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The Monstrous Politics of Leo Strauss

The Monstrous Politics Of Leo Strauss

But as perfect men I regard those who are able to mingle and fuse political capacity with philosophy. Such men, I take it, are masters of the two greatest goods there are: as statesmen, a life of public usefulness, and a tranquil existence of untroubled serenity in the pursuit of philosophy . . . We must apply our best endeavours, therefore, both to perform public duties and to hold fast to philosophy as far as opportunity permits.

– Plutarch


The good botanist will find flowers between the street pavements, and any man filled with an idea or a purpose will find examples and illustrations and coadjutors wherever he goes . . . Why complain, as if a man’s debt to his inferiors were not at least equal to his debt to his superiors? If men were equals, the waters would not move; but the difference of level which makes Niagara a cataract, makes eloquence, indignation, poetry, in him who finds there is much to communicate.

– Emerson


Fiat liberalismus; pereat Plato.

– Leo Strauss


I personally have always been conservative.

– Leo Strauss


Introduction: Then and Now

In his review of H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy Walter Lippmann said that the “Mencken attack is always a frontal attack (and) is always explicit.” “The charge is all there. (Mencken) does not leave the worst unsaid. He says it.” Despite or because of these qualities Mencken became “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people” Lippmann observes.[1]

What Lippmann describes as Mencken’s “gargantuan attack upon the habits of the American nation” involved the Baltimorean in arguing that when push comes to shove, “the rights of other persons do not seem to interest (liberals).” Thus “if a law were passed tomorrow taking away the property of a large group of presumably well-to-do persons . . . without compensation and without even colorable reason . . . they would be in favor of it.” Mencken’s “liberals,” seem to interpret liberty to mean in “the liberty to envy, hate and loot the man who has it.”[2] Thus Mencken took the view that the life of civil freedom is unlikely to survive the politics of democracy.

In these comments from Mencken and in Lippmann’s reaction to them we see that there was a time when a public commentator might make severe criticisms of American socio-political phenomena without necessarily losing standing amongst his peers, if not with the “man in the street” assuming he ever had any. In the 1920’s a commentator such as Mencken could say very harsh things about democracy and equality and even expect a certain swathe of the respectable intellectual classes to embrace him as a result.

In the light of the fiery attacks on his homeland coming from the “Sage of Baltimore” we would expect that Professor Leo Strauss’s quiet assertions that liberal democracy might appear deficient in certain respects might almost pass without notice. The fact that they have not has been a cause of wonderment amongst those of Strauss’s followers who would argue that in respect of “real world politics” he is very much an anodyne observer. They tend to see Strauss as having emphasized the philosophical way of life in a fundamentally non-partisan or a-political way that bears no direct connections to any policy choices or competitive political or ideological oppositions. Thus there is no reason why his reception should differ fundamentally from that received by Mencken albeit much more narrowly confined within the academic-think tank world.[3]

However Strauss’s modest remarks to do with the way in which a burgeoning egalitarianism might generate a “virtue deficit” have not been received in a “Lippmanian” spirit.[4] Indeed, they have been sufficient to set the fox free in the intellectual/academic hen house in a manner Mencken and Lippmann would be unable to imagine. Such is the shock and horror engendered by some of Strauss’s observations that they can all but paralyze the intellectual egg-laying industry. Strauss has frequently been attacked as an “elitist” or even a “proto-fascist” for suggesting that contemporary liberal democracy has a “crisis” on its hands when it comes to civic and intellectual virtue. Some commentators have been so exercised by Strauss’s reservations about modern democracy that they seem to lament there are no occasions for a true democratic auto-da-fe.[5]

So something drastic must have happened to American intellectual life between the 1920’s when Mencken could be the “toast of the (intellectual) town” and our day when some cautiously phrased remarks about the possible disadvantages of equality and liberty can cause great consternation in la republique des lettres. As one of Mencken’s biographers has noted of the changed environment, “when every phrase must be examined for political correctness, many find it impossible to enjoy Mencken without apology.”[6] Those observers who register surprise that Strauss’s carefully worded criticisms of the status quo should be received by the cognoscenti in a spirit more or less opposite to that in which they had earlier received Mencken seem to have failed to register the change in the intellectual climate over the generations. They must have failed to appreciate that the streak of “Menckenism” in Strauss had become toxic to the classes dominant in the academic-intellectual world in the intervening time. Such an oversight requires some explanation.

Above Conservatism, or, the Non-Partisanship of Political Philosophy

According to Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss “writes his theologico-political treatises in direct confrontation with philosophy’s oblivion of politics and of itself in the twentieth century” (emphasis added). Meier continues, “(Strauss) does not place those treatises at the service of a political project in the narrower sense.” In fact, Strauss’s treatises, pursue exactly the opposite tendency of the masterpieces of the radical Enlightenment. They do not put philosophy to work for the purposes of politics but rather turn to politics “for the sake of self-reflection.” They do not attempt to “draw the special attention of the political promising and ambitious readers” even as they are not meant to inspire political idealism or feed the will to rule. They do not elaborate a theory of politics, nor do they devise an image of the “perfect city” that would be capable of inducing identification and devotion. In sum, Strauss’s writings do not promote political life as did the writings of some of the political philosophers of the past. Strauss’s true addressees are “neither the statesmen of the present nor the leaders of the revolution of the future.” They would be wasting their time studying him unless they are willing to give up politics for philosophy rightly understood.[7]  Meier wants a “de-politicized” Strauss and insists that the record backs him up.

Tending in the same direction as Meier is Gregory B. Smith who stresses the non-partisanship of Strauss’s work maintaining that “it is inappropriate to drive Strauss very hard in the direction of specific policy issues because he would have shied away from allowing political philosophy to become confused with political ideology, no matter how dignified the ideology or the regime supported.” For Smith when all is said and done  “Strauss was a partisan of philosophy rather than of any specific regime.”[8]

For his part Stanley Rosen insists that “Strauss was neither a liberal nor a conservative in the contemporary senses of these terms, but a philosopher.” For Rosen, Strauss’s primary concern was with “the preservation of philosophy.” Thus it should be of prime importance for us “to question the political pertinence of (Strauss’s) esoteric teaching” lest we be seduced into thinking he might have had certain clear policy preferences within the options prevailing in our time. Rosen interprets the politics of Strauss’s philosophy as consisting simply in his fostering a society that did not regard Nietzschean rank-ordering as necessarily at odds with freedom. But unfortunately in the political climate of the past fifty years, the Left/Right dialectic has been such to make Strauss “look like a conservative, and to some, a reactionary if not actually a fascist.”[9]

But for all that Rosen is sure that Strauss well “understood the tyranny of the left as well as of the right.” Thus he is inclined to accept Strauss’s being characterized as a modern classical liberal. Whenever Strauss “responded as a conservative” it was only to the extent that classical liberalism had “deteriorated into what we came to call ‘post-modernism.’”[10] Rosen argues that “Strauss held a number of views that seem to be conservative because they are intended to compensate for the exaggerated decline of modern liberalism into nihilism.”[11] In other words, for Rosen, Strauss is only a “conservative” in contrast to the degenerated form of liberalism now known as “postmodernism.”

The difficulty here is that Strauss expressed his general agreement with American conservatism as early as 1956, i.e. well before the postmodern wave migrated out from the haunts of existential “artists” on the continent to the broader sphere of the Anglo-American  public and political world.[12] Speaking in historical terms the idea of “postmodernism” is more specifically linked to the decades immediately pursuant to Strauss’s passing unless it somehow is defined as indistinguishable from the American positivistic social science of the 1950’s.[13]

Catherine and Michael Zuckert argue that the aspect of Strauss’s political science which is responsible for his reputation as a “conservative” is that which echoes the stipulations of Aristotle that “statesmanship must attempt to counter the disequilibriating tendencies of regimes to push forward extreme versions of their own principles.”  The Zuckerts explain that those who most often level the charge of conservatism against Strauss fail to understand the broad analysis that lies behind Strauss’s “anti-extremist, moderate political stance.” In other words, it is only in the face of and as responsive to confused left-wing attacks that Strauss can in any way be called a “conservative.”[14]

But why should Strauss’s “anti-extremism” have to be brought front and center in connection with the “charge” that he had conservative tendencies? Is “conservatism” somehow connected to “extremism” while liberalism is not? Are conservatives somehow potential “extremists” or are they simply tough “moderates” standing “athwart” the tide of liberal irresponsibility?

Carson Holloway insists that “Contrary to popular belief, Leo Strauss was not a conservative, let alone a neoconservative.” He attempts to solve the question of Strauss’s politics by establishing a distinction between political philosophy and political thought. That which ranks as “political thought” in Holloway’s eyes cannot transcend the realm of opinion because its primary purpose is “to preserve the American regime and its traditional institutions and morality.”[15] If as Holloway insists conservatism ranks only “as a kind of political thought” then by definition Strauss had no strong interest in it. Political philosophy however, in which Strauss was “primarily interested” seeks to “question the presuppositions upon which these things are based.” Given his premise of a disconnection between political thought and political philosophy, Holloway concludes not so much that Strauss was not a conservative but more specifically he was simply “above being a conservative.” [16]

Addressing Holloway’s distinction we might ask whether or not Strauss might be capable of pursuing both “political philosophy” and “political thought” at one and the same time. Why should not the “transcendence” implicit in the pursuit of political philosophy not allow for the occasional “drop in” on the sub-transcendent world of political thought? Could not Strauss have taken a moment from his questing for pure transcendence to put in his “two cents worth” of “political thought” at certain key moments in the public debate? Did not Strauss arrive at certain moments when he thought the time might be propitious for connecting certain contemporary political opinions to the cause of political philosophy? No doubt Strauss was far above being a garden variety American liberal.[17] But was he equally far “above” being some kind of an American “conservative” however unorthodox?[18] The evidence would seem to suggest not.

“Monster of the New Right?”

The problem here in all these accounts of the “trans-political” Strauss is that they cannot account for the virulence of reaction to the émigré thinker’s work. Whereas Mencken’s pen actually served to earn him thanks from a grateful readership for “having liberated American thinking and feeling to an extraordinary degree,”[19]  Strauss’s work has made him a bete noire for the sound minds who live in confidence of the virtues of modern liberal society. Indeed, there is a new phenomenon in the debate over the nature and limits of liberalism called “Straussophobia.” So virulent can this virus become in the groves of academe that Professor Minowitz has almost a found full-time employment isolating, cataloguing, diagnosing and “curing” the many distortions and errors of the “Straussophobians.”[20]

Minowitz summarizes the “Strauss in politics” situation by explaining that Strauss made “five (political) interventions” during his decades in America. As itemized by Minowitz they are Strauss’s 1943 lecture about the re-education of Germany, his “long letter to the National Review defending Israel” of 1956, a 1961 memo to Senator Charles Percy on policy towards the USSR, his joining Sidney Hook’s University Center for Rational Alternatives dedicated to preserving the university against academic disruption and violence on campus in 1968, and finally Strauss’s joining with Hook, Handlin and forty other professors in signing a letter to the New York Times endorsing Richard Nixon over George McGovern for President in the election of 1972.[21]

To be sure these are not “activist” interventions that involved a significant amount of energy or any serious time away from the quest to for the higher wisdom. Nevertheless they are “interventions” at the level of public debate or at the level of influencing the prevailing current of opinion.[22] Such public expressions of specifically political opinion might suggest to those of a more “paranoid” mindset that Strauss did indeed have some kind of “hidden agenda” designed to directly transform the political landscape by political means. Strauss’s political statements certainly indicate a mentality different from a complete and utter indifference to the fate of the contemporary public-political world.[23]

Robert Howse is very fixated on left-wing anti-Straussianism and the view of Strauss as a “monster of the new right.” Howse gives the “a-political” Strauss a particular profile when he states that Strauss “took pains to distance himself from typical conservative political positions and ideology” and that “Strauss never threw his public support behind any right wing political figure or any right-wing movement.”[24] In Howse’s view Strauss has been misinterpreted as a conservative thinker because certain people were “desperately seeking intellectually serious alternatives to the left” and they seized on Strauss to fill this need. This was especially the case because he was an anti-Communist and was “doubtful of grand narratives about human progress.”[25] These people thus made a “conservative idol” of him. In making his apologia for Strauss it is evident that Howse’s operative political spectrum ends somewhere around The New Republic if one is travelling from the leftward direction. Thus he tends to view that which is “non-left” as one homogeneous political universe.[26] As a result, no distinctions of any fundamental significance need be made or analyzed on the right side of the imaginary center line.

Corey Robin is one commentator who shows how this situation comes to be. He is certain that one should treat “the right as a unity, as a coherent body of theory and practice that transcends the divisions so often emphasized by scholars and pundits.”[27]  Robin likes to “use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably.” He “seat(s) philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists and hacks at the same table.” He would seat Nixon and Irving Kristol next to  F.A. von Hayek, Sarah Palin, Ayn Rand, Antonin Scalia, Michael Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Ernst Junger, Carl Schmitt,  George W. Bush amongst others. These names form part of modern conservatism so their common goal has to be “to defeat the great social movements of the left.”[28]

Robin’s explanation for this particular organizing principle indicates the ultimate futility of any efforts to defend Strauss against the “charge” of being “conservative,” or to save him exclusively for the liberal side. Robin’s comments clearly indicate that insofar as he is representative of the left-leaning intellectual class, such observers will have none of those at the receiving end of their accusations escaping the charge of “conservatism.”[29] Robin is certain that the stain and taint of conservatism belongs exactly where there are any thoughts incompatible with contemporary liberalism or progressivism. There are no true divisions of principle over on the right side of the political fence for Robin.[30]

In the face of such political categorization the nice distinctions which some Straussians seek to draw in order to exculpate Strauss from the charge of conservatism seem likely to have little effect, at least if Robin is any kind of barometer of the left worldview. This has not deterred some observers from fighting back against those who falsely finger-point to the black mark of conservatism. One academic has described one of Strauss’s main followers as a never being a conservative. Rather “he was a lifelong Democrat who revered Roosevelt’s New Deal as the peak of modern American politics. (One thing he shared with Strauss was that both voted for Adlai Stevenson.) Shortly before his death in the fall of 1992, (he) exhorted me to support Bill Clinton. He insisted that only the Democratic Party had consistently met the challenges of the 20th century.”[31]

The party being described above is none other than Allan Bloom the conservative ogre who dressed down the modern university for its intellectual lethargy, value neutrality and lack of a humanizing sense of mission.[32] But for all that, such apologetics will do no good in the face of those who believe heterogeneity beyond the borders outlined by the left is incredible. It is inconceivable to them that the right of center’s intellectual life actually makes the left of the spectrum look like a consolidated mass. [33]

The Taint of “Calhounism”

Following the general drift of Robin’s “solid block” on the right thesis, Sam Tanenhaus discovers that the unifying principle defining the right is nothing other than “Calhounism.”[34]  By this term he intends something that is “beyond the pale” obviously enough. He can then associate it with policies dear to conservatives – cuts in spending, voter IDs, immigration restraint, contesting affirmative action, opposing same-sex marriage, anti-gun regulation, stricter constitutionalism, repealing Obamacare and “opposing the civil rights movement in the name of states’ rights.”[35] In other words, if one should find appeal in any of these policies then one is thereby a “Calhounist” or at least bears a certain taint of “Calhounism.” This by extension connotes sympathy for slavery and the Old South whatever one’s range of views otherwise.

But however forcefully Tanenhaus might insist that the Right is one unified intellectual bloc, Peter Berkowitz nonetheless accuses him of performing a “brutal truncation” of the essential sources of conservative thought. According to Berkowitz, Tanenhaus’s characterization of “the crux of movement conservatism, then and now” as somehow essentially “Calhounist” obscures the intellectual treasures to be found in the vast and diverse vaults of conservative political philosophy.[36] Conservatism’s various branches spread from a trunk with roots in “the classical political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Biblical faith, medieval political philosophy, early modern political philosophy, romanticism, Edmund Burke, the American founding, Tocqueville, the 19th-century resurrection of Toryism by Disraeli, the restatement of philosophical conservatism by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the libertarian ideas of Friedrich Hayek.”[37]

Once we accept the fact of this vast diversity of thought on the Right or more accurately perhaps on the “non-Left,” we can come to appreciate why commentators such as Howse, Robin and Tanenhaus are silent on the critics of Strauss who insist that Strauss, is in fact a left-leaning thinker and perhaps even nothing short of a “Jacobin”! Political theory makes strange bedfellows. [38]

Strauss’s right-side critics tend to agree with Howse that Strauss himself should not be mistakenly identified as rightist thinker. But the “Straussophobia of the Right” and the huge gap in interpretation between the right-wing and left wing critics has escaped the notice of such critics as Howse, Robin and Tanenhaus while it is very hard to remain unaware of Strauss as a target of left-wing criticism. No one reading Howse, Robin or Tannenhaus would ever become aware that an analysis of Strauss and Straussianism from right-wing premises is available. Lacking here is any effort to deal with the arguments of those who have contended that in fact Strauss is a “Monster of the Left.”

History and Openness

But then what are the particular values derivative from Strauss’s work that outrage the “paleo-conservative” right? The anti-rationalism of conservatism puts it at odds with any suggestion that the rational planning of political life is either possible or desirable. Such an assumption would soon lead to either revolutionary upheavals or the forceful imposition of values on the less than rational. Not reason but violence and “hegemony” would reign. The role of simple reason should be subordinated in political decision-making therefore. Its range should be seen as limited in order that its political claims and purposes should be limited.[39]

But paradoxically enough the opposition to Strauss and his “neo-Jacobinism” on the part of commentators like Gottfried, Ryn and Havers is shared to some extent by his critics on the Left.[40] The right-wing critics share with their left-wing counterparts a disdain for Strauss’s attitude towards “History.” They would join together in claiming that Strauss points to the imposition of universalist western values on the existential “Other.” But allowing this “overlap” between Left and Right it seems evident that the left-wing commentators are more conflicted about this problem than are the right-wing colleagues. This is because of the Left’s radical rejection of historical tradition to the extent this tradition involves inequality, patriarchy, “essentialism” and particularism. The right-leaning side by contrast embraces these values to some degree and tends to interpret Straussianism as nothing less than a threat to them because of its universalist and natural right assumptions. This is the case even though, as Carson Holloway argues, it can be maintained that “Strauss and conservatism share an important aim: challenging the dogmatic dismissal of the past as irrelevant to our flourishing in the present.” [41]

Strauss’s thought, posing as it does a challenge to both “History” on the one hand, and to virtuous openness to the “Other” on the other, constitutes a large target for incoming fire from both the Left and the Right. Straussian “Neo-Jacobinism” envisages nature as an intelligible order which may be taken as a political template. But the Left and Right “historicists” are obliged to deny that reason or the human intellect can gain a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of social reality and its workings as to be in a position to change it or reconstruct it along self-determined rational lines. The “paleo-con” right and the postmodern left are both hostile to a universal natural standard that is based on an unchanging natural order. Paul Gottfried insists that the Straussian “grid” into which Republican operators and think tanks have placed themselves “should not be confused with any intelligible or historical right.”[42]

Friendly Critic of Liberal Democracy

Kenneth L. Deutsch is confident that the best characterization of Strauss is as a “friendly critic of liberal democracy.” If Strauss could be said to have a conservative side it is only in the sense of his being an “Academic conservative.”[43]  In the light of Deutsch’s insistence that Strauss was only a conservative in the academic context how then does the modifier “academic” alter the sense of the political label “conservative” in Deutsch’s understanding? Specifically academic conservatism could in no wise compromise Strauss’s essential political liberalism which is evident in Strauss’s belief that “that good political judgement requires a moral reasonableness that accepts the irreducible ambiguities and tensions of the human condition.”[44]

Moreover, Strauss was far from being “an advocate of dogmatic capitalism or xenophobic patriotism or the justness of majoritarian democracy.” He had no interest in “protecting the oligarchic conservatives of old families.” Strauss would never reject “the best part of the American liberal democratic tradition of the Declaration of Independence and the statesmanship of Lincoln” for the sake of any principle imaginable. [45] For Strauss parts of our tradition were better parts and parts were worst. Thus he “rejected southern agrarian conservatism grounded in class and caste.” Strauss had no fundamental issues with the welfare state because for him politics always “requires a prudent balance between principles such as private property and welfare, merit and human need.”[46]

Such an account of Strauss as provided here by Deutsch seems to be more of a politics Deutsch would like to see than the politics of Strauss himself as derived from his actual statements or from the reception which he received on the conservative side of the spectrum. Deutsch makes no mention of the manner in which Strauss was enthusiastically embraced by the founder of post-war American conservatism – William F. Buckley. Buckley said of Strauss’s labors that he has “presided over a renaissance of political theory even within the walls of the American academy.” Strauss “has shown the relevance, indeed recovered the meaning, of many classic texts.” Buckley said of Strauss’s famous “Epilogue” on the new political science that it is a “stupendous essay” even as he included it in his edition of the best writings in American conservatism. [47] Very evidently then William F. Buckley Jr. was an admirer of Strauss’s work. But surely it was to some extent a “two way street” where Strauss embraced William F. Buckley and “Buckleyism” even as Buckley embraced Leo Strauss and “Straussianism.”

Commentators such as Deutsch convey no sense of Strauss’s associations and affiliations with anti-Communism (or by extension McCarthyism) or his support for Nixon, or to his proximity to Austrian capitalist economics, southern agrarianism, Thomistic conservatism, etc. By “proximity” here we mean Strauss’s appearance in books such as the one edited by Buckley mentioned above in which we see a range of authors from across the political right. In this volume Strauss keeps company with such thinkers as  John Courtney Murray,  L. Brent Bozell, Frank S. Meyer, Michael  Oakeshott, A.J. Nock, Henry Hazlitt, Milton  Friedman,  Willmoore Kendall, James  Burnham,  Ernest van den Haag, Russell  Kirk, Hugh Kenner, Christopher Dawson, Erich Voegelin, Jeffrey Hart, Harry Jaffa, F.S. Meyer, Whittaker  Chambers and Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. [48]

For Strauss to join such a pantheon of conservative minds brought together by Buckley in order to impress readers with the power and range of right-wing thought suggests he was happy to be part of an intellectual current which was necessarily larger and broader than one man’s philosophical work can ever be. It made sense to him to enlist in the cause in which these writers were generally agreed albeit at a very modest level.

In Deutsch’s view Strauss had no time for “the constitutional positivists who have become constitutional literalists defending the Constitution’s alleged support for states’ rights.”[49] But this is a hasty claim. Surely to appreciate this question through the eyes of Strauss one would have to consider the prior question of whether the subsuming of individual sovereignties under ever larger political and administrative agglomerations is not destructive of our humanity. Surely if “States Rights” could play a role in averting the Hegelian-Kojevian Universal and Homogeneous State at the “End of History” Strauss would have some sympathy for them.[50]

The evident agreement between the National Review and Strauss on the undesirability of world government or of the Universal and Homogenous State allows us to infer that Strauss would also agree with National Review that “that remote government is irresponsible government” and that possibly “the most important and readily demonstrable lesson of history is that freedom goes hand in hand with a state of political decentralization.”[51] Strauss’s expression of general agreement with the National Review’s “substantive principles” may leave room for particular divergences but of the rejection of  both liberalism and communism to the extent they each serve the cause of ultimate world government there can be no doubt.[52]

Strauss may be seen to fall into alignment with states’ rights conservatism in his review of C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. In this statement Strauss argues that if the rational society is in fact not the universal socialist society, then Macpherson’s “political theory of possessive individualism must be examined in the light of a different ideal.”[53] Strauss is here responding to the fact that Macpherson tests the possessive individualist or bourgeois capitalist society against the standard represented by the Hegelian-Marxist, Universal and Homogenous State and finds it severely wanting. But Strauss’s suggestion is that he should rather have tested the possessive individualist society against another standard – the standard not of the Universal or “Open Society” but of the “Closed Society.”[54] If tested against the standard of the “Closed Society” as distinguished from the Macphersonian ideal the possessive individualist society might be seen to have achieved all that might reasonably be expected of western civilization by those who continue to long for the “End of History.”[55]


We hope we have adduced sufficient evidence here to associate Strauss with a number of “right wing” schools of thought. His contribution  needs to be seen as akin in spirit if not in detail to the work of men like William F. Buckley, Willmoore Kendall, Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford and others mentioned above. He was warmly embraced by the intellectual right when it began to feel its oats in the 1950’s and there is no indication that he ever backtracked or questioned the wisdom of his occasional journalistic or moral support for the cause of American conservatism. One leading historian of American conservatism points out that William F. Buckley Jr. himself said that Strauss was “absolutely critical” to the success of the conservative movement because he taught two indispensable lessons that were vital to it. These were that there was a relationship between common sense and natural law, and that “scientific approaches to epistemology” were “terribly misleading.” Over the years Strauss’s influence on many conservative intellectuals would do nothing but increase.[56]

Thus we are not so surprised to find John Judis portraying Strauss as a “Founding Father” of Post-War American Conservatism. Judis notes that Strauss was a member of a group of “Jewish, agnostic intellectuals” who in the 1950’s joined the likes of Henry Hazlitt, Willi Schlamm, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Max Eastman, Eugene Lyons, Ralph de Toledano and Milton Friedman in laying the foundations for American “right-wing” politics.[57] Judis’s overview reminds us that for many on the right, Strauss was not an “accidental” conservative at all but rather a conservative “pillar” and a very influential one at that.

Thomas L. Pangle has observed that “(S)peculation is the proper task of political philosophy, which is almost by definition non-partisan.” The investigation of alternatives – the reflection on the merits, the strengths and weaknesses, the possible future improvements, of dangers of contemporary democracy – will be productive of real political knowledge only if it is conducted in a spirit not of commitment but of open-minded and imaginative intellectual experimentation. [58] Such a stance suggests that Strauss’s “partisan” contributions cannot yield “real political knowledge.” But surely Strauss’s vigorous anti-communism, sturdy Zionism and public pro-Nixonism are meant to indicate to us how best to understand some of the enduring political questions which must inevitably come to the surface under modern liberal democratic conditions.[59]



[1] Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken The Saturday Review of Literature, 1926-12-11

[2] “Liberty and Democracy” in the Baltimore Evening Sun (13 April 1925), also in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy : New Selections from the Writings of America’s Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit ed. Terry Teachout (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 35.

[3] Like Strauss, Mencken had deep German roots. Like Strauss, he was an admirer of Wilhelmine Germany his proudest moment was learning that the Kaiser had read his Notes on Democracy and as a result sent him two autographed pictures of himself which he placed on his wall. See Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (New York: Harper, 2003).

[4] John Patrick Diggins observes that two years earlier than the appearance of Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy in 1957 “Leo Strauss wrote Natural Right and History to insist that the classical values of his beloved ancient world offered the best hope of saving the modern world from relativism . . . Lippmann’s move to natural law was close to Strauss’s idea of natural right … Reflecting, as did Strauss’s work, the threat of mass politics, Lippmann’s book represented the conservative culmination of years of searching for radical and liberal solutions to the dilemmas of modernity.” “From Pragmatism to Natural Law: Walter Lippmann’s Quest for the Foundations of Legitimacy” Political Theory 19, 4 (1991): 519.

[5] Shadia Drury describes her relentless pursuit of the Nietzschean-Nihilist Strauss as designed “to warn (young students) against succumbing to (Strauss’s) fatal attraction; I mean to caution them against joining the rats of Hamlin” “Reply to My Critics” The Vital Nexus ed. John R. McCormack Institute for Human Values. St. Mary’s University Halifax, Nova Scotia 1(1990):133.

[6] Marion Elizabeth Rogers, “Introduction” in H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy: A New Edition (New York: Dissident Books,2009),7.

[7] Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 14-15.

[8] Gregory Bruce Smith, “Athens and Washington: Leo Strauss and the American Regime,” in Leo Strauss, Straussians and the American Regime eds. Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley (Lanham,Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999),123.

[9] Stanley Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987),137.

[10] Rosen even goes so far as to suggest that Strauss is a kind of Kojeve “lite.” Strauss, he says, was altogether more flexible and more moderate than his close friend, Alexandre Kojève, who accepted the bankruptcy of the West up to the Napoleonic counter-revolution, but who also accepted its purification by his own post-Hegelian version of Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Heidegger.” Stanley Rosen, “Chicago Days” in Essays in Philosophy: Ancient, ed. Martin Black (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)

[11] Rosen argues that we cannot be guided as to who is a liberal by the “fashions of today.” The very term “liberal” “has changed its sense in the development of the modern epoch.” What he must mean here is that in 1790 a liberal was a follower of Adam Smith while in 1933 a liberal was a follower of Lord Keynes and today a liberal might be a follower of John Rawls for example.  But in none of these senses would Strauss simply qualify as a “liberal.” Rosen “Chicago Days.” See Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[12] William Barrett’s Irrational Man appeared as late as 1958. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy  (New York Doubleday,1958).

[13] See Herbert J. Storing, Leo Strauss, Walter Berns, Leo Weinstein and Robert Horwitz, “Replies to Schaar and Wolin: I-VI” The American Political Science Review 57:1 (1963), pp.151-160

[14] Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,2008),76.

[15] Carson Holloway, “Leo Strauss and American Conservatism” Book Reviews, Philosophy December 16th, 2014 See Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,1959),13.

[16] Holloway, “Leo Strauss and American Conservatism.” “It takes an imagination inflamed by partisan and ideological animosity to hold a scholar like Strauss — whose body of work consists almost entirely of meditations on the history of political philosophy, and contains almost no remarks on questions of contemporary public policy — responsible for political decisions taken more than thirty years after his death” (Ibid.).

[17] Nathan Tarcov is concerned to paint Strauss as a “liberal” not of the “garden variety” to be sure but definitely of some sort. But if we are conceiving of the “liberal” and the “conservative” as “ideal types” who then have to be re-characterized at the level of policy choice, does not Leo Strauss appear just as much as a “conservative” thinker “of some sort” as a liberal one? If so why opt for placing him closer to the liberal “ideal type”? See Nathan Tarcov, “Leo Strauss: Critique and Defense of Liberalism” Delivered at the conference Leo Strauss: Religione e Liberalismo Fondazione Magna Carta, Rome,May 13, 2011.

[18] Jerry Z. Muller notes that for Strauss “being on the right seems to have meant a critical stance toward liberalism and leftism rather than an embrace of an existing tangible alternative.”  “Leo Strauss: The Political Philosopher as a Young Zionist,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society n.s. 17, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 88–115

[19] See Van Wyck Brooks, “Mr. Mencken on Democracy” London Times, April 22, 1927.

[20] See Peter Minowitz, Straussophobia (Lanham Md.: Lexington Books,2009)

[21] Minowitz, Straussophobia,279.The following words appeared in the New York Times on October 15,1972: “Of the two major candidates for the Presidency of the United States, we believe that Richard Nixon has demonstrated the superior capacity for prudent and responsible leadership. Consequently, we intend to vote for President Nixon on November 7th and we urge our fellow citizens to do the same” (Ibid, 295n.75).  The most well-known of the pro-Nixon “co-signers” with Strauss would be Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb for the “Neocons” and Milton Friedman for the “Libertarians.” If Strauss was in any way wishing to keep himself in liberal good graces then his public support for Richard Nixon becomes inexplicable.

[22] Nothing here is meant to go against Jeffrey Hart’s point that accusing Strauss of being responsible for the 2003 invasion of Iraq is like “asking whether Heraclitus would have voted for Adlai Stevenson” The Making of the Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007),36-37

[23] Timothy W. Burns criticizes Grant N. Havers for looking at Strauss through “politicized eyes (which) see only a political Strauss.” According to Burns, Havers “recasts Strauss in his own political image, distorting and withholding his arguments to create a Strauss unrecognizable to anyone who has studied his writings with a modicum of care.” In sum Havers has overall misrepresented Strauss “as a political strategist rather than a philosopher.” “Reading Leo  Strauss: A Conservative Distortion of His Thought” The European Legacy 22:7-8 (2017): 847,849. Whatever the merits of Burns’s case against Havers, we for our part would rather turn his question on its head and ask whether some observers have not “recast Strauss in their own metaphysical-academic image so as to create a Strauss unrecognizable etc.” Certainly we do not wish to “politicize” Strauss unduly. We only wish to notice the moments in his long career where he showed a little political “ankle” and from these moments infer where he may have been pointing politically or historically. This Strauss we might find is as far from the universalist liberal discovered by Havers as he is from the pure “philosopher” described by Burns.  For Havers response see “Reading Leo Strauss: A Straussian Distortion of My Book” The European Legacy 22,7-8 (2017): 855-858 and for Burns response to this response see “Reading Leo Strauss: Reply to Grant Havers” The European Legacy 22,7-8 (2018): 859-862.

[24] Robert Howse, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace (Cambridge University Press,2014), 177.

[25] Howse, Leo Strauss,175.

[26] Howse, Leo Strauss etc.,176.

[27] Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011),34, 248.

[28]  Robin, The Reactionary Mind, 248.

[29] “The two projects with (Schmitt and Strauss) are most associated (are) European fascism and American neoconservatism.” Corey Robin, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek” The Nation  May 7,2013.

[30]  Robin, The Reactionary Mind etc., 34, 248.

[31] Clifford Orwin, “The Straussians Are Coming” Claremont Review of Books April 28, 2005;  See Gottfried, Leo Strauss etc., 114.

[32] See Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1987).

[33] See Hilton Kramer, “Life after liberalism: The New Republic at 80” The New Criterion  (September 1994).–The-New-Republic-at-80-4991, Jack Cashill, Scarlet Letters: The Ever-Increasing Intolerance of the Cult of Liberalism (WND Books, 2015) and George Hartley, Right-Wing Critics of Conservatism (Kentucky University Press, 2016)

[34]  Sam Tanenhaus, “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people.” See Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America Viking (2017), Peter Kolozi, Conservatives Against Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press,2017) and James Read, Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun (Lawrence, KS.: University Press of Kansas,2009).

[35] Tanenhaus,“Original Sin etc.”

[36] Robert Lindsay Schuettinger collects a pantheon of conservative thinkers which include Burke, Coleridge, Ropke, Jewkes, Hayek, Oakeshott, Cicero, Hooker, Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, Tocqueville, Disraeli, Mosca, Von Habsburg, De Maistre, Donoso-Cortes, Acton, Stephen, De Jouvenel, Seldon, Erhard and Churchill. He includes Leo Strauss in this list because Strauss was “one of the most distinguished of the contemporary scholars who had taught in the German universities” and his Natural Right and History was seen as “a most illuminating work on the importance of a belief in natural law for the history of the West.”  Writing three years before Strauss’s passing Schuettinger says that Strauss already “had a preeminent influence on contemporary development of political philosophy in North American and Europe” and that “any one of his books would have secured him a place among eminent political theorists and many would say he is the greatest teacher of politics in our time.” The Conservative Tradition in European Thought (New York: G.P. Putnam’s 1970),119,156. Such fulsome praise suggests why it might well be that some lesser ranked “conservatives” would like to hitch a ride on Strauss’s massive intellectual shoulders.”

[37] Peter Berkowitz, “The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism”  – March 5, 2013 Berkowitz explains that Tanenhaus’s version of Calhounism in 2013 has little to do with the double majority and state sovereignty and much to do with “criticizing the size and scope of government.” Backing up Berkowitz’s thesis about the sheer diversity of conservatism is Clifford Orwin who insists that “There are so many and so varied and so in compatible ‘conservatisms’ that each must appear, to some others, as so-called conservatism.” Clifford Orwin, “Leo Strauss, Moralist or Machiavellian?” The Vital Nexus 1:1(1990),106-107.

[38] The right-wing critics of Strauss hail from various corners including the Burkean, Paleo, Protestant and Libertarian neighborhoods. Speaking from the “paleo-right” Claes Ryn says that Strauss is a genuine “Anti-Conservative” whose thought gives rise to the “neo-Jacobin, revolutionary propensity of many so- called neoconservatives.” In Ryn’s view, just so much as Strauss assumes that philosophy and natural right are in principle at odds with convention, so then Straussianism will link up “with the new Jacobinism that has proved so appealing to neoconservatives.” Admirers of Strauss are therefore ubiquitous in the circles that advocate “the global democratic revolution.” Claes G. Ryn, “Leo Strauss and history: The philosopher as conspirator” Humanitas 18 (1):31-58 (2005):55. For a clear statement of the view at which Ryn is aiming see William Galston, “How to Become and American” Wall Street Journal (October 25,2017 A17). Paul Gottfried’s anti-Straussian case involves him in arguing  that the followers of Strauss usually only respond “when some far-left dunderhead attacks them as fascists.” But in fact, Gottfried says, the Straussians “are not fascists but embattled liberal democrats.” They represent “a uniquely leftist form of militarism, which is akin to the militant commitment to universal rights that one finds in Bolsheviks and Jacobins.”Paul Gottfried, “Straussians Talk Amongst Themselves-in the NYT”    For Gottfried the “new Jacobinism” of the neoconservative and Straussian controlled pseudo-Right simply reflects the warmed-over rhetoric of Saint-Juste and Trotsky which has been imbibed by the philosophically impoverished American right with mindless alacrity. It is all a matter of “appealing to yesterday’s leftist clichés” as Gottfried would have it. Paul Gottfried, “Strauss and the Straussians” Humanitas (Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005),30.

[39] “(T)he rationalist is a dangerous and expensive character to have in control of affairs, and he does most damage . . . the price we pay for each of his apparent successes is a firmer hold of the intellectual fashion of Rationalism upon the whole of life of society.”  Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (Indiana, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1991),36-38.

[40] See Paul Gottfried, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America (Cambridge University Press,2013), Claes Ryn, The New Jacobinism: America as a Revolutionary State (National Humanities Institute,2011) and Grant N. Havers , Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).

[41] “Holloway, “Leo Strauss and American Conservatism.”

[42] Paul Gottfried, “Strauss and the Straussians” Humanitas (Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005), 30.

[43] Kenneth L. Deutsch, “Leo Strauss’s Friendly Criticism of American Liberal Democracy: Neoconservative or Aristocratic Liberal?” in The Dilemmas of American Conservatism eds. Kenneth L. Deutsch and Ethan Fishman (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 48.

[44] Deutsch, “Leo Strauss’s Friendly Criticism etc.,”48

[45] From a more libertarian perspective C. Bradley Thompson argues contra Deutsch that carefully read Strauss does indeed reject the Declaration of Independence and the principles of the American Founding. See Neoconservatism: Obituary for an Idea (Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), 74,204-206,214-215.

[46] Deutsch, “Leo Strauss’s Friendly Criticism etc.,” 58-59

[47] William F. Buckley, “Introduction” to Part IV of Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century ed. William F. Buckley Jr. (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970),398,400

[48] Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? etc.

[49]  Deutsch, “Leo Strauss’s Friendly Criticism etc.,”58.

[50] Robert L. Devigne wishes to identify Strauss with a conservatism which advocates local democracy as preponderant with respect to issues of social morality and community, complemented by an executive branch that is “preponderant around national security.”  Robert Devigne, Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss a, and the Response to Postmodernism  (New Haven and London, Yale University Press,1994),77

[51]  The “National Review Mission Statement” was published in the National Review on November 19, 1955. The National Review stood for “States Rights” and against “Washingtonization” of power. In an Either/Or formulation the magazine states that “It would make greater sense to grant independence to each of our 50 states than to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a world organization.” . Strauss’s case against Kojeve would provide support for the devolutionist position. To make a stretch of it here – insofar as Strauss was an enthusiastic subscriber to the National Review he would favor a very restrictive reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause should he be asked about it. To the extent this is the case then Strauss comes closer to the views of his one-time colleague Hannah Arendt. See “Reflections on Little Rock”  Robert L. Howse says that “Hannah Arendt certainly did not stand with the liberals on justice if justice includes school desegregation, which she strongly opposed” Howse, Leo Strauss:Man of Peace,176.

[52] See Walter F. Berns, “The Case Against World Federalism” in Robert A. Goldwin ed. Readings in World Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).See also George Anastaplo, “Epilogue” in Willmoore Kendall Maverick of American Conservatives eds. John A. Murley and John E. Alvis (Lanham Md.: Lexington Books, 2002),177, Joseph Knippenberg, “A Leo Strauss for Our Time: Neo-Con Hawk to International Lawyer” 2,2015 and G.T. Sigalet, “Man of Thought: Review of Robert Howse, Man of Peace” Interpretation volume 42:2(Winter, 2016),325-337.

[53] “Review of C.B. Macpherson “The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism” in Thomas L. Pangle ed., Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,1985), 231. C.B. Macpherson opposes the liberal society because it stands in the way of the finalization of the globalization process in the form of the Universal and Homogeneous State. Macpherson then, looks forward to the advent of the “Night of the World” or planetary tyranny from the Heideggerian and Strauss points of view respectively. See Galen Murphy, “Alexandre Kojeve: Cosmopolitanism at the End of History” in Lee Trepannier and Khali M. Habib eds. Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (Lexington, KY.: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 184-210.

[54] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 254n2, 257. See Michael S. Kochin “How Joseph de Maistre read Plato’s Laws” Polis 19:1-2 (2002): 29-43.

[55] Writing in 1932 Strauss said: “(T)oday for the first time liberalism confronts a critique that is not simply reactionary and is even less one that leaves the first principles of liberalism uncontested, as does the socialist critique, and to that extent all the opposition as to final consequences  – represents a merely immanent critique of liberalism.” Hobbes’s Critique of Religion and Related Writings. Translated and edited by Gabriel Bartlett and Svetozar Minkov (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011),121-22

[56] George Nash, “Interview with William F. Buckley Jr., Samford, CT, November 26, 1971 George  Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books,2006),98

[57] See William F. Buckley Jr., In Search of Anti-semitism (New York: Continuum,1992),77-78. We must note here that the list of names in which Judis included that of Strauss is not especially “academic” in nature; highly educated names to be sure, but not so much “professorial.”

[58] “The Political Psychology of Plato’s Laws” American Political Science Review Vol. 70(1976):1059.

[59] See Strauss, Natural Right and History, 318.


Paul Gottfried’s response to this article is available here as is Colin D. Pearce’s response to Gottfried’s critique here.

Colin D. PearceColin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He has published in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Political Science, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Studies in Literary Imagination, The Kipling Journal, The Simms Review, South Carolina Review, Perspectives on Politics, Interpretation, Humanitas, Clio, Appraisal, and The Explicator, Quadrant.

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