Leo Strauss is widely known as a critic of historicism and an advocate of classical philosophy. Historicism holds that philosophical ideas are relative to culture, whereas classical philosophy aims for knowledge of nature, which is not relative to culture. But what is Strauss’s own point of view? Does he base his arguments on historicist or classical philosophical premises? Does he offer an internal or external critique of historicism, internal or external praise for classical philosophy? For as the examples of Nietzsche and Heidegger show us, the most radical forms of historicism make it is possible to both criticize historicism and laud classical philosophy from a fundamentally historicist point of view.
To answer this question, I will give close readings to Strauss’s writings on historicism, beginning with a 1940 lecture “The Living Issues of German Postwar Philosophy.”  By “postwar” philosophy, Strauss means German philosophy after the First World War. Today it is better to refer to it as interwar philosophy.
Strauss specifically mentions Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Jünger. Aside from Weber, all of these thinkers belong to the so-called Conservative Revolutionary movement in German interwar thought. Strauss also mentions Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a fundamental influence on all of these thinkers, as well as Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement. Both the Nietzschean and the phenomenological currents were united in Heidegger.
Strauss divides interwar German thinkers into two kinds: the “more superficial movements” and “the deeper movement.” Note the relativity of the terms superficial and deep, the plurality of the first, and the singularity of the second. The more superficial movements are not superficial in an absolute sense. They are those “who had a direct and revolutionizing effect on the more open-minded and excitable part of the academic youth.” The deep movement consists of those “who in relative secrecy discovered, or rediscovered, a basis more in accordance with the nature of things than that underlying the preceding period had been” (p. 117).
Strauss says he will focus on the superficial movements which were, however, influenced by the deeper one, which was “practically identical with the development of phenomenology.” The more superficial thinkers are Spengler, Weber, Schmitt, and Jünger. The deeper movement refers specifically to Heidegger’s development of Husserl’s phenomenology. Strauss’s discussion is deliberately vague, for he mentions that he will base his discussion of these thinkers not merely on their published works, but on “Certain lectures and conversations and discussions which I remember” (p. 117).
One of the central themes uniting all these thinkers is the criticism of modern civilization. Strauss grants that this critique may well be “disastrous in the political field” (probably an allusion to National Socialism), but he insists that it is “necessary in the philosophical, in the theoretical field” (p. 115). One must, however, criticize modern civilization from an alternative point of view. Strauss mentions two such points of view: the crude one, which looks to ancient Germanic paganism, and the refined one, which looks to ancient Greek paganism. The importance of paganism implies a critique of Christianity as well as modernity.
There is a long tradition of German Hellenophilia. Strauss specifically mentions Leibniz, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Hegel, and Nietzsche. According to Strauss, “Nietzsche’s own philosophy, the most powerful single factor in German postwar philosophy, is almost identical with his criticism of modern civilisation in the name of classical antiquity” (p. 116).
Strauss regards all of these thinkers as historicists of a type. But historicism was changed fundamentally by Nietzsche. In modern philosophy, the critique of modernity is inseparable from the critique of modern mechanistic natural science. The critics of mechanism claimed that it is inapplicable to man and his creations, including history and culture. Man is free, thus the historical world created by man is a realm of freedom. But history too can become the object of theories, including the human sciences and philosophies of history. This is classic historicism.
After Nietzsche, however, the fundamental distinction was not the realm of nature vs. the realm of freedom, but:
life or existence vs. science, science being any purely theoretical enterprise. The science criticized in the name of life or existence, comprises both natural science and history. The German postwar criticism is directed as much against Hegel and romanticism as against Descartes. The originator of that criticism was Nietzsche who had made it its principle to look at science from the point of view of art, and to look at art from the point of view of life. (pp. 116–17)
Strauss is referring to the argument of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditation on The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, which criticizes historicism from the point of view of what has come to be called cultural vitalism. As we shall see, in Strauss’s eyes, Nietzsche’s argument both historicizes historicism and opens the possibility of some sort of return to classical philosophy.
Strauss offers two texts as emblematic of German interwar thought: Spengler’s Decline of the West and Max Weber’s Science and Learning as a Vocation. Strauss describes Spengler’s work as “a most ruthless attack on the validity or the value of modern science and philosophy (and indeed of science and philosophy altogether),” whereas Weber’s lecture was “the most impressive defence, offered in postwar Germany, of modern science and philosophy” (pp. 117–18). Both texts were, however, fundamentally influenced by Nietzsche and the spirit of historicism.
Strauss’s Critique of Spengler
Spengler claims that science and philosophy are not universally true. Instead, they are the products of the unique collective souls of history’s great cultures. Spengler does not, however, claim that his philosophy of history is objectively true. He treats it as an expression of the soul of his own Faustian civilization. Then Strauss adds a critical remark that is quite ambiguous:
The philosophic deficiency of Spengler’s teaching: it required as its basis an elaborate philosophy of man, of human existence as being essentially historical; a philosophy showing that man as the historical being is the origin of all meaning; and this presupposed an analysis of truth, an analysis showing that truth is essentially relative to human existence. Such a philosophy was elaborated by Heidegger. (p. 119)
Strauss’s point is that Spengler’s thought lacks foundations in an account of man’s essentially historical nature, such as that offered by Heidegger in Being and Time. But Strauss does not say whether or not he thinks Heidegger’s views are true. But if Heidegger’s account of human nature is true, that would imply that Spengler’s radical historicism does not lack philosophical foundations. Spengler himself simply neglected to supply them.
Strauss’s second critique of Spengler begins with the observation that Spengler speaks of universal features of all cultures. But if all knowledge is historical, then isn’t that true of Spengler’s account of culture as well? But if Spengler’s categories are culturally relative, then doesn’t that mean they are inapplicable to other cultures? As Strauss puts it: “Is not ‘everything’ historical? Is not the most abstract categorical system still historical, applicable to one culture only? More precisely: are the categories used by Spengler really applicable to the phenomena which he tries to interpret?” (p. 119).
Strauss then suggests that to understand a culture, we must understand it in its own terms, not our terms. We must drop our culture’s categories and seek to understand another culture in terms of its own categories: “If it is true that each ‘culture’ is unique, it has a categorical system of its own, and that system must be discovered out of the phenomena of that culture itself. We must then study the various cultures directly, and not, as Spengler largely had done, the [secondary] literature on these cultures. We must study the [original] documents” (pp. 119–20).
This shift, Strauss informs us, leads to the problem of hermeneutics, of interpreting texts. But to interpret the texts of other cultures in their own terms presupposes a rejection of our own categories:
The turning to the texts themselves implies a profound distrust of the initial categories of interpretation, of the categories we use before having submitted ourselves to the test of the past. That distrust is directed especially against the term “culture” which is the product of the Faustic soul. (p. 120)
However, if one seeks to understand the past in its own terms, one will discover “certain basic facts and interests which have not changed and which are not subject to change.” These unchanging facts are nature, as opposed to history. With the discovery of nature, “historical interest turned into a philosophic interest, into the interest in the eternal nature of man.” Because mankind has a common nature that is not relative to history, this makes it possible for “members of all ‘cultures,’ being men, [to] understand each other, whereas the ‘Faustic’ historicist understands none, because he does not see the eternal nature of man, because he does not see the wood for the trees” (p. 121).
Strauss also adds that if historicists really try to understand the past, they have to grapple with the fact that our ancestors were not relativists. Thus historicism, practiced consistently, leads to its self-overcoming: “radical historicism awakes a passionate interest in the past and therewith a passionate interest in the unhistorical approach characteristic of man up to the 18th century” (p. 121).
The weakness of Strauss’s argument is his premise that we must drop our own cultural categories in order to understand another culture in its own terms. Strauss suggests that Spengler’s relativism would benefit from Heideggerian philosophical foundations. But from Heidegger’s point of view, one’s cultural heritage is what makes it possible to interpret anything at all, including other cultures. Dropping it, therefore, would not improve our understanding of other cultures but make any such understanding impossible.
In his discussions of the philosophical tradition, Heidegger acknowledges that certain inherited ideas make the past inaccessible to us. Thus, for example, we must dismantle inherited concepts of nature and truth and try to gain fresh access to the original phenomena that led the Greeks to formulate these ideas. Heidegger called this process “dismantling” or “deconstructing” the tradition to get back to its experiential roots. Strauss is quite open about taking inspiration from Heidegger’s attempts to dismantle the philosophical tradition and take a fresh look at Plato and Aristotle.
But Heidegger would have rejected it as naïve to claim that he was discarding all presuppositions, thereby understanding Plato and Aristotle as they understood themselves. Instead, Heidegger would speak only about discarding disabling presuppositions, and he would claim that it is impossible to understand the ancients as they understood themselves. We must inevitably understand them differently, because we have different cultural heritages that make interpretation possible. But ideally, if we purge ourselves of those aspects of the tradition that conceal past thinkers from us, we can understand them better than they understood themselves.
We also have to question how quickly Strauss zeroes in on interpreting ancient writings as a way to understand cultures of the past as they understood themselves. First of all, most ancient cultures did not possess writing. Second, even in literate cultures, literary production is only a small proportion of the overall culture. Third, only a tiny proportion of Ancient literature has survived to the present. Much was lost merely to accident, but much was deliberately saved or destroyed by later peoples; thus the surviving corpus often reflects alien interests, not those of the originators. Finally, within a living culture, the meaning of texts as understood by their authors and audiences depends upon a broader context of living linguistic and cultural practices that have not come down to us.
Do we really understand Sophocles as he understood himself? The surviving plays of Sophocles would surely mean something different to us if we could read them in the context of the 90% of Sophocles’ writings that did not survive, not to mention the wider corpus of Attic drama almost none of which survived either, and the even wider corpus of Greek literature, even less of which survived the wreck of Antiquity. Furthermore, nobody speaks the Greek language and carries on the Greek culture of Sophocles today. Sophocles would have regarded us all as barbarians. He would have found our minds foreign to him, so can we really claim that his mind is not foreign to us? But even if, through some miracle, we were to understand Sophocles as he understood himself, would understanding one great figure in the literate stratum of ancient Athens really constitute understanding the ancient Athenians—much less the ancient Greeks as a whole—as they understood themselves?
We can’t help but understand Sophocles differently than he understood himself. But that doesn’t mean that we should not try. Yes, we know that we will fail, but that does not license us to interpret him in a sloppy and high-handed manner, ignoring aspects of this texts and context that have survived and foisting obviously alien and incompatible agendas on him. Even if we will never understand Sophocles as he understood himself, that does not mean that all interpretations are equal. Understanding an author as he understood himself is thus a useful regulative ideal that forces us to read texts in a scrupulous way and allows us to eliminate unserious interpretations. But once we have managed to produce a reading that takes into account everything we know about a text and its context, we know a priori that it is not how Sophocles or a contemporary understood it. But we can hope that in some ways we have understood them better.
Nietzsche’s Radicalization of Historicism
Strauss operates with a distinction between historicism and radical historicism, although sometimes the boundaries are blurry. For instance, in the essay in question Strauss speaks of Nietzsche as radicalizing an already radical historicism (p. 122). This ultra-radical Nietzschean historicism has at least two senses which we can call grounded historicism and reflexive historicism. As Strauss points out in his critique of Spengler, one can ground historicism with a Heideggerian-style phenomenology of man’s essentially historical nature. A reflexive historicism turns historicism on itself, treating historicism as itself a historical phenomenon. This is, in effect, what Heidegger does in his later philosophy. Nietzsche also grounds historicism in an account of human existence and applies historicism to itself in his second Untimely Meditation, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, to which Strauss now turns.
The historicism which Nietzsche criticizes is “the view that philosophy is self-knowledge of man in his historicity. Such philosophy takes on the form of historical study. Philosophy or history thus understood is essentially and purely theoretical” (p. 121). There is, however, a fundamental distinction between theory and practice. There is also a fundamental incompatibility between theory and practice: one can do both, but one can’t do both at the same time and in the same respect. Theorizing about history is different from the practice of living historically, of creating history. If one is making history, one cannot at the same time reflect upon it.
This leads to a powerful objection to previous forms of historicism:
historical knowledge, as self-knowledge of man, as reflection, is dangerous to spontaneity; human life and human history are essentially spontaneous; therefore, the total victory of historical consciousness, of history understood, would be the end of history itself, of history lived or done. (p. 121)
If historical existence and historical consciousness differ from one another, they can also conflict with one another. Nietzsche argues that in such a conflict, historical existence should have priority; life should come before theory; theory must be subjected to life: “Historical consciousness ought then not to be left to itself, it ought to be limited by, and made subservient to, the forces which make history: historical studies ought to be in the service of life” (p. 121).
Nietzsche shows us that “we must no longer take it for granted that historical knowledge and historical studies are useful, pleasant and necessary” (pp. 121–22). After all, “mankind lived at almost all times without the famous historical sense.” (Yes, but perhaps we lacked something important. The fact that mankind has also lived for most of history without antibiotics is no argument against them.) Nietzsche “led up to the fundamental question of the meaning of historical consciousness by raising the question why and how far historical consciousness is a necessity” (p. 122). Strauss then claims that this is itself a historical question: What historical conditions give rise to historical consciousness?
But note that the underlying assumption of this question is that human existence is always historical. Men are always making history. Thus we can say that man is “by nature” historical. Nietzsche also thinks that historical reflection arises from human nature.
But modern historicism is something different from mere historical awareness and reflection. Strauss thinks that we need an explanation of specifically modern historicism. Strauss seeks to go Nietzsche one better, to further radicalize his already radical historicism, to further historicize the historicists: “Nietzsche’s question had to be made more precise: why does modern man need historical studies, why is modern man compelled to be historically minded in a way in which no earlier age had been? Why do we need history?” (p. 123).
Historicism & Decadence
Strauss claims that “Three answers were given” to the question of why specifically modern men feel the need for historicism. This is a rather vague statement, because Strauss does not claim these answers as his own, nor does he ascribe the first two to any particular authors or books.
First, historicism arose because “Human life is essentially historical, i.e., man naturally needs a tradition which guides him” (p. 123). Modernity has severed our ties to tradition, so we have sought a substitute in history: “history is the modern surrogate for tradition” (p. 123).
Second, the modern idea of progress claims to have done away with the inherited prejudices of the past. But progress itself is based on the uncritical acceptance of the knowledge accumulated and passed on by previous generations. This necessitates the rise of a critical historical consciousness to test the claims of progress. This argument somewhat resembles Husserl’s and Heidegger’s understanding of the dismantling or deconstruction of the philosophical tradition.
Third, critical historical consciousness is necessary if we believe that our present civilization is intellectually bankrupt and that we can learn from the past: “it is after all possible that the truth, or the right approach to the truth, has been found in a remote past and forgotten for centuries” (p. 125). Strauss specifically mentions Yorck von Wartenberg and Julius Ebbinghaus as exponents of this attitude.
All three accounts place historicism in the historical context of a decadent society. More specifically, all three forms of historicism arise from a rebellion against a decadent society. This rebellion is the opposite of the complacency bred by the idea of progress, which holds that life in the current year is better than everything that has come before. It is important to note that in this context Strauss presents historicism as a healthy reaction to modern decadence, since he is best-known as a critic of historicism.
  Leo Strauss, “The Living Issues of German Postwar Philosophy,” in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). The lecture was delivered at the thirty-ninth meeting of the Creighton Philosophical Club at Syracuse University, on April 27 and 28, 1940. The manuscript is located in the Leo Strauss Papers, Box 8, Folder 14, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.