The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry

Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher

Eugene R. Sheppard 

"Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher" book cover, with an ornate art nouveau style borderA probing study that demystifies the common portrayal of Leo Strauss as the inspiration for American neo-conservativism by tracing his philosophy to its German Jewish roots.

Born in rural Hesse, Germany, Leo Strauss (1899–1973) became an active Zionist and philosopher during the tumultuous and fractious Weimar Republic. As Eugene R. Sheppard demonstrates in this groundbreaking and engaging book, Strauss gravitated towards such thinkers as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt as he sought to identify and overcome fundamental philosophical, political and theological crises.

The rise of Nazism impelled Strauss as a young Jewish émigré, first in Europe and then in America, to grapple with — and accommodate his thought to — the pressing challenges of exile. In confronting his own state of exile, Strauss enlisted premodern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza who earlier addressed the problem of reconciling their competing loyalties as philosophers and Jews.

This is the first study to frame Strauss's political philosophy around his critique of liberalism and the problem of exile. Sheppard follows Strauss from Europe to the United States, a journey of a conservative Weimar Jew struggling with modern liberalism and the existential and political contours of exile.

Strauss sought to resolve the conflicts of a Jew unwilling to surrender loyalty to his ancestral community and equally unwilling to adhere to the strictures of orthodox observance. Strauss saw truth and wisdom as transcending particular religious and national communities, as well as the modern enlightened humanism in which he himself had been nurtured. In his efforts to navigate between the Jewish and the philosophical, the ancient and the modern, Berlin and New York, Strauss developed a distinctively programmatic way of reading and writing "between the lines." Sheppard recaptures the complexity and intrigue of this project which has been ignored by those who both reject and claim Strauss's legacy.

“In 'Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile,' Eugene Sheppard offers us an extremely erudite and illuminating analysis of Strauss's intellectual development from his early years in Germany to his arrival in New York. By rightfully placing Strauss within the German-Jewish intellectual context from which he emerged, this book will be sure to provoke much rethinking of this seminal figure and the importance of his place within modern Jewish intellectual history.” —Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University

"For those of us who cleave to the rather un-Straussian conviction that the historical origins of philosophical ideas somehow inform the ideas themselves, Eugene Sheppard’s book fulfills a crucial need. 'Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile' helps us to understand the existential dimension in Strauss’s own experience of exile — the trauma of politico-cultural dislocation — which constituted the very grounding for Strauss' reflections upon both the modern Jewish condition and the place of philosophy in the modern world." —Peter Eli Gordon, Harvard University

"In this excellent historical genealogy of Leo Strauss’ thought, Eugene Sheppard moves beyond uninformed polemics on both sides to provide hitherto unavailable information as well as expert historical knowledge of the contexts in which Straussianism was born. Especially noteworthy are the book’s pioneering treatments of Strauss against the backdrop of German-Jewish intellectual history and the history of Zionist controversies, for as Sheppard abundantly shows, the details of these contexts are decisive for making sense of Strauss’ texts. Sheppard’s interpretation of the Straussian philosopher as Jewish exile is novel and exciting. And it prompts us to wonder if this ‘best friend of liberal democracy’ ever succeeded in fully breaking from the explosive politics of the Weimar Right." — Samuel Moyn, Columbia University

"With a graceful weave of biography, historical context, and philosophical analysis, Eugene Sheppard presents an intellectual portrait of Leo Strauss that boldly challenges the cliches that becloud his legacy." —Paul Mendes-Flohr, Divinity School, The University of Chicago

About the Author

Eugene R. Sheppard is associate professor of modern Jewish history thought and associate director of the Tauber Institute at Brandeis University.