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Leo Strauss

One difference between postmodern conservatives and other contributors to First Thoughts has to do with being influenced by Leo Strauss.

Each pomoncon can speak for himself (or herself). But I would say that we all regard that influence as making us better and especially more astute thinkers and readers of first-rate books than we would otherwise be. So we can’t help but think that conservatives who don’t know Strauss would be better off if they did. And those conservatives plagued by what Peter Minowitz calls Straussophobia should seek out some kind of expert help.

One allegation against Strauss is that he was an atheist. Strauss himself, I think, is to blame for that reputation. For one thing, he wrote that philosophers have typically employed “the art of writing” to fend off that charge. They wrote esoterically—or with an edifying affirmation of God and the reigning morality—as believers, but esoterically or secretly or subtextually as thinkers free from the thrall of any dogma, including the hearsay of revelation. Strauss distinguished himself, he thought, by being the first philosopher to put the truth about writing in esotericism in neon letters, to be exoteric about being esoteric. That created the widespread impression that certainly many “Straussians” share that Strauss held that to be a first-rate thinker is to be an atheist all the way down.

Philosophers wrote esoterically to avoid persecution by religious and political authorities, and to protect decent opinion from a vain skepticism that would be, in most cases, a rationalization for indifference and injustice. Philosophers also wrote esoterically as a way of teaching. To really own the truth depends on not skipping any steps on the way to genuine enlightenment. The wisdom of Socrates is miles distant, for example, from Woody Allen’s whining about death and meaninglessness and all that.

We have to wonder, to begin with, why Strauss might have been so open about his closet atheism. For one thing, outing philosophers as atheists—for example, our founding philosopher John Locke—makes them more attractive in a time when most sophisticates in some existentialist or scientistic way equate atheism with enlightenment. For another, as an American professor he didn’t have all that much reason to fear persecution or even lose tenure. In one sense, he surely was a tenured radical, but he only suffered the indignity of being somewhat marginalized by the disciplines of political science and philosophy. So Strauss decided to make himself seem more dangerous than he really was.

Strauss turns our attention away from the dogmatic “new atheists” to the wiser or far more self-conscious “old atheists.” And the old atheists, it turns out, didn’t really think they knew enough to refute the best claims for revelation or even to displace the decent and responsible life of moral virtue with something better. It’s even the case, we can learn from Strauss,  that Locke was only ambiguously an atheist. He thought the free human person—personal identity—was quite real and could not be accounted for by the laws that govern the wholly natural world. In that respect, he had a debt to St. Augustine’s truthful objection to the natural and civil theologies of the Greeks and Romans. Strauss has what he regards as a Socratic objection to Locke’s philosophic view of irreducible individuality, but that means Strauss didn’t really think that all the philosophers were the same brand of disbelievers. In final analysis, Strauss really thought Locke was too Christian. He even thought Nietzsche and Heidegger were too Christian! And we have to give him credit for showing us how Locke and Nietzsche and Heidegger would answer back, as philosophers.

For lots of postmodern and conservative or faith-based or semi ex-Straussians I know, the movement from the smugness of new atheism—the word on the intellectual street in our allegedly enlightened democracy—was back to the old atheism. But even that wasn’t good enough, because Strauss shows those with eyes to see that even Socrates—the philosopher who is all about learning how to die or getting over himself—can’t account for the irreducible particularity or unique irreplaceability of every human life that’s the only possible foundation of modern liberal democracy. Lincoln’s dedication of our nation to the proposition that all men are created equal is both Christian and modern—and so, properly understood, almost Thomistic. It’s based on the truth, as Chesterton wrote, that there’s a center of significance in the cosmos that gives each of us significance, a significance that’s not a political construction. That’s why, as Chesterton went on, true citizenship is “a home for the homeless,” of beings not created to be fully at home in any particular “city of man.”

Pierre Manent

Pierre Manent

The greatest living student of political philosophy is the French Catholic Pierre Manent. Strauss provided much of the road by which Manent traveled from the socialist atheism of his parents to the truth about God and his good. Manent is now maybe our leading critic of Strauss, but from a perspective full of wisdom he learned from Strauss. Another, somewhat different, example is the Mormon postmodern conservative Ralph Hancock, who learned, from Strauss, how to criticize the equation of philosophy with atheism or even atheistic determinism found in the thought of  some “high Straussians.” For Hancock, Strauss was helpful not so much in challenging but in deepening his faith by helping him discover the true relationship between reason and personal, relational responsibility. Catholic Straussian or Mormon Straussian aren’t oxymoronic, even if it is true that a Catholic or Mormon can’t be a “whole hog” Straussian. Philosophy, in truth, can’t define a whole human life or the whole human good.

Strauss, it’s true, denied that the logos that governs the cosmos could be personal. But he certainly helped us postmodern conservatives understand how questionable that impersonal philosophic (or scientific) view is. After all, he restored the study of political philosophy—or the attempt to think about the universal in light of the particular. We postmodern conservatives, following the lead of our philosopher-pope emeritus, say that the access to the universal truth can only be found in particular persons.

And we have to remember, as Daniel McCarthy reminds us, that Strauss deliberately wrote as a conservative, and even as a Jew. That wasn’t some kind of noble lie to trick the American empire into invading Iraq, as some conservatives claim. Anyone who’s really read Socrates’ presentation of the noble lie in the Republic realizes that it contains a lot of truth, the truth about the relationship between human excellence and the fraternity that makes real political community possible. Sure, it’s about making citizenship more natural or less of problem that it really is. But the truth is that for justice to be a real force in the world, being a citizen of particular political community under God and devoted to virtue has to be real.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis piece is graciously reprinted with permission from First Things

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2 replies to this post
  1. I have read only a little Strauss, but his saying that the problem is that the wise do not want to rule, is the sort of obvious thing that Orwell maintained was the duty of all intelligent men to point out. As the present administration and the Congress indicate, neither do those who may be less than wise, a rare breed, but who combine both intelligence and integrity.

  2. Granted that Lord Keynes was less guilty than Keynesians, and mybe the same for Prof Strauss, but in 1975 Dr Russell Kirk described him to me as “a charlatan” who aspired to be like the Beatles’ Indian guru.

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