A review of The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, edited by Thomas L. Pangle. University of Chicago Press, 285 pages, $45. This review originally appeared in National Review, August 18, 1989.
Sixteen years after his death, Leo Strauss's influence on the American mind and on American politics continues to grow. His books are more widely read than ever. His students and followers, whose ranks multiply, form not only the most distinguished and combative group of conservatives in the contemporary academy, but also a revolutionary force within American conservatism.
The reasons for Strauss's growing reputation are abundantly clear in this new collection of his essays and lectures. The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism brings together five of Strauss's previously published articles and five "slightly edited versions" of unpublished lectures. All display the incomparable insight and remarkable range of knowledge that set Strauss's works apart from any other twentieth-century political philosopher's. And the lectures, which capture something of the wit and informality of Strauss the teacher, are especially welcome.
We ought to be grateful to have so many excellent studies conveniently gathered together. The pity is that room could not have been found for one more: Strauss's essay "On the Interpretation of Genesis," his most radical statement on the reasonableness of divine Revelation. In any case, it would have been helpful if Professor Pangle had indicated at what points he edited Strauss's lectures, especially in the light of Strauss's own fidelity to close textual analysis. But such points hardly detract from the merits of a volume that is fresh, profound, challenging, and readable.
Neither Strauss nor his students have escaped the dislike and sometimes hatred of their faculty colleagues. Partly this is because the Straussians challenge the smug relativism of today's academy and endeavor to reconnect specialized inquiries with the permanent, unifying questions of human life. By reviving the serious study of political philosophy, Straussians have begun, gradually but inevitably, to have an effect on American political practice. Indeed, it is not too much to say that most interesting intellectual disputes within American conservatism now involve, directly or indirectly, the Straussian school.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the principal fault line within the conservative movement ran between traditionalists and libertarians. As an intellectual matter, this split is now largely inconsequential. It lives on in changed form, only as a stumbling block for the Republican Party, which often finds itself torn between its populist-religious and economic-libertarian wings.
This seeming loss of interest has at least two causes. In the first place, the focus of the traditionalist and libertarian parts of conservatism has changed. The traditionalists' ranks have been swollen by millions of new conservatives outraged by Supreme Court decisions on racial integration, abortion, prayer in schools, pornography, and the like—most of whom are good democrats who have no special love for Anglicanism, agrarianism, or aristocracy. The libertarians have been transformed by the addition of supply-siders and public-choice theorists. A related development, not to be overlooked, is that the wings of the conservative movement have learned from each other. Traditionalists have come to doubt the Federal Government's ability to foster virtue, even as libertarians are waking up to the connection between individual freedom, on the one hand, and personal, family, and community integrity on the other.
The libertarian-traditionalist debate is flagging for another reason as well. To reduce the question of the best political system to the polarity of freedom versus order, as both sides have tended to do, is awfully simplistic. With freedom and order, or even freedom and virtue, ranged against each other, defined against each other, the solution to the problem of the most desirable polity seems almost mechanical. One need only a Laffer-style curve of freedom versus order to select the optimal arrangement. This solution, of course, begs the decisive question. What kind of order, what kind of freedom is under consideration? Is fascism a form of order, or of disorder? Is Communism (which after all preaches the withering away of the state) the perfection or the negation of freedom? Is American republicanism a happy mixture of tyranny and anarchy, or is it something distinctive and desirable in itself?
In short, the debate requires a more profound consideration of the purposes of human, and humane, freedom and order—or morality—to make any sense. But raising the question "What is morality?" or "What is virtue?" transcends the distinction between freedom and order.
Gradually, then, the libertarian-traditionalist dispute has been eclipsed by two new disputes in which Straussians have more or less taken center stage. At the risk of some cuteness, we may call these the East-West and North-South disputes.
For the past ten years, the liveliest and most interesting debate within conservatism has raged between two camps of Straussians—the so-called "Western Straussians," clustering around Harry V. Jaffa and the scholars associated with the Claremont Institute, and the "Eastern Straussians," among whose leading figures are Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Thomas Pangle (although the distinction is more a state of mind than of geography—there are "Western Straussians" in the East and vice versa). In books, scholarly essays, letters, columns, and not least in the pages of National Review, the two sides have clashed—occasionally with angry words and personal vituperation—over the nature of political philosophy, the character of America, and the status of revealed religion. The majority of Straussians, to be sure, have remained either in the middle or on the sidelines of disputes, watching them with a mixture of fascination and regret. But however sharp the personal exchanges may have been, the issues involved are of supreme importance for the future of American conservatism.
Perhaps most profoundly, the disagreement concerns the meaning of political philosophy, the central theme of Strauss's writings. Is political philosophy, as the "Easterners" maintain, a politic presentation of philosophy, basically a way of shielding philosophers' radical questioning from the disapproval of the many, of society? Or is political philosophy meant also and emphatically to offer philosophical guidance for political life? The point at issue is the meaning of the famous "Socratic turn" in philosophy, which boils down to the question of the status of morality. Does the philosopher dwell in a world beyond good and evil, or is morality a good in itself that he too must respect?
Taking morality seriously involves taking patriotism seriously, and so it is not surprising that the most obvious disagreement between the two Straussian camps concerns America. Now, the Straussians have helped to effect, over the past thirty years, a remarkable revival of scholarship on America, particularly on American political thought. Martin Diamond, Harry Jaffa, and Herbert Storing, to name the most prominent, showed that it was both necessary and proper to try to understand the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, and other American statesmen as they have understood themselves; that the condescending revisionism of Charles A. Beard, Carl Becker, Richard Hofstadter, and other historians would not stand critical scrutiny. Out of this common rejection of Marxist and progressive history, however, has emerged a significant split between the Straussians over what the Founders intended the American way of life to be.
The Eastern Straussians see America as fundamentally "modern," by which they mean that America stands for the renunciation equally of the wisdom of classical political philosophy and of Biblical revelation. Walter Berns, Thomas Pangle, and others assert that America is fundamentally Hobbesian. In other words, America was conceived in hedonism, atheism, and materialism, and dedicated to the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation. However glorious the Founding may have been, the nation organized on this founding principle had sooner or later to abandon all glory in favor of a descent into the life of self-interestedness. As George Will, profoundly influenced by this line of analysis, puts it, America was "ill-founded," doomed to moral and political decay by the logic of its own principles.
In contrast, the Western Straussians see America as broadly continuous with the classical and Biblical traditions. Indeed, in some respects they see it as perfecting those traditions, giving due public regard for the first time in history to the "laws of nature and of nature's God"—i.e., both to the moral common ground and to the moral and theoretical disagreements between the great defining principles of the West: Reason and Revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.
In the magnanimity of Washington and the other great statesmen of the Founding, Harry Jaffa (and I, among others) find a practical wisdom that is better explained by Aristotle than Hobbes—and that informed the deliberations of the Founders at every step. To be sure, they had read Locke, but in the commonsense light of Algernon Sidney and Richard Hooker, not Hobbes; and they read much else besides: Tacitus, Cicero, and, of course, the Bible.
This is not a dispute over anyone's patriotism, but over how the proper grounds of American patriotism ought to be understood. And that, of course, cannot be a purely academic question. If America were "solid but low," as the Easterners hold, then the interest-group pluralism of the New Deal and the contemporary welfare state would be about the best one could hope for from our politics. If, on the contrary, America stands for something noble, for constitutional and moral principles transcending private appetites and public entitlements, then one ought to hope and to labor for a genuinely conservative restoration of American self-government. In pondering such a restoration, conservatives have no higher task than understanding this far-reaching intra-Straussian dialogue.
The second major split within modern conservatism involves the Straussians in a rather different way. For over a decade, the clashes between Harry Jaffa and such partisans of the Confederate cause as Willmoore Kendall and M. E. Bradford have marked the forward lines of the North-South controversy. Jaffa has defended the hallowed ground of reason, equality (of natural rights), Abraham Lincoln, and the Union; Bradford has taken his stand on behalf of tradition, inequality, John C. Calhoun, and states' rights.
Recently, new armies have entered the field. The dispute between "paleo-conservatives" and "neo-conservatives" has generated not only smoke and noise but headlines, on account of Pastor Richard John Neuhaus's expulsion by the "paleo-con" Rockford Institute. Aside from that ungentlemanly action, the debate has centered around "global democracy," "secularism," immigration, and charges of envy and religious bigotry. These bitter disagreements occur in the context of two massive facts. One is that, in abstract terms, the paleo-cons and neo-cons agree on far more than they disagree on. Both sides agree that rationalism in politics leads quickly to Jacobinism; that universal truths of the sort expressed in the Declaration of Independence (or in twentieth-century liberalism: they tend to see the two as continuous) are ultimately destructive of authentic, historically rooted human communities; that history or experience is therefore a better guide than reason in political affairs.
Where paleo-cons and neo-cons disagree is over what is to be done. Strongly influenced by the Eastern Straussians (with whom they overlap), the neo-cons take a more or less Tocquevillian approach, reasoning that modern capitalist democracy is here to stay, that despite its anomie it has brought substantial benefits, that incremental improvement of our condition is possible and desirable. Their politics tends therefore to be utilitarian and meliorist but also strongly anti-utopian.
Both paleo- and neo-conservatives put a great deal of reliance on the idea of history (as their names, borrowed so to speak from the theory of evolution, attest). But the paleos take pride in looking backward, the neos forward. For the latter, it is liberal democracy's very success—the fact that, however uninspiring it may be, it has outlasted its foes—that proves its superiority; indeed, that makes it worthy and capable of propagation to the rest of the world. For the paleos, democracy's success, no matter how expansive, is hollow precisely because it cannot match the glories of traditional societies, especially that of the Old South. Thus the neo-con's cautious historicism shades over into a calculating utilitarianism, while the paleo-con's historicism rejects calculation in favor of a romantic appreciation of passion, the grandeur of the past, personal and national idiosyncrasy.
It is the peculiar nature of this dispute, the fact that the sides have so many premises in common, that helps to account for its second major characteristic: the allegations of nativism and anti-Semitism that color it. In the absence of a clear philosophical difference between the paleos and neos, the obvious ethnic and religious difference between them comes to the fore. That the neo-cons are mostly Jewish, and the paleo-cons emphatically not, is seized upon by both sides in weak moments as the secret explanation of the controversy. Of course, none of the policy questions that are being controverted here (immigration, "global democracy," etc.) can really be reduced to these terms. But the temptation to reduce them will be there so long as better arguments are not forthcoming.
This is particularly the case with the neo-conservatives, who have not responded as well as they should, I think, to the paleo-cons' criticisms. For the real issue is not whether there is room for Jews in a proper American conservatism, but whether, as the paleo-cons define it, there is room for America in conservatism. According to the traditional American understanding proclaimed in the Declaration, all men are created equal, and equally deserve to have their natural rights secured by a just government instituted and operating with the consent of the governed. The first purpose of conservatism would thus be to keep American government just, to make sure that it secures the common good and preserves the rights of its citizens. These rights, deriving from natural right, are based essentially on the citizens' humanity, and have no proper reference to their race, religion, ethnicity, class, or any other secondary or accidental characteristic.
This is not quite the America celebrated by the paleo-cons, who emphasize the regnant inequalities in American life as it has actually been lived. The older traditionalists like Willmoore Kendall were not at home with this America, either, but some of the new or second-generation traditionalists go even further in their rejection of all natural-right arguments. M. E. Bradford is perhaps the best known of these. Whereas most of the older traditionalists (e.g., Kendall, Russell Kirk) saw some harmony—however tenuous—between natural law and tradition or history, Bradford and his followers denounce any appeal to rational, transhistorical principles. To put the difference plainly: whereas Richard M. Weaver traced the decline of the West to William of Occam's attack on universals, Bradford blames our current degeneration on the prevalence of universals in politics and morals.
Other second-generation traditionalists take a different tack. Thomas Fleming, the editor of the Rockford Institute's Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, understands the natural law not as a law of right reason (as Aquinas did), but as a "law of nature" in the modern scientific nor deterministic sense: he uses sociobiology and anthropology to prove that gender and class differences are natural. Attempting to combine traditional natural law with some version of the philosophy of history, Claes Ryn and Paul Gottfried try in different ways to find a philosophical basis for the role of reason within the historical process.
The real issue here is not whether particular paleo-cons are nativist or anti-Semitic, much less whether particular neo-cons are hypersensitive. Everyone involved in this debate agrees that anti-Semitism is wrong. It is a doctrine without defenders. But this consensus cannot endure if its grounds are allowed to be undermined. Paleo-cons as well as neo-cons have an interest in keeping this consensus and the conservative movement itself intact. The problem is that such vices as anti-Semitism and nativism are a constant temptation whenever virtue goes unexplained and unchampioned. When reason, equality, and natural rights (including the right of religious freedom) are contemned in the name of a monolithic and unrestrained "tradition," the ground for evil has been prepared.
As I say, the neo-conservatives in particular have not been very successful at articulating the larger questions at stake, partly because they have been unwilling to undertake the positive defense of American principles that is required. They need to say in broad daylight why nativism and anti-Semitism—errors with which they charge the paleo-conservative movement—are un-American, hence also unconservative. Such a declaration would invite a reconsideration of some of the principles they have shared half-heartedly with the paleo-cons. After all, the neo-cons have always stopped short of the paleo-cons' and the Old Right's open break with Lincoln and his interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Yet only Jaffa and the Western Straussians have vigorously contested this attack on Lincoln and the role of equality in the American political tradition. The neo-cons, like the Eastern Straussians with whom they have so much in common, have been content to keep their discontents private, and to hope for the best. But the logic of the debate carries it more and more clearly in the direction of the classic North-South struggle within conservatism. And the border states must eventually choose sides.
As American conservatism in all its branches comes to terms with the thought of Leo Strauss, it will also have to come to terms with the principles of natural right in the American political tradition. Certainly there is no more urgent task confronting conservatives than the application of these principles to the civil war within our own ranks.