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Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers

Leo Strauss And His Catholic Readers

Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers. Geoffrey M. Vaughan, ed. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press:  2018


A Platonic philosopher and Socratic dialectician, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) would be intrigued by the “and” in the title of this collection of essays devoted to him and his Catholic readers. It indicates a pairing, a yoking, but of what sort? In Aristotelian terms, is it one of nature, art, or choice, or, perhaps, of chance? In terms more congenial to Strauss, can one see it as taking place under the auspices of the One, or, perhaps, the Idea of the Good? Of course, beneath these august possibilities, one finds on both sides a variety of human motives.  What then is conveyed by the conjunction? As the French say, c’est compliqué.


To begin with, Strauss sought Catholic readers.  He saw them as allies in the battle against the banes of (then) contemporary intellectual life:  positivism; relativism; historicism.  In their adherence to Thomism, Catholics believed in transhistorical philosophy, a philosophia perennis, as well as transhistorical moral norms, typically cast in terms of natural law.  But allies can be of different sorts, some merely tactical or strategic.  At the same time as he was trying to alert Catholic intellectuals to common foes, Strauss called into question the natural character of Thomas’s natural law teaching, and he argued for the need to loosen its strictures with “the latitude” of classical prudence.  Even more frontally, he argued against any purported “synthesis” of philosophy and faith, including the Thomistic. Philosophy, he argued, was not doctrines or disciplines, but a way of life.  Its human core, knowledge of one’s ignorance about the greatest matters and an erotic compulsion to remedy that condition, was at antipodes from the attitude of the believer, one of absolute trust in divine promises and obedience to divine law.  Given all this, one could foresee that after the battle, allies would become sparring partners.

For their part, some Catholic intellectuals were wary of Strauss and not just because of the foregoing salvos.  They suspected that his Platonism or his Jewishness blinded him to the true character of Catholic Christianity.  In any event, they did not recognize their “reasonable faith” in his description of the religious believer.  Likewise, a few suspected that his overt anti-modernism was rooted in a less obvious indictment of Christianity as setting the stage for modernity, by denying or occluding pagan wisdom about man and politics.  While modern political philosophy was explicitly Strauss’s target, in large part because it departed from the more credible intellectual and moral alternatives of Greek philosophy and Biblical faith (i. e., Judaism), some suspected that he also judged Christianity against these models and found it doubly wanting.

Still, Strauss’s intellectual powers were undeniable and there was a good deal to be learned from him.  In general, Catholic readers of Strauss gravitated to his criticisms of modern thought.  Here they found congenial critiques of the limits of modern science, especially as applied to social and political phenomena, of the untenability of the fact-value distinction, of the incompatibility of human liberty with moral relativism, and of the lobotomization of the human mind involved in historicism.  They also profited from his critique of easy-going progressivism, where older thought was automatically deemed passé.  In this connection, some were stimulated by his reexamination of the tradition of western thought.  Here was a bracing model for their own going back to roots.  On both sides, therefore, there was reaching out and engagement that was respectful, if also wary and aware of fundamental disagreements.


So much for a bird’s-eye overview.  From it, one needs to turn to particulars.  The general possibilities of relating to Strauss were realized by individual Catholics, and thus developed in important or interesting ways.  Moreover, there is a temporal element in the concept of “Catholic readers” that needs to be recognized.  In the category, one can limn a series of generational cohorts.  A first generation included the Laval Thomist, Fr. Charles N. R. McCoy (1911-1984), the first (and only) “Straussian theologian,” Fr. Ernest Fortin, A. A. (1923-2002), and the Georgetown Jesuit legend, Fr. James V. Schall (1928 – ).  While all were appreciative of Strauss,[1] McCoy was more critical, Fortin a good deal more positive,[2] and Schall rather eclectic in his judgment.

After these pioneers came their students and those who discovered Strauss through them, or through other means (e.g., Eric Voegelin), or on their own.  Many of these are represented in this collection of essays.  They include Robert P. Kraynak, James R. Stoner, Jr., John P. Hittinger, J. Brian Benestad, Douglas Kries, and Marc Guerra. Essays by two European scholars, the Frenchman Philippe Bénéton and the Italian Giulio De Ligio, indicate that the Catholic engagement with Strauss was not limited to Americans.  Remarkably, the highlight of the volume, “Leo Strauss’s Profound and Fragile Critique of Christianity,” comes from the incisive mind of a Mormon political philosopher at Brigham Young University, Ralph C. Hancock.  “Catholic” here becomes expansively ecumenical.

This wealth of material can be mined in several ways, for any number of illuminating purposes.  One can read John Hittinger’s “On the Catholic Audience of Leo Strauss” to fill out Strauss’s intention in reaching out to Catholics.  One can read the wittily entitled “Wine with Plato and Hemlock with Socrates”:  Charles McCoy’s Dialogue with Leo Strauss and the Character of Thomistic Political Philosophy” by Bradley Lewis to see how Strauss appeared to a Thomist of the strict observance.  (McCoy is also discussed in Gladden J. Pippen’s “The Mutual Concerns of Leo Strauss and His Catholic Contemporaries:  D’Entrèves, McCoy, Simon”)  .

For a thoroughly positive reception of Strauss’s thought by a Catholic thinker, one can read Douglas Kries’s “Leo Strauss’s Critique of Modern Political Philosophy and Ernest Fortin’s Critique of Modern “Catholic Social Teaching”” to see the use Fortin made of Strauss’s teachings about the capital differences between classical natural law and modern natural rights to critically understand doctrinal developments in the Church.   In addressing the modern world, the Church unwittingly had let the Trojan horse of modern thought into its official teaching.  Kries instances Fortin’s argument that when Leo XIII spoke in Rerum Novarum of “the sacred and inviolable” right of property, he was employing a Lockean, not a Thomistic, locution.  Traditional thought was therefore subtly skewed.[3]   Other examples could have been given from Fortin’s writings, from the use of the term “values” to a diminished emphasis on virtue to an instrumentalization of the notion of the common good.[4]

It is not just bilateral relations, however, – Strauss and a Catholic reader – that one can consider with profit.  In a revealing tale of two scholars nicely rehearsed by Bradley Lewis, McCoy wrote the original essays on Augustine and Aquinas for the famous Strauss-Cropsey reader, History of Political Philosophy, but they, and he, were replaced by Fortin’s analyses, which were much more in the spirit of Strauss’s thinking, including his critique of Thomas on natural law and politics.   We thus have an opportunity to consider two versions of Catholic thinking about politics as they engaged with Strauss and dealt with authoritative Catholic thinkers.

Here are the bare bones:  McCoy criticized Strauss for misunderstanding Plato, Aristotle, and their relationship, and, more substantively, for misunderstanding his, and philosophy’s, standard, nature.  He did so from “a strict and highly systematic” Thomistic perspective.  Plato committed the cardinal intellectual sin of confusing the logical and the metaphysical orders, while “Aristotle . . . essentially soundly established political philosophy and Aquinas … offered authoritative interpretation, development, and, in some case[s], correction.”  In short, “McCoy considered Aquinas’s views to be simply correct; Aquinas established a perspective from which political things could best be understood both normatively and empirically.”   Fortin on the other hand thoroughly appropriated Strauss’s teachings about the ancients and the moderns.  (He also applied Straussian principles to his own work on the Church Fathers, with ground-breaking results[5].)   His Thomas was as much a transformer as a follower of Aristotle, for example, his natural law required a creator-providential God absent from Aristotle’s philosophy.  “Fortin, by contrast, [characterized] Aquinas’s political philosophy as “a modification of Aristotle’s political philosophy in the light of Christian revelation or more precisely as an attempt to integrate Aristotle with an earlier tradition of Western political thought represented by the Church fathers and their medieval followers and compounded for the most part of elements taken from the Bible, Platonic-Stoic philosophy, and Roman law.””  In so doing, he “transform[ed] it in both content and in spirit.”

I confess I welcomed the substitution of Fortin’s interpretations for McCoy’s. To begin with, McCoy’s understanding of Plato, which was Thomas’s, has zero chance of understanding Strauss’s highly unconventional reading.  According to Strauss, Plato both dialectically extrapolates to the achievement and consequences of “wisdom” (e. g., only the wise man has the right to rule, this is natural right in its purest form) and he dialogically undercuts this in multiple ways (e. g., Socrates’s wisdom is “human wisdom,” that is, knowledge of ignorance).[6]  In general, Strauss was acutely attuned to the dialectical and dialogical character of Platonic “idealization.”  In confronting “the doctrine of Ideas,” one cannot (or should not) simply declare, Plato confused two distinct philosophical orders.  At most, one can say that arguments offered in the dialogue, views expressed by characters, have these or those logical features, defects, entailments, presuppositions, or whatnot.  Then the question becomes, what to make of them?  Then one is thinking along with the argument, as Plato would want.   At this point, if not before, one is warranted, according to the principle of “logographic necessity,” to draw upon all the features of the dialogue form, including setting and characters, and a full range of possible intentions on the part of the interlocutors, including Socrates, to address the question.  The argument is embedded in an action, and the two must be thought together to come to terms with the dialogue form.

The decisive issues between McCoy, Strauss, and Fortin, however, concern Aristotle and Thomas.  One way to put matters is that what Aristotle left asunder, two authoritative or “architectonic” disciplines, political science or expertise (politiké) in Nicomachean Ethics, I, 2, and “the science we are seeking” (tes epistēmēs tes zētoumenēs) in Metaphysics I, 1 & 2, Thomas and, especially, McCoy, systematically bring together.  Politics then becomes subject to metaphysical teachings of a most abstract and rarefied sort.  It’s not clear to me that one can see politics as they are, and judge them aright, from that height.

My suspicions in this regard were first aroused by McCoy’s central contention that Aquinas argued for “the independence and transcendence” of the Church to the polis or political community on the basis of Aristotelian principles, specifically the superiority of the theoretical life to the practical.  This struck me as a rather large category mistake, expressing a pious conviction rather than a plausible argument.  It suggests a way of looking at things that is unhistorical and lacking in elementary political sense.  It also strains Aristotle’s text.  Politiké can’t dictate the content of the theoretical sciences, McCoy is right about that, but it can determine “what kinds of knowledge ought to be in the cities, and what sorts each person ought to learn and to what extent.”[7]  This doesn’t seem to me to be the requisite subservience on the part of politiké.  In any event, the contrast with Fortin’s more probing treatment of Thomas enables one to see the rather tendentious character of the McCoyan construction, “Thomistic political philosophy.”  Three points concerning it may suggest that character.

Earlier, we reported that “McCoy considered Aquinas’s views to be simply correct; [that] Aquinas established a perspective from which political things could best be understood both normatively and empirically.”  “[B]est understood” is quite a claim; “both normatively and empirically” is quite a high bar.  What was that perspective?  On one hand, it begins with Aristotle and the recognition that Aristotelian “political science . . . is grounded in the prudence of the statesman, who is also the good citizen.  Prudence is an extension of the perspective of the good citizen.”  Here the moral-political horizon of politics and political agency is acknowledged and affirmed, especially that of the agent who possesses the supreme political virtue of prudence and who has care of the community as a whole.

On the other hand, this moral-political perspective is put by the Thomist within a distinctive philosophical framework and hence, purportedly, sharpened and broadened.   To begin with, “[a]t the root [of Thomistic political philosophy] . . . are Aristotle’s logic and theory of knowledge, which are deployed to establish the character of political knowledge as first practical and second as prudence as distinct from an art.”  McCoy doesn’t say why this move is required, either for the political agent or the theoretician.  In context, the latter phrase, “as distinct from art,” indicates a concern with subsequent modern errors, in which prudence was replaced by ersatz substitutes, whether technical (Machiavelli) or ideological (Marx).  That Thomas shared that worry is doubtful.  The move does indicate an impulse to systemization that Aristotle lacked[8], that Thomas felt, and which McCoy eagerly pursued.  As presented, it validates rather than critiques the agent’s prudential understanding, but from an external perspective, one that does not substantively add to or educate the agent, as did Aristotle’s own politiké in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.[9]  The same cannot be said about the third item, the telos of political life, the common good.  Here Strauss starts close to the phenomena, while McCoy immediately expands the horizon ad infinitum.

“For Strauss the common good is the common good of particular societies; for McCoy, however, the common good is a complex analogical idea, but one can say that the common good in the fullest sense is God, and secondarily the order of the universe.  The temporal or political common good comes third, and even here, it is not simply restricted to closed political societies,[10] but exists even at the international level in the relationship of human beings to one another simply as such.”  We are now considerably, even infinitely, removed from the moral-political horizon of the Aristotelian statesman.  A host of questions naturally arises.  What does it mean that the third level of common good, the temporal or political common good, “exists even at the international level in the relationship of human beings to one another simply as such”?  How does that cash out for leaders of particular communities?   Humanitarian interventions?   A universal right to migrate to one’s country?  What exactly does it mean?  Apropos to the second level, does pursuing the common good of “the order of the universe” today require draconian measures to address climate change?   What if other countries do not concur and cooperate?  In general, how does one sync one’s community with the universe, given a Big Bang cosmology and evolution?  Finally, should political leaders take it upon themselves to lead their communities to the supreme Good, God?  If so, how?  If not, why not?  McCoy’s principle in this matter, that the political community is “naturally ordered” to God as the sovereign final cause, leaves considerable leeway in this regard.

For a strict Thomist, the threshold question in these matters concerns his fidelity to the letter and principles of Thomas’s teaching.  Judging from Thomas’s texts, I would say that “the common good” has an ambiguous character, or at least the perspectives that can be taken in its regard do.  On one hand, from the divine point of view, from the perspective of “eternal law,” the common good of the universe and of man, the rational creature, is God Himself (S.T., Q. 91, 1).   But from the point of view of the statesman or legislator, it is the common good of a particular society, with whose care he is entrusted (S.T., Q. 90).  That does not mean he simply ignores or slights the good of other countries, or of nature, or the divine majesty and will, in his considerations or deliberations, but they are all considered in relation to his community and its good.  The “strict Thomistic perspective,” however, brings the two perspectives closely, even tightly, together, with the divine perspective tending or threatening to take precedent over the human.  Whether that is possible or desirable is a great question.  Machiavelli and Hobbes, of course, thought that it was the source of hypocrisy and worse in Christian polities and politics.  A contemporary political philosopher more favorably disposed to Christianity, Pierre Manent, himself a Catholic, has more soberly affirmed that “as citizens [or statesmen] our part is not perfectly to imitate Divine impartiality.  We address the Most High from the site of our action and for the common good of the city of which are citizens [or statesmen].”[11]  To employ Aristotelian-scholastic phraseology, what’s first to us is not what is first in itself.   McCoy tended to make the latter front and center.

A truly searching engagement with McCoy, however, would not stop with these questions and alternatives, but would seek for what motivated him to articulate these descending versions of the common good, which relativize and subordinate the political common good to higher instances.  The theoretical reason, we have already seen, lay in his view of philosophy, a strict and highly systematic Thomism, one that put metaphysics first.  The practical reason was found in the political problem of his day, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and in his reading of modern political philosophy.  Modern political thought and politics were explicitly or implicitly totalitarian:  this was manifest in Marxism, Communism, and the Soviet Union.  It was less so in modern philosophy’s first theoretical achievement, the sovereign State, but Hobbes displayed the tendency clearly enough.  Faced with this, McCoy wanted all political authority, including the liberal state, to recognize what was above it, what limited it, what measured it.  His complex notion of the common  good was designed to do that explicitly, even emphatically.[12]

I wholeheartedly share in the aim of having political authority look up to higher instances, and to consider itself obligated to them.  How best to go about this, theoretically and practically, are separate matters.  I am not sure that mid-century Laval Thomism was adequate to deal with the ideological character of Soviet Communism, for that you needed other forms of analysis, but its critical studies of Marx were solid contributions to the cause of freedom and to its eternal credit.   Its instinct and aim to defend the transcendent dignity and destiny of the human person over against the collectivisms and secularisms of the day was likewise sound.  Today, systematic Thomism still has contributions to make to contemporary problems.  I would point to its defense of the natural family, over against the progressive state’s redefinition of marriage and family, as one important contribution.  There are others in the areas of anthropology, ethics, and law.  However, reading McCoy next to Fortin’s more probing presentation of Thomas provides the useful service of liberating the master from his sworn defenders and allowing us to consider him without undue parti pris.


It is the second and third generation of Catholic readers of Strauss who are the most incisive when it comes to his thought, as well as powerful in their criticisms, as they have had the opportunity to digest a rich literature on him, including that produced by their predecessors.  In this collection, three such readers stand out.

In a wide-ranging essay, “Reason, Faith, and Law: Catholic Encounters with Leo Strauss,” Robert Kraynak takes on Strauss’s famous, and controversial, discussion of monotheistic religion.  According to Strauss, the species contains three individuals, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.   He famously put Judaism and Islam together as religions of divine law, while Christianity was something of an outlier as a religion of faith, and hence of orthodoxy rather than orthopraxis.   Strauss’s description of the religious attitude (alluded to above) suggested that Christianity was defective as a religion.  After surveying the three, Kraynak concludes this about Strauss’s thesis:

“As a generalization, it does not hold up to scrutiny.  All three religions have faith and law, theology and jurisprudence, in varying degrees; they differ only in emphasis.  A related problem with Strauss’s classification is that, even though he focuses on divine law and on the prophet as the law-giver of the ideal community, he never analyzes the content of the legal codes or the type of regime they prescribe.  His analysis is formal in the sense of viewing revelation as such as the primary challenge to philosophy; he insists on the brute fact of revelation, regardless of what is revealed, as the essence of religion.  The result is that Strauss gives us a misleading impression of the three religions” (38-39).

In “Modernity, Creation, and Catholicism:  Leo Strauss and Benedict XVI,” Marc Guerra picks up with the Straussian claim of “the brute fact of revelation” and connects it with its Straussian correlative, “the Biblical God,” understood as utterly mysterious, unfathomable will, and connects them to the opposition that Strauss argued was absolutely fundamental, between Biblical “revelation” and Greek “philosophy”.  Guerra focuses the discussion on the Whole, on the cosmos, which is common to the two.[13]  For Strauss, “[t]he question of creation finally comes down to the question of whether [the] cosmos is marked by intelligible necessity or arbitrary and unfathomable divine will . . . The question . . . for him, rests on the difference between eternal impersonal necessity and omnipotent and unfathomable divine will” (111).  Guerra then observes that, “[a]s [Strauss] presents it, there is something pinched and misleading about such formulations.  Notably, such a binary schema misses the mark when it comes to Christianity:  it fails to take the Catholic faith’s distinctive claim – not simply some general notion of revealed religion’s claim – about creation seriously” (112).  Guerra then tacitly follows Robert Sokolowski and explicitly the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, in showing that, and how, the Christian God of creative Logos, metaphysically conceived as Ipsum Esse Subsistens, circumvents the Straussian alternative of impersonal necessity and unfathomable, that is, unintelligible, Will.  Tertium datur.

As I said earlier, the best essay in the collection is by the Mormon and political philosopher, Ralph Hancock.  He steals some of Guerra’s thunder by plausibly arguing that Strauss’s teaching about the unfathomable Biblical God was an exoteric teaching (315), and he likewise provides textual and interpretive reasons to dissent from James Stoner’s suggestion that Strauss necessarily had to presume a classical metaphysical framework in his defense of the legitimacy of the philosophical life (311-312).  Both (indirect) criticisms hinge on Hancock’s detection of the presence, character, and rationale of a distinctive Straussian rhetoric.

Hancock is one of the most sensitive and penetrating and therefore plausibly critical readers of Strauss we have.  He has the honor of having detected what he calls “the aristocratic character” of Strauss’s rhetoric about Greek philosophy.  In the face of contemporary egalitarianism and technocratic thinking, Strauss exaggerated the hauteur of the philosophic life, so as to attract souls that were put off by them.  One has to carefully disentangle what is hyperbolic and what is not in Strauss’s presentation of the philosophic life.   This task is not left simply to the reader’s ingenuity, however, as Strauss strewed clues along the way.  Hancock provides a tutorial in the art of detective reading.

One way of making one’s way in this thicket is to pay attention to Strauss’s different discussions of “Socrates,” “Plato,” and “the philosopher.”   They are not the same and the latter is very much a construct.   Not surprisingly, Strauss was following Plato in this.  It has been observed by several interpreters, and is a key to interpreting the Republic (and the Theatetus), that “Socrates,” the character, is not “the philosopher” discussed in the dialogue.

Hancock now has another important discovery to his credit:  Strauss’s complex understanding and judgment of Christianity.   This doubly negative judgment – it occluded truths affirmed by Biblical Law and classical thought; it paved the way for the self-destructive hubris of modern thought — is embedded in a larger argument concerning the course of Western civilization that is subtly tracked and reconstructed by Hancock.  It involves well-known Straussian elements and teachings –  Jerusalem and Athens, Ancients and Moderns, esoteric/exoteric -, but combined and plumbed in novel ways by Hancock.  In this new version, Christianity is “fundamentally complicit” in the rise of modern rationalism because it unwisely sought to synthesize and transcend Biblical Law and Greek philosophy in “Christian Platonism.”  This led, judged Strauss, to the eclipse or blurring of fundamental features of human life and the world and their replacement by vague but powerful prospects and promises.   In turn, in its battle with Christianity, modern rationalism aped its Opponent with its own this-worldly projects and promises, but it did so without the ballast and points of orientation at the foundation of classical thought and Jewish faith.  Modern thought therefore culminated in the alternatives of Heidegger’s “abyss” or Kojève’s “universal homogenous State.”

In this reconstructed narrative, Strauss’s famous teaching of “the fundamental alternatives” of Jerusalem or Athens is seen to be dictated by rhetorical and pedagogical aims.  It is not the full truth of either or both.  While there are important differences between the two, at a deeper level they share core moral elements:  a recognition of human nobility, justice or natural right, and of intractable human evil.  In Strauss’s rhetorically tailored presentation, however, each Authority took one or another phenomenon for its special province.  Strauss however knew, and in places indicated, that both parties acknowledged the full range of human moral phenomenon.   They differed in how they framed them, that is, where they thought they pointed in an articulation of the Whole.   Thus, the common core, more than the direction in which each alternative developed them, stood as Strauss’s ultimate standard against which he judged Christian faith and teaching.  They were part and parcel of what Strauss called “the realm of necessity” over against modern claims of absolute human freedom – and earlier Christian claims of emancipation, transformation, and Fulfillment.

Strauss was an unstinting dialectical thinker, hence he turned his mind to his own conclusions and positions.  The foregoing critique was aimed at one version of Christianity, “Christian Platonism,” with its accents on the utter transcendence of a beyond-Being “Absolute” and a Christian teaching that wanted the visible to take its bearings by the invisible.  What about Christian Aristotelianism?  In other words, what about Thomas?   Strauss had great respect for Thomas.  In the context laid out above, he was seen as a mighty effort to keep the integrity of the world and supernatural Promises together.  He strove to do justice to the claims of human reason, to recognize human nobility and justice, and his doctrine of human law clearly addressed the need for dealing with human evil.   But, judged Strauss, this synthesis could not last.  Moreover, it adulterated both parties, faith and reason.   What Thomas sought was desirable, but untenable and unsustainable.

Still, Thomas struck a chord with Strauss.  Hancock notes a remarkable passage, a singular moment, in Strauss:  “Strauss affirms that the biblical experience is not contrary to nature; indeed, he writes, strikingly adopting the most recognizable Thomistic motto:  “Grace perfects nature, it does not destroy nature.”  Strauss, the Jewish Platonist, could not find better words to describe his thought about the common core of reason and faith and the, as it were, natural legitimacy of Judaism.   He, however, could not see his way to affirm the same of Christianity.  As he saw it, Christianity could not affirm the integrity of nature, its Promises required it to deny or bracket certain dense realities; in Hobbes’s phrase, it caused men “to see double,” with the invisible riding roughshod over the visible.

In so doing, however, he indicated what it would take for Christianity to be convincing to him:  acknowledgement of natural necessities with a plausible account of their non-ultimacy and transcendence.   Here, it seems to me, is the deepest challenge Strauss presents to Catholicism.   To simply dismiss the challenge, is to deny its intelligence and power, while to attempt to respond to it on its own terms probably grants too much and does not allow Christianity to display its distinctive nature.  Christian apologists, therefore, need to be on top of their game.

Therefore, we might provisionally answer the question with which we began.  The “and” between Leo Strauss and his Catholic readers is providential, because it helps contemporary Catholics to critically evaluate the categories of modernity, and to restore Christianity’s natural relationship to Judaism and Greek philosophy.  Along this arduous but necessary path, Leo Strauss is an indispensable guide and gadfly.



[1] Even the arch critic McCoy “credit[ed] Strauss with the revival of classical political philosophy” and “cited Strauss as an authority in his discussions of Hobbes, Locke,  and Rousseau” (Lewis, “Charles McCoy’s Dialogue,” pp. 67; 73).

[2] Fortin himself said, “Strauss knew something that neither I nor my Sorbonne professors, world-famous scholars all of them, knew.  A new world had opened up with which it would take me a long time to become familiar . . . For years I had felt that I was being cheated out of something important.  Strauss revealed to me that missing dimension, the other side . . . From that moment on, my own thinking acquired a new orientation.” (Kries, “Political Philosophy, ‘Catholic Social Teaching,’” pp. 124-25).

[3] In Kries’s judgment, “Sacred and Inviolable:  Rerum Novarum and Natural Rights,”  “is probably the most important of Fortin’s many essays [on Catholic social thought], at least from the standpoint of the church, for if taken seriously it would force the church to reconsider in a radical way her whole posture toward modernity and her entire way of thinking about modern times” (ibid., 130).

[4] A Fortin student, Brian Benestad, takes up the torch and analyzes “The Influence of Historicism on Catholic Theology”.  In it he discusses the feminist systematic theologian, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, and the dissident moral theologian, Fr. Charles Curran, choosing them because they are recognized as leaders in their respective disciplines.

[5] “Harvey C. Mansfield – a friend of Fortin and fellow student of Strauss – has suggested recently that Fortin’s most noteworthy efforts are his studies of Dante and of patristic authors” (ibid., pp. 116-17).

[6] The editor, Geoffrey M. Vaughn, in his contribution “Wisdom and Folly:  Reconsidering Leo Strauss on Natural Law,” does an exemplary job of rehearsing Strauss’s treatment of Platonic natural right, Thomistic natural law, and modern natural rights.  See p. 79 for “Plato’s idea of natural right.”

[7] Joe Sachs, Nicomachean Ethics, 1, 2, 1094b.

[8] Phronēsis, practical wisdom or prudence, is missing from the kinds of knowing laid out at the beginning of the Metaphysics, Book I, Chapter 1, a “sweep” that ascends from perception (aisthēsis) to science (epistēmē).   Likewise, the presentation of sophia in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics bends over backwards to remove it from the human realm, the realm governed by phronēsis.  In other words, Aristotle’s initial presentations of wisdom, practical and theoretical, separate rather than join.

[9] A fine commentator on Aristotle (Christopher Bruell) has said that “the Politics is the political education of the moral man.”  And commentators such as Leon Kass and Ronna Burger have shown the acutely dialectical, that is, philosophical-pedagogical, character of the argument of the Nicomachean Ethics.

[10] Why are political societies as such characterized as “closed”?  That seems tendentious and misleading to me.  The common good of a particular society necessarily involves foreign relations, economic, cultural, military, diplomatic and political.  Even North Korea has regime-sustaining relations with China.

[11] Beyond Radical Secularism (St. Augustine Press, 2016), translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with an Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney, p. 70.

[12] According to McCoy, “[t]he primacy of this common good [that is, “the extrinsic common good of the universe, God”] is the most important limit on the power of the state and the most important root of the dignity of the human person because, while persons are ordered to the temporal common good, their ordination to the universal common good transcends this” (75).

[13] See Strauss, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” ad initium.


Also available is Tim Fuller’s review; James V. Schall’s review; Jim Stoner’s “The Catholic Moment in the Political Philosophy of Leo Strauss”; and David Walsh’s “A Catholic Strauss: A Reply to James Stoner’s ‘The Catholic Moment in the Political Philosophy of Leo Strauss.”

Paul SeatonPaul Seaton

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary
and University. He specializes primarily in French political thought and has
written on and translated several contemporary French thinkers, including
Pierre Manent, Chantal Delsol, and Philippe Beneton.

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