The political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973) is perhaps an unlikely subject for Chronicles’ “Remembering the Right” series. Although no one can deny the extensive influence of his ideas on the conservative (and later, neoconservative) movement in America during the Cold War and beyond, Strauss usually gave the impression that he was not a conservative in any substantive sense. On the few occasions that he wrote about conservatism, he dismissed it either as a doctrine rendered obsolete by modernity or as one riddled with modernist assumptions.
Nevertheless, Strauss has certainly had famous admirers on the right. Willmoore Kendall called Strauss the greatest teacher since Machiavelli and compared his works to “scripture” for conservatives. Frank S. Meyer praised both Strauss and Eric Voegelin for reviving the philosophical tradition of classical rationalism, which taught that reason is a higher and more reliable authority than mere tradition. Russell Kirk once wrote that “Strauss and his school form the most vigorous and promising group of political thinkers in our America, reasserting the true doctrine of the natural law, transcending behaviorism and positivism, helping us to escape from the clutch of ideology.” This praise notwithstanding, what are we to make of Strauss’s status as a conservative if he did not do his work for the purpose of extending comfort to conservatives?
Nothing in Strauss’s early life would suggest a deep philosophical commitment to conservatism. He was born in 1899 in the village of Kirchhain in the Prussian province of Hesse. Although he was raised in an orthodox Jewish home, there is no evidence that he was religiously observant as a young scholar. (He later remarked: “Philosophers are paid not to believe!”) As a student in Weimar Germany, he was deeply involved in Zionist politics, which had a very secular flavor. In 1921, he completed his doctoral dissertation on F. H. Jacobi under the supervision of the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. He later concluded that Martin Heidegger, who debated Cassirer at Davos in 1929, had rendered Cassirer’s Enlightenment philosophy obsolete.
This exciting period of robust intellectual study and debate was not to last. As Germany veered towards a Nazi takeover, Strauss made a fateful decision. In 1932, after receiving a Rockefeller grant, he went to Paris, where he married Mirjam Bernsohn, a widowed mother of one. The rest of his immediate family in Germany did not survive the terrors of Hitler’s Third Reich.
The Strauss that is of greatest interest to American conservatives became an American citizen in 1944 while he held a teaching post at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He wrote his most famous works, most of which were commentaries on political philosophers from Plato to the early moderns, while he taught in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1968. A year before his death in 1973, Strauss briefly referred to himself as a “hopeless reactionary” (hoffnungslosen Reaktionär) in a letter to Gershom Scholem. How accurate is this self-assessment?
Many conservatives of the Cold War era agreed with Kirk’s early view of Strauss as a conservative (a view that Kirk later repudiated). The fact that he vigorously opposed positivism, behaviorism, and the enemies of American democracy—communism and fascism—was sufficient proof to many that he was a sincere conservative. The problem with this conclusion is that Strauss was usually dismissive of conservatism. Always mindful of Aristotle’s insistence that we ought to seek what is good and not what we have inherited, Strauss held that conservatism lacked a truly philosophical or rational foundation. Although he never denied that traditions possess important virtues, he maintained that a true philosopher must abide by reason. Specifically, the philosopher, as Plato and Aristotle taught, must seek the “best” regime for all human beings, in accord with their nature.
However admirable the conservative valorization of the “ancestral” is, it has nothing to do, Strauss believed, with the life of rational inquiry. More specifically, philosophers must embrace a “universalistic” account of humanity, which assumes all human beings are capable of reason, regardless of tradition or creed. In Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (1968) he asserts that conservatism typically places its trust in the particularity of tradition, while regarding reason with suspicion. By contrast, he claims:
Premodern political philosophy, and in particular classical political philosophy, is liberal in the original sense of the term. It cannot be simply conservative since it is guided by the awareness that all men seek by nature, not the ancestral or traditional, but the good.
For these reasons, Strauss took aim at the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. In his Natural Right and History
(1953), Strauss devoted an entire section to Burke’s thought, which in Strauss’s view opposed the “natural right” teaching that all rational human beings seek the “good” according to nature. Instead Burke, as an empiricist, insisted that “experience” and “custom” help us understand what the good is. The fact that Burke at times praised classical antiquity should not obscure, according to Strauss, the more fundamental truth that his empiricist philosophy was more radical than that of the French Revolution, whose architects at least retained a version of natural right through “the Rights of Man.”
Strauss contends that Burke is only one of many modern authors who privileged history (or what Burke called experience and custom) over nature, thus contributing to the modern doctrine of “historicism,” which, according to Strauss, stipulates that there is no universal truth independent of historical context. There is no standard of nature human beings can either know or put into practice. They are left merely with what is considered “true” according to the conventions of one’s historical age. In practical terms, historicists rejected not only universalism but philosophy and reason as well. Historicism cannot rationally distinguish between a good regime and a bad one, given the assumption that “good” and “bad” simply reflect a given context.
However, Strauss never actually demonstrated that historicism must lead to such relativism. David Hume, who deeply influenced Burke, also famously contended that knowledge is based on custom or historical experience. Although his conservative version of historicism shares with relativism a strong suspicion of timeless metaphysical “truths” that transcend history, Hume defends what has come to be known as “fallibilism,” not relativism. The fallibilist teaches that knowledge is cumulative over time, and never complete or beyond revision. Because knowledge is based on experience, tradition, and evidence, no theory can claim to be the final answer to any question. A theory is “fallible” because the possibility of finding new evidence proving it wrong always exists.
None of this leads to the relativistic conclusion that one position is as good as another, or that no criterion can help us understand the difference between right and wrong. Instead, fallibilism insists that a theory is true as long as the best evidence supports it, or until new evidence disproves it. As long as philosophers can freely appeal to evidence, they are not trapped in the dogmas of their historical context. Rather, they evaluate the goodness or badness of a regime according to the available evidence. Hume cautions that we must be content with what is probably true, rather than with the illusion of absolute certainty. Yet, none of this leads to the corrosive nihilism that Strauss associates with relativism.
Strauss’s argument against Burke was a teaching that, in historicist terms, reflected the politics of the Cold War era. Although the German historicism—most famously defended by Marx and Nietzsche—that Strauss warned of in the early pages of Natural Right and History was far more dangerous than the more benign version articulated by Burke, all versions of this doctrine, in Strauss’s view, endorsed the relativistic notion that there is no absolute truth that guides either politics or morality.
The triumph of historicism over the philosophy of natural right was particularly threatening to the foundations of American democracy, which rested on the natural right teaching, inspired by Locke, that all human beings are equal by nature. If Americans no longer believed in this “self-evident” truth, how, Strauss asked, could they resist the historicist teaching that nothing is true outside of historical contexts? Why not choose tyranny over democracy, if the context demands it? As a defender of the Anglo-American regime that defeated Nazism and was fending off Soviet Communism, Strauss was troubled by this ideological threat. America needed to believe in a universalism that would counter communist tyranny. As I argue in my book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (2013), it is hard to understand Strauss’s teachings on natural right without reference to the politics of the Cold War era.
Strauss, who urged his students to grasp the “original intent” of a philosopher, does not appear to be typically addressing a conservative readership, given his accusation that “eminent conservatives” like Burke “founded the historical school.” Instead, he is urging liberals of his time to avoid relativism and historicism by rediscovering a truly liberal teaching—the philosophy of natural right. If Strauss had any explicit message for American conservatives, it is this: Admit the liberal origins of your doctrine. In Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, Strauss reflects upon the revolutionary origins of the American order, a violent “break with the past” that positioned itself against a conservatism unleavened by classical liberal reason:
The opposition between conservatism and liberalism had a clear meaning at the time.... [T]he conservatives stood for ‘throne and altar,’ and the liberals stood for popular sovereignty and the strictly nonpublic (private) character of religion. Yet conservatism in this sense is no longer politically important. The conservatism of our age is identical with what originally was liberalism, more or less modified by changes in the direction of present-day liberalism.
If Strauss is right, conservatives who are attached to tradition need to learn a harsh history lesson—modernity has little room for conservatives. In this view, the origin of philosophical ideas in history is hardly conservative. Strauss taught that philosophers from Plato to early modernity had to engage in secret or “esoteric” writing so as to conceal their most subversive thoughts. In order to avoid the fate of Socrates, philosophers learned that they could question traditions and conventions with impunity only as long as they hid their ideas in coded language that just a few astute readers could grasp. There was nothing conservative about this project. Strauss once wrote that the “typical mistake of the conservative” is to conceal “the fact that the continuous and changing tradition which he cherishes so greatly would never have come into being through conservatism, or without discontinuities, revolutions, and sacrileges committed at the beginning of the cherished tradition and at least silently repeated in its course.”
As Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried explains in his Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal (2012), one sign of Strauss’s enduring influence on the conservative movement is that many of its representatives have stopped defending “constitutional republicanism” in favor of what Strauss called “liberal democracy,” which does not sound very conservative. Strauss’s thought has often been associated with neoconservatism, whose defenders sometimes treat his idea of “universalism” as a rationale for America’s mission to export democratic ideals all over the world.
Although some of his students became prominent neoconservatives, Strauss’s universalism does not necessarily carry a political agenda. Nevertheless, the suspect universalism of what Strauss called the “universal and homogeneous state” sounds eerily similar to the current globalist agenda that threatens the sovereignty of nation-states as well as the freedom of citizens to question or escape Big Tech’s vast surveillance powers. The fact that this universalism is defended in the language of “equality,” “diversity” and “tolerance” would have struck Strauss, a careful reader of Machiavelli, as evidence that democratic propaganda is particularly pernicious because it is so pleasing to the ears of the masses.
On the left, most critics of Strauss have associated him with fascism because of his onetime friendship with Carl Schmitt as well as his Platonic belief that not all human beings are equally rational, even if they all share a capacity for reason. The fact that he admired Greek philosophy has also led to the same accusation, even though Strauss opposed any quixotic attempt to restore the Greek polis. What these leftist critics—including Shadia Drury, Nicholas Xenos, and Stephen Holmes, among others—ignore is that traditional liberals shared Strauss’s doubts that all human beings can be made equal and that “natural differences among men” have no say in the matter.
Of course, times change. What Strauss understood as liberalism or conservatism fits the Cold War era reasonably well. In the present age, however, so-called liberals and even conservatives are far more likely to rail against talk of “natural inequality” than either camp did in Strauss’s America.
By the mutable standards of our time, Strauss is a man of the right, after all. His firm denial of the radical modern prejudice that human nature is infinitely malleable would have no place in today’s political discourse. In an age in which most political parties have signed on to various attempts to replace “nature” with “identity,” the old right can still learn from this hopeless reactionary.