This review appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America
by Paul Edward Gottfried (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique
by Grant N. Havers (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013)
Grant Havers and Paul Gottfried both reject the efforts of Straussian apologists to dissociate the master’s teachings from the democratic crusading and nation-building follies of the neoconservatives. Havers and Gottfried agree that the intellectual seeds of neoconservatism were sown by Strauss, and that Straussian thought is not truly conservative. Says Gottfried: “American (or Anglo-American) modernity was turned by Strauss and his disciples into the embodiment of all that is politically virtuous in the modern world. It became an actualized ideal that ‘political Straussians’ view as a justification for an American conversionary mission.” Havers adds: “Strauss’s reasons for defending Anglo-American democracy may actually do the cause more harm than good. Strauss’s radical rejection of History in favor of Nature is ultimately a rejection of the conservative tradition that is at the heart of the civilization he is determined to protect.”
While the two authors agree on these cardinal points, their accounts of the Straussian phenomenon differ significantly. Havers offers a monitory diatribe with clearly drawn lines, while Gottfried crafts a more subtle and friendly examination of the inner life and history of Straussianism.
The portrait of Straussianism that Havers presents is built around his two main concerns: Strauss and his followers, in their attempt to ground modern liberal democracy on universal principles, are antihistoricist and thus anticonservative; and as a result, they are compelled to obscure the centrality of Christianity for bringing about and grounding the tradition of Anglo-American democratic liberalism. Havers identifies the second as his overriding concern, going so far as to say: “If there is any secret agenda that Strauss and his movement had, it is to marginalize the importance of Christianity as the defining foundation of American political thought.” Relentlessly exposing the implausibility of this obfuscation is one of the merits of Havers’s critique. Less compelling, however, is his insistence on explaining the entire Straussian agenda in terms of what he takes to be its primary and determinative objective: the justification of liberal democracy on universal principles.
Strauss’s experience in Germany convinced him that the liberal democracies established in England and America were the only decent and sound bulwarks against the extreme and inhuman politics spawned by late modernity. At the same time, the failure of German democracy illustrated the vulnerability of liberalism’s intellectual foundations to the corrosives of historicism, positivism, and relativism. Thus, says Havers, Strauss judged that liberal democracy needed intellectual foundations in universal principles accessible to all human beings, not just derived from a tradition bound up with and tainted by distinctly modern first principles. He made it his mission to articulate these more universal principles and educate defenders for them.
For Havers, this project sufficiently explains Strauss’s attempt to articulate what he called “classical natural right.” Plato and Aristotle had to be dehistoricized by means of a hermeneutics that penetrates past whatever seems culture-bound (interpreted as insincere concessions to the prejudices of their contemporaries) and unearths the secret rational and timeless core of their thought (i.e., what accords with the rational liberal principles Strauss sought to defend). The result: what presents itself as a recovery of original intentions ends up as a modern liberal-universalist whitewashing.
Havers seems fixated on the idea (which Gottfried flatly dismisses) that Strauss is appealing to “the Greeks” as a political model to be emulated, that indeed Strauss believes that “Athens was a liberal city deserving of philosophers’ devotion.” It is not the Greek cities but the relationship of the Greek philosophers to their cities that Strauss holds up as a model. Accordingly, the Straussian agenda is more properly understood as a double game: on the one hand, encouraging the preservation of what is healthiest in the contemporary regime and its intellectual and imaginative resources through a rhetoric meant to appeal to ordinary, nonphilosophic citizens; on the other hand, to provide a path for more thoughtful readers to attain philosophic distance on the prejudices that underlie and are inculcated by the contemporary regime. It is because of his failure to explore the latter side of the tension shaping Straussian rhetoric that Havers reduces the Straussian project to one of universalist ideology construction.
Failure to take account of this double game also distorts Havers’s stronger critique of the Straussian sidelining of Christianity. He ably exposes the lengths to which Straussian scholarship must go to render inconsequential the influence of the Christian cultural context on early English liberal thought, the American Founding, and Lincoln—but in the cases of Hobbes and Locke, he fails to do justice to the Straussian claim that their texts are designed to address multiple audiences simultaneously. Regarding the Straussian cult of Churchill, while one may concede that Straussian admirers fail to appreciate how much Christian culture and English tradition did to make Churchill the humane and judicious man he was, it is hard to deny that his extraordinary qualities place him in the ranks of the great statesmen of history, who exhibit many family resemblances aptly described by Aristotle.
In his valuable cautionary case studies of George Parkin Grant and Willmoore Kendall (friends and admirers who saw in Strauss a defender of permanent things against the nihilistic drift of modernity), Havers shows how both eventually ran up against Strauss’s bracketing of Christianity. Grant wondered whether the apparent agreement between Strauss and Kojève concerning the historical obsolescence of Christianity gave them more in common than at first appears. Kendall came under fire from Straussians for insisting on the Christian character of American principles in a way that resists easy export. In both cases, Havers’s characterization of the Straussian project governs the terms in which he presents the unresolved tension: Straussian rational universalism demands rejection of the historical particularity of Christianity and the cultures it informs.
In this regard, Havers seems to get the cause and effect backward. Straussians being predominantly Jewish, and often atheist, it seems more than probable that they simply believe that the Incarnation is nonsense and can’t seriously respect intellectually anyone who accepts it. Hence their insistence that no true philosopher can be sincerely Christian, as well as their generally abysmal track record at actually understanding any Christian thinker “as he wished to be understood” (unless the Straussian in question is a Christian, and so not unqualifiedly a Straussian). The rejection of historicist particularism stems in part from the rejection of the claim that the Incarnation introduces into history a radically new horizon of truth.
Accordingly, Havers overstates the claim that Strauss’s admirable insistence upon the seriousness and unavoidable necessity of the question of reason and revelation is where his thought hits the wall of particularity. Strauss’s own reflections on the content of revelation are confined primarily to the book of Genesis, as are the biblical commentaries of authors decisively influenced by him (Robert Sacks, Leon Kass, and Thomas Pangle). While these examinations of Genesis as the great claimant to revelation certainly place the question of revelation at the center of one people’s history—Strauss’s own people—they do so in a way notably inhospitable to the distinctiveness of Christian revelation.
Strauss sums up this divergence, while also indicating his own divergence from traditionalist conservatism, at the end of his discussion of Burke in Natural Right and History: “The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns concerns eventually, and perhaps even from the beginning, the status of ‘individuality.’” The implication seems to be that the moderns, especially at the Christian beginning, grant a significance to the individual that neither Athens nor the true Jerusalem would grant and thus cater to the fear of death that demands personal significance and immortality, which is the enemy of philosophy. In this sense, modern liberalism is intrinsically Christian even when seeking to overcome Christianity. If Strauss is inclined to help it in that overcoming, it would seem to be less for the sake of liberalism than for the sake of philosophy, as well as the noble scorn for death that liberalism is so ill-equipped to foster.
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Paul Gottfried’s book shows evidence of a lifetime of more intimate engagement with Straussians. He is respectful of the master, formed in “a richer cultural world than his followers—indeed a Teutonic one that most of his prominent students detested.” Gottfried is clearly disappointed in Strauss’s “epigones,” who are happy to refute their poorly informed but respectable critics on the Left but who refuse to engage in serious debate with their learned and perceptive critics on the Right.
Gottfried provides some incisive analysis of this insularity. “Straussianism has become itself a binding tradition . . . that denies the philosophical value of tradition, even while fashioning and consecrating one. . . . Because we cannot know the intention of an author in the way Strauss says we can, we are therefore required to perform a leap of faith by accepting his interpretation of authorial intention. To the weight of a tradition that is philosophically opposed to tradition is now added the weight of authority, or the master’s claim to truth.” The personal, existential, and professional bonds that make the Straussian community cohere, along with their success in academia and the worlds of funding and politics, provides them a “splendid isolation” that not only renders them incapable of meaningful debate, but even worse, also provides sufficient “disincentives to self-examination” to make them “incapable of reexamining their premises.”
At the core of Straussianism is the method of interpreting classic texts and the accompanying critique of alternative interpretations. Gottfried develops several criticisms of the Straussian method, which all in some way revolve around the lack of historical depth, subtlety, and rigor. While Gottfried lauds Strauss’s salutary emphasis on the inquiring aspect of Plato’s dialogues, he sees the marginalization of metaphysics in Straussian readings as an overreaction to the way Neoplatonism has shaped the reception of Plato. Straussians refuse “to notice the religious aspects of what they style ‘modernity.’” They generally ignore the role of historical particularities in filtering universal ideals, believing that central notions like “justice” have identical problem-structures across languages and cultures. Their teleological intellectual history, shaped to meet the problems of modernity, involves them in a “mythology of prolepsis” that leads them to project hidden meanings into texts in terms of what “they themselves consider rational and even beneficent.”
Gottfried holds up Hans-Georg Gadamer as a better hermeneutical guide (while nonetheless defending Strauss against misreadings by Gadamer). Unlike the historicism critiqued by Strauss, Gadamer’s does not seek to surpass earlier authors’ limitations but rather focuses on the interpreter, who must come to recognize the historical and biographical conditions he brings to interpreting a text as someone already embedded within traditions. Gadamer’s hermeneutics fosters an openness to transformation by what is strange in the text, which Straussians seem to lose once they have been born again, “free” from nonphilosophic prejudice.
When Gottfried suggests that the positive role Gadamer affords prejudice may provide a better approach than Strauss’s to “understanding the fact-value relation,” he broaches a central but unsatisfactorily argued point of his disagreement with Strauss. Gottfried sees the Straussian claim—that the value-free analysis of social phenomena leads inescapably to moral relativism—as “a fundamental flaw in the understanding of the social sciences that Straussians commit over and over again.” It seems, however, that Gottfried neither sufficiently engages the terms of Strauss’s criticisms of social science (which are a development of the thought of Husserl and Heidegger, and perhaps Strauss’s distinctive contribution to phenomenology) nor offers a lucid defense of the methodologies of the social sciences. To observe that it is “possible to draw a distinction between facts and values while believing no less firmly in objective ethical principles” does not address the question whether such a position is coherent or will stand up to criticism.
In his adept and nuanced account of Strauss’s early life, Gottfried finds a Strauss more sympathetic than his followers to a conservatism that resists the universal homogeneous state in the interest of particularity and diversity, and also not as thoroughly anti-German as his successors, who elevated his rhetorical opposition between the Anglosphere and Germania into a kind of mantra. In keeping with the master’s recognition of liberal democracy as a potentially safe haven for the Jews in the modern world, Straussians are conservative on only two fronts: the pro-Israel and the anti-Soviet. Essentially Cold War liberals “with patriotic fanfare,” Strauss and his followers have adopted “a certain right-wing style without expressing a right-wing worldview.” The appeal of this stance has “contributed to the process by which the conservative movement came to define itself during the Cold War as the defender of ‘democratic values.’”
Unlike Havers, Gottfried recognizes how the principle of esotericism makes it difficult to know whether to take Strauss’s celebration of universal American ideals at face value. “Strauss taught us to revere and fight for our liberal democratic best of all possible worlds. What reservations he may have harbored about this actualized ideal mattered less to him—and even less to his disciples.” It would seem to be precisely around these reservations that the question of Straussian conservatism in large part revolves: reservations, on the one hand, regarding the democratization of thought, taste, and morals accompanying the “lowered sights” of modern political thought; and on the other, regarding the elevation of the significance of the individual as such by Christianity. According to the final sentence of Natural Right and History, “Burke himself was still too deeply imbued with the spirit of ‘sound antiquity’ to allow the concern with individuality to overpower the concern with virtue.” What appears here for Strauss as an irreconcilable contradiction plaguing Burke’s conservatism may appear as the potential core of a “sound modernity” for someone admitting the possibility that a New Law opens history to a new possibility of reconciliation. ♦
Mark Shiffman is associate professor of humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches Classics and political theory.