The significance of Leo Strauss for the theory and practice of American politics is limned in this thought-provoking volume compiled by Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley. Co-editor Deutsch's other anthologies on Strauss include The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective (1987) and Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought (1994). Murley's work on Strauss includes a long-awaited bibliography of Straussian scholarship.
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) taught generations of students, principally at the University of Chicago, about the profoundest thought of the ages — on nature and convention, wisdom and tyranny, ancients and moderns, reason and revelation. He illuminated the possibilities of politics and the necessity of reflecting on those possibilities for living a full human life. By reviving the careful reading of classic texts ranging from Plato and Xenophon to Machiavelli and Nietzsche, he was certainly the premier teacher of political philosophy in the twentieth century, and perhaps of many previous centuries as well.
The contributors, virtually all "Straussians," reflect on his thought but above all his influence — immediate and enduring, practical and theoretical, on students and on citizens. Thus the volume may disappoint those expecting new exegeses of particular works of Strauss. The underlying theoretical question is rather, "What is the power of thought?" or "What is political philosophy?" The editors and contributors are engaging in a risky enterprise, for failure to present a true account exposes Strauss and his students to charges of sophistry or nihilism. Indeed, "Straussians" (a term often said in derision) have had such charges hurled against them, from both the left and the right. This volume responds to, among others, smart-alecky critics such as The New Republic, which dubbed Straussians one of the "top ten gangs of the Millenium." And in doing so the contributors confute both the politically motivated leftist critics of Strauss such as Shadia Drury and the New York Times editorialist Brent Staples, and the arch fulminations of some on the paleo-conservative right, who detect a cabal of effete atheists, often esoterically promoting immorality. Such critics miss the soul of Strauss's teaching. The Strauss contribution to government practice cannot be reduced to ideological spear — carrying, Mark Blitz reminds us, in his essay on Straussians in government.
The 29 essays are distributed in five sections — Leo Strauss's American career, various themes in his thought, eminent Straussians (the longest section), American political institutions, and "Reflections from Practice." For example, we learn useful bits of information from George Anastaplo about the courses Strauss taught at Chicago (and hence what occupied his mind while he wrote various books). We read a touching portrait of Strauss at St. John's College, by Laurence Berns and Eva Brann. We learn how Strauss's enterprise deepens the study of public policy issues, such as intelligence gathering (Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky) and welfare policy (Susan Orr). Prominent scholars of the primary institutions of the regime, such as Ralph Rossum, on the Supreme Court, explain how the radical nature of the Straussian enterprise enables scholars to penetrate the obfuscations of conventional wisdom and confront the fundamental questions. Essays on eminent Straussians — each of which adds to the portrait of their teacher's thought — include Murley on Anastaplo, Gary Glenn on Walter Berns, Walter Nicgorski on Allan Bloom, Christopher Colmo on Joseph Cropsey, Michael Zuckert on Martin Diamond, Will Morrisey on Paul Eidelberg, Charles Kesler on Harry Jaffa, Miriam Galston on Ralph Lerner, Robert Eden on Harvey Mansfield, Christopher Colmo on Roger Masters, and Murray Dry on Herbert Storing.
Paraphrasing Strauss on liberal education, Deutsch maintains, "We need to accommodate our need for a constitutional democracy with the necessity to establish outposts of excellence in order that we be protected from the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics" (57). The assembled essays not only counsel their readers against these evils but inspire them to achieve and transmit liberal education, a bulwark against sophistry and nihilism. And the contributors are split on major questions: e.g., Strauss counseled moderation, but whose moderation — Carnes Lord's or William Galston's? Gregory B. Smith's? But the fight for "outposts of excellence" cannot be achieved without exploring Strauss's central theoretical concern — the tension between reason and revelation. According to co-editor Deutsch, Strauss's "great concern was that since 1950 the American commitment to modern natural right, shorn of strong religious counterbalance, has led to a greater emphasis on relativism and a corresponding loss of a moral compass" (52). But is religion the only balance? This question lies at the heart of the profoundest differences among the contributors.
Harry Jaffa and his students would elaborate that America was not simply committed to modern natural right but to ancient prudence, which gives a range of political choices involving not only revealed religion but also the spiritedness attached to the non-modern elements of the regime. Jaffa, observes Kesler, demonstrates "the thesis that nature was the ground of politics, that nature had not been eclipsed by history; and that the distinctions of nature, including virtues and vices, remained permanently relevant to the understanding of political life" (267-68). To reiterate the matter in political and moral terms, Jaffa maintains that "Lincoln's recovery of the Founding corresponded closely with the Maimonidean recovery of the rational origins of prophecy" (43). Moreover, in noting the power of Strauss as a teacher, Hadley Arkes gives the review his fellow contributor Susan Orr, author of Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss, deserves. Strauss's audience, whether in the classroom or in books, maintains Arkes, quoting Jaffa student Orr, is "'not simply secular Jews but those Christians who have abandoned their religion as well. He speaks to the lost souls of both traditions'" (86). Recognition of "the authority of the moral order based upon the dignity of man, supported both by reason and revelation.... was ... the essential purpose of Leo Strauss's life and work," concludes Jaffa (48).
Let one example suffice of the politics of such an understanding: John Marini, who was an advisor to Justice Clarence Thomas when he was EEOC Chairman, has long argued that the American constitutional structure has become so disordered that defenses of our fundamental institutions often hasten the decay. The powers of Congress, the President, and the courts must instead be understood in light of the century-old Progressive revolution in American politics. In criticizing Storing and his students for not appreciating this revolution, Marini contends, taking Strauss as his authority, that "the practice of the modern state is dependent upon a theory which denies the truth of the natural necessities which require limited government. Rather, it presupposes a progressive solution to every human problem, in which case the power of government cannot be limited" (397-98). The apparent acceptance of such historical fatalism profoundly affects the intellectual and hence the political judgment of several contributors to the book. It might have been underlined even further had the work of Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Pangle been represented in this volume. In this connection, note Zuckert's astute observations about Diamond's thinking, in both his concessions to modernity and his reservations about it, and in his novel treatment of federalism (242-43). This historicism, and implicit rejection of natural right, is the basis of the split between Harry Jaffa and many other students of Leo Strauss. It is the distinction between a spirited and reflective understanding of the American regime and one of accommodation to encroachments on liberty, one which takes its bearings by natural right and revelation, the other by history.