skip to Main Content

Leo Strauss and the Crisis of Modernity (II): the Necessity of Virtue

Leo Strauss And The Crisis Of Modernity (II): The Necessity Of Virtue

One of Leo Strauss’ most famous contributions to the study of modern political theory is his known idea of the “three waves of modernity”, in which Strauss made a short but important insight into the crisis of modernity – devised as the crisis of modern political philosophy. Historicism, the philosophical consequence of the discovery of the “historical sense”, was the result of a reaction to the first wave of modernity. Its evolution would arrive at relativism and nihilism, the product of the last, and third, wave of modernity. The first wave of modernity, as Strauss explained it, is of relevant interest for our work: it was through it that a “radical modification of premodern political philosophy” took place, a transformation that “comes to sight first as a rejection of premodern political philosophy.”[1] The succeeding two waves of this modern project come as reactions against this radical modification which was pioneered by Machiavelli and further developed by Hobbes and Locke. We can say that liberalism has been a direct product of this first wave. In the first part of this essay, we have looked at the crisis of the idea of progress and how it led to liberal relativism. We will now look further into the liberal project in modernity.

The change conducted by Machiavelli was thoroughly studied by Strauss. This change meant essentially the replacement of the “idealism of traditional political philosophy” by a “realistic” approach to the political problem: the old philosophers had paid too much attention to fancies, to “imagined commonwealths and principalities”; Machiavelli was, on the contrary, concerned with the way men actually lived.[2] The result of this anthropological realism was, for Strauss, the “lowering of the standards” of political philosophy: in order to solve the political problem through the is and not the ought, the horizon of political philosophy had to be lowered; this lowering of political philosophy’s goal implied a reinterpretation of virtue. Classical political philosophy understood virtue as the foundation through which the City must be sustained; in Machiavelli, virtue exists only for the sake of the City. “Political life proper is not subject to morality” and “morality is not possible outside of political society”, explained Strauss.[3] To prove this amorality of the political, as Schmitt would stress, one must only remember the fact of the foundation of any political commonwealth: the founder of the greatest of commonwealths, Rome, “was a fratricide.”[4]

Strauss does not ascribe charges of immorality to the Florentine. Machiavelli’s public spirit must not be contested; in fact, the Florentine did in many ways continue the “idealist” tradition. However, Machiavelli “combined the idealistic view of the intrinsic nobility of statesmanship with an anti-idealistic view, if not of the whole, at any rate of the origins of mankind or of civil society.”[5] What this anti-idealistic impetus, based on realistic assumptions about man, did was to substitute “human excellence” – the “moral virtue” and the “contemplative life” – for “patriotism or merely political virtue.”[6] This is the same as stating that all ultimate questions, that is classical teleology, were rejected; the issue was, for Machiavelli, public order and its preservation – the political problem had been transformed into a technical problem.[7] According to Strauss, the gradual substitution of the classical virtues for the role of institutions, a quintessentially modern movement, started with Machiavelli. Being transformed into a technical issue, the political problem could be solved without appeal to “divine grace, morality, nor formation of character.” Fortuna, which for the classics appears has that almost impossible chance of building the best regime, emerges in Machiavelli as a woman ready to be conquered by the right kind of man.[8]

The lowering of standards, i.e. the gradual departure from virtue, will be developed by the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The “justly decried” Malmesbury philosopher was, along with Spinoza, one of the earliest intellectual interests in Strauss’ academic career. His work The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes brought Strauss to the forefront of experts in the work of Hobbes. It was Hobbes the first to express strikingly that modern political philosophy started with his work.[9] The tradition that Hobbes had to refuse was composed by names from Plato to Cicero – it was essentially the same “idealist tradition” of political philosophy which was recovered by the scholastics. As with Machiavelli, this rupture was not complete: Hobbes agreed with the goal and range of political philosophy; but Hobbes pretended to set forth his doctrine as the “first truly scientific or philosophic treatment of natural law.”[10] The possibility of natural right was never questioned in Hobbes; instead, it was radically transformed.

Hobbes identifies one fundamental mistake that explained the failure of the tradition: it assumed that man was by nature a political and social animal. It was the great mistake of “Aristotelianism.” This error regarding human nature revealed yet another mistake made by classics: their teleology was unbearable because “there is no natural harmony between the human mind and the universe.” Man, for Hobbes, is “sovereign” since there cannot be found any cosmic support: the universe is just unintelligible. The teleological conception of the universe had to be replaced with a non-teleological conception of the universe, i.e. a mechanistic or materialistic conception.[11] This unintelligible nature of the whole made Hobbesian political philosophy peculiarly individualistic. Hobbes started from the study of man to man’s natural condition and finally to the construction and development of civil society.

The non-teleological conception of the whole already corresponded to the change that began with Machiavelli and is influenced by the great revolution fostered by modern science – to the “disenchantment of the world.” Hobbes will attempt to revive natural law, but this noble task will be structured in the “continent” discovered by the Florentine. Hobbes’s agreement with the goal of classical political philosophy is clear when we understand the importance that the English philosopher devoted to method: it was necessary to think about the just social order, but this intellectual endeavor must be made through the rigorous deduction of natural law. What Hobbes attempted to do, following Machiavelli, was to maintain the idea of natural law but divorcing it from the idea of man’s perfection.[12] Thus, the lowering of the standards in political philosophy had reached another level with Hobbes – his rigorous deduction of natural law had to be founded not in the end of man, but in his origins; natural law had to be deduced from the “most powerful of all passions.”[13] Hobbesian political philosophy founded his theory of justice in the passions; it entailed necessarily the emancipation of the passions. The most powerful of man’s passions is fear of death – and, most specifically, of violent death. The natural aversion to this tremendous fear is the foundation of peace and, consequently, of civil society. Just like Strauss stressed, “death takes the place of the telos.”[14] In Hobbesian terminology, the fear of violent death results in the desire for self-preservation. Strauss sees here the fundamental fact of Hobbesian political philosophy: if self-preservation is the only foundation of all justice, then the “fundamental moral fact” is a right and not a duty. All duties are thus derivative from a first and intrinsic right, the right of self-preservation.[15] If, for the classics, duties were the fundamental moral fact, in Hobbes duties become a conditional moral fact – as Strauss showed, the new natural law replaced natural duties for natural rights. We have seen the way Strauss perceived Hobbesian political philosophy to be necessarily individualistic; this individualism was an unavoidable result of the refusal of a teleological understanding of the whole. The subsequent primacy of natural rights must be directly linked to this individualism in Hobbes. It implies the proclamation of the pre-existing nature of the individual against civil society – and this conception of man is implied in the Hobbesian idea of the natural condition of man.

Founding justice and morality through a right of self-preservation is the way found to put forward a rational deduction of virtue, i.e. it is the right method to discover an authentic moral philosophy. But what are the virtues that Hobbes assumes to follow this logical path? Peter Berkowitz stated that Hobbes had put forward this rigorous deduction of virtue because he himself believed to have discovered the end toward which virtues must strive – this end was peace, the “social and political condition that best enables individuals to satisfy their fundamental desire, the desire for self-preservation.”[16] Strauss will assert the same idea: the State “has the function, not of producing or promoting the virtuous life, but of safeguarding the natural right of each.”[17] If the fundamental moral fact is the right of self-preservation, then natural law – those rational “moral theorems” – must reveal to be moral virtues conducive to a peaceful life. Hobbes substitutes the Aristotelian summum bonum for the comfortable bourgeois life. Like Strauss explained, natural law became the “sum of rules which have to be obeyed if there is to be peace.” Machiavelli reduced moral virtue to political virtues; Hobbes reduced moral virtue to the “social virtue of peaceableness.”[18] Virtues as courage or magnanimity ceased to possess intrinsic validity and could actually be considered as vices if these same virtues somehow endanger social peace. Therefore, Hobbesian virtues are those that promote sociability: they are essentially concerned with the habit of fulfilling one’s contracts. “Vice becomes identical for all practical purposes with pride and vanity or amour-propre rather than with dissoluteness or weakness of the soul”, explained Strauss, mentioning the process of the lowering of the standards of political philosophy implied in Hobbes’s work. The Straussian reading of Hobbes meets, in this particular point, the view proposed by Hannah Arendt of the philosopher of Malmesbury being the first bourgeois philosopher.

This reduction in the relevance of virtues corresponds to what Strauss named by “political hedonism”, the doctrine that transformed human life on a scale never yet approached.[19] We could state that this doctrine influenced tremendously the foundation of what would be modern liberalism and its process of the “privatization” of morals. “Political hedonism” means in Hobbes the eradication of all restrictions to unnecessary pleasures that would not endanger social peace. The emancipation of the passions is followed by the emancipation of desire: that ceaseless and unlimited quest for the fulfillment of desires in the state of nature is, in civil society, limited by the necessity to maintain peace. In contrast to classical political philosophy, in which the good regime educated its citizenry in the virtuous life, the function of civil society in Hobbes is radically redefined. Citizens do not have to look to the State for that old education in virtue; the State must merely concern itself in guaranteeing the necessary conditions for private citizens to pursue their desires in peace.[20] Peace, not virtue, is the end of civil society.

Considering the dangerousness of the state of nature, man will clearly prefer the peace guaranteed by civil society. This is the fact that makes natural law in Hobbes an attempt at a rigorous deduction of morals. If we believe that it must be easier to assure the preservation of any member of society in a condition of peace and quiet, then we will have to deduce that Hobbesian justice coincides with self-interest.[21] The Hobbesian moment meant, for Strauss, this great transformation on the idea of virtue – modern man considers virtue and morals to be a private matter; it is acceptable as long as it does not jeopardizes public order. And this “political hedonism” would be further developed by John Locke, liberalism’s great philosopher, who followed the Hobbesian track on natural law. However, Locke replaced death by hunger. The conquest of nature initiated by Hobbes would be advanced in its scope by Locke, who coupled to the natural right of self-preservation the natural right to the pursuit of happiness. The only innate practical principles that Locke found in man are a “desire of happiness” and an “aversion to misery”; just as with Hobbes, Locke would also establish his foundations of civil society not in an inalienable duty, but in an inalienable right. Because life in the state of nature is a miserable life, and “plenty requires civil society”, i.e. the refusal of the penury of nature and the construction of civilization, civil society is needed for man to pursue his happiness.[22]

This Straussian reading of Locke cannot be said to be without controversy. It diverges from orthodox Lockean studies by the relevance given to the esoteric character of Locke’s works, which Strauss stresses has been neglected at the risk of reading Locke as one would read today a work of Lord Bertrand Russell. Locke’s caution contrasted with the careless honesty of Hobbes: the latter was “justly decried”, while the former was thoughtfully heard by his contemporaries. Nonetheless, Locke’s caution only serves to hide his debt to Hobbes’s idea of natural law: not a law in the proper sense of the term, but moral theorems resulting from human understanding that seek peaceful life. Just like the Hobbesian man who runs away from nature in order to create civil society, so does the Lockean man understand that life cannot be preserved – nor enjoyed – in a non-peaceful society. Reason wills “such courses of action as are conducive to peace”, emphasizes Strauss, explaining that Lockean natural law is not more than peaceful social virtues that lead to the creation of civil society.[23]

However, Locke went further than Hobbes in what concerns the consequences of his interpretation of natural law. We acknowledge that Locke used the Hobbesian scheme and its principle – its first natural right – to advocate the opposite political conclusions. For Locke, natural right requires a limited government. One could assert, with Strauss, that this defense of limited government finds support in one of the most significant changes of the modern project initiated by Machiavelli – in the progressive emphasis on institutions rather than on the moral character of man. In fact, the liberal neutral State would appear evidently in Locke: the State becomes the neutral arbitrator that keeps the peace among different competitors.[24] This neutral state emerges as a necessity in Lockean theory due to its surpassing of the Hobbesian scheme: propriety appears in Locke as an extension of the right of self-preservation; from this first right derives an acquisitive right that suffers several restrictions because of the misery found in the state of nature; this acquisitive right liberates itself from the chains of nature when in civil society. That is a significant change when compared with Hobbes – man enters civil society in order to enjoy this acquisitive right. Only in civil society is the unlimited acquisition of wealth possible. In this society, the function of the State becomes the assurance of the stable and peaceful functioning of this competitive polis. It follows that the end of civil society is the preservation of propriety.[25] “Men enter society in order not so much to preserve as to enlarge their possessions” is Strauss’ conclusion on the implications of Locke’s work – this conclusion is quite a prelude to Mandeville’s “private vices, public benefits.” Common good, as an idea, is reduced in Locke to a purely negative conception – to everything that does not jeopardize the competitive society. In this sense, the Straussian Locke looks very much like that of C. B. Macpherson.[26]

Hobbes had already based his political theory on a methodological individualism that would allow him to start his study of the political problem through the analysis of man. Locke shares Hobbes’s individualistic outlook and even reinforces it: propriety is always an extension of the individual and his labor, i.e. it is an extension of man’s intrinsic natural right of self-preservation. If self-preservation is a natural right, then the means for that self-preservation must also be a natural right. Thus, being property a man’s creation, civil society serves only the end of ensuring that men can pursue their “productive-acquisitive activity” without constraints.[27] Another decisive step in the development of the Hobbesian doctrine of “political hedonism” was taken in the work of Locke. Transforming the desire for happiness and aversion to misery in a natural right, Locke ended up establishing the right to unlimited acquisition as an inevitable moral fact. The path towards dismissing the old virtues was drawn by Locke – the bourgeois virtues, those moral theorems that lead to peace, become the necessary moral law. In this respect the modern project corresponded to the lowering of the moral horizon and of the goals and standards of political philosophy, as Strauss explained when referring to the effects of the first wave of modernity. Following this first wave there would succeed several reactions to this new natural law that discarded the classical virtues.

* * *

These reactions to the fundamental transformation of this first wave of modernity were well demonstrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau when the Frenchman compared the ancients with the moderns: “the ancient politicians spoke unceasingly of manners and virtue; ours speak of nothing but trade and money.” The “spirit of capitalism” that we saw taking shape in Locke and Benjamin Constant’s “liberty of the moderns” were ironically depicted here by Rousseau. Modern man was more interested in his private affairs than in the common good; he was certainly more of a bourgeois than a citizen.[28] This was the background for Rousseau’s romantic rebellion against the modern project – a reaction that, as Strauss described, due to its recognition of Hobbesian and Lockean theoretical premises, would accelerate the course of modernity. According to Strauss, Rousseau was the founder of the second wave of modernity.

In his modern upheaval against modernity, Rousseau brought us to the forefront of the antinomy that faced nature against civil society; the Frenchman defended a return to a sort of beatific sense of communion with nature. On the contrary, the third wave of modernity abandoned this existential harmony that Rousseau had found in nature. Friedrich Nietzsche was the great driving force of this last wave of modernity – which was the cause of the crisis of modernity at the time Strauss was writing. Instead of harmony in nature, Nietzsche showed man that human existence is necessarily tragic.[29] The human problem is insoluble because every “great ideal” that man fought and pursued could no longer be justified through any reference external to man: the “historical sense” destroyed nature, Revelation, and reason as standards.[30] As Nietzsche would say, the only reference happened to be human will. All the ideas became the result of human creativity – it is through a fierce defense of the life of action, of human creativity, of that capacity to establish order in chaos, that Nietzsche will expose his new definition of aristocratic morality. Finding that all ideals are the work of human genius implied the transmutation of all values. Everything is reduced to a will to power. And it is the strongest will to power that must determine the future – that will allow man to surpass relativism. Only the future will tell if man becomes the “Overman” or, instead, falls into the feeble, weak, and amorphous state of the “last-man.” Nietzsche’s critique of modernity is made within the background of the possibility of an egalitarian world where human genius and the natural inequality of men are smashed by the leveling pressure of modern democracy. This world would be a world without adventure, fit for the bourgeois but not for the aristocrat. As Strauss stressed, Nietzsche’s stand for the “strong” against the “weak” can be easily interpreted as an unintended path towards fascism.[31] One must only remember Nietzsche’s effect on Mussolini’s famous “philosophy of force”, or in il Duce’s celebration of the German’s maxim “to live dangerously!”

But, we must ask, has the problem that led to the advent of fascism been actually solved? When approaching fascism, we are not alluding to fascism as a factual political regime, neither do we wish to reduce it to a mere reaction against bolshevism; we seek to allude to the spirit of fascism, for it is necessary to recall that fascism does indeed provide a cosmovision of its own – and it is always a gross mistake to downgrade the relevance of its vision of the whole by transforming the fascist movement into a visceral reaction against communism.[32] By stating that Nietzsche was the (involuntary) founder of fascism, Strauss wants us to understand that the revolt that founded fascism is quite profound. It marks, in fact, the last great crisis of liberal democracy. If we are now going through a crisis that directly affects liberal democracy, it is even more important to look to the phenomena that opened the way towards fascism. We will need to follow Strauss on this third wave of modernity.

Liberalism was the creation of the first wave of modernity. Its break with the teleological tradition of classical political philosophy that began with Machiavelli was concluded with the emancipation of the natural right to unlimited acquisition, i.e. with the creation of the bourgeois ethos. Old virtues based on natural duties were gradually replaced with social virtues based on natural rights that lead to the peaceful society. Man’s teleological ends were neutralized by the lowering of the standards of political philosophy. Modern political philosophy attempted to avoid that original question, “What is the best regime for man?”, and sought the end of political society in peace. The third wave of modernity tried to reply to this victory of bourgeois morality. It was against the “liberty of the moderns” and the “privatization” of morals that many of the distinguished men that made up German intellectual life in the early 20th century stood up. Their target was that “heroism of weakness” that Thomas Mann immortalized in Von Aschenbach. Strauss experienced this spirit of rebellion against the modern world and its destructive effects.

Political society developed, with Hobbes and Locke, to a state in which the “great questions” were neutralized. Commerce’s natural capacity to promote social peace proved that the “low virtues” of capitalist societies are the antithesis of bellicosity. In part, these commercial societies have many of the characteristics that Schmitt denounced as that “neutral consumer or producer co-operative” type of depoliticized society.[33] In this passage, Schmitt alluded to both the communist society and the liberal commercial society: both revealed the same state of depoliticization. Strauss, in his famous notes to Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, emphasized that this reference to the “neutral consumer or producer co-operative” was charged by an extremely contemptuous sense which demonstrates quite clearly the spirit of the revolt against modern society that we have already alluded to.[34] A depoliticized world, i.e. a world in which the friend and enemy distinction has been vanished, would be a world with “many very interesting antitheses and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind”, but it would not be a world where men would be required to sacrifice their lives for anything meaningful – it would be a world essentially characterized by “entertainment.”[35] Schmitt uses this last term in one of its most famous passages of his work on the essence of the political.[36] One can easily notice the irony in Schmitt’s use of the word “entertainment” in order to understand the scorn with which Schmitt looks at a depoliticized world – it would be an unserious world.[37] This Schmittian critique of the modern world leads us to the great problem posed by the third wave of modernity – the modern world avoids the seriousness of human existence; by “privatizing” morals, the modern project evaded the essential question of good and evil. Schmitt’s affirmation of the political – that is, of the possibility of human conflict – is tantamount to the affirmation of the seriousness of human life against liberal “entertainment.”[38]

This defense of the political as the possibility of conflict reminds of Ernst Jünger’s exaltation of war – as an “inner experience” or the “most powerful encounter between peoples.” The literary exaltation of war in Jünger, more than being understood as love for bellicosity, should instead be understood as a radical attempt to reclaim the virtues threatened by liberal societies – in fact, it is a proclamation against what we now would think as the “end of History”; war appears here as an ultima ratio against the victory of Nietzsche’s last man. Strauss followed this interpretation when observing the spirit that moved this German generation:

“What they hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, unmetaphoric, sacrifice, i.e. a world without blood, sweat, and tears.[39]

Against the possibility of this “end of History” – whether it be liberal or communist –, of the absolutely depoliticized world, this generation of German intellectuals replied with a visceral negation – “they were unable to say more than: No!”[40] According to Strauss, these young Germans – influenced by Schmitt and Jünger – represented pure nihilism: their position was the rebellion against and the rejection of the principles of civilization.[41] We said above that this generation of young nihilists looked at their older compatriots – their teachers – as apologists of the old ideas. Through this observation of German nihilism we can better understand that the rejection of these old ideas had to found in the crisis of the idea of progress – thus in the crisis of modernity. But what was that which replaced these old ideas? This nihilist rebellion against the bourgeois world intended to reclaim the pure sense of human existence; it can be stated that, against the modern project and its lowering of the virtues, German nihilism attempted in despair to surpass the “low virtues” of commercial societies.

A particular virtue was seriously neutralized throughout modernity: courage. According to Strauss, in the Leviathan Hobbes makes of courage a non-essential virtue, and in Locke this development is further advanced. In societies where its members are immersed in their private affairs the role of courage happens to be significantly jeopardized. Courage is the only virtue which cannot be translated into utilitarian terms; it sometimes implied incurring in danger for things that may not even be quite useful; courage seemed to entail an effort which would appear to be of complicated justification in a rationalist world guided by a mechanicistic view of the whole. Due to its non-utilitarian character, German nihilism saw in courage the “most elementary virtue”, the “first virtue”; that virtue through which “human society stands or falls.”[42] “The difference between the noble and the useful, between duty and self-interest is most visible in the case of one virtue, courage, military virtue” – every other virtue can be rewarded; it may be sometimes useful to be just or to be prudent, but the consummation of the actions of courage, e.g. dying for one’s country, may never be rewarded.[43] Through this acknowledgment – that courage is the only virtue left against modernity – we are able to understand Jünger’s praise of war. However courage appears here only as a military virtue – courage does not have much of Aristotelianism left, i.e. that middle-term disposition between cowardice and madness that seeks honor guided by an idea of the good, but it is similar to courage as an instinct of the irascible, as the irrepressible nature of the warrior.[44] Courage fuses itself with Nietzsche’s will to power.

German nihilism, which Strauss experienced in his early days, is thus derived from German militarism. Courage, when applied within nihilism, is reduced to thumos: it is not guided by any end transcending action; it is reduced to visceral aggressiveness. In this nihilistic background courage can well mean courage to destroy – which is the same as saying will to destroy. Liberalism gradually ignored the relevance of courage as a great virtue, at the same time that it neutralized the other classical virtues and replaced them with the “social virtues.” This movement of the modern project ended up denying actions of courage to be associated with any idea of the good – as this implied a teleology that liberalism refused. In the end there could only be found the vigorous will left by Nietzsche and captured by fascism. If liberalism did not even intend to defend itself, and if the will to power was the sole legitimating foundation for the justice of any ideal, then the German nihilists were in clear advantage when facing the apologists for the status quo.[45] Fascism’s “politics of the spirit” strived through an apotheosis of courage – but of inebriated courage.

Strauss saw in this radical appeal to military virtue a moral protest which was based on the idea that the “establishment of a perfectly open society which is as it were the goal of modern civilisation” is irreconcilable with “the demands of moral life [italics are not mine].”[46] The open society is the immoral society, bursting in irresponsibility and lack of seriousness; it is the society of Schmitt’s “entertainment.” Strauss highlights this point: the opposition to the open society took the insurgent youth to seek the roots of the moral life in the closed society. Sparta would again charge against Athens.

* * *

We have emphasized that this moral protest was the result of the crisis of modernity – Strauss would, some years after his lecture on German nihilism, assert that interpretations of Nietzsche’s work lead to fascism. Fascism was defeated in the battlefield by its mortal enemy – liberal democracy –, but nowhere does Strauss indicate that the problem that led to fascism was solved. Actually, Strauss’ words should warn us: although fascism was defeated, its cause, nihilism, was in fact spreading throughout the Western world.[47] The intellectual outlook that led to 1933 had spread throughout the West – the crisis of modernity became the crisis of modern Western man.

This is the problem that Strauss announces in the lectures that compose his Natural Right and History. The relativism of German thought had conquered the intellectual life of the winning powers. If there was anything that 1933 proved, it was that man cannot ever renounce his natural responsibility on the essential question about the best regime; he cannot hide in History.[48] Unfortunately this dismissing of the original question posed by political philosophy became orthodoxy in the West. Hence the problem that led man to fascism is not solved; in fact, the intellectual and moral conditions that allowed for its development have spread throughout the Western world. Strauss starts his Natural Right and History by proving this fact, remembering the famous words written in the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Faith in this profoundly Lockean passage was, when Strauss wrote these words, already weakened amongst Americans. Those self-evident truths were not so self-evident any longer: according to Strauss even the “learned” who adhere to these principles interpret the words of the Declaration “not as expressions of natural right but as an ideal, if not as an ideology or a myth.”[49]

This use by Strauss of that known passage of the Declaration takes us back to the first wave of modernity, as the spirit of the men who wrote it was greatly influenced by Locke’s thought. As we have seen, Locke followed Hobbes in a radical change in the conception of virtue; this transformation was based on a new understanding of the natural law – which means that natural law was still believed to be possible and necessary. Strauss’ use of the passage is not, then, innocent: it addresses the American patriot who still believed in its message. However, being a nation conceived in this new interpretation of natural law, the United States could not escape that radical change in the conception of virtue. What Strauss intends to say by quoting the Declaration is that, through grasping the scope of its message, we can pass from the current doxa about the unintelligibility of natural law to its necessity, i.e. we can reach premodern political philosophy. Strauss seeks to reclaim the relevance of premodern political philosophy in the founding of the American nation.

Strauss’ introduction to the Walgreen Foundation Lectures was very different in its understanding of the Anglo-American world than the lecture Strauss made on German nihilism a few years earlier. In it, Strauss assured that the Anglo-American world still looked to premodern thought as a reference, a fact that did not occur in the Germany of his time:

“Whatever may be wrong with the peculiarly modern ideal: the very Englishmen who originated it, were at the same time versed in the classical tradition, and the English always kept in store a substantial amount of the necessary counterpoison. While the English originated the modern ideal – the premodern ideal, the classical ideal of humanity, was no where better preserved than in Oxford and Cambridge.”[50]

We can only ask if Strauss would say the same about Oxford and Cambridge in 2020? In 1941, Strauss asserted that the world war turned to be a war on principles, in which the English were defending the “eternal principles of civilization.”[51] The problem that the crisis of modern Western man exposed is thus also a problem of education. At the time most of Britain’s great universities still maintained their classical heritage intact. The same may be said about the American establishment, whose faith in the words of the Declaration was still alive and strong. In a mere time span of less than ten years Strauss could not say the same about the Anglo-American world.

If it was its classical heritage that, according to Strauss, saved liberal democracies from moral corruption, how can Western man free himself from the yoke of relativism? The Straussian proposal is in education. What is commonly called education in modern times is not proper education but rather “instruction” and “training.” At the same time, the good man tends to be identified with the “good sport”, the “cooperative fellow” – that is, the same man who has those virtues of sociability.[52] This was a result of modern thought, and we cannot avoid connecting this idea of education as training and the praising of the good sport with the modern conception of natural law. In Hobbes as well as in Locke, the formation of character will become unnecessary: as long as men obey the requirements of sociability and peaceful society, nobility of character – and the virtues that compose it, like justice, temperance, magnanimity, courage – ceases to have an intrinsic value. Modern thought would finally find its way to Kant’s nation of demons, in which the role of political institutions replaces forever man’s virtue.

A return to the classical idea of education was for Strauss a necessity of modern times. The leveling pressure of modern democracies demanded that excellence be saved, and this can only be the task of a kind of education not designed to be mass-education, “but only as higher and highest education of those who are by nature fit for it.”[53] Strauss was a resolute advocate for liberal education. Modern education, focused on “instruction”, tended to produce technocrats or “specialists without spirit” as Weber puts it. This spiritless specialist is also a product of modern democracies, of its mass culture that is shared by the great majority of men living in liberal democracies. Mass culture means vulgarity; liberal education intends to overcome this vulgarity. As Strauss well recalled, it meant the necessary escape from what the classics called apeirokalia.[54] Thus liberal education is the “counterpoison to mass culture” and its corroding effects. It is “the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant”, to a universal aristocracy. Through liberal education Strauss intends to recover the necessity of creating an aristocracy within democracy; and this aristocracy must be created in the precise moment when the egalitarian impetus of democracies is strongest.[55] In this endeavor, Strauss appears to be trying to recover the meaning of liberal democracy as a “mixed regime”, as a sustainable mixture between an indispensable aristocracy and an inevitable ruling of the majority. A “mixed regime” was for classical political philosophy the best regime according to circumstances – liberal democracy could be this kind of regime if it did not lose its aristocratism. This aristocracy formed within democracy is educated in letters; it is, thus, an aristocracy educated in the “great books”, in the dialogue between the “greatest minds.” Liberal education consists of this “intercourse with the greatest minds.”[56] If this necessity for aristocratism made liberal democracy a mixed regime in the Aristotelian sense, Strauss’ idea about liberal democracy seems to follow the same logic. The crisis of modernity, or of modern man, is analyzed by Strauss with a very circumstantial preoccupation: this crisis led to the debasement of liberal democracy, in a first moment; in a second moment, it led to its moral and intellectual corruption. Strauss did not intend to put into question liberal democracy by his study of modernity; he only exposed its deepest weaknesses.

We saw that the development of fascism happened as a reaction to the first wave of modernity, i.e. to the liberal project. This reaction was made partially in the name of virtue – and essentially in the name of the only and ultimate virtue that was left to the adversary of the modern world, courage. The reclaiming of the original meaning of democracy would have to be made necessarily through the reclaiming of virtue. Here Strauss proceeded to a clear critique of liberalism. However, as Strauss himself admits, liberal democracy contains in itself an advantage not found in its existential enemies: in its origins we can find the premodern tradition of Western political philosophy. Liberal democracy happens to be a bridge to this premodern tradition of thought; and it must be through liberal democracy that the dialogue with the classical tradition can be maintained.[57] In fact, when Strauss speaks about Plato’s critique of democracy – which we can find in his Republic –, he remembers that democracy appeared in the platonic scheme in the same order as Hesiod’s “age of heroes.” Because the principle of democracy was freedom, “all human types can develop freely in a democracy, and hence in particular the best human type”, i.e. the man dedicated to the contemplative life, the philosopher.[58] Liberal democracies appear to be the best regime for the philosopher to pursue his activity.

Still, in order not to be self-destroyed, liberal democracy cannot make a principle of unlimited tolerance – unlimited tolerance, fostered by the relativism that led to the disorientation of the idea of progress, led to the destruction of liberalism by fascism. The consciousness that the great virtues are essential for the keeping of democracy is the main lesson of Strauss that we can learn from his combat against relativism. Modern man forgets the teachings of the classics: their idea of regime, the politeia, meant more of a way of life of a determined political community than just its institutional arrangements; and the best regime was the one which was founded on virtue and lived for virtue. Modern man also discarded the classical premise of the relevance of man’s social and political nature. Politics, as Strauss explained through guided of the classics, is the “field on which human excellence can show itself in its full growth [italics are not mine].” “Political activity is then properly directed if it is directed toward human perfection or virtue”, Strauss continues.[59] Strauss’ lesson is this mission of recovering the necessity for the nurturing of virtue in our democratic societies. It is through this natural connection with the classical world that liberal democracy can continue the very old dialogue between modern and classic political philosophy. The modern project that led to relativism began with a radical modification in the idea of natural right; this transformation of natural right led to a transformation of virtue. Communism and fascism emerged and grew within modernity, but democracy does not live only of the dynamics, premises, and nature of the modern project. More than being a critique of modern liberalism and its corollary, relativism, the Straussian critique of modernity is in fact a vigorous attempt to guarantee that the heritage of the classical tradition is still clear in the eyes of modern man.



[1] Leo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”, An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays, ed. by Hilail Gildin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989) 83.

[2] Idem, 84.

[3] Idem, 86.

[4] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 179.

[5] Idem, 178.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”, 87.

[8] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 178.

[9] Thomas Hobbes, On The Citizen, ed. and trans. by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverstone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 6.

[10] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 168.

[11] Idem, 175-76.

[12] Idem, 180.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Idem, 181.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Peter Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 45.

[17] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 181.

[18] Idem, 187.

[19] Idem, 169.

[20] Idem, 189.

[21] Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism, 61.

[22] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 225.

[23] Idem, 228.

[24] Idem, 241.

[25] Idem, 245.

[26] See C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 194-251.

[27] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 246.

[28] Idem, 253.

[29] Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”, 94.

[30] Idem, 96.

[31] Idem, 98.

[32] For the purpose of studying this fascist cosmology, Michael Oakeshott’s work The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939) gathers some texts by Mussolini on the fascist doctrine. 164-68.

[33] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 57.

[34] We used Strauss’ “Notes on the Concept of the Political” edited by Professor Heinrich Meier in his Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, translated from the German by J. Harvey Lomax. In this version the expression Strauss uses for Schmitt’s passage that we have quoted is “partnership in consumption and production.” As we have used George Schwab’s English translation of The Concept of the Political, we opted to write as it is stated in this translation, as “neutral consumer and producer co-operative.”

[35] Idem, 35.

[36] Idem, 53.

[37] Strauss, «Notes on the Concept of the Political» in Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, trans. from the German by J. Harvey Lomax (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 111-12.

[38] Idem, 112-13.

[39] Strauss, “German Nihilism”, 360.

[40] Ibidem.

[41] Idem, 364.

[42] Idem, 370.

[43] Idem, 371.

[44] Aristotle, Ética a Nicómaco, transl. by António de Castro Caeiro (Lisbon: Quetzal, 2018), 81-82.

[45] Harvey Mansfield, «Our Courage in Danger», 1 June 2011, Hoover Institution,

[46] Strauss, “German Nihilism”, 358.

[47] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 2.

[48] Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays, 24.

[49] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 2.

[50] Strauss, “German Nihilism”, 372.

[51] Idem, 373.

[52] Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”, 36.

[53] Idem, 37.

[54] Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays, 319.

[55] Idem, 314-15.

[56] Idem, 319.

[57] Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity”, 98.

[58] Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”, 35.

[59] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 133-34.


This is the second of two parts with part one 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.

Back To Top