For many, Leo Strauss is a man of mystery. Was he, as Myles Burnyeat of Cambridge University suggested many years ago in The New York Review of Books, a “sphinx without a secret”, not a genuine philosopher but rather a proponent of “ruthless anti-idealism” who provided intellectual backing for an aggressive American foreign policy?
Kevin MacDonald takes a different view, holding that “Strauss crafted his vision of an aristocratic elite manipulating the masses as a Jewish survival strategy.”(MacDonald, Cultural Insurrections, Occidental Press 2007, p.163).
In his illuminating book Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal, the distinguished intellectual historian Paul Gottfried rejects what these approaches have in common: their picture of Strauss as an enemy of liberal democracy. Though Strauss earned the respect of the rightwing legal theorist Carl Schmitt, he was by no means, Gottfried maintains, a man of the Right. To the contrary, and despite some ambiguous remarks made early in his career, he remained throughout his long sojourn in America a convinced liberal democrat.
Gottfried traces the misapprehension to Strauss’s popular lectures in 1949 for the Walgreen Foundation, published in 1953 as Natural Right and History. Strauss appeared to many as the vindicator of natural law against the relativism and nihilism that threatened to weaken America in its Cold War against communism. Gottfried writes:
“A one-time teacher of mine, Anton Hermann Chroust…used to joke about Strauss’s visit to South Bend: ‘The natural law Catholics came out in force, and as soon as St. Leo started talking, they were like Moses receiving the Law.’”
Gottfried calls attention to the role of Willmoore Kendall of National Review in propagating the myth of Strauss as a high-powered philosopher of conservatism. Kendall, himself an eminent conservative political theorist, was a hero-worshipper, and Eric Voegelin vied with Strauss as the object of his intellectual star-gazing.
But despite the adulation of Kendall and other conservatives, Gottfried notes that Strauss was in politics an “FDR-Truman Democrat—that is, someone who found even the uncertain Republican Dwight Eisenhower to be a bit far to the right for his taste.” Strauss abhorred Joe McCarthy and feared a rightwing populist outbreak.
Still, whatever his personal political opinions, does not Strauss remain useful as a defender of classical philosophy against modern-day relativists and other enemies of the Right?
Gottfried does not think so. Though he recognizes Strauss’s remarkable linguistic and scholarly abilities, he argues that Strauss was in not in fact an advocate of either ancient philosophy or natural law.
Despite Strauss’ close and careful study of Plato and Aristotle and his ostensible praise for the ancient polis, he did not derive from the classical sources doctrines designed to correct the unwisdom of the modern world. Strauss found in Plato, for example, not the doctrine of eternal forms that most scholars discern in his work but rather a search for truth that eventuates in no fixed conclusions: “Unfortunately, Strauss and his disciples never show that what Plato seems to accept is not what he in fact believes.”
Some of Strauss’s followers go further: Mary Nichols gives Aristotle “a recognizably progressive gloss.” Aristotle’s support for slavery, she thinks, is not what it seems. Modern democrats can embrace Aristotle without worry.
But what of natural law? Here too Gottfried maintains that Strauss’s conservative defenders have misunderstood the Master. Strauss, contrary to his Catholic friends, opposed Thomist natural law:
“Advances in the natural sciences had shaken the cosmology that was attached to an earlier understanding of man’s relation to the universe, ands so there was no plausible way—or so one might read into Strauss without too much reaching—of returning to medieval metaphysical notions.”
If Strauss thought that Thomist natural law rested on outdated views, he can hardly be taken as its advocate.
Cannot those who would see in Strauss a conservative at least take solace in one point? Did he not offer sharp attacks on relativism and historicism?
Indeed he did, says Gottfried, but precisely in his attack on historicism he distanced himself from the Right.
In contrast with the Left, which stress principles supposedly true regardless of time, place, or manner, the Right has exalted race, nation, and community. The immigration controversy, key to readers of VDARE.com, illustrates this division of opinion. Leftists scorn the attachment of a people to its national territory, defending instead an alleged right of everyone to live where he wishes, regardless of historical circumstance. Those on the Right reject such nonsense, emphasizing, with Taine, la race, le milieu, le moment.
But in this dispute between universal and particular, Strauss took the side of the Left. He had little use for Edmund Burke and the German Romantic conservatives of the nineteenth century. We must, Strauss argued, guard ourselves against the “waves of modernity” that followed the American Revolution. In Gottfried’s summary:
“These waves were due to the value-relativist British counterrevolutionary Edmund Burke and to various nineteenth-century German romantic worshippers of History, some of whom are mistaken for ‘conservatives’.”
Gottfried must confront an objection to his interpretation of Strauss. If in fact Strauss cloaked his liberal democratic beliefs in rhetoric redolent of the ancients, would not conservatives have eventually discovered the ruse and abandoned him?
Kendall and his fellow Catholic conservatives have long since departed the scene. There are today a few Catholics, like Daniel Mahoney and Pierre Manent, influenced by Strauss, but they are not Straussians of the strict observance. Why would the conservatives of today embrace a false friend?
Gottfried has an ingenious response to this problem. The neoconservatives, he says, exercise immense influence over the American Right because of their control of so many foundations, journals and newspapers. They are in fact pseudo-conservatives, who, just like Strauss, preach liberal democracy disguised as the wisdom of the ancients and the American Founders. It is in their interest to elevate Strauss as a conservative sage, and they have achieved great success in doing so.
The neoconservatives in particular appeal to Strauss to support one of their key doctrines: a foreign policy for America based on the spread of “democracy” worldwide. Gottfried writes:
“Straussians contributed to the process by which the conservative movement came to redefine itself during the Cold War as the defender of ‘democratic values’. . .a bellicose missionary spirit is very much in evidence, but it is doubtful that one could link it to anything identifiably right-wing. “
Gottfried calls attention to another theme that neoconservatives draw from Strauss: the alleged dangers that stem from German nationalism and German philosophy. In one revealing comment, Strauss wrote: “All profound German longings… all those longings for the origins or, negatively expressed, all German dissatisfaction with modernity pointed toward a third Reich, for Germany was to be the core even of Nietzsche’s Europe ruling the planet.”
Gottfried finds “a major concern among Strauss’s students, namely that the specifically German path toward a viciously anti-Semitic form of fascism must never again be taken in Germany or anywhere else.” (p.58)
Gottfried argues strongly that Strauss does not belong on the Right. But he must confront yet another objection. If Strauss was not a conservative but rather a liberal democrat, why do so many of his critics take him to be a rightwing elitist, if not an outright fascist?
Here once again Gottfried blames the neoconservatives and their concerted influence. He bring to the fore Shadia Drury, who views Strauss as an immensely learned scholar but dangerous anti-democrat, and other leftist critics like her. He writes:
“Such critics have reinforced the image that the Straussians have cultivated for themselves, as patriotic Americans with vast humanistic learning. And the Straussians have returned the favor by showering attention on their preferred critics.”
In doing so, the Straussians ignore, because they cannot answer, the most cogent criticisms of their Master: those that stem from the genuine Right. As Gottfried puts it:
“Significantly, Spinoza expert Brayton Polka, American religious historian Barry Allen Shain, and linguistic philosopher David Gordon have all devoted many pages of criticism to the defects of the Straussian interpretive grid, without eliciting appropriate responses. Basic to these criticisms is the contention that the Straussians misinterpret the historical past either by ignoring it or by refusing to notice the religious aspects of what they style ‘modernity’”
Gottfried has omitted one of the most penetrating of Strauss’s assailants—himself. In a brilliant passage, he challenges Strauss’s key claim that political philosophy is the most fundamental branch of philosophy:
“It seems that Strauss is providing a somewhat personal view of ‘philosophy.’ He does not deem as more than incidental to his inquiry those metaphysical aspects of classical philosophy that mattered to Plato and Aristotle; nor does Strauss attach to his ‘political philosophy’ the epistemic assumptions that mark Plato’s discussion of the Good, the Just, and the Prudent.”
Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal is far and away the best critical examination of Strauss we have. It is no diatribe: Gottfried is fully appreciative of Strauss’s merits as a scholar and thinker. But he makes unmistakably clear, however, that Strauss was not a man of the Right.
John Venn (Email him) says he is “a student of the passing scene”.