Men of Letters: The Little-known Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin

We owe a profound debt of gratitude to Professors Barry Cooper and Peter Emberley for their efforts in bringing to light the hitherto unknown correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, two of the great philosophic luminaries of our age. (In addition to Strauss and Voegelin’s letters, Faith and Political Philosophy, scheduled for publication later this year, also includes essays by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Ellis Sandoz, Thomas L. Pangle, and others.)

Reading this exchange can be alternatively an exhilarating and frustrating experience. One of its peculiarities is that the two correspondents hardly ever met and were never together long enough to have a serious conversation. No two scholars living in reasonably close proximity ever managed to miss each other with such astonishing regularity. When Voegelin comes to Chicago to deliver the Walgreen lectures, Strauss is in bed with the flu. When he is invited to teach at Notre Dame and looks forward to seeing Strauss, who will be less than two hours away, the latter is off in California. On another occasion, Voegelin himself is in the hospital undergoing surgery. Meanwhile, Strauss, who has suffered a mild heart attack, needs more time than expected to recover. And the story goes on and on.

Similar difficulties beset the correspondence itself. When Strauss has time to write, he, unbelievably, has no paper, and when he finally gets his hands on some paper, he has no time. His handwriting, barely decipherable under the best of circumstances, becomes worse because of what he fancies to be his deteriorating physical condition. Unable to make out a key sentence in one of the letters, Voegelin is desperate and appeals to heaven.

Since the two authors do not know each other personally, the tone of the early letters is a bit stiff, or so it seems to me. Both parties maintain what Strauss calls “the customs descended from another world, the old world.” It is as if, not quite knowing how to address his correspondent, Strauss had decided to play it safe. First, it is “Dear Dr. Voegelin”; then “Esteemed Dr. Voegelin”; then “My dear Dr. Voegelin”; and finally “My dear Mr. Voegelin.” Voegelin says simply “Dear Dr. Strauss,” and later “Dear Mr. Strauss.” That is about as far as the thaw will go. The chances of their ever being on a first-name basis are nil. The old world forms are much too powerful for that.

Neither one knows the ropes very well, but Strauss, who is already in this country when Voegelin arrives, seems to know them a bit better at least for the time being. He responds graciously to Voegelin’s request for help and intercedes with the editor of Social Research to have one of Voegelin’s articles published in that journal. Getting Voegelin to make the necessary changes in the text proves to be a mammoth undertaking. There are many hurdles to be passed, many concessions to be made, and not enough time for any of them. In a world in which the blind are leading the blind, progress is slow.

For the first few years there is mutual interest, although it is not easy to judge how deep it is. That interest would eventually wane on both sides. The letters that we have, 51 in all (27 by Strauss and 24 by Voegelin) were written over a 30-year period from 1934 to 1964. In fact, the majority of them belong to the years 1942-1953. None of the letters written after 1953 contains anything of substance. What happened? Did the two interlocutors come to the conclusion that they had gone as far as they could and no longer had anything to learn from or about each other?

One looks forward to the editors’ introduction to these letters, which will presumably shed some light on the little mysteries that surround them. Why was their existence kept hidden for so long? How many others were there? At one point, Strauss speaks of “our perennial difference of opinion concerning gnosis,” thereby implying that the matter had often come up for discussion. Yet gnosis is mentioned only once or twice in passing in the collection. Some letters were apparently lost. Or is it simply that the subject had long been on Strauss’s mind, even though he hardly talked about it with Voegelin?

To come now to the substantive issues: perhaps the most important theme to be taken up is that of religion and its place in political philosophy. My own remarks on this subject are bound to be somewhat tentative. Though I have long been intrigued by Voegelin, I have not made a thorough study of him and do not claim to speak with authority about him. What I can bring to that side of the debate is barely more than a certain protective naïveté that professional or more experienced Voegelinians no longer possess to the same high degree. As everyone knows, that is not an unqualified advantage.

My reading of the correspondence was guided —”vaguely influenced” might be a better term — by what I learned from my conversations with the protagonists about their relationship to each other — not very much, I am afraid. Of the two, Strauss was the more generous and forthcoming. He spoke with respect of Voegelin and made it clear that he considered him to be head and shoulders above most contemporary scholars. In his opinion, very few people today raised the kinds of questions that are dealt with in Voegelin’s books. This was particularly true of the treatment of Israel in volume I of Voegelin’s Order and History, of which some mention is made in the correspondence.

The one point that set them most clearly apart, he thought, was the notion of History with a capital “H”— historicism in some form or other, or history as an ontological category—to which Voegelin subscribed but about which he, Strauss, had serious doubts. As he explains in one of the letters, history may have been the “condition of the recognition of truth,” but it was not its “source.” I shall return to this in a moment.

In conversation, Voegelin was not nearly as gracious and certainly not as gracious as he sounds in his letters, where he is often lavish in his praise of Strauss and once goes so far as to refer to him as a “kindred soul.” He spoke as if he barely knew him, insisted on the fact that they had met briefly two or three times at most, and added that they had never had a real conversation. Yes, he was familiar with Strauss’s work, that went without saying, but it was not a subject to which he gave much thought. Strauss was by then a distant memory that could be dredged up only with great effort. He said nothing about his correspondence with him and referred neither to what he had written about Strauss in the Review of Politics or to what Strauss had written about him in the second edition of On Tyranny. The tone of his reply was, to say the least, less cordial than that of the letters. Had he developed second thoughts about Strauss? Did later run-ins with Straussians do anything to sour the once pleasant memories? Or had age taken its toll and dampened the enthusiasm of the earlier years? After all, this was an old man speaking, one whose death would occur only a few months later. Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that the letters give us an inside look at a world populated by intellectual giants the likes of whom we are not apt to meet for quite some time. But for one of these giants it had already lost some of its lustre.

As I mentioned a moment ago, Strauss thought   that the issue between him and Voegelin turned on the notion of History or historical consciousness. The letters reveal that he found in Voegelin an ally insofar as the latter, unlike most twentieth-century scholars, was deeply critical of modernity and aware of the break that it represented with pre-modern thought. His final judgment, however, is that Voegelin had not gone far enough. He was still too modern and in a sense too religious. The two go together to the extent that late modernity, in both its historicist and Hegelian forms, was at bottom an attempt to mediate the Enlightenment conflict between reason and revelation by synthesizing them on a higher plane.

The vestigial modernity shows itself in Voegelin’s contention that Christianity represented a new level of consciousness, that it was grounded in experiences to which Plato and Aristotle did not and could not have had access, and that with its appearance a new and broader horizon had been opened up which made any return to pre-Christian philosophic thought unthinkable. Plato and Aristotle were no longer viable alternatives because their essential Greekness, or “helleno-centrism,” had been made plain for everyone to see. To put the matter in terms that Strauss does not use but that may clarify his thought, Voegelin thought he was out of the cave, the Platonic image for the polis and its conventions, but that Plato and Aristotle were still in it and doomed to remain there. According to Strauss, Neo-Thomism was more radical in its intent. It betrayed a fuller appreciation of the fundamental incompatibility of modern and pre-modern modes of thought. Unfortunately, its implementation was beneath criticism and hence “not worth considering.” Its chief exponents were involved in a project of their own, which was to reaccredit Catholic Christianity by reconciling Thomas Aquinas with modern thought. As a result, they, too, like Voegelin, ended up by conceding too much to modernity. The product was a hybrid that had no real chance of survival. In Strauss’s view, the greater universality that Voegelin attributed to the Christian revelation was not something to be taken for granted. As a religion that understood itself as divinely revealed, Christianity had to contend with the phenomenon of the multiplicity of theioi nomoi, of divine or allegedly divine revelations. Its universality was itself a matter of faith, and hence not obvious to everyone.

Voegelin’s compromise with modernity further reveals itself in the ascription of a religious grounding to classical philosophy. This grounding takes a different form in the case of Plato on the one hand and Aristotle on the other. Plato’s fundamental insights are conveyed through the medium of myth. Aristotle is the “intellectual mystic,” whose thought is cast in a more rational or discursive mode, but who is not any less religious on that account. According to Strauss, one blurs the basic issue when one presents Plato and Aristotle as religious thinkers. A close analysis of their works reveals another orientation altogether, one that sets them apart from the entire tradition of Greek religion, poetry, and mythology. The problem becomes even more acute once revealed religion makes its appearance. Some rapprochement between Athens and Jerusalem may be possible; but not to the point of synthesizing one with the other, for “every synthesis is actually an option either for Jerusalem or for Athens.”

Further problems arose for Strauss in connection with Voegelin’s attempt to trace the origins of modernity to certain medieval developments such as the one associated with Joachim of Flora. On that telling, the medieval “gnostics” were the ones who set the Western world on the course that it would follow down to our time. They were the first to jettison the classical and Christian notions of transcendence. Voegelin has two key categories: transcendence and immanence. The modern world rejected the former in favor of the latter, but this alone does not give us an adequate insight into modernity’s essence. What characterizes modernity in the strictest sense is not just its opposition to pre-modernity but its derivation from it by way of an immanentization of the eschaton or the transcendent. In simple terms, modernity is a secularized version of Christianity. Having no independent rational principle, it is by definition a parasitic phenomenon. Unlike other proponents of the secularization thesis, however, Voegelin sees modernity, not as the perfection of pre-modern thought, but as its corruption.

The only other point to which I would call attention concerns Voegelin’s remarks about Husserl and specifically his complaint that Husserl was still caught up in the epistemological problem, the central problem of modern philosophy and a necessary consequence of modernity’s promethean effort at immanentization. Strauss has a greater regard for Husserl and a profound admiration for his attempt to rethink the whole of philosophy on the basis of modern science. He denies that Husserl’s problem is the epistemological problem and, without pronouncing himself on the validity or the success of Husserl’s enterprise, does not conceal his appreciation for what Husserl was trying to do. Against Voegelin, he also denies that there is an element of construction in Husserl’s project. Husserl’s “constitution” is not the same thing as Kant’s “construction.” For Husserl—as opposed to Kant—the object of thought has a being independent of the process by which it is apprehended. It is given, rather than produced or constructed by the human consciousness. One arrives at a knowledge of it by means of a phenomenological description of the datum of experience.

The strength of Voegelin’s position is that it seeks to preserve or recover an ontological grounding for human thought and action against the denigrations and the phenomenalism of the bulk of modern philosophy. Voegelin took that grounding to be lacking in Husserl and may have thought that it was lacking in Strauss as well. This brings us to what may be the most subtle difference between the two thinkers. Voegelin is clearly of the opinion that the political orders devised by human beings are rooted in antecedent ontological considerations, for it is only once the soul is constituted that it can express itself in these orders. Strauss is not convinced that such a view does justice to the complexity of the situation in which human beings find themselves. It presupposes that the soul can constitute itself independently of civil society and thus fails to appreciate the extent to which the latter influences the soul’s constitution. In short, Voegelin does not take politics seriously enough.

I am not at all confident that I have done justice to Voegelin. My only aim was to call attention to some of the problems raised by the correspondence and which I formulated in terms that I can understand. These may not be the best possible terms; but then, non-Voegelinians have always had difficulties with Voegelin’s terms.

What do we learn from the correspondence that we did not already know or could not know from other sources about Strauss’s or Voegelin’s thought? Not much, I suspect. Both authors have written extensively elsewhere on the subjects with which they deal here. There is nevertheless in the letters a certain bluntness or candor that would have been out of place in a piece written for publication. This is true, for example, of the disobliging remarks made about Karl Popper by Strauss, who finds him to be someone who cannot “think rationally,” and by Voegelin, who dismisses Popper’s book as “impudent, dilettantish crap.” It is also true of some of Strauss’s remarks about Neo-Thomism and about Protestantism, which Strauss would never have published in that form lest they should give offense to colleagues or friends for whom he had a good deal of respect, even if he was not in complete agreement with them.

Not surprisingly, neither one appears to have learned much from the other or to have budged in any way from his position. I say “not surprisingly” because they were both in their forties, and hence well past the age of intellectual conversion, when they first came into contact with each other. We find them at the end pretty much as they were at the beginning. The debate has merely served to confirm them in the convictions at which they had arrived before the exchange began. It may have cast their differences in a sharper light by forcing them to respond directly to each other, but otherwise everything remains as it was. We do discover that the works which they would later publish were already being contemplated, mulled over, or taking shape in their minds, but that is not surprising either.

What the correspondence has made us see, in case we had not seen it already, is the nature of the philosophic dialogue and the theoretical as well as extratheoretical obstacles that stand in the way of its producing the agreement that constitutes its goal. In an age that has mostly given up on truth, the example is an edifying one. That a conversation such as this one was possible in our time, regardless of its result, reminds us of a certain higher calling the existence of which has all but vanished from our impoverished intellectual horizon.


  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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