Leo Strauss’s Core Books

It occurred to me recently that there are half a dozen books by Leo Strauss that I think of as a sort of canon within the canon.

Only one of those books is (what I think of as) a commentary book, as opposed to a book of essays. The Hobbes and Spinoza books, important as they are, seem not quite to represent his mature and most powerful thinking, and the later books like the ones on Xenophon are just so tedious and obscure, not nearly as thrilling as some from earlier in his career. Thoughts on Machiavelli though, for all that it focuses on a single thinker, has certainly made a place for itself among his greatest books.

Out of the other books, the books of essays, there are five that I think of as having a particular coherence and importance over the others. I’m judging this not only based on my own experience but also on how I’ve heard others speak of them.

Some are his most famous writings. Natural Right and History. Persecution and the Art of Writing. On Tyranny. These seem to deserve their remarkable reputation.

It might be slightly less famous and slightly more obscure, but I believe that City and Man demands to be seen on the same level as the last few I mentioned.

Probably the most controversial book on my list is Philosophy and Law. Not as famous, not as mature, perhaps not quite as moving. But I can’t bring myself to leave it off the list.

I’m by no means saying that his other books are unimportant or uninteresting. For some reason, and it might be entirely irrational, these six books strike me as most authoritative, and somehow also most exciting. Maybe my list will change in the coming years! But I think I’ve been seeing Strauss’s corpus this way for a while, and it was interesting to notice it and articulate it for myself, even if I can’t fully defend or explain why I hold to this list in the form that it has.

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