Leo Strauss course lectures, by William Olson – Schaumburg

The Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago has compiled hundreds of audio files recorded by students who attended lectures given by Strauss while he was a professor at Chicago, Claremont Men’s College, and St. John’s College over the course of nearly three decades. The recordings are a veritable happy hunting ground for those interested in political philosophy, particularly the first lecture of each course, which typically supplies a survey of the field of interest. These first lectures are, by my estimate, some of the most profound extant lectures on the philosophy of science.

I’ve listened to hundreds of the lectures as a pastime, and I’ve never taken notes or made special attempts to save any of the mp3 files  I found of special interest. One, however, I recall in some detail–an introductory lecture on his course entitled Natural Right, which he gave in the winter of 1962. In it, he lays the groundwork for the folly of social science and, by implication, the assumptive flaws in the larger enterprise of positive science. It is a sweeping pass of the history of science, and an indictment of the fact-value distinction purported by social scientists. He asserts, moreover, the fallacy of the fact-value distinction has direct applications to biological science as well and, provided a few caveats, to physical science.

For most of my life I wallowed in the murky waters of social science, befuddled and confused how seemingly rational and sensible other social scientists were able to redress the vast irrationality of human thinking and behaviors with the probabilistic and indeterminate models of economic, sociological, and psyhological research. I can say with much confidence that Positivism within the social sciences reigns high and supreme at universities and research institutions the world over, and yet its core assumptions of value-free, unbiased inquiry make for some of the most absurd assertions imaginable. Strauss, in the introductory lecture, calls them stupid. He uses a favorite example of a scientific survey of political attitudes that neglects, as part of its methodology, to specify whether the survey should be administered to human beings or oak trees.

When I discovered Strauss, it reminded me of when I discovered Nietzsche. I felt that the material was subversive. I didn’t want others to know I was interested in it. I still hold some of this impression, but to hear Strauss, in his innocuous, slightly high-pitched, always cogent and clear voice, tempers the subversiveness of the argument into a supremely compelling and rational mode of thinking. To hear him speak, from over a half century past, on issues that still plague science, can be chilling. To crib a bit of his style: his lectures are, almost but not entirely, seemingly timeless.

In recent years, especially during the Bush administration, the reputation of Strauss was aligned with neoconservatism. Lyndon LaRouche went so far as to deride Strauss as a fascist, and Shadia Drury lambasts Strauss as a right-wing war monger committed to deception. Others have been more balanced, such as an article in the NYTimes and another in the New Yorker. But, in addition to reading his books, I suggest you listen to the audio tapes and judge for yourself. Those introductory lectures are nothing short of a grand hook.

A last note on the audio tapes. Many have argued that little of anything new can be discovered in them, and that his volumes of written material remain the most reliable source of his thinking. Even Strauss made explicit the difference between speech and writing, contending the latter was far more effective in conveying esoteric themes. But given the thousands of hours of him speaking to students, oftentimes extemporaneously in repose to a question or challenge from a student, it’s untenable to maintain that he could always veil his inner sentiments. Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.


William Olson

Schaumburg, IL

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