Published Humanitas, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005
Professor Havers’s defense of Leo Strauss against his historicist critics offers considerable food for thought. Although Havers says nothing here that has not already been aired, his words are sufficiently provocative to warrant examination. We are told that Strauss’s historically minded critics, particularly Claes Ryn and I, have been unfair to him on several counts, confusing what he said with misrepresentations perpetrated by his self-described students, treating Strauss’s defense of “liberal democracy” as inconsistent with conservative thinking, and ignoring those apparently favorable references to aristocratic and religious traditions that occasionally surface in Strauss’s work. Havers appends material on political theorist and rightwing populist Willmoore Kendall, who embraced Straussian teachings and also the Catholic faith. While Kendall was a fascinating mid-twentieth-century historical figure, whose writings on the American political experience continue to be studied, it is hard to see how a defense of his thinking contributes appreciably to a vindication of Strauss. It therefore may be permissible to leave him out of the discussion and to go immediately to the heart of our critic’s complaint.
Havers correctly observes that I challenge the claim made for Strauss as a conservative and do so partly by adducing Strauss’s attacks on Burke and historical conservatism. But if my critic wishes to engage my arguments, he should not be confining himself to a few excerpts from Joe Scotchie’s anthology. Although Scotchie’s work is to be commended for throwing light on contemporary Old Right thinkers, it offers no more than scattered excerpts from my remarks on the Straussians. I certainly have done other, more detailed expositions on this subject. My book The Search for Historical Meaning, an essay on Strauss and Hans Morgenthau in an anthology commemorating Morgenthau that appeared last year, and my reviews in Modern Age and Catholica of Ryn’s America the Virtuous all state at considerable length my critical views about Strauss as a political teacher. These sources also contain the documentation for my interpretation of Strauss’s Natural Right and History, which Havers maintains I interpret unfairly. The ties between Strauss’s position on “liberal democracy” and his experience in Weimar Germany do not seem to me as self-evident as they do to Havers. Strauss’s praise of contemporary American democracy and of what he takes to be its Lockean foundations first surfaces in his Walgreen Lectures in 1950, a text that was later turned into Natural Right and History. I see no evidence of a consuming enthusiasm for democracy in Strauss’s earlier work, for example, his study of Hobbes. This study, which is in fact my favorite book by Strauss, comes from the mid-thirties when the author was fleeing from the Nazis. However, one can cite an attempt (which is not entirely convincing) in one of Strauss’s last publications to present Thucydides in a discussion of his Histories as an engaged democrat, committed to popular government. That work came many decades after Strauss’s flight from Germany. It might be advisable not to draw too close a connection between the rise of Nazism and Strauss’s emphasis on the goodness of the American political model expressed many years later. What I am suggesting is not that Strauss never sounded like his disciples, who make a universal religion out of American democracy. Rather, I am proposing that this enthusiasm was less obsessive in the master and probably not directly traceable to his response to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Thucydides warns with considerable justification in the Histories (Book One), “Thus the investigation of historical truth proceeds effortlessly [atalaiporos] for most people, who happily turn to what is ready at hand [epi ta hetoima trepontai mallon].”
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