Leo Strauss and the Rebirth of Liberal Education


The question that this paper intends to explore is the question of education, specifically the question of liberal education today and the possibility of pursuing an education that is intellectually liberating.  In doing so, I have consulted the writings, lectures, and thought of Leo Strauss.  I have done so because I believe that Strauss not only offers the most cogent articulations regarding the challenges we moderns face in obtaining a true liberal education today but because I see him as initiating a philosophic project that I argue provides for the rebirth of the possibility of pursuing a genuine liberal education today that has a philosophic as well as a civic component.  What I intend to show is a path, a path that has been presented before me through my education in James Madison College and one that I hope to further pursue in the future.

My argument and thus this paper consists in five parts.  First, I consider what a path towards a liberating education would look like through consulting The Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic.  Second, I assess the specific features of our contemporary cave and thus the barriers we face in even seeking a liberal education today in relation to what Strauss calls ‘the contemporary crisis of the west’.  Third, I consult Strauss’s reassessment of the modern project with a view to how it brought about our contemporary western crisis.  Fourth, I consider how Strauss’s resuscitation of classical thought seeks to reopen inherent tensions in the western tradition and consequently a renewed dialogue about conceptions of human life.  Lastly, I reflect on how Strauss’s philosophic project attempts to initiate a path towards the pursuit of a liberal education that is both civically minded and philosophically serious. 

Part One: The Allegory of the Cave as the Image of a Liberating Education

Plato, through Socrates, in the beginning of Book VII of the Republic claims to “make an image of our nature in education and its want of education.”[1]  Such an image is what has been considered Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.[2]  Through this ‘image’ described by Socrates, we see human beings in an underground cave “with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them” since the beginning of their childhood.[3]  What exists in front of these men is nothing but the shadows projected on the wall by “puppet-handlers” and the fire that exists behind them.  Socrates claims that these men, or these prisoners rather, are “like us” since they take to be true what they perceive before them since they lack an alternative conception of their reality.  As he remarks, “Then most certainly, such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”[4]  If we take this image to be true, and thus that we are ourselves prisoners of a cave like these humans, we are challenged to consider how one could even begin to perceive images other than the shadows projected before him.  In addition, we are motivated towards contemplating what kind of an education we would need to do so.

Socrates helps us perceive this problem through considering “what [these prisoners] release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them.”[5]  As he shows, it is probable that if one began to turn around to perceive the fire and the objects that projected the shadows, one would become bewildered and flee back to what he formerly held as true, thus remaining unable make out the true source of the projected images.  Further, Socrates suggests that if a former prisoner was dragged towards the light by another, he would not only “be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged,” but, he would be blinded by the light and be “unable to see even one of the things now said to be true.”[6]  What this portrayal suggests then is that the problem of liberation from the cave, and thus beginning to pursue a liberating education, lies in becoming accustomed to seeing light.  But what is this light?  For Socrates, it is “the idea of the good,” an idea that one can only discern through a deep interrogation through the questioning of what is good.[7]  This method of interrogation, the Socratic dialectic, is what we can call a liberating education as it moves us away from being prisoners of opinion towards those who desire to know the truth.

Education then, Socrates suggests through this allegory, “is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be,” mainly “that [an educator] put[s] into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes.” Rather, education is “an art of […] turning around” to see and focus on the light as well as what each thing is.  As a result, it “takes as a given that sight is there, but not rightly turned nor looking at what it ought to look at.”[8]  Continuing, he says, “Then, as it seems, this wouldn’t be the twirling of a shell but the turning of a soul around from a day that is like night to the true day; it is that ascent to what is which we shall truly affirm to be philosophy.”[9]  Such a turning, and the education that facilitates this turning, can be considered the path towards a liberating education.  However, a political problem emerges with the acceptance of this understanding of education.  This is something that Socrates readily admits in his portrayal of the newly liberated prisoner and thus attempts to display the tension between philosophy and politics in the latter part of the book.

As one becomes detached from the cave he formerly inhabited and thus free from the images which formerly defined his truth, Socrates argues that this newly liberated prisoner would not be compelled to return to the cave since he would be misunderstood by the denizens of that cave and because “[his soul would] always [be] eager to spend [its] time above.”[10] As Socrates remarks, “If a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, [he] is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when […] he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself.”[11]  In this way, the philosophic or liberating education is seen as trans-political, or perhaps anti-political, since it contemplates conceptions above political concern and is only reserved for a select few individuals.  Further, that its unreflective exercise can undermine the foundations of the political community.  Such a teaching comes to sharper view at the culmination of Book VII.

In the closing remarks of Book VII of the Republic, Glaucon and Socrates discuss the nature of the philosophic education, that education associated with the turning of the soul, and its relationship to the ideal political community.  They do so by noting the features of the dialectic as a method of inquiry that begins from hypotheses and through sustained questioning “attempts with respect to everything to grasp-about each several thing itself- what each is.”[12]  However, in doing so, they note that not every individual can be considered fit to pursue such an education.  This is because of the adverse social and political effects that an unreflective teaching of the dialectic method can produce.  As they note, if one who has an insensible disposition were to pose arguments against what his lawgiver had defined as what is good, just, and noble, this man may be reduced “to the opinion that what the law says is no more fair than ugly, and similarly about the just and good and the things he held most in honor.”[13]  Such a naïve understanding and careless questioning, for Socrates, would be destructive to the political community.  If such a sentiment spread, it would undermine the legitimacy of the foundation of the regime and could devolve into political turmoil and distrust.  Therefore, Socrates shows that philosophy must protect and separate itself from politics and thus the corruption of its teaching by unfit individuals.  To do so, he discusses, along with Glaucon, the most prudent way to separate the best men to take up this pursuit in a politically responsible manner at the end of this section.

The Allegory of the Cave and the conclusion of Book VII of the Republic shows the complicated nature of what it means to pursue an intellectually liberating education in addition to highlighting who this opportunity might be reserved for.  In this way, education is portrayed primarily as liberation from the cave and is anti-political in nature.  Further, it displays the tension that Socrates believes will be present between this genuine form of a liberating education and the constraints necessitated by practical politics.  Through reading this small section within this great Platonic dialogue, we are encouraged to question our own natures, considering if we may be fit for such an activity, while also finding ourselves guided down the preliminary path of the dialectic approach.  What we can learn from this ancient allegory, I argue, is that we are all products of specific caves and thus find ourselves as prisoners of opinions.  However, the opinions which dominate our contemporary world are uniquely modern and hence we find ourselves within a modern cave.  This modern cave we inhabit, Strauss argues, is a product of the modern philosophic project and only by beginning to understand this project can we begin to pursue a modern liberal education.

Part Two: Strauss’s Assessment of Our Modern Cave and “the Crisis of the West”

In beginning to consider our modern cave, as it involves our uniquely modern opinions, we must first consider our contemporary shadows or the seemingly self-evident principles vindicated by our modern culture.  Such a principle opinion, or a dogma, Strauss argues, is the pervasive relativistic world view.  This view, he claims, is a product of the modern philosophic project and its value-free and historical analytic approach.  Such a view, however, he claims, carries deep philosophic and political challenges that culminate in what he considers to be “the contemporary crisis of the west.”[14]  In the instance of our inquiry, the crisis is manifested in the perceived impossibility of arguing for the good of pursuing a liberal education or having any conception of what constitutes leading a good human life.  It does this by holding that every value is simply a product of a specific historic culture and as a result, every value is relative to any other since one’s analysis of another’s values will be obfuscated by the valued framework in which they have been enculturated.  As a result, in the foreground of Strauss’s philosophic project is an attempt to articulate the problematic nature of this outlook and its corresponding crisis, as it relates to its historic development, in order for us, his students, to see more clearly the confines and shadows that constitute our modern cave while also presenting before us a path to move beyond its constraints.

Strauss begins by articulating “the crisis of our time” by describing what he sees as symptomatic of this crisis, mainly the pervasive relativistic world view.[15]  This relativistic view, Strauss argues, can be observed in our doubts regarding the value of rationality in leading us to determine the good in human life.[16]  Further, it displays our inability to ground our values and thus judge our actions as well as the actions of others on something more stable than our mere cultural commitments since, with this relativistic outlook, “our believing in certain values cannot be traced beyond our decision or commitment.”[17]  These examples, for Strauss, not only show us what theoretical positions need to be overcome but also what positions need to be deeply interrogated.  Further, they display challenges to our pursuit of liberal education in the modern world.  Accordingly, he sought to directly engage with the philosophic and political positions that took relativism as fact by attentively articulating the conclusions of those claims and thus their larger logical consequences while tracing their philosophic origins in the development of what he considered to be ‘the modern project’.

In beginning his analysis of relativism, Strauss notes our absence from the firm commitment to reason and rationality in being able to determine what constitutes the good human life or the fundamental principles that support a fulfilled life.  As Thomas Pangle says, reflecting on this phenomenon which Strauss observed, “we no longer confidently believe in the rationally demonstrable, universal, and permanent truth of the principles, purposes, and way of life that we share and defend.”  More seriously, “we gravely doubt the very possibility that any principle, any purposes, any way of life can be shown by reason to simply be true: that is, truly right, truly good, for all humanity as such.”[18]  The philosophic impact of this discovery Strauss argues is that man abandons a teleological view of himself and his relation to the universe.  As he says, “Natural right in its classical form is connected with a teleological view of the universe.  All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them.”[19]  However, in adopting the relativist framework, such a teleological view is deconstructed and thus destroyed since modern science and historical analysis claim that those values are nothing more than a cultural artifact of a historic culture.

As a result, one finds themselves bound to intellectual complacency, unable to assert a conception of the good or argue for why one activity is superior to another; all are seen to be simply one’s choice or mere preference.  With such a view, one would struggle to perceive the value of philosophy or leading a life committed to ‘the truth’ of existence since ‘truth’ is only believed to be determined through the modern scientific eye, an eye that focuses on facts and not human values.  Further, we would hold that we would not even be able to escape the cave which we inhabit since all cultures are caves and we believe in no eternal truth beyond them. Hence, we would remain unmotivated to even attempt earnest dialectic inquiry.  As Strauss notes in Natural Right and History,

Once we recognize that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them any more.  We cannot wholeheartedly act upon them any more.  We cannot live any more as responsible human beings.  In order to live, we have to silence the easily silenced voice of our reason, which tells us that our principles are in themselves as good or as bad as any other principles.  The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.[20]

Such an abandonment or deconstruction of natural right and the teleological view of man Strauss credits to German thought and its creation of the “historical sense” that is “bound to lead,” in Strauss’s eyes, “to disastrous consequences.”[21]

These ‘disastrous consequence’ are what Strauss perceives in liberalism becoming increasingly relativistic as exemplified through the thought of Isiah Berlin.  As liberalism makes this transition, relativism not only deconstructs man’s commitment to reason in grounding his own life but it, in turn, deconstructs our ability to logically defend the virtues of civilized society against the most barbaric cultures.  This deconstruction, for Strauss, highlights the profound political nature of this modern crisis since it leads to the abandonment of the ideals on which our American liberal democracy and other liberal democracies have been founded.  As Thomas Pangle says in his introductory work on Strauss’s thought, “It follows that this culture of ours cannot lose faith in reason, as the ground for universally evident and valid human norms discoverable in nature or human nature, without losing faith in itself, in its very core.”[22]  For example, in analyzing Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, a work which Strauss takes “to be a characteristic document of the crisis of liberalism – of a crisis due to the fact that liberalism has abandoned its absolutist basis and is trying to become entirely relativistic,” Strauss notes that Berlin argues for a paradoxical theoretical position which holds that “liberalism […] cannot live without an absolute basis and cannot live with an absolute basis.”[23]  Such a paradox leads Berlin to conclude that “what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian” is “to realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly.”[24]  Not only is this impossible for one to truly accept and internalize, Strauss notes that such a principle would mean that “every resolute liberal hack would be a civilized man, while Plato and Kant would be barbarians.”[25]

As a result, Strauss perceives that the justifications for modern liberalism cannot stand nor adequately define our culture ends, especially as the perceived validity of the historical approach and modern natural science proliferates.  In this way, as Strauss comments in his essay entitled “Social Science and Humanism,” we cannot even commit to the values of civilization itself.  As he says, “speech is required especially for fortifying those who waver in their commitments to the values we cherish.”  However, in speaking “to [these waverers] we cannot assume the validity of the values of civilization.  And according to the premise,” that premise of relativism, “there is no way to convince them of the truth of those values.”  The disheartening result, he argues, is that “the speech employed for buttressing the cause of civilization will be not rational discourse but mere “propaganda,” a propaganda confronted by the equally legitimate and perhaps more effective propaganda in favor of cannibalism.”[26]  Strauss shows us this deep spiritual and political crisis of the west to not only ground us in an understanding of our precarious contemporary position but to draw out the logical consequences that result from the relativistic view and display to us the challenges present in approaching the pursuit of a liberal education or articulating a defense of how such an education would be good.  However, Strauss views the crisis described above not as an aberration in contemporary theory but as the culmination of the modern project and the natural right tradition.  As a result, he leads us down a path towards considering the character of modern philosophy that brought about this crisis in order for us to see the nature of our crisis more clearly but to also analyze the theoretical conceptions that have influenced how we perceive, act, and orient ourselves in the world we inhabit.

In viewing the crisis of relativism in terms of a historic development of Western culture, and thus the above problems as symptoms rather than causes, Strauss sought to rearticulate the nature of these problems through a comprehensive assessment of the modern project.  He does this by first analyzing relativism’s growth out of the tradition of modern philosophy of natural right as well as analyzing what he called “the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns” and “the theological-political problem.” In the first instance, this ‘quarrel,’ Strauss observes, through adopting the phraseology of Spinoza, is between conceptions of rationalism of the ancient and modern form while the “theological-political problem” is the “fundamental question” of where “men can acquire that knowledge of the good without which they cannot guide their lives individually or collectively by the unaided efforts of their natural powers, or whether they are dependent for that knowledge on Divine revelation.”[27]  This ‘quarrel’ and this ‘problem’ Strauss argues shows the inherent tensions in the Western tradition that has become masked over through recent historical developments and modern philosophy’s theoretical enframement.  Accordingly, he argues that we cannot simply revive or rededicate ourselves to the Western tradition but must first learn to reopen this quarrel between the ancients and the moderns by reassessing the modern break with classical political thought.

Part Three: Strauss’s Reassessment of ‘the Modern Project’

In first looking at Strauss’s consideration of the moderns, he saw a profound break in conceptions of rationalism, republicanism, and thus human nature.  This in some way he saw as a rebellion, a rebellion in “public-spirited dissatisfaction” with “the utopian conservatism or lack of political ambition in ancient political philosophy.”[28]  In other words, what the moderns saw in the ancients was a lengthy meditation on the ideal of political life which they interpreted as divorced from the real and pressing concerns that political life presents.  Strauss saw the modern rebellion exemplified in thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Locke, and Montesquieu as these thinkers tied a new idealism with a modern realism.  This important new tie was what Strauss summarized as ‘the modern project’.[29]  This “modern project,” he claimed, was “the secular movement which tries to guarantee the actualization of the ideal, or to prove the necessary coincidence of the rational and the real, or to get rid of that which essentially transcends every possible human reality.”[30]  In this sense, this project grounded man upon the earth, confining him to see ideals in terms of their practical attainability rather than as ends in themselves.  As a result, it led to a reconceptualization of human nature.  As Pangle notes referring to this break, “what is to be regarded as natural to the human species are animal passions, the strongest of which are the drive for security and the drive for superiority of control, given scope in uniquely human plasticity that is shapeable and hence shaped by reason, which can figure out an integration of the passions.”[31]  Reason in this view is simply a tool used to help pursue such passions.  As a result, it finds itself absent in orienting us towards what passions we ought to pursue.  One needs to go no further than consulting Hobbes’s Leviathan to see a felicitous articulation that coincides with this ideal as man occupies an existence in the state of nature, leading a life that is “solitary, poor nasty brutish, and short,” and thus flees this state, using his reason, to the sovereign to seek protection.[32]

As ‘the modern project’ transformed conceptions and the role of reason in human life, it in turn created a new modern republican political character that focused much more on the role of human action rather than contemplation in political life.  Further, Strauss argues that this change was profoundly linked with the ascent of modern science where man sough to use scientific and technological advance to increase his power over the natural world.[33] In Strauss’s view, the modern republican character associated with modern political philosophy as well as modern science finds itself “much more impressed and preoccupied with the deeds than with the speeches or self-understanding of political life” as it “begins form a radical doubt of common sense and its opinions.”[34]  Further, it ”proceeds to replace or to supersede those opinions with apparently indubitable universally self-evident first principles,” allowing the moderns to believe that “a new, truly reasonable or truly effective (and thus self-vindicating) moral and political universe can be constructed.”[35]  Here, the modern project’s profound optimism is displayed.  As opinions are replaced with principles, modern philosophy suggests that it can solve the theological-political problem.  It argues that man, through the application of his reason, in accordance with the eternal principles from which he has deduced, can determine how to rule himself by competently crafting his own laws.  In this way, intellectual progress is seen to be linked with social progress.  Further, that man was viewed to be on the ascent, overcoming philosophy and political thought in its incipient and infantile forms as seen in the ancients.

By displaying to us this intellectual history, Strauss in turn shows us aspects of our modern cave, or the theoretical and philosophic positions that encapsulate our historic world view.  In this way, he more clearly outlines the parameters of our cave as well as the view that because of modern science, a product of the modern philosophic project, we consider ourselves liberated and are thus in no need of a liberal education; in fact, one may suggest we have already obtained it.  However, Strauss disputes this claim and the larger view instituted by the moderns in his published lecture entitled “Progress or Return?”  In it, he reminds us that “the contemporary crisis of the Western civilization may be said to be identical with the climatic crisis of the idea of progress in the full and emphatic sense of the term,” meaning that the development and furthering of this thought has led to its own self-doubt and thus our pervasive relativism.[36]  Observing this, Strauss argues that we must reopen the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns so as to avoid our thought being clouded by the modern view and thus to believe that ‘the theological-political problem’ has been solved and that our caves are inescapable or that we are already freed from them.  Such a reopening is seen through Strauss’s resuscitation of classical thought and using this resuscitation to not only interrogate the modern view but found a new liberal educational project.

Part Four: Strauss’s Resuscitation of Classical Thought

Under Strauss’s reopening of the ‘quarrel between the ancients and the moderns’ is a project of resuscitating classical political philosophy.[37]  Such a resuscitation is done to reexamine our modern principles and thus their break with the classical tradition while also attempting to recover the complex teachings found within classical political philosophy which modern thought, in its rebellion, has overlooked.  As Strauss states in an article entitled “On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy,” “the only answer to the attack on the modern principles which is legitimate […] is their free and impartial reexamination” and such “a free examination of the modern principles is necessarily based on their conscientious confrontation with those of classical philosophy.”[38]  However, Strauss warns that a confrontation with classical philosophy can be easily misguided because we, as students, frequently “take [our] bearings by the modern signposts with which [we have] grown familiar [with] since [our] early childhood.” Therefore, in order to truly confront classical philosophy, Strauss argues that one must open oneself up to “the possibility that its teachings are simply true, or that it is decisively superior to modern philosophy” in all respects.[39]  Practically, this means that one must attempt to see the ancient authors as they saw themselves and to understand their argument on their own terms.  In addition, it means letting the texts present us with questions which lead us to inquires rather than supposing our questions, which are influenced by modern thought, on to these texts.  In this way, Strauss revived a reading that was lost, specifically a reading that differentiated between an author’s exoteric and esoteric teachings, in the hope of more precisely understanding the classical view of human nature and the inherent tension between philosophy and politics.

In beginning to understand Strauss’s reassessment of classical political philosophy, it is important to consider how he viewed the ancient utopian tradition, exemplified specifically in Plato’s Republic.  What Strauss perceived in his readings of Platonic dialogues, and the Republic specifically, was a concealed ironism, an ironism that showed a playfulness yet firm commitment to inspiring a thought-provoking engagement.[40]  Rather than constructing the ideal regime, one which could be attainable on earth, Strauss argues that both Socrates and Plato, through the Republic, display the limits of politics.  As Strauss says in his The City and Man, “Socrates makes clear in the Republic of what character the city would have to be in order to satisfy the highest need of man.”[41]  In other words, “By letting us see that the city constructed in accordance with this requirement is not possible, he lets us see the essential limits, the nature, of the city.”[42]  Through such a reading, one can see a subtle didactic intent manifesting throughout the course of the work.   In fact, by viewing the Republic in this light, through its ironism and thus hidden teaching, Strauss suggests that we can begin to perceive the classical conception of human nature.

Human nature in the classical conception, as displayed by Strauss’s interpretation of the Republic, portrays man’s intense desire to transcend his earthly existence and reach a union with the eternal or the divine.[43]  In accordance, such a union can never be achieved through our earthly existence and hence remains unattainable in political life.  Rather, as Strauss suggest, this eternal longing can only find its truest form in the pursuit of the philosophic life, stating that “man is so built that he can find his satisfaction, his bliss, in free investigation, in articulating the riddle of being.”[44]  Such a life is associated with political life in certain respects but can never fundamentally be expressed or sought through political means.  As Pangle comments, “Strauss helps us to see that Plato’s Republic shows indirectly but with precision why eros, after it has been so purified, cannot any longer animate (though it many constructively temper) political ambition and desire for political authority.”[45]  In effect, through this desire’s purification, one is led away from political ambition and is allowed to begin both political reflection and philosophic inquiry.  The result of such a purification, if properly pursued, is an awareness of political society’s basis in men’s needs along with a recognition that we will always possess a longing beyond those needs.  This reflects, for Strauss, the character of classical political philosophy in its concern for understanding political society over the art of rule.  As a result, it sees man in dialogue between his earthly existence and eternal aspirations and such a conception can be seen in sharp contrast to the modern philosophic view that roots man’s passions in his telluric reality and attempts to solve the problems resulting from these passions through the construction of political institutions.  In this way, Strauss’s interpretation of the Republic can be seen as the sharpest critique of the modern project.

A basic understanding of ancient political society and its conception of human nature emerges, for Strauss, in what he saw as the Socratic dialectic “attempt to lead qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life.”[46]  Such an attempt, he argues, is what Plato called the “turning of the soul” in his Republic as it aims at elevating a few select individuals towards pursuing man’s highest calling.[47]  For Plato, that calling is philosophy.  The art of this conversion, however, displays the inherent tension between philosophy and politics for the ancients.  This tension can be most readily seen through a careful reading of the Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Plato’s The Apology of Socrates, and the end of Book VII of the Republic since these works display the suspicion that philosophy might undermine civic virtue and civic concern, the basis on which a stable political society is founded.  In noting this tension, Strauss turns finally to a reinterpretation of classical writing, and specifically its esoteric approach, in order to both display and better perceive how ancient, and perhaps modern, philosophers concealed their true teachings by writing for multiple audiences.[48]  Strauss’s articulation of this peculiar phenomenon, which he believed many of the moderns overlooked, or perhaps secretly perceived, comes to its fullest form in his series of essays published under the title Persecution and the Art of Writing.

The purpose of reawakening a consideration for this lost art of writing, I argue, helps forward the philosophic and educational projects associated with Strauss’s engagement with what he saw as ‘the contemporary crisis of the west’.  Through considering the pervasiveness of contemporary relativism, analyzing the development of this relativism in relation to modern thought, reassessing ‘the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns’, and reasserting the need for close readings of both ancient and modern authors, Strauss lays out a philosophic project in which students of his thought can attempt to forward.  Accordingly, I argue that within this philosophic project is a path toward a revived conception of liberal education, an education that will offer intellectual liberation in a similar manner to that of the Socratic dialectic approach but also include civic concern through assisting one in perceiving the fundamental tensions within the Western tradition and hence making one cautious of the claims that seek to permanently resolve them.  In this way, Strauss inspires others to engage with ‘the crisis of our times’ as he does by providing us with a theoretical framework to view its current manifestations and possible future developments.  As Thomas Pangle notes in regards to this project,

What [Strauss] offers is no more and no less than this: a path, the sole path, that can be taken by anyone who, as a necessary consequence of seriously facing our predicament, in honest or intellectual probity as well as prudence, has no choice but to seek to overcome the crisis – or to understand that and why it cannot be overcome.[49]

Part Five: The Rebirth of Liberal Education

A starting point down this path, and the path towards Strauss’s conception of liberal education can be seen in Strauss’s commencement address given to graduates of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults in June 1959 entitled “What is a Liberal Education?”  In this lecture, also published in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss lays out a vision for the task of liberal education that is important to consider in relation to his analysis of our modern crisis as well as his resuscitation of classical political philosophy.  In the opening remarks of “What is Liberal Education?,” Strauss describes the character of his view of a classical liberal education with the claim that a “liberal education is education in culture or toward culture” and that “the finished product of a liberal education is a cultured human being” with a cultivated mind.[50]  Such an ‘education in culture’, he argues, is facilitated by teachers, but no ordinary teachers, rather, “the greatest minds” as experienced through “the great books.”[51]  In accordance, he claims, that “liberal education will then consists in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind,” opening one up to “the conversation among the greatest minds” and thus their contending teachings.[52]  This specific liberal education, however, he argues, occupies a peculiar position in modern democratic society that is surrounded by pervasive relativism and “mass culture.”[53]  The question becomes then, for what culture will this ‘cultured human being’ be reared towards?  Or in other words, “what can liberal education mean here and now?”[54]

Liberal education, Strauss argues, is what separates one from being a blind member of mass society.  In this way, we can consider it synonymous with liberation from the cave.  As he says, liberal education is “the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society” through remind[ing] those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”[55]  Through such a reminder of historic “human excellence” and “human greatness,” one is led to pursue an “education to perfect gentlemanship.”  Hence, a liberal education is not simply a reminder of greatness but an inspiration towards “the quest for wisdom or the quest for knowledge regarding the most important, the highest, or the most comprehensive things” which Plato suggests are virtue and happiness.[56]  Such knowledge, however, Strauss contends, will always remain inaccessible to man since “we cannot be philosophers” in the true sense.  Rather, we “can love philosophy” and hence “try to philosophize.” As Strauss claims, “this philosophy consists at any rate primarily and in a way chiefly in listening to the conversation between the greatest philosophers or, more generally and more cautiously, between the greatest minds, and therefore in studying the great books.” However, in listening to these conversations, or this great dialogue, Strauss suggests that we must be attentive readers by not “[taking] on trust what any one of them says.”[57]

Rather than taking what the greatest minds seem to advocate as true, Strauss argues that we must read deeply, critically, and carefully into the texts as “impresarios or lion-tamers” rather than “docile listeners.” In this way, Strauss inspires us to take up his esoteric approach.  Through doing so, one could be put on guard against philosophy’s “wish to be edifying” since it can “only be intrinsically edifying” and then enter into humble intercourse with the greatest minds that free us from the vulgarity of mass culture and allow us to have “experience in things beautiful.”[58]  In such a conception of liberal education, Strauss offers a view of the path towards intellectual liberation of a natural aristocracy that he argues exists within our modern mass democracy and its pervasive relativism.  Displaying to us this path, I argue, shows Strauss’s goal of founding a liberal educational program that is not only philosophically serious but also includes civic concern as can be seen in a more holistic analysis of his work.

By opening us up to this dialogue, the dialectic of intellectual history of the greatest minds and their conversation through their great books, Strauss founds an education program, which I argue, can be considered a politically responsible and moderate form of a modern liberal education that has as a goal intellectual liberation.  Such a program is seen through his project of reassessing modern political thought and in turn resuscitating classical political thought and by guiding a careful reader towards a path of intellectual liberation that can be considered a genuine form of a liberating liberal education.  He does this first by making us critically engage with the chief modern dogma that dominates our contemporary world view: relativism.  However, through reassessing the development of this outlook by rearticulating the modern crisis and the intellectual and political challenges that it has produced, Strauss turns to classical thought to show us that humans have had vastly different conceptions of what constitutes the nature, aims, and ends of human life.  In doing so, he makes a student of his thought able to confront the crisis of the west and in turn the challenge of philosophizing and defending civilized society in the modern world.  Therefore, the path that his project initiates can be considered twofold.  On one hand, it inspires some students down the path of critically engaging with the political ramifications of our modern crisis. In this way, it advises them to return to an engagement with our political society’s foundation in natural right and in turn inspiring them towards rearticulating a strong defense for civilized democratic life.  On the other hand, Strauss’s work opens one up to the “turning of the soul” that can be brought about from a serious engagement with the dialectic approach.  Regardless of the approach one takes, Strauss intends to inspire within his critical readers a serious engagement with intellectual history, an engagement that takes seriously the great books and the great arguments that have shaped world history.  Such a project, I argue, has revived the possibility of the rebirth of a liberating liberal education in the modern world and I am thankful for my educational experiences here at James Madison College for exposing me to this approach.


Berlin, Isaiah. 1958. Two Concepts of Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. The Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Pangle, Thomas. 2006. Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Plato. 1991. Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books.

Strauss, Leo. 1989. “”Relativism”.” In The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, edited by Thomas Pangle, 13-26. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 1989a. “Progress or Return?” In The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, 227-270. Chicago: Chicago Unviersity Press.

—. 1989b. “Social Science and Humanism.” In The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, edited by Thomas Pangle, 3-12. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 1964. The City and Man. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

—. 1968. “What is Liberal Education?” In Liberalism Ancient and Modern, by Leo Strauss, 3-8. New York: Basic Books.

—. 1959. What is Political Philosophy? Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[1] Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato, (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 514a.

[2] In this paper, I will take this allegory to be the metaphorical image for what it means to pursue an intellectually liberating education through all historic cultures.  In this way, it is the universal image for what a genuine liberal education should be.

[3] Ibid., 514a.

[4] Ibid., 515c.

[5] Ibid., 515c.

[6] Ibid., 516c.

[7] Ibid., 517c.  See also 533b-c.

[8] Ibid., 518b-e.

[9] Ibid., 521b-c.

[10] Ibid., 517c-d.

[11] Ibid., 517d-e.

[12] Ibid., 533b.

[13] Ibid., 538d-e.

[14] Leo Strauss, The City and Man, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964) 3.

[15] Ibid., 3.

[16] Leo Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas Pangle. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 8.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Thomas Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006), 8.

[19] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953), 7.

[20] Ibid., 6.

[21] Ibid., 3.

[22] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 8.

[23] Leo Strauss, “Relativism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas Pangle. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 16,17.

[24] Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 50.

[25] Strauss, “Relativism,” 17. (Berlin 1958)

[26] Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism,” 10.

[27] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 74-75.

[28] Ibid., 69.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30] Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 51.

[31] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 70.

[32] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 76.

[33] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return?,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism ed. Thomas Pangle, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 239.

[34] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 72.

[35] Ibid., 72.

[36] Strauss, “Progress or Return?,” 238.

[37] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 43.

[38] Leo Strauss, “On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy,” Social Research 13 (1946): 327, 328.

[39] Ibid., 331.

[40] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 47.

[41] Strauss, The City and Man, 61.

[42] Ibid., 61.

[43] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 49.

[44] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 75.

[45] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 50.

[46] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 93-94.

[47] Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato, 518c-d.

[48] Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought, 56.

[49] Ibid., 29-30.

[50] Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 3

[51] Ibid., 3

[52] Ibid., 3, 7

[53] Ibid., 5

[54] Ibid., 5

[55] Ibid., 5

[56] Ibid., 6

[57] Ibid., 7

[58] Ibid., 8


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