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Week 7: Natural Rights Conservatism—The Case of Leo Strauss

The political philosopher's conservative admirers may have completely misunderstood him.

This week we begin the second half of our seminar, now turning our attention to different understandings of conservatism. We will focus in coming weeks on three varieties: “natural rights conservatism”; “traditional conservatism”; and “radical Catholicism.”

Before turning to the first of these, a few words about “conservatism” are in order. Arguably, there have always been conservative people, conservative eras, conservative ways of life—since the disposition to “conserve” is a core feature of our humanity—but “conservatism,” qua-ism, is a relatively new phenomenon. Its “founder” is widely recognized as having been Edmund Burke—though Burke himself did not use the label.

Burke famously wrote in criticism of the French Revolution, arguably the world’s first effort to instantiate a political ideology through a radical transformation of an existing society. “Conservatism” is thus born as a response to a particular and uniquely modern form of political engineering. Conservatism is not by its nature a program or a competing ideology (and thus, why the addition of an “-ism” was and remains problematic), but rather a stance of opposition against a perceived radical effort at remaking the world in the image of a false idea. Conservatism then, has been rightly described more as a disposition that seeks to protect that which has been tried and found to work, that which is old and venerable.

However, as a result, conservatives might agree on what they oppose, but rarely agree on what they are for. The American political conservative movement that began in the mid-20th century and achieved political prominence with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, held together widely disparate elements more by what it agreed was its common foe—in the first instance, communism, and in the second, home-grown progressive liberalism—than by what it was able to agree upon.

Conservatives tend to want to preserve something from the past, and even to regard with regret a departure from the old ways. The source of fervent disagreement among conservatives is exactly when everything began to go wrong. For some, 1968; for others, 1920s; for others still, 1860; or 1789, or 1688, or 1517—and so on. Conservatives are prone to argue just as much with each other about the nature of the lost golden age as they are to agree that they oppose progressives. Frankly, the nature of these disagreements make conservatives much more intellectually interesting.

In general, conservatives in the United States regard its golden age as the time of the American founding, and seek in some form to recover the wisdom and practice that animated the Constitution. The figure who largely inspired this widespread shared understanding of American conservatism was a highly philosophical, academic, often obscure German-Jewish emigre named Leo Strauss, who wrote detailed treatises on Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, and other major figures in the history of political philosophy.

More fascinating still, is that his conservative admirers may have completely misunderstood him.

Strauss on the Ancients vs. the Moderns

Leo Strauss (1899-1973)—who fled his native Germany in 1932 and settled permanently in the U.S. in 1937, and taught at the University of Chicago from 1949-1969—was animated by one overarching question: how could fascism have happened? To answer that question, he sought to discover what went wrong in the realm of ideas, looking for the source of error in the history of Western political thought.

Strauss concluded that a revolution in ideas happened in the early-modern era that led to a succession of intellectual developments that culminated in modern totalitarianism in the forms of fascism and communism. He divided the ages of the West between ancients and moderns, and further, subdivided the moderns into three distinct periods (the “three waves of modernity”). With the rejection of ancient political philosophy, and its embrace of classical political right, a fateful string of developments in western philosophy led to catastrophe.

Ancient philosophy recognized a fundamental distinction between nature and convention (phusis and nomos) and explored the question whether any and all societies might be ordered in accordance with that which was naturally right, or just. Political philosophy is born of the suspicion and belief that many of the norms of most societies are merely conventional, the result of tradition or custom or accident. Socrates is the first political philosopher inasmuch as he challenges the norms and beliefs of his society—Athens—and as a result, was condemned and executed for corrupting the youth and introducing new gods in to the city. Classical political philosophy is a standing danger to the city’s prevailing way of life and customary beliefs.

The question of whether there is a form of justice in accordance with nature orients classical political philosophy to the question of the best regime: is there one best city that can be said to be truly and perfectly just? But even as this question is asked, classical political philosophy recognizes that the mixed nature of human beings—a combination of high and low, divine aspirations and beastly instincts—does not permit the realization of the perfect city. Classical political philosophy is always deeply informed both by the inescapable aspiration for the ideal, and the inescapable limitations of the real. The statesman-philosopher seeks to move the real closer to the ideal while recognizing that a gap between them will always exist.

Modern political philosophy—inaugurated by Machiavelli—rejects the relevance of the “ideal” for political thinking. Machiavelli rejects the ancient effort to “imagine republics and principalities,” instead urging political leaders to deal only with the reality of human beings and particularly with what works (“the effectual truth”). Calling for a politics grounded on the predictable human motivation of self-interest and the desire for esteem, along with the permanent presence of fear, Machiavelli—followed by Hobbes and Locke—establishes modern politics on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest. This belief Strauss called “modern natural right.” Its political fruit was the American founding, and can be found articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

This “first wave” of modernity generated a subsequent wave that arose in reaction to, and rejection of, the basic premises of “modern natural right,” a reaction inaugurated by J.J. Rousseau. Rousseau rejected the idea that humans had a fixed nature—whether the nature understood by the ancients or moderns—and instead that humans were constituted in and through history. Rousseau inaugurated the philosophical school of “historicism,” one that held the possibility not only of material progress, but moral progress. His philosophical descendents are the likes of Hegel, Marx, Condorcet, and Comte. The political fruit of his ideas has been borne out in Communism and Progressivism.

The “third wave” was an intensification of Rousseau’s claims against a human nature, one that insisted that we are less the products of “history” than our own self-fashioning. This view was articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche, and subsequently Heidegger and various Existentialists and postmodernists. The political fruit of this philosophy, Strauss argued, was fascism.

Rupture or Continuity?

Strauss’s highly philosophic and often obscure analyses of the history of political philosophy proved enormously influential throughout the mid-20th century down to our own day. His work has inspired several generations of students who have advanced his analyses and basic premises in their own academic work, but perhaps more remarkably still, has spawned countless political think-tanks, institutes, programs and centers devoted to the project of political conservatism.

What’s perhaps most surprising, given the sketch of Strauss’s argument that I have outlined above, is that so many of Strauss’s students would have devoted themselves to restoring the American order by returning America to the principles of the American founding. According to Strauss’s own argument, the American founding was the outworking of the “first wave of modernity,” or the rejection of classical natural right.

In the main, Strauss’s students have understood Strauss to endorse something more of a continuity between ancient and modern natural right than Strauss himself seemed to express. They especially endorsed the continuity of “nature” as a standard, against the “historicism” of the second wave and “nihilism” of the third wave. At the conclusion of Strauss’s essay “The Three Waves of Modernity,” Strauss suggested that this understanding was not unwarranted:

The theoretical crisis does not necessarily lead to a political crisis, for the superiority of liberal democracy to communism, Stalinist or post-Stalinist, is obvious enough. And above all, liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the premodern thought of our western tradition.

What Strauss at least suggests is that “classical natural right” continues to afford “powerful support” for the regime that arose from “modern natural right”—liberal democracy. This is, of course, not the same as suggesting that the two are continuous, and one can expect tensions and even contradictions to arise between them. But, at least when confronted with the threat of communism, Strauss’s analysis seemed to suggest that the liberal democracy of America was far superior, even if founded on defective principles.

Those students of Strauss who accepted more of a “rupture” thesis between ancients and moderns were likely drawn to the philosophic quest and cultural critique rather than direct engagement in conservative politics. Perhaps a paramount example of this form of Straussianism was Strauss’s most famous student, Allan Bloom—whom, for all the accusations about his conservatism, was not especially engaged in conservative politics per se. His broadside against the modern university was above all a defense of the possibility of Socratic philosophy—not a defense of American political principles. Many less famous examples exist of Straussians who devote their academic careers to philosophical and literary exegesis.

But for those students of Strauss who reject the “rupture” thesis—instead understanding Strauss to have argued for a continuity between ancient and modern natural right—there has been a strong tendency to take up the call to restore America’s constitutional principles. The bastions of this approach are found among “West Coast Straussians,” often associated with the Claremont Institute, but now populating other parts of the country—e.g., Hillsdale College in the heartland, as well as countless programs and institutes in Washington D.C. These political warriors conclude from Strauss’s argument that the real enemy can be found in “historicism”—a threat posed last century especially by communism, and today by domestic forms of left-wing progressivism.

What’s perhaps most striking about the latter argument is that it posits a basic continuity between ancient and modern natural right, but a definite and lamentable rupture beginning with the second wave of modernity—historicism. Whereas Strauss argued that the rupture occurred with the “first wave,” and that the “second wave” developed out of the first (and the third out of the second), contemporary natural rights conservatives have “re-written” Strauss’s analysis and updated the moment of the rupture. If Strauss’s analysis is correct, then the effort to “restore” America’s founding principles is simply to double-down on the first step in modernity’s crisis. Further, it is potentially to strengthen the very “origins” of the second wave, if we understand that the tendency to “historicism” arises out of modern natural right. And, lastly, it is to embrace a political philosophy that is not inherently “conservative” at all, but profoundly—well, liberal. Hence, as we will see next week, this dominant form of American conservatism consists in the paradoxical effort to “conserve liberalism.”

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.



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