Timothy Burns on Leo Strauss on Liberal Education

“What can liberal education mean here and now?” asked Leo Strauss in an address he gave in 1959. Three years later he asked, “What then are the prospects for liberal education within mass democracy?”

Timothy Burns, professor of political science at Baylor University—and National Association of Scholars member—recently returned to Strauss’s questions in his searching book, Leo Strauss on Democracy, Technology, and Liberal Education. In December 2023, he was interviewed by “The New Thinkery” podcast about his work. What follows is a slightly edited version of some of Prof. Burns’s comments in the podcast on the subject of liberal education. These comments are followed by a brief selection from the last section of Strauss’s essay, “Liberal Education and Responsibility.”[1]

From the “The New Thinkery” podcast:

You say at one point that the gentleman’s education should be rendered so as to make it also a preparation for philosophy. But today, we can’t do that because it’s increasingly difficult to come by such a gentlemanly education. What can we do?  Do we have to start from scratch?  Or can our institutions of liberal education be revived?  Perhaps another way to put this: do we today need philosophers or statesmen and lawgivers?

Timothy Burns:

I suppose I should first ask, in reply to your final question: need for what? The perfection of humanity in rare individuals, or for a healthy political regime? Strauss, following Plato, points to the great difference between these two ends.

What I tried to argue is that according to Strauss, liberal education, the education of free men, precedes philosophy, and was as it were, not hijacked by, but infiltrated by, philosophy, with Socrates, for purposes of his own, purposes that had little to do with its original intention. Liberal education was originally poetic, and religious. It was an education for free men. It entailed understanding of epic poetry, history, and lessons from practicing statesmen. It was guided by the need to have virtuous and competent rulers, and by the dim awareness that there was something good in itself, even beyond political life.

Stepping into this education, Socrates introduced into it dialectic, with a two-fold intention: Socrates’ intention was, in the first place, to secure a pre-philosophic defense of the philosophic life, the life of science, a defense that had come to be seen as necessary for reasons spelled out in Plato’s Phaedo. In the second place, Socratic dialectic was needed for a political defense of philosophy.

Now, what would such a liberal education look like? We have the best example of it in the Platonic dialogues, in which very few interlocuters end up becoming philosophers. It is not to be expected that this has changed. And as Strauss argues, the same questions and even the same answers about human life as one finds in the dialogues one finds also in great poets, though without their being directed to the philosophic life. Good teachers can explore those questions with the kind of care exercised by Plato or his Socrates, and that exploration will enrich their students. Most students will not become philosophic but rather will cultivate their reason so that they become more thoughtful, more prudent, and more moved by the noble and the just, by the call of conscience.

From Strauss’s “Liberal Education and Responsibility:”

We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy. While we are not permitted to remain silent on the dangers to which democracy exposes itself as well as human excellence, we cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence. No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone … We are indeed compelled to be specialists, but we can try to specialize in the most weighty matters or, to speak more simply and more nobly, in the one thing needful.

[1] Available in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968).

[2] “Existentialism,” 307: “The reading of the morning prayer had been replaced by the reading of the morning paper: not every day the same thing, the same reminder of men’s absolute duty and exalted destiny, but every day something new with no reminder of duty and exalted destiny. Specialization, knowing more and more about less and less, practical impossibility of concentration upon the very few essential things upon which man’s wholeness entirely depends.”

“Kurt Riezler,” What is Political Philosophy, 236: “He thought that nationalism stands for something more noble than cosmopolitanism, i.e., than that cosmopolitanism which is politically relevant. The politically relevant cosmopolitanism was supported by the modern economic-technological-scientific development. But this development did not strengthen, it rather weakened, the human in man. It increased man’s power but not his wisdom. One could see with special clarity in Germany that this development was accompanied by a decay of the spirit, of taste, of the mind. It compelled men to become ever more specialistic, and at the same time it tempted them with a sham universality by exciting all kinds of curiosities and stimulating all kinds of interests. It thus made ever more difficult concentration on the few things on which man’s wholeness entirely depends. Riezler found the intellectual root of the politically relevant cosmopolitanism in what he called the modern ideal. He discerned in that ideal three elements. The first was the belief that human life as such, i.e., independently of the kind of life one leads, is an absolute good. The second, derivative from the first, was universal and unqualified compassion or humanitarianism. And the third was ‘materialism,’ i.e., an overriding concern with pleasure and unwillingness or inability to dedicate one’s life to ideals. This analysis is not very much liked today but it is historically correct.”

Photo from left to right — Prof. Timothy Burns & Leo Strauss by Levan Ramishvili — Flickr 


  • Keith Whitaker

    Keith Whitaker, Ph.D., is a Founding Associate at Wise Counsel Research Associates. He also serves as Chair of the Board of the National Association of Scholars.

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