LeoStrauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal
by Paul Edward Gottfried.
Cambridge, 2013.
Paperback, 194 pages, $27.

Every year brings a new crop of books about Leo Strauss. The New York Times last year reviewed two, Laurence Lampert’s The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the Strauss Divided. Both were written by disciples of Strauss, and while critical volumes have been known to get attention—Shadia Drury’s Leo Strauss and the American Right is by now famous or infamous, to your taste—those that do almost invariably come from the academic left.

Only one book specifically offers a right-wing critique of this German-Jewish émigré professor who is so often assumed to be a right-winger himself. That book is Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, a slender volume originally published in 2011 at a price only university libraries could afford. But Cambridge University Press has relented and in September issued an affordable paperback. Gottfried’s work may now find a wider audience, and it deserves to—with some caveats.

Gottfried, long a professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, is one of the original “paleoconservatives,”a name he coined or at least popularized in the 1980s. His right-wing point of view emphasizes, as he says in this book, “the particularistic, the ethnic, and the historically contingent.” Strauss and his “Straussian” disciples, by contrast, propound a natural and universal concept of right, which according to Gottfried they conflate with the values of Anglo-American liberal democracy.

Strauss’s followers today tend to align with the paleoconservatives’ rivals, the neoconservatives, and like them, these Straussians support greater presidential power and an active military role for the United States in fomenting regime change around the world. Despite the sectarian differences, and although he calls this book a semi-polemic, Gottfried strives to be fair. In his opening chapter, a biographical sketch of Strauss, he succeeds.

Strauss was born in Prussia in 1899 and was a young scholar by the time the Nazis rose to power in Germany. He had written his dissertation under Ernst Cassirer on the Counter-Enlightenment thinker Friedrich Jacobi, who defended the authority of revealed religion against the rationalistic pretensions of philosophy, which Jacobi believed led inevitably to nihilism—a term he coined. Although Strauss studied with Cassirer, he was more impressed by his encounters with Martin Heidegger, the greatest philosopher of his day, yet one who eagerly fell in with the Nazis. Strauss also followed the work of the legal theorist Carl Schmitt and produced a commentary on Schmitt’s Concept of the Political that so impressed its author that Strauss’s response was included in later editions of that work.

Yet Strauss’s brilliance could find no reward—or indeed safety—in Hitler’s Germany. So he left, first for France, then Britain, and ultimately the United States, where he would eventually become a professor at the University of Chicago. He was a transformative teacher, and doctoral students took his ideas to heart; they, in turn, raised further intellectual cadres as they took up positions at universities across the country. Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom are among the best known of the first-generation Straussians. Harvey Mansfield Jr. of Harvard University, though he did not earn his degree under Strauss, is another.

Strauss would later be known for insisting upon a return to “the ancients”—to Greek political philosophy in particular—but he began as a student of philosophical modernity. After his work on Jacobi, he produced insightful studies of Spinoza and Hobbes. In Germany, he had been a religiously conflicted Jew—he lived as well as studied the “theologico-political problem,” the question of how revealed religion and political order could be reconciled—and while he was a Zionist, Gottfried finds few traces of nationalistic sentiment in the early Strauss. That Strauss had some favorable things to say about Mussolini is adduced to the fact il Duce seemed for a time a more plausible counterforce to Hitler than the Weimar Republic’s weak liberalism. Strauss’s later support for Churchill in Britain was more characteristic, in Gottfried’s view.

Strauss’s evolving scholarly interests coincided with America’s cultural preoccupations in the decade after World War II. Strauss “sounded the tocsin against the enemies of the hour, relativism, positivism, and historicism,” and doing so earned him the friendship of conservatives such as National Review’s Willmoore Kendall and William F. Buckley Jr. (As well as Russell Kirk, one might add.) Liberalism and relativism were near synonyms to conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. And while Gottfried reports that Strauss and most of his circle appeared to favor Democrats in presidential elections, a notable exception was Harry Jaffa, who supplied the 1964 Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, with his best-remembered line: “that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Gottfried is somewhat inconsistent in explaining Strauss’s relationship to the American right, but he honestly presents evidence that may not lead the conclusions he wishes to draw. That Strauss preferred Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, for example, does not necessarily mean he was a liberal; the Burkean conservative Peter Viereck and the libertarian Murray Rothbard also favored Stevenson, and while Strauss seems to have been ambivalent toward Goldwater in 1964, Rothbard was hotly opposed. Today Gottfried seems to treat Rothbard’s followers as, if not the gold standard of the American right, then the best that can be hoped for at present. But it’s not incontrovertible that Rothbard was any more (or less) of a right-winger than Strauss.

One must also think twice when Gottfried identifies with his own ideology an “older right” that has been displaced by Straussians and neoconservatives: Gottfried’s thinking is more ethno-nationalist and less humanistically Christian than that of such postwar conservatives as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. Both the Straussians and Gottfried have their similarities and differences with conservatives of earlier decades. Gottfried doesn’t ignore this, but he doesn’t confront the complexity head on, either, and the unwary reader may assume intellectual continuities (or discontinuities) that should not go without argument.

But “who’s right” is the least interesting question that arises from Gottfried’s book. Far more important is his examination of the substance of Strauss’s thought, which begins with a look in the third chapter at Strauss’s method of interpreting texts. This is no less controversial than Strauss’s politics, and Gottfried perceives a connection. Strauss’s modus operandi is to convey his ideas through commentaries on classic texts of political philosophy, which he finds pregnant with esoteric meanings. Gottfried argues that in conducting the search for esoteric meaning Strauss and his disciples usually find what they want to find. Their investigations almost invariably discover that a great political philosopher was an atheist who favored something akin to modern liberal democracy. These messages have been hidden in the works of everyone from Plato to Maimonides to John Locke because such philosophers have always feared persecution for their true beliefs, as explained in Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing.

Strauss’s left-wing critics see in all this secrecy something inherently anti-democratic and authoritarian, but Gottfried finds more merit in the objections raised by right-leaning thinkers such as Barry Shain, Claes Ryn, and David Gordon and by eminent historians such as Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. Most of these non-left critics find Strauss and the Straussians too biased in favor of their own ideological assumptions and insufficiently attentive to the real historical conditions in which great political thinkers wrote. Locke, for example, must be understood in light of the Christian intellectual context in which he lived, and it should not be assumed that he was a crypto-atheist or visionary who anticipated modern American-style liberalism.

For Gottfried, Strauss and his followers are polemicists first and scholars second; their works have an ideological thrust that supersedes their commitment to disinterested scholarship: “They are fighting the enemies of democracy, Israel, or whatever they understand as first-order things, with their back to the walls. Moreover, they consider their vocation as ‘scholars’ to be bound up with this cosmic struggle.”

This does not mean, Gottfried makes sure to tell us, that nothing written by Strauss or his disciples is of value. Gottfried likens Straussianism to Marxism: “a productive researcher can make judicious use of the method without becoming obsessed,” he writes. “What must be insisted on, however, is that intellectual history is not the same as philosophy.” At best, that’s what Straussianism is: a peculiar methodology for doing intellectual history.

Gottfried may be missing something here. What Strauss is attempting to do is rather different from what historians like Skinner have in mind; the difference is like the difference between reading Shakespeare in class as a historical or literary document and actually performing a play. The text is equally important to both endeavors, and the two ways of reading—as a script or as a historical document—are not entirely unrelated. A director will want to understand something of a play’s context, while a historian must recognize that whatever one might say about context, the document can’t be understood altogether apart from the demands of performance. But the frame of mind and methodologies involved in these activities are completely different: being the world’s greatest historian of Elizabethan England won’t give you any special aptitude for staging Shakespeare, and a good director must make the drama “live” for an audience today, which requires understanding the drama as drama, not just an antiquarian text.

Confusing drama for history can only produce poor work in either field. Confusing political philosophy for history leads to the same results. In political philosophy, as in drama, the text matters, and one may not take liberties with it. The context matters, too, but it’s not all that matters—and the most important context is understanding what kind of work one is dealing with and with what frame of mind it must be approached. To point this out is not to say that the way Strauss “performs” political philosophy is correct but rather that the line of criticism advanced by historians like Gottfried and Skinner is often beside the point—like a historian criticizing a brilliant performance of Shakespeare because there are women on stage, when in Shakespeare’s time all the roles would have been acted by men.

The idea that Strauss forces an atheistic or liberal democratic interpretation onto his texts should be re-examined in this light, as well as in light of the biographical insight that Gottfried himself provides into Strauss. “Atheism” is a rather inexact term, or perhaps all too exact: it was, after all, a charge commonly leveled against Christians in the Roman Empire. Before asking whether a political thinker or his work is atheistic, one must consider what kind of “atheism” we are talking about.

This is not the place to delve deeply into Strauss’s own conflicted and complex thoughts about revealed religion, but so far as the texts that he took for his life’s work are concerned, it is striking how few of their authors could be considered religiously orthodox. Plato’s Socrates, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume—all were suspect in the eyes of the authorities of their time. The canon of great political philosophers finds such characters markedly overrepresented.

There may be three reasons for this. First, it may be a mere coincidence. Or it may be an artifact of the perspective of our time that the thinkers we canonize tend to be those who are not especially observant of religious orthodoxy. As Gottfried asks, “In a secular age in which democracy and equality have become god terms, why bother to bring up what most intellectuals do not care about?” But a third possibility, worth at least entertaining for the sake of argument, is that there may be something about political philosophy, practiced at the highest level, that is really and fundamentally incompatible with orthodox religion.

This hypothesis is one dimension of the theologico-political problem. Orthodoxy and the authority of revelation are the key considerations here, rather than “atheism” in the abstract, with the further intuition that religion without revelation or traditional authority may ultimately be but one step away from atheism.

The “political” side of the theologico-political problem similarly gets oversimplified in Gottfried’s discussion of Strauss and liberal democracy. Strauss described modernity as arriving in three waves: the first is associated with liberalism and Enlightenment ideals and is heralded by Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke; the second is a reaction against the rationalistic tendencies of the first and is exemplified by figures like Rousseau and Edmund Burke. The third wave comes when history has imploded on itself leaving only the will to power and nihilism; this wave is announced by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Although Strauss seems suspicious even of first-wave philosophers—he’s scathingly critical of what he takes to be Locke’s materialistic tendencies—Gottfried believes that Strauss favors the rationalistic liberalism associated with them. But is the Strauss who began his career with a study of Friedrich Jacobi really so confident about reason’s power to sustain a political order?

Rationalism undermines the religious foundations of traditional society, but reason fails to supply incontestable new foundations, and this failure opens the way to romanticism, nationalism, and nihilism. If this is what Strauss believed, then whatever liking he may have had for liberal democracy, that preference could not be the end of his thinking about the matter. Other questions arise, including whether liberal democracy can be somehow fortified against decay or whether another regime would prove more stable, particularly in an emergency. The dilemma Strauss confronted in looking to Mussolini to counteract Hitler may never have gone away.

“The answer to this degenerate democracy seems to be a more virile and more warlike liberal democracy,” Gottfried reports after citing Thomas Pangle’s concerns that democracy might make men soft. This is where critics on the left perceive something in Strauss that is not merely liberal or democratic. The difference between a “more virile and more warlike liberal democracy” and a regime that isn’t very liberal or democratic at all may be in the eye of the beholder. But even if one agrees with Gottfried that militarism and Caesarism are not necessarily incompatible with liberal democracy in some sense, the solution to the problems that Strauss’s analysis of modernity has uncovered may not be as neat as Straussians like Pangle, or outsiders like Drury, would like to think.

Straussians, after all, are fond of highlighting the relationship between regimes and human types; many believe statecraft is quite literally soulcraft. But if that’s the case, what kind of souls must be produced by liberal democracy, and how do those souls perform when asked to behave in uncharacteristic fashion?

Liberal democracies have proved time and again to have a remarkable capacity to feel ashamed even of military victories. Political philosophy is concerned with ends, not just means, but the end result of liberal-democratic militarism is usually not greater self-confidence in the regime but just the opposite. Victory in World War I left the Allies so disgusted that they thereafter avoided confronting Hitler until too late: if there was insufficient moral vigor among the leading men of the liberal democracies in the 1930s (except for Churchill), that has something to do with the outcome of the last great liberal-democratic eruption of thymos.

Far from strengthening morality or manly virtù, the Iraq War that Straussians in government, journalism, and the academy trumpeted has led predictably to disillusionment. Straussian militarists have in fact helped to bring about the very thing they were anxious to prevent: a loss of nerve.

Strauss raises the most important questions possible, questions that strike to the heart of religion, reason, power, and politics. He does not have a simple doctrine that puts these fundamentals into harmony; there are difficulties and struggles within his work. His followers, however, have all too often supplied pat answers, and in that they have done more to besmirch Strauss’s name and thought than a legion of left-wing critics ever could. Paul Gottfried’s book, by contrast, is sufficiently magnanimous that it may lead readers to a new appreciation for Strauss, which in turn may lead them to question some of Gottfried’s conclusions.  

(Gottfried responds here.)

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.