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Leo Strauss and the Crisis of Modernity (I): Liberal Relativism

Leo Strauss And The Crisis Of Modernity (I): Liberal Relativism

Few words seem to be as familiar to us in the Western world as the nebulous term “crisis.” We hear it incessantly and for many years. Of its ubiquitous proclamation, we have arrived at a point in which we believe almost instinctively to live permanently in crisis – whether it is more or less violent, more or less profound, and more or less powerful in its consequences. But why must this sense of crisis, despite being permanent and therefore familiar, also be quite bizarre? The elementary fact of its strangeness is that this sense of systemic crisis seems to go against the intellectually dominant thought and discourse in essentially the whole of West’s modern history. The idea of “progress” seems to be reduced today to a tautology. Should we really still speak of progress? In fact, and for the sake of example, we have long been assimilating the fact that our younger generations will most surely live worse than the precedent generations – an observation which would sound absurd not so many decades ago.

This sense of permanent crisis does have, of course, a deeper substance. This deeper substance entails a meaning of civilizational importance. It has been a little more than one hundred years since Oswald Spengler published his great work, The Decline of the West. Since then, we feel this aura of the decline of the Western world hovering over the old “free world.” Civilizations, like every natural organism, have a determined cycle of life; the Western world would be near its setting. The reach of this work was vast. We have only to remember Tom Buchanan’s “terrible pessimism” when questioning Nick Carraway about a book called The Rise of the Coloured Empires in The Great Gatsby. This ingenious reference to Spengler’s work showed that the upper classes were at least already aware of this process of decline; indeed, they were a key element of this decline. Tom and Daisy Buchanan end up being pictured by Fitzgerald as that aristocracy in irreversible moral decadence. Thus decline seems to be essentially a profound process: it happens to be a moral and intellectual phenomenon. Today this idea of the decline of the West is a cliché. During the cold war, the fear of the historical inevitability of communism fostered this logic of decadence. In our times, public intellectuals frequently repeat that liberal democracy is going through a major existential crisis. This crisis of liberal democracy has external and internal factors. Outside the West, we are told that autocracies are gaining in credibility due to the rise of China: the vitality of the Asian great power does, in fact, contrast with the chaotic confusion of the American superpower. And within liberal democracies disorder also unfolds and polarization subdues public debate. This year of 2020 has been often compared with the social unrest seen at the end of the 1960s. But this time the effects of that social turmoil may be different – and for the worse. We must only put the present situation within the broader context of the suffocation of public debate through what is colloquially called “political correctness.” Harper’s Magazine “Open Letter” denounced this situation as well as the reaction – by the political “right” – to this state of affairs that took shape throughout the Western world.

It can only be curious to witness the way this idea of decline hangs over Western man at the same time that faith in progress keeps determining the dreams of a considerable part of the West’s political, intellectual, and financial elites. John Gray, writing on the British establishment, remembered that “many seem to believe that the political changes of the past four years are anomalies.” But the Brexit referendum and Trump’s presidency cannot be seen as “anomalies.”[1] These changes were the outcome of the weakened faith in the “end of History.” After the implosion of the soviet world, as Francis Fukuyama had asserted, “all the really big questions had been settled.” Humanity’s ideological evolution had come to an end: the most rational society, liberal democracy, had consummated the Hegelian scheme. Liberal democracy became the “only coherent political aspiration.”[2] This faith in the victory of liberalism has faded. Many successive factors have led to the present situation – the failure in liberalizing Russia and China, the US’s military overstretching following the second Iraqi war, the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe; all of these events led to Gray’s “anomalies”, and broke down the Western man’s confidence in what seemed to be his own project. That aura of decline was again plainly visible.

It seems that progress has led us to an abyss. That was the way Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago’s famous political philosophy professor, thought about the idea of progress. “The contemporary crisis of Western civilization”, explained Strauss, “may be said to be identical with the climactic crisis of the idea of progress in the full and emphatic sense of the term.”[3] And the “problematic character of the idea of progress” cannot be separated from what is called “modernity.”[4] The crisis that the Western world is going through for some time now is the “crisis of modernity.” If we seek to understand the essence of this crisis there are few authorities more influential than Strauss. The old professor dedicated his life to reviving the original meaning of political philosophy, to the study of the “modern project” and of the particular dynamics of Western civilization. In seeking the reasons for our present grievances, Strauss will be an appropriate guide. The current Western situation requires that we return to the work of Strauss, a great German-American academic who experienced the intellectual and existential desolation felt in the Weimar Republic. Strauss knew very well the phenomenon of nihilism and its devastating consequences and made of its combat the work of his life. This article on Strauss will be divided into two parts: in the first part, we will develop Strauss’s conception of the crisis of modernity, as a crisis essentially driven by what we can label liberal relativism; the second part will be dedicated to virtue, an issue Strauss looked with particular care, and specially to the need of virtue in the modern world.

* * *

This crisis of modernity consists in the fact “that modern western man no longer knows what he wants.” Modern Western man “no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.”[5] We, post-modern men, are capable of realizing the daunting effect of the truthfulness of this passage wrote by Strauss.  We seem to live the logical consequences of this crisis of modernity. All moral questions have been privatized: individuality transformed right and wrong into a matter of personal feeling. The most blatant example of this transformation may be clarifying: socialism, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, could be explained essentially as an insurrection against liberal modernity in name of a sense of community; on the contrary, contemporary socialist-inspired movements are commonly based on the liberal premise that individuals create their own morality.[6] Strauss has we have seen, looked at this crisis of the modern project as connected to the crisis of the idea of progress – in fact, this last crisis must be a corollary of the first. Infinite progress, that characteristically illuministic proposition, naturally optimistic in its faith on men’s nature transforming power, had led Western man to an abyss. This abyss cannot be material – because, in that sense, progress was clearly visible. The abyss emerged due to the fact that material progress did not result in moral progress. Strauss, in one of its most widely-known lectures – called “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” –, faces directly the question of the problematic character of progress. The progress that created modern man was not met by a “corresponding increase in wisdom and goodness.” Modern man is a giant, but he is a giant “of whom we do not know whether he is better or worse than earlier man.”[7]

With this mistrust for the results of progress, Strauss seems to get close to the schmittian critique of modernity. Carl Schmitt understood modernity as a process of neutralization of the strictly political phenomena – the friend-enemy dichotomy –, as a path towards the “neutral domain” that would allow men to end, once and for all, the possibility of conflict in human affairs – i.e. the possibility of war. This neutralization meant necessarily the complete depoliticization of the globe. The “neutral domain” was found on technology. Neutralization led man, as Schmitt would say, towards “belief in technology.” This belief is “based only on the proposition that the absolute and ultimate neutral ground has been found in technology.”[8] But technology is always “culturally blind.” No cultural or spiritual progress can be derived from technology, not even a specific political system – the “nothing but technology” was a “soulless mechanism”, a spiritless instrument.[9] This era of technology meant also for Schmitt, like in Strauss, nihilism and spiritual death. However, while Schmitt advocates for the return to the strictly political, to the Hobbesian conception of the modern state, Strauss attempted to go further – towards an “horizon beyond liberalism.”

We have few doubts that progress, in the sense perceived by Strauss, meant spiritual decay. It had even ceased to be a fact: one must only look superficially at what are, in our times, “progressive” causes in politics. Being on the right side of History usually means unlimited support for the politics of sexual and social liberation, e.g. for abortion and euthanasia, for “LGBT rights”, for gay marriage, etc. It suffices to mean freedom of morals and individual liberation. Modern man liberates himself from what appear to be obvious and strident moral and material constraints. But has this liberation resulted in actual happiness? Modern man resembles Michel Houellebecq’s characters: just like them, he also belongs to that “sacrificed generation” which from liberation to liberation ceased to be capable of building long-term relationships; because he can no longer surpass his chronic state of social atomization, he is not even able to fall in love.

As Strauss asserted, progress led us to an abyss. But how did modern man get to this point? How did faith in progress fade? It is certainly true that the tragedy of the early 20th century was a merciless blow on liberal optimism. However, Strauss is emphatic in saying that the causes of the disbelief in progress were forged way before the 20th century. That disbelief was due to the discovery of the “historical sense.” Previously to this discovery, the idea of progress was self-sustaining. Its optimism was unbeatable and grounded on the developments of the natural sciences; the development of human thought was a progressive development and thus there were no limits to the scope of this development. If in such a short time span of human life men were capable of doing so many wonderful things, how was it not possible to share some optimism towards the future? Strauss clarifies that this optimism was itself based on two assumptions radically different to the idea of progress found in the classics: that intellectual progress resulted in social progress; and that progress, as an historical indefinite movement, assured a “solid floor” beneath which man could not sink.[10]

Conquest of nature fostered by the natural sciences’ revolution underlined this unbeatable faith in progress. We can even affirm that progress – or, more appropriately, the faith in the naturally melioristic character of the historical movement – became a standard, a reference, just like natural right had been a standard for pre-modern philosophy. But this transformation of progress into a standard was already a sort of antechamber for the discovery of the “historical sense.” What this movement ultimately meant was the curious metamorphosis that was vulgarized with the advent of historicism: the classical distinction between good and evil, just and unjust, had been replaced gradually by the progressive-reactionary dichotomy.[11] The question “what is best for men?” has, during the era of progress, the easy answer of “whatever leads to progress.” The consequences of this development were clear. If one starts doubting the feasibility of the idea of progress then there is no way modern man can save himself from relativism. “Once it became clear”, explained Strauss, “that historical trends are absolutely ambiguous and therefore cannot serve as a standard (…) no standard whatever was left.”[12] The intrinsic worth of the “wave of the future” disappears. This was the result of the discovery of the “historical sense.” This discovery which determined the development of philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, at the same moment of the unfolding of the crisis of progress – asserted that all human thought is historical and hence that man is incapable ever to grasp anything eternal.[13] If progressive optimism had converted good and bad into progressive and reactionary, the “historical sense” had replaced the eternal for the temporal, i.e. the transcendent for the historical or natural right for History.

The whole of human thought belongs to a determined historical epoch, to a “historical world.” That is the proposition of the historicists. For Strauss, the historicist’s rejection of the transcendent amounts to a “philosophic critique of the possibility or knowability of natural right.”[14] Just like positivism, another intellectual consequence of modernity, historicism could not avoid degenerating into nihilism. Historical analysis failed in its attempt to discover concrete standards and “norms” from the “historical process”: what was left of that empirical analysis of historical events was a “meaningless web spun by what men did, produced, and thought, no more than by unmitigated chance—a tale told by an idiot.”[15] There were multiple and thus subjective standards – History seemed to tell man that no objective criteria could make possible the distinction between good and bad.

The consequence of the discovery of the “historical sense” resulted in the defense of the equal right of all epochs and civilizations. History shows man that there are no immutable principles of justice, i.e. that natural right is impossible. If progress had been transformed into a standard and replaced the old references of good and bad, then the “historical sense” destroyed progress as a standard: historicism made progress drift. In the end, the “historical process” does not teach man anything about values. Together with the typically modern neglect of virtue, historicism deprived the modern man born in the era of progress of any moral standard. Without any moral standard, that man born in the era of progress appears suddenly as a lost being in an unintelligible world. The crisis of the idea of progress was due to the doubt about the intrinsic goodness and worth of progress itself. Just like Schmitt, Strauss also believed that the neutral character of technology could not result in intellectual and moral progress. Faith in progress was deeply and inexorably affected by doubting progress. But could we not say, with the historicist, that the discovery of the “historical sense” was essentially a positive event? After all, the multiplicity of historical events seems to lead one to the necessary conclusion that there cannot be any trans-historical references. There are only historical moments. We could even go further: the categories of theoretical understanding and its principles of evaluation, i.e. science, are also characterized by historical changes; science is historically variable. Therefore, it is “impossible to answer the question of right and wrong or of the best social order in a universally valid manner.”[16] Historicism arises as a late version of positivism, as a mutation of that unbeatable faith in the scientific revolution. The former goes beyond the proposition of the latter: while positivism removes value judgments from proper scientific activity and circumscribes to science the interpretation of facts only, historicism shuts positivism in a determined historical box. The result, stated Strauss, had necessarily to be relativism.

It can be asserted, following Strauss’s remarks and using proper historicist terminology, that this advent of the “historical sense” corresponded to the historical conscience of the time, to the zeitgeist. Modern liberalism appeared to shield itself from criticism in this process of historicization of modern thought. At this moment, after explaining that the crisis of the idea of progress is essentially a crisis caused by the advent of historicism, Strauss must continue through a critique of modern liberalism. We have seen that historicism attacked natural right in the possibility of its discovery and knowability – which amounts to saying that it attacked the foundations and also the possibility of political philosophy. According to Strauss, the liberals, or as he called them, the “generous liberals”, had adopted the historical approach. Liberals “view the abandonment of natural right not only with placidity but with relief.”[17] Because man is incapable of knowing what is naturally good and bad, just or unjust, only definitive respect for tolerance follows as a rational conclusion. The historical experience serves as evidence for the “generous liberal” that men must recognize as equally respectable all preferences. “Only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason”, concludes Strauss on the state of mind of the modern liberal.[18] Unlimited tolerance attempted to base itself in the doctrine that destroyed that faith in progress and made, as a consequence, the “values of barbarism and cannibalism” as defensible as those of civilization.[19] Unlimited tolerance for every preference or “civilization” tended to transform itself into fanatical obscurantism.

In an early moment in the history of liberalism, when its philosophical foundations were built by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, natural right was still a reality. Following Strauss, the founding of modern political philosophy comprised a transformation of the idea of natural right. This means that liberalism only broke with natural right at a particular moment in its development; only at that moment could the historicist argument be used by the “generous liberals” in favor of unlimited tolerance. That moment was, for Strauss, that in which the tension between the “respect for diversity or individuality” and the “recognition of natural right” was solved. The recognition of natural right implied the recognition of a standard – in the specific case of liberal natural right, it implied an “absolutist” proclamation that rejected all those preferences that could endanger the liberal political order, i.e. that sought to destroy liberal tolerance.[20] This liberal natural right could be, as Strauss exemplified, that immortalized in the American constitution and in its Declaration of Independence. Every individual is endowed with a natural right for the pursuit of its understanding of happiness. This tolerant society implied, in a certain sense, some intolerance regarding eventual and possible threats to its existence. This necessary intolerance was in clear tension with the unlimited respect for diversity and individuality. The time would arrive in which liberalism had to put an end to this tension by choosing between some absolute limits to diversity and individuality dictated by the recognition of natural right, or the “uninhibited cultivation of individuality.”[21] It is sufficiently clear that modern liberalism chose the second path.

Unlimited tolerance appears as a direct but not predicted outcome of the “natural right tradition of tolerance” and in the idea that “everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands happiness.”[22] The “generous liberals” did not seem to have calculated the consequences when choosing this path. The limited tolerance of the liberal natural right tradition was an obstacle to the growth of intolerance. Unlimited tolerance, on the contrary, transformed tolerance into just another preference, in many cases a personal whim, in a “private value” like many others (including, of course, intolerance).

In a world of personal preferences, of almost complete privatization of morality, there only remains the muddy support of blind choice. “Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them any more”, said Strauss, unveiling the spiritual situation that describes much of the crisis of liberalism in the early 20th century.[23] This weakening of the modern liberal spirit is akin to the advent of liberal relativism. Could this late liberalism defend itself having relativism as its moral foundation? It is curious, for the sake of example, to look at the way Strauss speaks of the old German liberals who attempted to convince the younger generations of the country – which were immersed in the fascist spirit typical of the times – to defend the liberal regime. The attitude of opponents of those young nihilists, remembered Strauss, “tended to become apologetic”:

“The ideas of modern civilisation appeared to the young generation to be the old ideas; thus the adherents of the ideal of progress were in the awkward position that they had to resist, in the manner of conservateurs, what in the meantime has been called the wave of the future [italics are not mine]”[24]

Relativism had transformed modern liberalism into an amorphous idea, without life or vitality and incapable of defending itself. And the price that liberalism paid for not defending itself was too heavy – it meant tyranny. John H. Hallowell, writing during the Great War, said that liberals “had neither the standard nor the will” to declare that despotism was wrong. These German liberals were forced, by their own logic, to accept the tyranny that was forged in “intellectual and political anarchy” as a “positive fact” – defenseless subjugation to Nazi tyranny was the price these German liberals paid for having gone beyond good and evil, into “a realm of meaningless existence.”[25] Just like Strauss had stressed, in a world of unlimited tolerance for individuality and diversity where the moral standard was a simple and crude blind choice, the difference between good and bad, just and unjust, rested ultimately in the power of the will – and it is a matter of fact that the “generous liberal” could not surpass the will of the vigorous fascist.

Strauss had found the disintegration of the liberal idea in its late refusal in recognizing the possibility of natural right. Refusing to recognize natural right, modern liberalism was forced to walk in the swamp of relativism – modern liberalism turned to be liberal relativism. However, should one not ask, is not this relativism an essence of liberalism? Pierre Manent, a famous student of Strauss, described liberalism as that powerful doctrine that imposed itself on all other political, philosophical and religious doctrines, at the same time that it was the only doctrine that did not prescribe any rule for human life.[26] Liberalism, a modern doctrine, was essentially non-teleological in its nature. In fact, if one seeks to understand the character of modernity – or of modern political philosophy –, which gave birth to liberalism, one should have in mind its non-teleological motivations. Strauss thought that liberalism was not in itself relativistic. We have seen that Strauss stressed the recognition of natural right in the early phases of liberal modernity – the liberal natural right tradition was the “tolerant” tradition, but it was not relativistic; its development led to relativism, but the modern project encompassed much more than that early liberalism; the successive stages of modernity, as identified by Strauss, can be looked at as reactions to its early, liberal natural right stages. We think, with Strauss, that an important question regarding the advent of liberal relativism is in the relevance given to the virtues, or to virtue, in political philosophy. In this respect there exists a clear distinction between classical political philosophy and its modern counterpart: the liberal tradition of natural right discarded the classical conception of virtue. The essay that follows on this exposition of Strauss’s political thought will deal with the question of virtue – how it was discarded and why our modern world really needs it.



[1] John Gray, “State of the Nation”, The New Statesman, 8 July 2020,

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 2006), xii.

[3] Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. by Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 238.

[4] Idem, 239.

[5] Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays, ed. by Hilail Gildin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 81.

[6] Gray, “State of the Nation”.

[7] Strauss, “Progress or Return?”, 239.

[8] Carl Schmitt, “The Era of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations” in The Concept of the Political, transl. from the original German by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 90.

[9] Idem, 93.

[10] Strauss, “Progress or Return?”, 238.

[11] Idem, 239.

[12] Idem, 242.

[13] Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 14.

[14] Ibidem.

[15] Idem, 17-18.

[16] Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”, 82.

[17] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 5.

[18] Ibidem.

[19] Strauss, “Progress or Return?”, 242.

[20] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 5.

[21] Ibidem.

[22] Ibidem.

[23] Idem, 6.

[24] Strauss, “German Nihilism”, Interpretation, Vol. 26 No. 3, (Spring 1999), 362.

[25] John H. Hallowell, The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology: With a Particular Reference to German Politico-Legal Thought (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[26] Pierre Manent, A História Intelectual do Liberalismo, transl. from the original French by Jorge Costa (Lisbon: Edições 70, 2015), 227.


This is the first of two parts with part two available here.

Francisco Carmo GarciaFrancisco Carmo Garcia

Francisco Carmo Garcia

Francisco Carmo Garcia is a master’s student in Political Science at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon. He writes for the Portuguese journal O Diabo.

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