes are just Strauss reading and interpreting a primary text, staying very much on its surface, without any intermediary scholarship. A direct encounter of the teacher and students with the text. No historical or other context is superimposed. Or rather, the only context is curious, inquisitive human beings throughout the ages in search of answers to the most fundamental human questions (mostly about love, friendship, justice, death, and God). But even that search is undogmatic: it leads to the discovery of no doctrine or set of precepts. Just an awareness of the “permanent problems” of human life.