Glimpses of Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, and St. John’s College

by George Anastaplo and Eva Brann

George Anastaplo: What do you recall about Leo Strauss at St. John’s College?

Eva Brann: I can recall remarkably little, but I will try to wrench up from memory whatever I can. I did not attend Mr. Strauss’s seminars regularly, but I saw him often at the Klein house for lunch and dinner. I can give you an overall impression. He was absolutely the most exquisitely courteous man imaginable, especially to me as “the daughter of the house.” He was very, very polite. I heard much conversation. I don’t know if I absorbed much of it, but I know that Jasha [Klein] was very happy to have him in Annapolis. I also know that Dodo Klein was very good about taking care of Miriam Strauss (who needed to be taken care of), while Jasha and Mr. Strauss talked to each other a great deal. And that’s really it. I don’t remember details. It was so long ago. Maybe the thing that might be of interest, and that I do have some recollection of, is what Jasha said to me and to others about the difference between him and Mr. Strauss. As I recall it—and it may well be that people who knew Mr. Strauss better will contest this, I’m simply telling you what I recall—one point of difference, and maybe the most important, was that Mr. Strauss thought that political philosophy was fundamental. I think that Jasha thought that ontology, or metaphysics, was fundamental, and that the revolution in science was more telling for modernity than the political revolution. (I never heard Jasha express much interest in Machiavelli.) So that was a great divergence. Also Jasha had no discernible interest, that I ever discovered, in Judaism. He was, to be sure, very Jewish. He looked like a Jew. He had a Jewish fate. But he was not interested in Judaism. I recall him willing to place bets on Mr. Strauss becoming Orthodox at some point.

GA: He thought that he was inclined in that direction?

EB: He thought that Mr. Strauss was turning in that direction

GA: And by “Orthodox,” you mean observant?

EB: Observant, possibly, but in any case more conscious of his Judaism then he had been. And the third difference that Jasha used to smile about was the different ways they approached pedagogy in teaching. Jasha liked rude, crude, uncivilized American kids, and he knew what to do with them. He made them stop barging on. He made them defend what they were saying. He showed them what it was they were saying, in order that they would know what they were talking about. But Mr. Strauss had students who were mature. Here’s the way I think of it:   I don’t recall Jasha ever really telling me anything that I hadn’t always known.

GA: About whatever?

EB: Especially about Plato. I remember being disappointed, even angry, that I never seemed to learn new and amazing secrets from him. It was exactly the opposite with Strauss, because his students learned from him things they probably couldn’t have thought of. They were deeply impressed by interpretations that he gave them, that were news to them. This was, I think, a difference in pedagogy, and the result was that—I don’t know exactly how to put it—when Strauss students talk to each other, his name will come up all the time. Jasha actually doesn’t come up very often in our conversations, even though he was our teacher.

GA: Even among those of you who studied with him?

EB:  No one “studied with him.” You mean people around him?

GA: Yes.

EB: I do think of him quite often. But you don’t think of the day you were born, particularly. And that’s how it was. It was a new life, new discoveries, but they seemed natural. It was simply a different kind of learning, which had nothing to do with being told things. I was never told anything that I couldn’t have figured out myself.

GA: Now, the way you talk about the difference, it sounds as if Mr. Klein was somewhat more Socratic.

EB: Socrates was a local hero in Annapolis. What Jasha did with the young ones (and also with those tutors who were in his house, and I guess I was the one who was there most often) was to get out what was in them and then to show them how it worked or didn’t work. I should say again that I was annoyed very often because I wanted him to tell me something, but he never did tell me anything. (Of course, I eventually translated [into English] his Origin of Algebra book and there were things I learned from that.) So his was a different style entirely of dealing with people, not only youngsters but also the faculty. He liked, especially, rambunctious kids. He also liked rambunctiousness in tutors. He chose people who could fight tooth and nail about something. If I or some other tutor didn’t understand, or thought the argumentation was too flabby, we’d fight and he would puff his pipe and smile until we’d worked things out ourselves.

GA: So he didn’t have disciples?

EB: He didn’t like disciples. It may have been different before I came. I came in the last year of his deanship. That was 1957. There were students who had attached themselves to him and he was fond of them. But anyone who showed signs of discipleship got a pretty ungentle kick. That wasn’t what he wanted. There was an aspect of our way of being with him that I never saw when Mr. Strauss was in the house. Jasha could be made fun of, loving fun; they would even build snowmen, courtly looking snowmen—fat, actually.

GA: Who would do this?

EB: Students.

GA: You mean they would imitate him?

EB: They’d imitate him. In the year-end play that they put on (called “The Reality Show”), which was kind of comical, they would make raucous fun of his various Russian habits. They weren’t always very nice habits. And he would sit there and laugh his head off. I don’t remember at all in the years that Mr. Strauss was in the Klein house that anybody laughed at him. That didn’t happen. He was not the kind of man that you would wish to laugh at.

GA: What was the influence of Leo Strauss at St. John’s College, if any?

EB: I think that was the students who came to his seminars remember them and often refer to them. So those seminars were influential. One thing, I think, is that they did introduce  people to a kind of close reading and to the study of difficult philosophers. I don’t know that, but I would imagine it. They were well attended. I would say he had quite a scholarly influence. He was not a tutor at the College; those were extracurricular meetings.

GA: Now, Mr. Klein never spoke like that routinely?

EB: No. This was another way in which they differed. Mr. Strauss was infinitely learned. He didn’t know only English and French and Greek and Latin (and German, of course), but also Hebrew and Arabic. Jasha did know what one learns in a German high school. He was well educated, but he was not a learned man in the sense of having studied many books very deeply. He was a little lazy. It was part of his very human way. And during the war years he was deeply preoccupied with the war, or so he told me. I wasn’t there. Jasha had an immediacy and also a worldliness that I think you never noticed in Mr. Strauss.

GA: You’re right.

EB: That’s how they appeared to me.

GA: They also appeared to me, from what little I saw of them together, that Mr. Klein was more like an older brother.

EB: It was something like that, because Mr. Strauss did need taking care of. Jasha didn’t need taking care of, even though he told me (and there was plenty of evidence of this) that in his earlier years he was a most unreliable fellow. He wouldn’t repay his debts and he wouldn’t be punctual and he didn’t do what he was supposed to do. But as soon as he became dean, he changed completely. He was punctilious about being on time, about repaying. He once asked to borrow a quarter; he came running after me to give me that quarter back. He had to be on time, and he was on time. Thus he learned to be what one needs to be in order to run an organization. There were two things I noticed: first, he did it with some relish; and, second, I don’t think that he felt that he had lost anything by it. It’s very hard to imagine Mr. Strauss, as I knew him, either running an organization or wanting to give up the time to do it. In other words, book-writing was not what Jasha was deeply engaged in. In fact, he didn’t believe in scholarly scribbling.

GA: What you have just said reminds me of one occasion while Mr. Strauss lived right behind us (in Chicago). One day something was wrong, he couldn’t get out. But he needed his morning newspaper and he telephoned to ask me if I would bring one over, the Chicago Sun-Times. It was then ten cents.

EB: Yes.

GA: He insisted on paying me. And I said, “Well, I’ll take a check.” So he wrote me a check. I still have it.

EB: You still have it?

GA: Of course. I wasn’t going to cash that check. What about Mr. Klein’s hours? You know that Mr. Strauss was notorious for staying up all night.

EB: Well, Jasha could stay up. He liked afternoon naps. And he could stay up for something interesting. He didn’t take any exercise. It seems to me that the really big difference was that Mr. Strauss was, after all, a Jew who was German. He was a German Jew. But Jasha was a Russian.

GA: He really was Russian?

EB: He really was Russian. He had all the warmth, messiness, everything that goes with being a Russian. He used to spit, like they do in Russian novels.

GA: Now, what had brought them together?

EB: Jasha often emphasized that this was really a friendship of intellect, of the soul. I think what brought them together is they both discovered how to read texts, but not all by themselves. Jasha learned a lot from Heidegger. And they both worried about the state of modernity. They thought that there was wisdom to be gathered from the ancients. And they were serious students—so to me it seemed natural that they should be friends. “Older brother” makes a certain sense, though an admiring one.

GA: I understand that Mr. Klein was the first one who studied with Heidegger.

EB: I believe that’s right, but I am not sure about it.

GA: What would Mr. Klein say about Heidegger?

EB: Jasha told me anecdotes about Heidegger that showed he was a person who was—I don’t know how to put it; “unreliable” is not the word. “Contemptible” might be a better word. Still, he thought this without having any doubt at all that this was the great philosopher of the century.

GA: But how did he account for, what shall we say, Heidegger’s misconduct, to say the least?

EB: I don’t know. Much of the evidence came out much later. I know that people tried to show that the philosophical and the personal aspects were connected. I never heard Jasha say that.

GA: You know that Mr. Strauss was deeply offended by what Heidegger had done?

EB: Yes.

GA: And he showed this in various ways, even as he recognized him in some ways as the greatest thinker of the century.

EB: I think that was about the same with Jasha.

GA: What did Mr. Klein read?

EB: He was preoccupied with the Platonic dialogues, about which he wrote. He read loads of newspapers and journals. He read novels. I don’t recall him reading other people’s books very much. In fact, as I have said, he himself had very strong resistance to publication.

GA: You mean publication of his own things?

EB: Yes. When I decided to translate his book on the origin of algebra, I knew that he wouldn’t want me to do it, so I did it in secret. But when I finished I showed it to him—and it didn’t take him long to melt. [Chuckling] Then he became very interested in getting it published. But his general attitude was that conversation was to be preferred to writing. He was very much in tune with the Platonic dialogues, especially the Phaedrus.

GA: And, of course, when you knew him he was working on the Meno?

EB: Yes, that was a remarkably preoccupying experience.

GA: Did he do what he had wanted to do with that dialogue, do you think? I believe Mr. Strauss had reservations about what had been done.

EB: Jasha was satisfied. I think Mr. Strauss did read at least the Origin of Algebra book very carefully. He gave great prominence to Jasha’s notion of the meaning, alluded to in the Sophist and by Aristotle, of being as an “eidetic number,” a number-like genus whose unit-like species were not what the genus was and were incompatible to each other, unlike mathematical units. That’s the great discovery in the first part of Origin. I know that Mr. Strauss admired it very much.

GA: Did Mr. Klein go over your translation with care?

EB: I don’t know whether he did it with much care. Once I informed him that it existed, he did become very interested. I had a list, a long list of questions and alterations, places where I thought that the terminology wasn’t quite clear. He was ready to accept my emendations.

GA: You say that Mr. Strauss did read the Origin of Algebra book?

EB: He must have, because I remember in conversation he referred particularly to it.

GA: But what about Mr. Klein reading the Strauss books?

EB: I don’t recall him talking about them. They talked to each other a lot, so presumably he knew what Mr. Strauss was thinking.

GA: Were you there on the occasion of “A Giving of Accounts,” when the two spoke together publicly at St. John’s in 1970?

EB: Yes. That was miserable.

GA: Was it? Let me tell you my own history in that connection. In a way, I’m somewhat comforted if I did not miss anything truly special. I was in Annapolis at that time and I had planned to go to that Strauss/Klein public meeting. But I went into Washington for something earlier that day and I was driving back with Jenny Strauss Clay and her husband.

EB: Yes, Diskin.

GA: Their car broke down on our way back and we were off on the side of the road. I said, “Well, we have to wait for the road service to get us. In the meantime, let us each sum up our dissertations.” [Chuckling] They thought that that wasn’t a bad way to spend time. So we missed completely “A Giving of Accounts.” But you say it was miserable?

EB: The general feeling was that it didn’t work.

GA: Why?

EB: they were both constrained in some way. We all felt that. They felt it, too.

GA: But you don’t know why it happened that way?

EB: it was just one of those things where the setting wasn’t right. The point of the thing wasn’t clear.

GA: Now, you have the impression that Mr. Klein thought that Mr. Strauss was moving toward Orthodoxy.

EB: That I remember very clearly.

GA: Do you know why he thought that?

EB: I think that Mr. Strauss expressed more and more the sense that tradition and reverence were of great importance in his life, because what you preach to others—that religion was a source of civic virtue—you should be doing it yourself to some degree. He became more and more interested in Jewish things.

GA: What about Mr. Klein?

EB: Oh, he was Jewish, absolutely Jewish.

GA: He had no question about that? But he just wasn’t interested?

EB: He wasn’t interested.

GA: He wouldn’t read Maimonides or other Jewish thinkers─

EB: I don’t remember his ever reading even the Jewish Bible. What he read was Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and the Russian novelists. He was a great lover of Tolstoy.

GA: Did he ever talk about Kojève?

EB: He did recommend Kojève to me, but exactly what he said, I can’t remember. He often told me things to read that he didn’t read himself. I was young enough to do it, to my benefit.

GA: There is a letter by Mr. Strauss—I believe it was a letter—in which he singles out Mr. Klein, M. Kojève, and himself as the only really serious thinkers of their day about the kind of things they were interested in. Does that make sense?

EB: Well, it makes sense that Mr. Strauss should have done this, I don’t think that Jasha would have written it; he might have thought it.

GA: He never would have─

EB: He would say extravagant things in conversation. But I don’t think he would put them down on paper, not as I remember him.

GA: Did he ever talk about what he thought was at the core of Mr. Strauss’s ability? I’m not sure I’m asking this in the right way.

EB: He thought that Mr. Strauss had the power of concentration and a breadth of learning, and together with that a soundness of interpretation that was simply talented. As I have said, they agreed on much about the state of modernity.

GA: Did they agree on politics?

EB: Not quite, because Jasha had a liberal streak in him. And he would from time to time interest himself in some cause concerning blacks. On occasion he would write letters. I don’t know that Mr. Strauss would do this. My guess is that Jasha was a moderate conservative with occasional forays into liberal causes and probably a little bit to the left. I should add that Jasha had a real interest in politics, not in political philosophy. He had an avid interest in practical politics, in Europeans politics as well as American.

GA: And he would talk about politics with others?

EB: Yes. He would sometimes tell really personal stories, the way that anybody would tell personal stories, of life-changing events, even affairs. But this was different from the way he talked with students. He would attend to each student at once personally and intellectually. He would get into dialogue and make him talk and make him reverse himself and make him see what was involved—and that it was his own.

GA: And there was no way that Mr. Strauss would do that?

EB: I would be surprised. But I did not have much opportunity to observe him. I did go to one or two of his seminars. He would mostly sit there and someone would read something from a text, then he would quietly comment on it. Then he would politely take some questions. But an intense dialogue relation, I didn’t see. I think that Mr. Strauss’s students had respect, even reverence, for him. Jasha’s students loved him. It set the tone, which is still the tone at St. John’s College, that the less we act as authorities the more respect we get. Our affection for our students is all put in the service of their intellect.

GA: Bearing on this is the fact that none of the Strauss students I knew would ever address him as other than “Mr. Strauss” or “Dr. Strauss.”

EB: Jasha became “Jasha” to everybody.

GA: One of the interesting things that I heard about was how the Strauss students, who were teaching St. John’s College, would deal with Mr. Klein. They tended to speak of him and to him as “Mr. Klein,” as distinguished from what everyone else at the college would do.

EB: One thing I had in common with them, when I first came to the college, was that I tried to get Jasha to tell me esoteric mysteries. I remember there was a year that I was totally annoyed because he wouldn’t tell me anything, and─

GA: You believed he had something to tell?

EB: Yes, I thought he had everything to tell. Well, I overcame that. I saw that there was not a telling of things so much as a doing of things. I learned that doing those things was more valuable for St. John’s.

GA: Now, you spoke of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes—who else?

EB: The Russian novelists, and Leibnitz.

GA: Well, Leibnitz I have a story about. I was in one of Mr. Klein’s seminars one night, during a visit to Annapolis. He simply started out by saying, “I want to tell you a few things.” He gave a lecture. [Chuckling] I don’t know what the practice there usually was. But that night he just laid it out. He evidently thought that he was not going to get out by discussion whatever needed to be said about Leibnitz.

EB: Well, Aristotle and Leibnitz, he did lecture on. He had written “Friday night” lectures about them.

GA: I’ve seen those. But that evening, it was supposed to be a seminar.

EB: Well, he did change a little when he got older. When I came he was still relatively young. His mode in seminar then was dialectical and playful. But as he got older, like most of us, he talked more.

GA: Now, who were his modern heroes, the men he spoke well of?

EB: I learned from him that Husserl was a man of remarkable probity, intellectual probity. He was everything that Heidegger was not. And consequently he was very hard to read.

GA: You know that Mr. Strauss was a great admirer of Churchill. Did Mr. Klein ever talk about Churchill?

EB: I don’t remember him talking about him, but he probably did at some point. I don’t recall it. But, like Mr. Strauss, he didn’t think much of Hannah Arendt.

GA: Because?

EB: I believe they both thought she was too historicist-minded; she had too much of a German-scholarly way about her. I really don’t know what they had against her. I have read something of hers since then and I thought it was pretty good.

GA: You thought better of her than Mr. Klein did?

EB: Oh, yes.

GA: Or than Mr. Strauss did?

EB: Well, Mr. Strauss evidently really didn’t get along with her at all. And when she came to visit the college, those were not wonderful occasions.

GA: Now, to go back to Heidegger. Did you ever get an explanation of why Heidegger conducted himself the way he did?

EB: There were many stories about. One explanation that Jasha gave, which I’ve since read in other places as well, is that Mrs. Heidegger was critical here, but that doesn’t seem quite adequate. I remember him saying she was a rabid Nazi and she drove him into it. Now why a man of Heidegger’s intellect could be driven by his wife to something like that I don’t quite understand. But that was certainly a factor. Well, Jasha knew her.

GA: He knew Mrs. Heidegger?

EB: Yes, I think so. In fact, I’m pretty sure—and to know her was to hate her, evidently.

GA: Did Mr. Klein ever go back to Germany?

EB: Yes, he went to Germany right after the war. He had unfinished personal business there.

GA: But he never had much to do with Germany after that?

EB: I never heard that he had any sort of offer from Germany. Besides, he loved St. John’s.

GA: I believe that we have covered, at least in a preliminary way, what we set out to do.

EB:  I doubt that there is anything of major interest in what I have said. Much of it is remembrance, and I might be wrong.

GA: Still, it will be one of the things of our time that people will read fifty years from now.

EB: Maybe. [Laughing]

GA: I’m telling you. And I thank you very much.

EB: You know what Jasha’s favorite saying was?

GA: What?

EB: “Your word in God’s ear.”

GA: Your word in God’s ear? [Chuckling]

EB: Yes. [Chuckling]

GA: He would give it in English?

EB: Well, it is a Russian proverb, but he would say it in English.

GA: Your word in God’s ear?

EB: Meaning, you have said something that seems unlikely but desirable. [Chuckling]

GA: I see.

EB: He would also say, “That’s honey in my ears.” I didn’t much like that notion.

*Sources: This conversation, between George Anastaplo (of Chicago, Illinois) (A) and Eva Brann (of Annapolis, Maryland) (B), was recorded (in private) in May 2007 during the Lenoir-Rhyne University Humanities Conference at the Wildacres Retreat, Little Switzerland, North Carolina. It was further developed at the Hickory Humanities Conference in 2009. The transcript was prepared with the help of Adam Reinherz. It has been included in George Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010) pp. 361-70.

            See, for indications of the work of George Anastaplo, Eva Brann, Jacob Klein, and Leo Strauss, as well as citations to discussions of their work by others, John A. Murley, ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy: A Bibliography (Lnaham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005). See, on Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts, Walter Nicgorski, “Leo Strauss,” Modern Age (Summer-Fall 1982), p.270. See for additional discussion of the work of Leo Strauss, http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com.

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One Response to Glimpses of Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, and St. John’s College

  1. Marielle (Molly) Hammett Kronberg says:

    My freshman year at St. John’s, 1965-66, Mr. Klein was my seminar leader–so I got to “do” Aristotle and Plato with him. I adored him–still do. What Eva says is exactly right–he didn’t tell us things, he asked us things.
    His eyes twinkled at us as we talked–we were all certain (I am to this day) that he had wonderful things to tell, just as Eva was certain.
    He was very personal, very emotionally present to the students. Also, no-nonsense. He kept coming at you, to make you clarify.
    Then, my senior year at St. John’s, 1969-1970, I had Eva as my seminar leader–so I got to “do” War and Peace with her, and Hegel, and the American readings. Her thoughtful process impressed me deeply; she really listened to the authors we read. She helped me to do the same.
    Then my son had her as his freshman seminar leader in 2002-2003. He fell in love with her.
    The St. John’s “method” (bad word), but in any case, St. John’s, is all about the relationship between learning and love.

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