Leo Strauss has been widely villified as the 'father of the neo- cons', as the evil genius behind the 'cabal' that allegedly pushed the U.S. into Iraq. In a highly positive review of this present book written by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun he argues that Steven B. Smith has done a public service by presenting the true picture of Strauss' character and thought. This picture shows him to be above all a defender of liberal democracy, and a strong opponent of totalitarian regimes.
Strauss is defined by Smith as first and above all a reader of classical texts, interested thinkers of the past in order to illuminate the political present. He wished to help his readers understand more of what liberal democracy needed, and how above all to avoid totalitarian threats.
"In a century when the Western political tradition seemed sick unto death, he went back to its origins, trying to trace its mistakes and expose its unexamined assumptions. In this sense, his approach to political philosophy is similar to that of Arendt, who also turned to the Greeks for guidance, and of Isaiah Berlin, who focused on the Enlightenment and its foes.
At the core of Strauss's work is not a prescription but a diagnosis. Classical political philosophy, of the kind practiced by Plato and Aristotle, approached the problem of the best government by asking questions about human nature and virtue. That is why Plato's "Republic" is built around a comparison of the city with the individual soul: He believed that we can only decide how society should be organized if we know what human beings need in order to flourish. Indeed, Strauss wrote, "each regime" - a favorite Strauss word, suggesting not just government but culture and society as well - "raises a claim, explicitly or implicitly," about what kind of human life is best."
In seeking by his reading to understand the best political thought of the past, and present a picture of how we can preserve human freedom Leo Strauss inspired a whole generation of distinguished pupils, among whom clearly , Steven Smith is one of the finest readers of all.