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Leo Strauss and the Right’s Civil War

I recently reviewed [1] Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America [2] for the University Bookman. Paul responds to my review here [3]. Note that in addition to Paul’s book being available as an affordable paperback, the Kindle edition [4] is now going for just $12.49—if you’re interested in this topic, be sure to read it for yourself.

In the review I say that whether or not Strauss was in some sense a “conservative” is not the most interesting thing about him or the debate over his work. Gottfried may be correct that Strauss is better understood—if he needs to be situated in the context of late 20th century politics at all—as a Cold War liberal. The deficiency with that approach, however, is that it fails to account for why Strauss and his disciples are more often seen to associate with the conservative movement than with the leading figures and institutions of liberalism. Strauss and Straussians have been a presence in National Review since the 1960s. They have never had a similar representation in the New Republic, let alone The Nation.

Paul points to the importance of Strauss’s critique of relativism to explain the affinity that conservatives, especially conservative Catholics, have felt for him and his disciples. He also, however, calls attention to the Strauss circle’s apparent preference for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1950s and 1960s as evidence of a left-leaning disposition. In the Bookman, I challenge he idea that presidential voting counts for much—I cite the preference of Murray Rothbard and Peter Viereck, two other ambiguously conservative or right-leaning figures, for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower as an indicator of how voting is not always a sure sign of ideological alignment. I chose those figures because they happened to agree with Strauss (according to Stephen Smith’s account of Strauss’s voting) in the elections of the 1950s and because they, like Strauss, are not easy to pigeonhole. The point can be expanded, however: Russell Kirk, a conservative’s conservative, liked Eugene McCarthy as much as Barry Goldwater, and James Burnham—an important influence on Gottfried’s fellow paleoconservative Sam Francis [5]—strongly preferred liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller over Goldwater.

The “relativism” question is far more important than presidential voting, and taken together with personal and institutional associations creates a much stronger case for placing Strauss among conservatives than among liberals like Louis Hartz or A.M. Schlesinger. National Review‘s William F. Buckley Jr. and Willmoore Kendall considered Strauss a comrade, as did Russell Kirk [6]—though he came to have a more negative view of Strauss’s disciples after the 1980s.

This is worth stating explicitly because less historically informed commentators than Gottfried—who touches on such associations just briefly—may think there’s some mystery as to how latter-day Straussians came to occupy a prominent place in the conservative movement. The simple answer is: they inherited it, both from Strauss himself and from Harry Jaffa, who is ideologically idiosyncratic but has been influential in right-wing Republican and NR circles since the early 1960s.

What has to be noticed is that conservatism shifted its priorities over the course of some 30 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the particularistic elements on the right and the universalistic elements on the right were not at war with one another, and to the extent that there was tension between them, that tension was resolved by the most influential conservative thinkers in favor of universalism. Richard Weaver, for example, balanced a Southern identity with Platonic philosophy, but when he came to consider the merits of Edmund Burke (a particularist) and Abraham Lincoln (a universalist), he decided for Lincoln. Strauss, of course, also placed the universal above the particular, while other conservatives such as Peter Stanlis [7] resolved the conflict by re-interpreting Burke as a natural-law thinker. (Kirk followed Stanlis in this regard.) There were certainly strong particularistic or historicist tendencies in many early Cold War conservatives, but universalism was hardly a foreign element—if anything, it was predominant in the conservative movement’s first decades.

In the 1980s the synthesis broke down, in part for personal reasons rather than philosophical ones. The Southern literary scholar M.E. Bradford [8], with a strong particularist streak (and a strongly critical view of Lincoln), was denied an appointment as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities by younger neoconservatives and political operatives who objected to his views and feared he would embarrass Reagan. The struggle over the NEH began to draw the battle lines of the next 20-odd years: universalists now hardened their anti-particularism, and strong particularists began to reject all but the faintest of universalisms. This is where Paul Gottfried and the movement he christened “paleoconservatism” come in.

Very roughly speaking, one might say that postwar conservatism in the ’50s and ’60s was a 60-40 mix of universalism and particularism; after the 1980s, movement conservatism was an 80-20 mix of universalism to particularism, with the neoconservative component of the movement being 90 percent universalist, while the paleoconservatives who lost the right’s civil war were an 80-20 mix of particularism to universalism. The changing ratios were not just driven by philosophical and personal clashes; the upheavals of the Nixon years and the rise of Southern and Christian populisms on the right were equally important. Indeed, one way to understand the paleo-neo wars of the 1990s is as a struggle to decide whether a universalistic Christian conservatism (including Christian Zionism) or a particularistic ethno-nationalist (specifically, Southern and white ethnic) conservatism would prevail. The GOP’s emerging base of voters was at once Southern and Christian, of course, but which identity would the ideological publicists openly promote?


At every level, the univeralists prevailed in the conservative movement. In politics, the right-wing message since the 1990s has been universalistic with an unstated but unmissable ethno-particularist undertone. The paleos of the ’90s themselves ran into trouble among their own ranks over the ratio of particularism to universalism. Old-guard conservatives like Russell Kirk, who hated the militant universalism of the neoconservatives, nevertheless were not altogether comfortable with the sometimes extreme particularism of some of the paleos. (Gottfried relates an instance of this in his memoir Encounters [9], in which he, Russell Kirk, the libertarian Murray Rothbard, and the paleo Sam Francis met to discuss a Pat Buchanan campaign for president.)

The place of Strauss and the Straussians in this story is rather complicated. Jaffa is a leading exponent of universalism—he was an old sparring partner of Bradford’s, though Jaffa did not oppose his NEH nomination—and Jaffa’s “West Coast Straussian” students are fixtures of movement conservatism today, through such organs as the Claremont Institute and some of the faculty and administration of Hillsdale College. Some of the “East Coast Straussians” are even more influential: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was a student of Harvey Mansfield’s at Harvard, and William’s father Irving was a deep admirer of Strauss. Gottfried does not spend many words differentiating East Coast and West Coast varieties of Straussian (or other permutations—and there are a few) because both have exemplars with strong institutional ties to neoconservatism and the conservative movement. Oversimplifying Gottfried’s position just a little, one can say that with a few unimportant exceptions, Strauss and the Straussians are antithetical to non-neoconservatives. Their growing presence in the conservative movement has been a sign of that movement’s transformation into something that Gottfried considers basically left-wing, in large part because of its anti-historical hyper-universalism.

What I find most interesting about this is that the history as it has unfolded since the 1980s actually expresses a philosophical tension that Strauss had identified in the 1950s—it’s hard not to see a parallel between the right’s incoherence and Strauss’s critique of figures like Edmund Burke. The right’s civil wars do indeed revolve around “natural right and history.” The shame of it is that polemics and factional animosity have obscured the more interesting philosophical problems and how their solutions might be sought. An important discussion has been played out like a cartoon. But it need not continue to do so, if only one looks afresh at the principal ideas rather than their polemical caricatures.

First, Strauss’s “natural right” is not simply “natural law” or “natural rights” or “human rights.” Strauss is a universalist, in that he thinks some questions and problems are always present to humanity and in political life. But that basic level of universalism does not lead directly to wars to impose liberal democracy on the Islamic world. It’s not obvious that Strauss’s degree of universalism is necessarily any more far-reaching than many a Catholic particularist’s. (Catholicism is of course universal in its self-understanding, so a Catholic particularist is a universalist to some degree on account of his faith.) In the work of conservatives like Willmoore Kendall and Patrick Deneen [10] one can see Strauss, Catholicism, and a quasi-particularist critique of American exceptionalism coming together quite organically. That so many of Strauss’s other professed admirers are full-throated liberal-democratic imperialists doesn’t mean that the exceptions can be ignored—again, there’s a parallel to Strauss’s own methodology, in which exceptions are precisely something to be noted.

Second, if “natural right” is not necessarily “neoconservatism,” it’s also the case that “history” need not mean crude ethno-nationalism. Traditionalist conservatives like Claes Ryn and some of the paleoconservatives have begun to develop an incarnational historicism—which in fact has some parallels in the thought of Eric Voegelin and even, surprising as it may sound, Frank Meyer—that integrates the particular and universal in such a way as to do violence to neither. Strauss, of course, would not be satisfied; the project may sound too much like German Idealism revisited, with too much of a Christian overtone to be comfortable for someone who takes Judaism seriously. Nevertheless, a philosophically sophisticated conservative historicism is at least as incompatible with vulgar right-wing identity politics as it is with the universalist pretensions of American exceptionalism.

One thing even the most historicist right-winger can learn or re-learn from Strauss is the ambiguous character of the American polity. Americans have always had a penchant for universalism, which Strauss recognized. That universalism was not synonymous with what he had in mind by natural right, though it wasn’t diametrically opposed to it, either. When paleos have tended to damn universalism root and branch—to speak as if they can’t understand why anyone would bother to read the Declaration of Independence unless they’ve been brainwashed by Harry Jaffa—they have cut themselves off from their countrymen and guaranteed the success of even the most puerile universalism. The problem is not a failure to cheerlead for Lockean ideology, but a refusal to recognize that Americans have always been more complicated than a simple hearth-and-home conservatism—or in degraded terms, blood-and-soil conservatism—can admit.

In short, the right’s factional battles over the last 30 years are one thing, the deeper issues that get touched on but distorted by those battles are another. An examination of Strauss is most valuable when it focuses on the latter rather than the former. That’s not a big knock on Paul’s book, which has a lot to do in under 200 pages and does raise plenty of interesting questions. But there’s much more to be said, and it can only be said once the sectarian history is put in perspective.

47 Comments (Open | Close)

47 Comments To "Leo Strauss and the Right’s Civil War"

#1 Comment By Marc L. On January 19, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

Leo Strauss’ ‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’, 1956 – Yet 2014 and ‘intellectuals’ still don’t listen to or understand their Elite, the Philosophers…

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 20, 2014 @ 1:28 am

Is it really so important to pin down exactly where Straus stood in the encyclopedia of conservative thought over the last fifty years or so? Issue by issue and decade by decade, who agreed with him about this, but not that, who the “true conservatives” were and weren’t, and what did they think of this aspect of what Straus wrote or who he endorsed for president and so on, what percentage of conservatives favored universalism over particularism in such and such a decade, with a slight change in the mix the next decade, and on and on? Nesbit said this, yeah but Kirk said that. And Jaffa, Weaver and Stanlis said entirely different things. Yeah, but so and so reinterpreted Burke as a natural rights theorist. Sure, but Straus did not conceive of “natural right” in x, y or z ways. Etc, etc.

Is Straus’ place in conservative taxonomy really of such vital importance, that book after book, review after review, and exchange after exchange must be written about it? It is like one of those old, medieval religious paintings, which show all the saints and angels and popes and prophets and apostles and, of course, the Holy Family, in some sort of heavenly assembly, with who is standing next to whom of vital importance, perhaps, to the people who painted the picture and other folks at that time, but pretty much of no real concern now. Or like the Cold War Kremlinologists who used to study the Soviet big shots on the reviewing stand at the May Day and November Revolution Anniversary parades. Who was standing next to who, who got moved to the back row, or the undesirable side of the box, and who took their place, and so on. Important then, maybe, but now? Does it really matter where we place Straus in relation to Rothbard, or any one of the other forty thousand or so other conservative intellectuals named.

For a political movement that claims to be non ideological, there seems to be an awful lot of concern about pigeonholing everyone into precise little cubicles. And there seems to be an undue overabundance of allegedly seminal, or even important, conservative thinkers and intellectuals. Given that it is a movement that hasn’t had an original thought in decades, one has to wonder what great thoughts all these great thinkers were thinking. It almost seems as if there were more august conservative thinkers extant than there were conservative voters!

Of even less obvious interest, much less appeal, is an evaluation of Straus’ alleged and dubious forays into “intellectual history,” and arguments about how much he interpreted or re interpreted Machiavelli, Plato, and whoever, as “atheists,” and the various meanings of the word “atheist” and the like.

If Straus is really of any importance, it is only because the neo cons either claim him as their mentor or that claim is made on their behalf. Whether that is fair or not might be of some interest, but not much. Beyond that, I really don’t get all the ink and pixels being spilled on his behalf.

#3 Comment By Puller58 On January 20, 2014 @ 8:30 am

“Conservatives” in today’s world are largely contrived scoundrals who hope to dupe enough people into letting them hold power without justification. History cannot teach those who will not learn.

#4 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On January 20, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

Universalists? Particularists? What in the hell are these deep thinkers talking about? Except for a handful of academic tenured professors, these intellectual exercises have no bearing whatsoever on the actual governance of a nation. When THE Official GOP “We deserve your vote” 2014 political position is the repeal of Obamacare; the gap between philosophy and practice is so vast neither has any relationship to the other.

#5 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On January 20, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

These topics aren’t for everyone—if it’s any consolation, I feel about “Duck Dynasty” the way other people evidently feel about intellectual history.

The practical effects of this stuff can be greater than you might expect, however. Good ideas and bad ideas, but difficult ideas at any rate, get popularized and translated into political pitches and government policy. The top-tier, most abstract ideas have a conditioning effect right down the line, as they color how one perceives the world and what actions are realistic or right. The topics I’ve mentioned here are live issues for many of the right’s teachers, legal thinkers, economists, speechwriters, and in a few important cases, politicians.

#6 Comment By Seth Owen On January 20, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

Perhaps, Dan, but I don’t think you really explain why philadelphialawyer and John Blade Wiederspan are right to wonder if this isn’t so much more of an exercise in obscure Kremlinology or medieval angels-dancing-on-a-pin level than having explanatory power over the current sate of the conservative movement.

Why does it matter?

As someone who follows politics fairly closely but not obsessively, the current state of conservatism really reminds me of late 20th Century Leftism more than anything else. Endless debates over indiscernible shades of “correct” thought, spiced up by ruthless purges and gleeful internecine squabbling. Meanwhile any attention to the practical questions of governance, policy or their effectiveness is completely forgotten. Exhibit No. 1 is the current GOP-led House, which set records for ineffectiveness.

Perhaps you are right that “The topics I’ve mentioned here are live issues for many of the right’s teachers, legal thinkers, economists, speechwriters, and in a few important cases, politicians.” And I’d suggest that this is precisely the problem afflicting the Right these days. They’re all exercised about these topics and ignoring topics of concern to everyday folks such as jobs and war.

#7 Comment By paul gottfried On January 20, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

Dan is again to be commended for another civil, intelligent response to my book. But I think he may be too kind in the way he addresses self-described conservatives whose minds have been rotted by TV “conservative” talking points and Republican celebrity blabber mouths. Conservatives should not only be talking about and defending philosophically their beliefs. This should be their primary activity. Those who re bored by such discussions should go back to listening to Rush and Ann.

#8 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 20, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

Paul Gottfried:

“Conservatives should not only be talking about and defending philosophically their beliefs. This should be their primary activity. Those who [a]re bored by such discussions should go back to listening to Rush and Ann.”

Is there maybe a third fork that is being fallaciously lost in that dichotomy? Like being concerned about, as has been mentioned, actually governing, rather than either abstruse and obscure pedagogy OR idiotic polemics.

Not listening to Rush and Ann goes without saying, but I fail to see why endless debates about “philosophy” (or, more accurately, endless arguments about the history of the movement as seen strictly through a philosophical lens, with the emphasis being more on who fits into what camp and why than anything else) should be the “primary” activity of conservatives or anyone else.

#9 Comment By Prof Jacob On January 20, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

“Relativism” is just a bogeyman promoted by neocons to wallpaper over the real blood and soil West with shallow abstractions.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On January 20, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

Seth Owen says: “As someone who follows politics fairly closely but not obsessively, the current state of conservatism really reminds me of late 20th Century Leftism more than anything else. Endless debates over indiscernible shades of ‘correct’ thought, spiced up by ruthless purges and gleeful internecine squabbling.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard something like this…

For all of the criticism of far left “sects” and their follies, we represent a pretty small proportion of the U.S. Left. The majority of the left flies under the radar while its members:

a) Engage in short-term and largely ineffectual activism as performance or catharsis.
b) Use organizational methods that have grown out of a mix of 70’s radical feminism and anarchism (consensus instead of majority rule, facilitation instead of chairmanship, “none of us are leaders, all of us are leaders” but look behind the curtain and you can readily identify the leadership clique).
c) Delcare that every new reformist activist group is utterly new and unique, a never before seen protoype for a New New Left.
d) Eventually go to work for NGO’s funded mainly by the elite and pursuing advocacy approved by the establishment.
e) And finally, pimp for the Democratic Party.

I’ve worked in both mileaus and while the Old Left has many faults, the newer lefts could learn a lot from it, and not just what not to do.

#11 Comment By TomB On January 20, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

paul gottfried wrote:

“Those who re bored by such discussions should go back to listening to Rush and Ann.”

Grossly unfair not to mention incredibly bold coming from one failing to address the substantive issues of conservatism in favor of merely cataloging the differences amongst others in doing so.

Or, at best, doing the latter so as to make mere Arguments From (alleged) Authority.

You oughta watch that sharp tongue, Professor; someone could cut their own throat with it.

#12 Comment By CJ Wolfe On January 21, 2014 @ 12:30 am

On the Universalist vs. Particularist issue, don’t forget JACQUES MARITAIN, one of the greatest Catholic defenders of universalistic natural law philosophy. Why do many Conservative Catholics thinkers like Lincoln his defense of the natural law truths of the declaration? They were influenced by Maritain- all for the better, in my opinion

#13 Comment By Javier R. On January 21, 2014 @ 3:04 am

“Grossly unfair not to mention incredibly bold coming from one failing to address the substantive issues of conservatism in favor of merely cataloging the differences amongst others in doing so.”

Even if thats all he did(I dont agree)his highlighting of the differences is still a substanitive look at the core of conservatism. Nothing unfair about his encouraging the intellectually feeble minded to get their daily dosage of junk food from Ann,Sean, and the EIB network.

#14 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On January 21, 2014 @ 3:50 am

Mr. Gottfried, your work will face something worse than criticism; it will face indifference. Good luck influencing the American public with your work. I can not wait to see the results.

#15 Comment By spite On January 21, 2014 @ 5:07 am

“Endless debates over indiscernible shades of “correct” thought, spiced up by ruthless purges and gleeful internecine squabbling”

The debates are not all indiscernible, the libertarian vs. neocon viewpoints in terms of foreign policy and the NSA, the Chamber of Commerce vs. nativists in terms of immigration and amnesty, the Christians vs. pro homosexual side etc. None of these are angels on a pin debates, none of these one can argue “lets just get back to governing” when all of these fundamentally determine how things should be governed.

#16 Comment By Matt On January 21, 2014 @ 8:56 am

The Paleos are wrong about particularism. The great American experiment to free us from the tyrannies of particularity has mostly been a success. Those unfortunate groups that haven’t managed to get out of their particularist milieus have languished.

The tension comes because that approach has diminishing returns. Total universalism won’t work because that’s just not how humans are. Even the most cosmopolitan of us has to know who he actually is, and that entails knowing who he is not. At worst, we even seem to need as a species some level of us-and-them conflict to give our lives meaning. This will always frustrate the rational optimists.

These things have to come before “practical governance” because the approach to practical governance is based on them. In short, exhortations to forget all that stuff and get with the program is in effect a call to just surrender to the status quo, whatever it may be. Also, the people who think about higher order matters aren’t necessarily the same as those concerned with practical application anyway.

#17 Comment By garee peters On January 21, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

..If one reads Prof. Shadia Drury’s (University of Regina) analysis of Strauss, the scales will melt from your eyes…..regarding Strauss’ misreading of Plato and the ‘Noble Lie’…..But, if you don’t read it, then you’ll not know why serious scholars hold Strauss in such low esteem……

#18 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 21, 2014 @ 5:28 pm


“The debates are not all indiscernible, the libertarian vs. neocon viewpoints in terms of foreign policy and the NSA, the Chamber of Commerce vs. nativists in terms of immigration and amnesty, the Christians vs. pro homosexual side etc. None of these are angels on a pin debates, none of these one can argue ‘lets just get back to governing’ when all of these fundamentally determine how things should be governed.”

Indeed, but all of these issues can be discussed more directly and hence more fruitfully, IMHO, if the debate is not centered on where the Mr Straus, who died over forty years ago, fits in the pantheon of conservative intellectual luminaries, who fits best next to him, and why.

#19 Comment By seydlitz89 On January 21, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

Reading all this it only reinforced my view of how confused and confusing all the talk regarding Leo Strauss has become . . . So why not cut to the chase and dispose of some rather obvious false assumptions?

First, Strauss was essentially a pre-Enlightenment thinker. Liberalism as in Western, Enlightenment Liberalism, is not politics, but the negation of politics. Read his critique of Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political” . . . Liberalism is a “smokescreen” of the political . . .

Second, in the second chapter of “Natural Right and History”, Strauss spends over 40 pages attacking Max Weber . . . Weber being perhaps the most significant German Liberal of his time (pre-WWI). Arguing, unsuccessfully imo, that Weber’s modern assumptions are wrong.

Third, Strauss assumed that he understood the true value system on which his “science” of society would be based. Liberal democracy had nothing to do with it . . .

Fourth and finally, “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Is there any doubts that these fundamental views influenced US policy when Strauss’s followers were in positions of power . . . and will again should their attempt at whitewashing their own dubious legitimacy and outright failures be successful?

#20 Comment By Al Kawi On January 21, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

Many thanks to Paul Gottfried for writing a splendid book, and to Daniel McCarthy for a thoughtful, informative, and provocative post in response to that book. This is TAC at its best.

#21 Comment By MikeS On January 22, 2014 @ 9:04 am

“Endless debates over indiscernible shades of “correct” thought, spiced up by ruthless purges and gleeful internecine squabbling”

This reminds of my several mis-spent years in the conservative Reformed church. Their literature was dominated by counter-denunciations, powerplays, and splits among splinter groups. I came to realize how pathetic and irrelevant it was.

#22 Comment By Sean Scallon On January 22, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

“Old-guard conservatives like Russell Kirk, who hated the militant universalism of the neoconservatives, nevertheless were not altogether comfortable with the sometimes extreme particularism of some of the paleos.”

I wonder if this is true because Kirk, unlike Francis and many others in paleos circles was a Northerner and simply could not breath in all of the “lost cause” rhetoric and ideology that was so much a part of their development without being himself uncomfortable. Northerners (myself included) can take a critical viewpoint of Lincoln as good Douglas Democrat or old western, conservative Whig would but would find it impossible to change the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Davis Memorial. So much of the institutions and civic traditions of the North are as bound up to Lincoln the old Republican Party as one would find in the South towards the old Confederacy. There is no getting around this without looking utterly stupid (as Clyde Wilson, to his credit, thought it stupid to try to turn the modern Republican Party into a kind of Confederate political party). Like it or not (and many will not) any conservatism which survives the post-modern age and flourish again has to put aside Southern particularlism as being a part of the past, especially when its becoming a part of the past in that very region.

#23 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On January 22, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

My response to a perceived insult from Prof. Gottfried (go back to listening to Rush and Ann) must be slightly withdrawn after reading”Sleepwalk to Suicide”. Insightful. However, the point I tried to make (in my original post) is this. The most recognized people today, claiming to be political conservatives, are a damaging joke. Those that dominate mass media and the national political scene are so far removed from ANY coherent cognitive function they stain the conservative philosophy with the blackest of tar. A look at the GOP primary candidates in the last two elections grimly proves the point. The gap between philosophy and practice is so vast; the fine philosophical shadings of Leo Strauss and others have no significant role in today’s America. More’s the pity.

#24 Comment By Myron Hudson On January 22, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

cka2nd: Funny, and true. Consensus: a surefire way to get nowhere.

#25 Comment By Rambler88 On January 22, 2014 @ 10:20 pm

The philosophical issues that underlie the debates described by Mr. McCarthy are indeed important and worthy of discussion, whatever their immediate influence on political practice. In the long run, those issues have immense practical importance. But in the institutional territory occupied by Strauss and his followers, those issues are buried much more deeply than they are elsewhere, and this is by design. To debate those issues in Strauss’s terms is to further his obscurantist program.

#26 Comment By qvole On January 22, 2014 @ 11:33 pm

Dan, I think that you misconstrue some of Professor Gottfried’s comments as being primarily concerned with practical politics instead of academic claims. Gottfried, as much anything else, wants to assess Strauss as an academic, not as a polemicist, and he finds him wanting in all sorts of ways. As you and others who have read my review of Gottfried’s book in the AmCon know, I think that Strauss is a charlatan and not worth the effort, but he is a figure in the history of American conservatism, as you point out. The problem that I have with your review at the Bookman and here is that you haven’t made it clear in any way whatsoever why Strauss is academically interesting. His ‘method’ is merely a way of not being accountable to any actual practicing intellectual historian’s arguments. He has a small but influential group of followers who practice intellectual ventriloquism and so attribute their own peculiar ideas to famous dead people. It’s not at all like putting on a play. Instead it’s like some ridiculous theosophical phantasm. The question of why these people have influence in American politics is not that interesting. Stupid people do. The question is why they have influence in American academia.

#27 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On January 23, 2014 @ 2:03 am

Qvole, I say in the review that I don’t think Strauss can be viewed as a conventional intellectual historian (no matter how Strauss described himself—his idea of “intellectual history” isn’t the Cambridge School’s, to say the least). He’s a political theorist, one who raises what he sees as persistent questions of politics and investigates how major thinkers of the Western political tradition have addressed them. He insists that all of this has a normative component, and he rejects quite strongly the idea of value-free social science. When you ask for an “academically interesting” account of Strauss, I think you’re asking for an account of him in light of criteria that he had no intention of observing.

Debating those criteria in the context of today’s university doesn’t seem worthwhile in a review for a venue like the University Bookman, which was founded by Russell Kirk to advance non-specialist, humanistic learning. If I were reviewing the book for a journal of intellectual history, I would still want to point out what Strauss is actually trying to do, but I would be much more concerned about his departures from the ethos of the profession.

#28 Comment By bjk On January 23, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

What influence in American academia? In what field? Classics? Hardly, or only sub rosa, never footnoted. Philosophy? No way. Political science? Look at the UChicago faculty roster and ask yourself where you can find Strauss’s influence. It doesn’t exist. Maybe in a few think tanks in DC.

#29 Comment By Will in Mississippi On January 24, 2014 @ 10:45 am

A commentator raised the distinction between universalist and particularist outlooks in regard to the feud between Straussians/neocons and paleoconservatives. Fair enough, but there’s a different context which doesn’t touch on controversial allegiances to blood and soil. A lot, if not most, policy questions have to engage the specific context in which decisions occur and policies operate. Abstration tends to hit a wall formed by local considerations. What sounds good in theory all too often doesn’t operate in practice, so the question “how does this work given the situation” really can’t be dodged if you expect to succeed. And yet the Straussian approach dismisses it out of hand. (So do many other theories, which is why there’s a massive gap between theorists and practitioners in fields like international relations.)

One need not flyer the rebel flag or wear a Carlist beret to find Straussian universalims nonsense on stilts.

#30 Comment By Todd Pierce On January 24, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

While I once read the so-called conservative “philosophers,” I came to realize that with few exceptions they were simply militaristic authoritarians. Or Conservative-Revolutionaries as they were called in post-World War I Germany. They were not the Classical Liberals of the American founding, notwithstanding that Burke was closer to that as he showed in Letter to the Bristol Sheriff.
Forget all the blather about universalism and particularism; psychologically, it is apparent now, too many American conservatives, neo and non-neo both, tend to be more in the style of Prussian or Russian conservatives, that is, for militarism and authoritarianism. Goldwater wanted to kill all the Vietnamese and virtually all “conservatives” supported him in 1964. I am sure he would have favored military detention, the prerogative of a dictator or Monarch, of anyone who got in the way of the war effort as did many other military officers.
Here is what Strauss wrote in a letter of 1923: “the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible . . . without resort to the . . . . [inalienable rights of man] to protest against the shabby abomination.
I read that as Strauss not complaining of Naziism but only complaining of his exclusion from the table, so to speak. Unfortunately, some so-called paleo-cons have adopted and become apologists for the ideas of Strauss’s “right,” even while claiming to criticize Strauss and the neocons as being of the “left.” So instead of Strauss, they’ve embraced his ideological soul-mate, the advocate of dictatorship, and future Nazi, Carl Schmitt, another Conservative-Revolutionary of Germany before being absorbed into the Nazi orbit.
What might be better for an American “conservative” to read and internalize is the Constitution, while ignoring those right-wing “originalists,” especially Catholics on the high court, whose “originalism” has come to seem as if they ask, What Would Schmitt Do.

#31 Comment By paul gottfried On January 24, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

I am bewildered and disappointed by the comments of those who believe that scholars who try to define conservative or rightist theory (which I don’t do, by the way, in my study of Strauss) are walking in the clouds and have no connection to the real conservative movement, which is being proclaimed on Fox and talk radio. Having listened to these sources talk up the GOP, advocate a neocon, human rights foreign policy, and insist that Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were really on the right, I have no idea how said sources can represnt any kind of recognizable historical Right. I must admit, however, that Rush can be occasionally funny without meaning to be, e.g., when warns his listeners not to be sucked in by the vocalist Bruce Springsteen, “who may be a Democrat.” Is this the kind of stuff that “conservatives” are supposed to be imbibing, together with the collected diatribes against the Democratic Party being marketed by Ms. Coulter? I’m not even sure what makes this kind of shilling specifically rightwing. Both national parties have moved on social issues well to the left of FDR or JFK. And the GOP has done very little to resist this movement.

#32 Comment By Russell On January 24, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

“When paleos have tended to damn universalism root and branch—to speak as if they can’t understand why anyone would bother to read the Declaration of Independence unless they’ve been brainwashed by Harry Jaffa—”

You dont have to have been brainwashed by Strauss to
anathematize Washington’s Farewell Address either.

But it helps.

#33 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 24, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

Once again, Mr Gottfried engages in fallacy. As many posters have made clear, the alternative to studying in mind numbing detail Leo Straus’ place in the conservative intellectual spectrum, and the questions of who belongs next to him and who doesn’t, is NOT limited to listening to Rush and Ann with bated breath. Nobody here is saying that. Nobody here is saying that those two entertainers should be given any kind of privileged position at all. So, the attack on Rush and Ann is an attack on a straw man.

What is being said is that issues of governance and policy in the here and now are of more importance not only in comparison to whatever Rush and Ann are blathering about today (which goes without saying), but also in comparison to endless debate about where on the chart to pin a polemicist who has been dead for over forty years.

Regardless of where the GOP has moved, and one’s opinion of that movement, literally not one person on this board has championed Rush or Ann as sources of information, as opinion makers, as helpful in defining how conservatives should view King, Mandela, or even Springsteen, or, indeed, as anything at all. So, to me, it is bewildering and disappointing to read, repeatedly, from an obviously intellectually sophisticated historian, no less, claims to the contrary.

Mr Gottfried, there is more in the world of conservatism than either Leo Straus OR Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. And that “more” (ie governance issues, policy, etc) is what we are saying should be given greater emphasis. Please stop misrepresenting that.

#34 Comment By Marc L. On January 24, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

What a Thread!!! Many thanks to Dan McCarthy, TAC and all the commenters in here contributing – a pleasure to read and digest and to see how alive American Intellectualism indeed is behind the Media smokescreen of today.

Obviously America is so much better than the people that represent her.

#35 Comment By reflectionephemeral On January 25, 2014 @ 9:01 am

I’m inclined to agree with John Blade Wiederspan and philadelphialawyer. It’s not that understanding the debates over Strauss’s work is a waste of time; it’s that it doesn’t get us too far in understanding contemporary conservatism.

The past 20 years of politically influential conservative thought are better understood by reading Rush and Ann, and maybe Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Roger Ailes, than by consulting Strauss. ( [11] “Russell Kirk is about one hundred millionth as influential in today’s Republican Party as Mark Levin.”)

Like an argument about whether Wee Willie Keeler was better than Frank “Home Run” Baker, debating the nature & influence of Strauss’s universalism is engaging and rewarding, but not necessarily too relevant to how the game is played today.

#36 Comment By Ed On January 25, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

Clearly, many conservatives supported Stevenson — after all, the states he carried were south of the Mason-Dixon line, but I’m not sure Viereck and Rothbard really count as ideological conservatives who were also madly for Adlai.

Peter Viereck may have been temperamentally conservative, but it was hard to separate his New Conservatism from the liberalism of his academic collegues when it came to what the government should actually do. And Viereck was always fuzzy about practical matters.

Murray Rothbard may have been a libertarian, but was there anything conservative about him? Rothbard may have preferred Stevenson to Eisenhower, but he also came close to preferring Nikita Khrushchev to Ike. It would make things easier if we just assume that enthusiasts for Viet Cong victory in Vietnam don’t count as American conservatives. Can we agree about that?

In contrast to Viereck, Rothbard, and also the remaining Southern agrarians, Leo Strauss didn’t directly question the free market, corporate capitalism, the Cold War, the legitimacy of the US government, or conservative opposition to the New Deal so there wasn’t much preventing his adoption by at least one branch of the conservative movement.

Strauss’s cultural pessimism was in synch with conservative anxieties at the time, and his emphasis on universal moral values didn’t stand in the way of conservatives in post-WWII America either. Weren’t “univeral moral values” what we’d gone to war against Hitler to defend? Weren’t they what we claimed to represent in our conflict with Soviet Communism? The lesson of those Germans who believed in German exceptionalism, in the uniqueness of Germans and their mission was very fresh in those years.

I have to wonder, though, if Strauss really was neoconservative global crusader, a Bush or Cheney precursor. Wasn’t his belief in universal moral tempered by realism, prudence, and restraint? Wasn’t his support for democracy qualified by an understanding of its frailties and limitations?

I can understand that the conflict between the Machiavellian and the Wilsonian in Strauss opened up the possiblity of Bush-era neoconservatism later on, but was Cheneyism really implicit or an inevitable result of Strauss’s thinking?

#37 Comment By Doven Hooker On January 25, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

The fact that Mr. McCarthy and others herein see fit to condescend to anyone who finds the “particularist” and “universalist” terms to be empty and obscure by suggesting “Duck Dynasty” and “Rush Limbaugh” as alternatives to their “intellectual” historicism speaks volumes. What Mr. McCarthy and the other people here who consider themselves so much more intelligent than some of us may fail to realize is that 1) They probably can’t even agree on the meanings of these terms and wouldn’t dare to try to define them – as seems to be the case with Mr. McCarthy and 2) Intellectualizing in such density in such a sort essay will fail to reach any but the most limited audience.

But, as I mentioned at the start, comments such as “These topics aren’t for everyone—if it’s any consolation, I feel about “Duck Dynasty” the way other people evidently feel about intellectual history”, should, after a moment of reflection, leave the writer of such egotistical twaddle feeling embarrassed.

#38 Comment By Michael P On January 26, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

I am a person who is merely philosophical, but knows little about philosophy as an academic pursuit.
I enjoy book reviews such as the one presented here because I get the benefit of learning about historical figures about whom I might not otherwise have much known.
Excellent review. Thanks for writing it.

#39 Comment By Bianca On January 26, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

Strauss is Trotski of American century. Power is all that interests him, and thus, intellectual flexibility and ambuguity. After all, the goals are reached though having power, thus being out of the circle of power is really the only sin. His and his followers have a missionary zeal, only in its appearance. To enhance “American exceptionalism”, which creates a creature he most wanted, a country with a sense of superiority to all on this planet. With this mindset, empire for the chosen cannot be lost, or so he thinks.

He understood the deep hatred between Stalin and Trotski. Trotski with the universalist zeal, wanted Soviet Union that Strauss would have approved. The universalism of Trotski’s ideas were infectious, but the proof on the ground was devastating. Soviet Union, high on ideology, but unable to even concieve what many saw coming, the continuation of the Great War. A dull Stalin, winning over a brilliant globalist, was a sign of times to come. Trotski was not the first not the last to think of global dominance of ideas, the brutal uniformity that comes under the attractive garb of intellectual genius. That was a real life case of genius Sherlock Holmes losing his life to grim Moriarty.
Strauss is just a student of that dillema. Trying to put him into intellectul category is useless. He believes that evil, Hitler or any other reincarnation, can be only stopped by being more brutal then himself. Only after ridding world of every possible pockets of free thinking, by brute force if necessary, the world will be safe for democracy.

It is tiresome to read about Strauss in any other context. He will not be Sherlock Holmes, he would be the Moriarty, cunning and stealthy, but victorious. Todays Straussians would change sides in a blink of an eye when circumstances change. Today, they are all over Obama. Tell us anything we do not know.

#40 Comment By Major On February 7, 2014 @ 12:28 am

The author appears to espouse syncretism–and rather presumptuously it seems to me…

Essentialism is both universlist and particularist–though not via accretion or aggregation.

I would describe myself as a universalist–in a much much broader sense than implied by the author’s coloration of the word–and at the same time, I see nothing at all wrong with ‘blood and soil’ patriotism–degraded though the author considers it to be…

Nothing can be true that is not universally true, yet that which is true must be fundamentally conditioned in its particular appearance here or there. Everyone has a mother; I love *my* mother.

The author’s syncretism is both anti-universalism and anti-particularism…it is the age old intellectual conceit of rationalism.

#41 Comment By garee peters On March 2, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

The pedantry and sophistry of these comments are exceeded only by the hypocrisy of Strauss himself….

#42 Comment By commonwealth On March 3, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

This is a response to Philadelphia Lawyer: Strauss’s importance is that he touches on what makes us most human. Indeed, that may be the source of all political infighting which is not motivated by greed and corruption: What we believe constitutes the essence of human nature. That is, are we human beings “fundamentally good” and therefore in need of support to liberate that goodness and encourage it; or are we “fundamentally bad” and therefore in need of institutional and moral constraints to ensure that we do not surrender to the darkness.

My own contention is that contemporary American political conservatism has largely lost sight of the fact that the darkness from which it originally sought to rescue us is the very greed and corruption which pollutes the trough from which so many nominally conservative politicians want to feed.

#43 Comment By GTT On March 6, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

I studied with several students of Leo Strauss, and Strauss’s legacy in my life is that I became a careful, original, and accurate reader of texts. To my mind, Strauss’s political creed is the least interesting and important part about him. What strikes me the most about the above discussion of conservatism is the absence of any mention of the Founders. To me, a conservative is someone who takes the political thought of the Founders seriously … as in the need for constitutionally limited government, self-government, etc. Where does Strauss come down on those issues? What did he think of Jefferson et al.?

#44 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 7, 2014 @ 11:50 pm


Yeah, I’m not actually seeing much discussion of what Strauss had to say about “what makes us human,” whatever that is supposed to mean, or the simplistic dichotomy you present (folks are “fundamentally good” or “fundamentally evil,” really? there’s no other option?), or any other big-picture, what’s it all about type, deep thinker, philosophical questions. Nor about how the answers to those questions affect today’s conservatism. Rather, the discussion is all about where Strauss fits in the flow chart of what seems to be an endless supply of “great” conservative “thinkers.” Who agrees with him on this point of minutia, and who disagrees with him on that one. Putting all the little (great?) conservative thinkers in their appropriate little boxes, and then arranging all the little boxes correctly. You might think that something else SHOULD be going on viz the viz the discussion of Strauss, but it isn’t.

And I would say much the same with respect to GTT…I see very little about careful reading of texts, or about the Founding Fathers, and lots and lots of what I described above. Although, in GTT’s defense, he seems to be acknowledging, and indeed, regretting, that this is true.

In sum, I objected to all the books, reviews, and articles that are actually being written, ad nausium, to my taste, about Strauss, not to what might have been written, what should have been written, or what posters here would like to see written, about him.

#45 Comment By jk On April 16, 2014 @ 2:28 am

Hahah, talk about contextual analysis overkill. I admire trying to put an intellectual foundation on the Neocon vs. “real” Republican vs. “real” Conservative debate but let’s get real.

Do you think Palin, Cruz, Mccain, Rubio, Perry even know who Strauss is?

#46 Comment By Linda On May 1, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

Ed. You seem to be the only one here who has read most of what Prof. Strauss wrote.
Phil Lawyer. I sympathize with your sentiment. And,
Bianca. While a little shocking, I hope our lawyer read it, I think it has a lot of truth to it, but does not give enough credit to Strauss as a good citizen. For my part, a student of a Strauss student, what remains with me from his work in light of contemporary politics, is the way the Bible is used for propaganda. It is too convenient for both parties to advance their agenda by lying about what the Bible says, and appealing to the good nature of Americans. I don’t believe lying produces healthy fruit. Also, Duck Dynasty is one of my favorite programs. Those boys are cute !!!

#47 Comment By Bianca On June 18, 2014 @ 1:16 am

I can hardly believe the amount of words needed to classify Strauss! Hyper-internationalism is Trotskyism. So hyper, that it was too hyper for Stalin. And that says something. The name of the game is POWER and CONTROL. Who has it, and how to get it. And if it means sucking up to whatever (hi)story, so what? The man so hated Hitler, that he admired him. He admired everything that had power, and that can project the power. Trotskyism, Catolicism, Judaism, communism, interventionist liberalism — all different approaches to believing that ideas from one center can and will influence others. Strauss could not care less about means, it is the ends he cares about. At the end of the day, you are either hunter or hunted, you have power, or you are powerless, you are the winner and entitled to the spoils of war, or you are the loser that pays. Winner takes all. He never believed that mankind is capable to ever move beyond thinking of hunting societies. Just like it was not possible for them to envision that you can actually domesticate animals and grow food, instead of fighting another tribe of huters for the same hunting grounds — Strauss never believed that mankind has a space for growth. With such ideology, there is no room for balance, no room for compromise. No room for evolution, just constant search for dominance. Psychopathy is not too far away from his ideas, and Ayn Rand fits in perfectly.

His love of democracy was based on understanding that a society must be ruled by iron fist to keep it — making one doubt that such “democracy” was worth having. He never cared to be “left”, “right”, conservative or liberal. Keyword is power — and the means of getting it, projecting it, and holding it, are ideological backed by force.