For more than fifty years, American conservatives have treated Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss as fellow travelers. But for various reasons, that relationship and its contemporary legacy has been fraught with problems. What, then, are the points of continuity and discontinuity between the American conservative movement and these two political philosophers? Reflection on this question is fruitful not only for understanding conservatism, but also for understanding its ambiguous relationship to political philosophy as an intellectual discipline.
A number of reasonable considerations led conservatives to adopt Voegelin as one of their own. They loved his combination of erudition and righteous indignation — the scholar and the warrior. Most conservatives will remember his arcane but powerful “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton!” (That’s actually the bumper sticker version, but it captures the spirit.) Consider another example of his spirited prose from his review of Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:
“The putrefaction of Western civilization, as it were, has released a cadaveric poison spreading its infection through the body of humanity. What no religious leader, no philosopher, no imperial conqueror of the past has achieved—to create a community of mankind by creating a common concern for all men—has now been realized through the community of suffering under the earth-wide expansion of Western foulness.”
This was a thinker who didn’t pull his punches. He referred to modern universities as “brothels of opinion.” He referred to modern intellectuals as “pimps.” And I’m told that when he returned to Germany after the war to offer a course on “Hitler and the Germans” at Munich, he used to walk down the street greeting the Germans who never left as follows: Und was haben Wir hier: Guten Tag, Swine!”
Secondly, I think conservatives loved Voegelin’s ability to use the wisdom of the past as a tool for analyzing the pathologies of modernity. His fundamental contention was that modern ideologies are at root so many attempts to flee the human condition, a condition that the ancient philosophers and early Christian writers had articulated supremely well. Voegelin was thus literally a “conservative” in this sense of conserving the wisdom of the ages.
Finally, for religious conservatives, Voegelin seemed especially attractive because of his hallmark emphasis on transcendence. Indeed, his entire philosophy is informed by his belief that a proper orientation to the divine is indispensable to the health of the soul and the polity. He thus came off as a theological critic of modern atheism, materialism and nihilism.
So far so good. But many religious conservatives became disenchanted with Voegelin over time. He described himself as a mystic, not a Catholic or an orthodox believer of any stripe. And for Calvinists and Roman Catholics alike, there was an aspect of his philosophy that could not have sat well, which is that he took an extremely dim view of “doctrine.” For him, the divine-human experience is what mattered, and that was fundamentally an “experience,” not a set of propositions or doctrines. Voegelin could not satisfy people who wanted him to avow a particular Christology, or ecclesiology or even, frankly, a theology in any doctrinal sense.
This is the first point of discontinuity between Voegelin and some conservatives. As a related matter, Voegelin was basically dismissive of “natural law” of the sort espoused today by Princeton scholar Robert George. Recourse to “nature” just isn’t enough, Voegelin thought. We can’t do without divine experience as an ordering phenomenon.
Another point of discontinuity relates to his critique of twentieth-century ideology. True, he fulminated against fascism, communism, Nazism, and Progressivism. The problem is that he regarded classical liberalism and American conservatism as ideologies too. This comes out most clearly in his correspondence. He was known to go ballistic if invited to an American “conservative” function, or to contribute something to a conservative cause. A nasty letter to sociologist Peter Berger could be produced as “Exhibit A.” Burger wanted Voegelin to speak on a conservative panel in 1967. Voegelin wrote back: “Your assumption that I am a sort of ideologist, complete with a ‘position,’ a ‘viewpoint,’ and an ‘approach,’ suggests that you are not informed about my work.”
A chilly letter to George Nash, who requested a photograph from Voegelin to include in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America also makes the point: “Just because I am not stupid enough to be a liberal does not mean I am stupid enough to be a conservative.” That should give some pause to those who want to group Voegelin among American conservatives. Far from siding with conservatism, Voegelin thought that some kind of combination of classical economics with a social welfare state was an optimal way of “drawing upon the resources of Christianity and ratio.”
Finally, like so many thoughtful Europeans of his age, Voegelin found Americans’ reverence for the constitution quite baffling and ideological. Constitution worship (a la Justice Hugo Black) was simply unintelligible to him. The reason for this related, again, to his thoughts about the long-term barrenness of doctrinal statements, as opposed to lived experience. “A constitutional model that is so manifestly historically contingent must lead unavoidably to difficulties, and cause severe damage when it is dogmatized into a world view and its elements are raised to articles of faith.” Insofar as American conservatives want to look to the Constitution as a saving document for contemporary politics, they won’t find support in Voegelin.
Why have conservatives been so attracted to Leo Strauss? Perhaps one reason is that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Strauss challenged relativists, historicists, progressivists, and nihilists in a fresh and penetrating way. All these movements amount to the claim that there is no permanent truth, or truths. And Strauss thought they hadn’t proved their case. This supplied the opening for Strauss’s own epic search for permanent truth by retracing the idea of “natural right” through ancient and modern thinkers.
Another commonality is that Strauss was a champion of the idea that ideas have consequences. His works don’t traffic in economic determinism or Freudian psychobabble about subconscious “forces” beyond our control. His assumption was that the greatest philosophers determine how political cultures understand themselves, even if most people aren’t aware of this.
I’ll never forget my own first experience of reading Strauss as a college senior. I suddenly felt as if all the trendy ideas in which I and my friends were invested were actually something none of us knew they were, vestiges of great thinkers exploring the fundamental alternative answers to the permanent human questions. My views turned out to be an incoherent mess of ideas — a dash of Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche and Plato indiscriminately mixed together. But it was thrilling, almost intoxicating for a young mind to sense the permanent questions and the debt to great minds. I’ll not dwell on the sense of superiority that can yield. That wasn’t my attraction per se, but I do see it often.
If the proclivity to take ideas seriously was a point of common ground between Strauss and conservatives, another was the narrative Strauss wanted to tell, one of epic civilizational decline that dated roughly from the birth of modernity in the sixteenth century. The dates and the shape of Strauss’s narrative would have sat well with any conservative who is inclined to view the Reformation as the first step in a long saga of secularization and modernization that destroyed the cultural unity of the West. The specifics of Strauss’s story, which emphasized Machiavelli rather than Luther as the father of modernity, differed from the typical Catholic narrative, but the arc was similar, as well as the ultimate consequence, which is that we have reached a “crisis of modernity” and now need to retrace our steps back to older times in order to recover some sense of where we went wrong.
As an aside, I should say that this “return to the ancients” should have had virtually no appeal to classical-economic liberals. And perhaps this is a good point to turn to discontinuities between Strauss and conservatives. I am hard pressed to think of a single passage in all of Strauss where he shows any respect for classical economic principles. Nor does he have high regard for the material motivations that drive economic activity in general. If anything, he would say that modern economics is inconceivable without the unleashing of acquisitiveness that begins with Machiavelli; and he thought this was the beginning of a slippery slope toward nihilism. The economics of Locke and Smith was thus a passing moment within a broader process of decline. Again, why should this appeal to economic conservatives?
At the same time, I also wonder why traditional conservatives would find Strauss appealing. The difficulty is that Strauss had no serious respect for social or political tradition. While searching for the ground of moral authority in “natural” right, Strauss made clear he that he rejected the “ancestral,” or the traditional, or the accumulated wisdom of the ages as a viable ground. He was a critic of Burke — not of everything in Burke — but certainly of Burke’s recourse to the traditions of Englishmen as a guide for what is right and good. For Strauss, nature, not history, was the only rational guide.
This also separates Strauss from those “front porch” conservatives who cherish locality, community, shared experiences, and communal narratives. For Strauss genuine philosophy would inevitably alienate the thinker from his community. That is because the search for truth, as Strauss understood it, was a search for an abstract, universal truth, not something residing in this or that community. Strauss was a committed “rationalist” — albeit not a modern rationalist, but an ancient one. And this meant that the philosopher, having escaped the Cave of conventionality, could live only “ironically” with those average human beings who find value in communal norms.
This brings me to my last point about Strauss. I’m not sure why religious conservatives should have much to do with him. This is because by taking “nature” as his guide, Strauss implicitly rejected revelation or biblical teaching as authoritative. It’s true that he famously left his readers with a stark choice and didn’t stoop to solve it for them: either the life of autonomous reason or the life of obedient love of God: there is nothing in between. And one may have the impression that he kept both possibilities open for himself. But even the slightest familiarity with what he’s doing in works like Natural Right and History will show that Strauss was engaged in a philosophical search for natural right.
A corollary to the fact that Strauss rejected revelation and the Bible as authoritative is that he, like Voegelin, put no stock in “natural law.” But where Voegelin deemed natural law too “natural,” Strauss regarded it as too dependent on biblical revelation and Christian theology. As such it could not solve the problem of what is right for man by nature. So, whatever the reasons why conservatives were attracted to Strauss, there are reasons for distance too. Indeed, if religious conservatives and “front porch” conservatives and tradition-loving conservatives and economic conservatives all find Strauss attacking their commitments, then what kind of conservatives ought to embrace Strauss?
The answer is, no doubt, those who — like Strauss himself — are not religious, who think modern philosophy has led to a crisis of modern political life, and who hope to glean from the ancients some insights into human excellence both individual and collective. In fact, there are plenty of conservatives like that, but they are certainly not the driving force behind the American conservative movement.
This leads me to reflect on the puzzling relationship between political philosophy and conservatism. I’ve been proceeding as if it’s reasonable to judge philosophers by their conservative appeal. But is it?
I take the criterion of a good political philosopher to be the power of illumination. Political philosophy is a quest for clarity about puzzling things, political things. Conservatism by contrast stands in a more or less defensive posture — it always has, especially in Europe, but also in America since dawn of the Progressive era. Conservatives have something to fight for, and they are endeavoring to save it.
Of course there’s another kind of conservative who rather than fighting for something will be found enjoying it. I think Russell Kirk was a conservative like this when he was engaged in history and literature in his study at Mecosta. And I think Michael Oakeshott was a conservative like this when reading poetry, conversing with friends, or engaging in liberal education. But these kinds of conservatives are rare insofar as they are not quite the active warriors we have in mind when we think about conservatism as a whole.
So conservatives are people who defend certain traditional goods, because they know they’re worth defending. Political philosophy, by contrast, is animated by concerns quite different from political battles or external goods. It’s fundamentally a quest for insight, not influence.
I’m not saying there’s no overlap between political philosophy and conservatism. Obviously there’s overlap, and some political philosophers will be found on occasion defending a cause — as Voegelin especially was wont to do. But the essential difference between political philosophy and conservatism is not often enough stressed among conservatives. The test of a good political philosopher is not his conservative appeal, but the power to illuminate something that was previously puzzling and obscure.
Do Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss pass this test? The answer is overwhelmingly “yes.” Voegelin cast light on the motivations and structures of ideological mass movements, showing that they are at root forms of psycho-spiritual rebellion. No one revealed this as forcefully as Voegelin, and his insights seem solid.
Strauss too is justly celebrated for illuminating something fundamental about political life: the friction that can arise between “excellent,” “superior” human beings and their political community. We are all too prone to downplay or ignore this problem of political life. Yet it matters because, as Tocqueville and Mill both saw, as communities become more democratic, excellence becomes more suspect. Indeed it gets mocked and scorned. And this poses severe obstacles to human fulfillment properly understood.
Strauss’s insights into esoteric writing are invaluable too, but they dependent on his more fundamental insight into the tension between “the city” and “excellent human beings.” Esoteric writing is a way (though not, in my view, the only way) of negotiating that tension.
Voegelin and Strauss were so full of insight that I would not want to attempt political philosophy today without having them in my toolbox. So whether or not they made good conservatives, I think we owe it to them to evaluate them on their own terms. They were essentially philosophers, not conservatives.
And for the future, I think conservatives should recognize and defend this boundary line. Rather than judging our philosophers in terms of their conservative appeal, we might just celebrate political philosophy as such. Here’s why. When all the conservative battles have been fought and won (I know they will never be, but let’s just imagine . . ), what activities might conservatives wish to take up in their sudden expanse of free time? Certainly the answer is those activities that make life most worth living.
But must we wait until every battle is won before we are entitled to enjoy the highest human activities? Russell Kirk reading history and literature in his study could not have thought so. Neither did Michael Oakeshott. And both knew, I think, that political philosophy is one of the things that count. And that is because, whatever else we humans are, we are creatures who “desire to understand,” as Aristotle famously said. And thus the activity of political philosophy, as an end in itself, is certainly something worth conserving.
This essay was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on April 11, 2015.