Grant Havers, a professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, has written an erudite and thoughtful study of Leo Strauss and the philosophical and political forces he fathered in the new world. As the title promises, Havers examines Strauss’s legacy in the context of Anglo-American democracy. Havers argues that Strauss is not the conservative that writers on the left and right have taken him for, but an honest and avowed friend of liberalism.
Yet Strauss’s turn to the ancients, especially the pagan philosophers of Greece, is a hazard for an Anglo-American democracy built on Christian foundations, Havers contends. The search for timeless truths and natural rights has led to reckless efforts to spread democracy. Strauss’s rejection of historicism and commitment to the universal made him blind to the importance of the English and Christian cultural foundations of Anglo-American democracy.
In any revelatory study, there is always the moment when the reader thinks “That’s true. I should have seen that.” For me, that moment came with Havers’s account—learned, subtle, and occasionally surprising—of Strauss’s liberalism.
Strauss did political theory the great service of enlarging it. He—along with Hannah Arendt, Ernst Kantorowicz, and those with whom they worked and thought—moved the temporal boundaries of political theory. The ancients were no longer a matter for intellectual history alone but teachers whose work lived in the present. The thought of Plato and Aristotle was available to us, thought that we might make our own. Strauss’s canon, far more than Arendt’s, was no longer simply a Western canon but one formed further south and east, with al Farabi and Maimonides. In his remarkable Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argued that the interpretive techniques and sensibility he brought to America came from Judaism and Islam.
When one considers Strauss in the company of those he read and taught, the categories of liberal and conservative seem to recede. Yet Strauss was very much a man of his times, and Havers shows that Strauss’s work reveals a profound commitment to liberalism, even, perhaps especially, in his relation to conservative followers and allies. Havers is an honest and respectful reader. On several occasions he writes, contrasting himself with more interested readers on the right and left, “I take Strauss at his word.” He accepts, indeed insists, that Strauss “sincerely supports liberal democracy in the Anglo-American tradition.” But does that make Strauss, and his “Straussian” followers, liberal rather than conservative?
Havers gives extensive attention to three figures in Anglo-American conservatism: the much venerated Winston Churchill from the mother country, the Canadian philosopher George Grant, and the very American Willmoore Kendall, a Yale don and early contributor to National Review. This is an interesting set. Havers’s studies of Grant and Kendall show the legacy of the American Revolution in high relief: Kendall the “majoritarian democrat” and Grant the latter-day loyalist. Havers also does an excellent job of debunking the Straussian portrait of Churchill as “Anglo-American Greek” and of exploring Churchill’s ambivalence toward the classical tradition. The author might, however, have cast a more critical eye on Churchill’s imperial career, an aspect of Churchill wholly at odds with Burkean conservatism.
Havers himself shares Edmund Burke’s belief that political institutions grow from customs and conventions cultivated through long generations. He also shares Burke’s suspicion of abstract thought and his conviction that any effort to spread Anglo-American institutions where alien customs cannot support them will be futile or corrupting. Havers writes as if the North American continent was simply Albion’s seed, planted alone in an empty land, and held to its English character—if not to the British Empire—by the ties that Burke saw, ties which “though light as air, are strong as links of iron.”
This English America exists in Canada and in the United States, but it does not exist alone. Anglo-American conservatism is not easily bounded, and “Anglo-American conservative” may be as troubled a category as Defoe’s “True-born Englishman.” After all, Benjamin Disraeli, flamboyantly parading his Jewish ancestry and his imperial exoticism, called “Young England” into being.
American conservatives are a still wilder lot, and one might find a place for a “Straussian conservatism” there. The Social Credit populism of the North American plains owes little to Burkean conservatism. The Southern Agrarian love of the land and the local, with its sensuality and sense of stewardship, might cast the pagan and the pantheistic in a more native American light. Russell Kirk’s profound and perverse ghost stories raise difficult ethical questions for a defender of Christianity, even as they affirm the commitment to the ancestral, the traditional, and to Burke. They ally Christianity to a more shadowed American story. In this context, Christianity appears less in accord with American, if not Anglo-American, ideals.
The libertarian current in American and Canadian political thought has no place in Havers’s understanding of conservatism, but it has a firm hold among many North Americans who call themselves conservative. Economistic liberals such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and their allies may not be conservative—Hayek famously refused the label—but they have surely shaped conservatism. In their absence from Havers’s account, Strauss’s defense of liberalism may seem more at odds with Anglo-American conservatism than it should. Recall the claim of Louis Hartz that liberalism is largely uncontested in America, that the belief in rights and republicanism is shared from left to right. If Hartz is correct, the ascendancy of liberalism has nevertheless issued in “a rich interior development,” not least in the range of conservatisms to be found in the North America.
Havers writes from a small and intimate corner of this great continent. If one sees North America as Burke did, seeded by England, shaped by English laws, and devoted to English liberties, the belief that this is true conservatism may be a just one. But Havers’s commitment to the power of history to limit the possibilities of politics and his love (I think this is not too strong) of the ancestral and traditional has consequences for more profound questions than how we think of Strauss or conservatism.
Havers is a faithful Christian, and it is Strauss’s turn from Christianity to the ancients that most troubles him. Havers believes that Christianity is the moral foundation of the Anglo-Americans; without it morality decays and the rule of law, constitutional government, and “the survival of the Anglo-American West” falter. His reading of Strauss suggests that the advocacy of natural rights and ancient and eternal values has made Strauss’s disciples powerful allies of a more openly irreligious secularism. This is an aspect of intellectual history that has yet to be explored, and Havers should be commended for raising it.
The history of 20th-century Europe, however, might give pause to any historian who puts his faith in Christianity as a moral foundation. Havers seems to understand that, after the experience of a silent or complicit Christianity in the rise of the Third Reich, “it is not surprising” that Strauss would “refuse to accept Christianity as a universal faith that ought to inspire all human beings.” Yet he cannot “fully grasp why Strauss is almost silent on the contribution Christianity has made to the Western tradition of political philosophy.” The argument that Strauss and his students give less weight than they ought to the influence of Christianity on Western political thought may have scholarly merit. In the historical context, however, the silence of a German Jewish refugee on the political value of Christianity seems unsurprising.
Strauss emerges from Havers’s study as a man committed to the proposition that the eternal things in philosophy and politics are accessible to the reasoning mind of any person, of any faith and people, in any time or place. Such a conviction lacks the certainty of faith. It is always in question. As Havers recognizes, it can be dangerous: “Strauss and his followers,” he writes, have reinvented Anglo-American democracy “devoted to the spread of universal democratic ideals around the world.” Havers is opposed not only to a democratic evangelism drawn into imperial adventures, but, like Burke, to all claims to universality, abstract ideals, and natural rights.
This might seem to sit uneasily with Christian universalism, but Havers thinks otherwise. Christianity, Havers affirms, is uniquely benevolent and universal. No other religion entails the duty of “loving fatherhood” to divine creation. If the promise of personal redemption is unbounded, however, political redemption is bound within a narrower compass. At the close of his book, he writes, “If the Bible teaches a universal morality that all human beings must practice, it will never logically follow that this morality is historically universal.” The redemptive power of Christianity diminishes here, no longer even large enough to hold the West.
Against this, one can set Leo Strauss’s reading of Judaism: “the patriotism of the prophets is only universalism.” At that moment, Strauss transforms a particularistic faith into one that can embrace the world. Perhaps it has never been simply particular, perhaps there has always been the imperative of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Havers, by contrast, seems to transform historical Christianity into the local and the ancestral.
The idea that the universal morality of Christian teaching is not and will not be historically universal may dismay many Christians. Others may be tempted to read it simply as an affirmation of cultural and religious superiority somewhat lacking in Christian humility. That would be unfortunate. Havers’s study of Strauss and Anglo-American democracy calls on us to question the reach of reason in the service of politics and the redemptive power of revelation.
Anne Norton, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire.