Leo Strauss, Willmoore Kendall, and the meaning of conservatism.

Author:Havers, Grant
Position:Who Is Leo Strauss?

Since the end of the Cold War, the meaning of conservatism has been the subject of intense debate. This debate has coincided with a revival of interest in the ideas of Leo Strauss, whose political philosophy has influenced American conservatism in particular. Yet the conservative credentials of Strauss have been vigorously questioned, in light of his perceived rejection of history, his apparently unabashed admiration for liberal democracy, and his skepticism about the political value of revealed truth. While I shall show that Strauss is reliably conservative on the issues of history and democracy, I shall also contend that a comparison of Strauss's ideas with those of the American populist conservative Willmoore Kendall reveals that Strauss did not share the conservative enthusiasm for the application of biblical ideas to politics.

What is conservatism? Is it simply an older version of liberalism? Which traditions do conservatives "conserve" in an age of modern change? Is conservatism populist or elitist, democratic or aristocratic? Does it support imperialism or isolationism? Which religion, if any, is most compatible with conservatism? Since the end of the Cold War, these traditionally academic questions have drifted into the political arena and often pitted conservatives (especially in the United States) against each other. To date (2004), the American conservative movement's divisions have forced a return to the question of the very meaning of the doctrine.

In the same time period, the ideas of political philosopher Leo Strauss have increasingly become part of this debate over American conservatism. For Strauss and his many students have been credited with (or blamed for) the direction of the conservative movement since the collapse of communism. Some critics on the left have branded Strauss as the major conservative influence on the American intellectual right. One opponent has contended that Strauss is the "godfather" of American neoconservatism, a version of conservatism which has taken hold in American politics since the 1970s. (1) (Indeed, this influence is supposed to be so vast that Straussian ideas have been seen as the guiding foundation of foreign policy under President George W. Bush. Presumably, the planning of the second Gulf War could not have taken place without a nefarious Straussian "clique" in the White House. (2)) Yet critics on the right have argued that Strauss's influence at the political level does not translate into conservatism. Indeed, scholars who consider themselves guardians of the true American conservatism have distinguished this tradition from the ideas of Strauss and his followers.

How exactly do Strauss's ideas compare to American conservatism or even conservatism in general? Despite the fact that his admirers are generally on the political right, can Strauss be called a "conservative" in any sense, American or otherwise? I believe that a comparison of Strauss's ideas with certain premises central to conservatism can elucidate the meaning of his contribution to conservatism in general while shedding light on the meaning of conservatism in particular. Still, such a comparison can be daunting since Strauss himself made no effort to describe himself as a conservative and often criticized the term as too modern for a political philosopher who seeks to transcend modernity in favor of a return to classical political thought. In Liberalism: Ancient & Modern, Strauss described conservatism as "no longer politically important" since it is "identical with what originally was liberalism." (3) Indeed, his long-time correspondent and fellow political philosopher Eric Voegelin once commented that Strauss "did not [do] the work he did, in order to extend comfort to Conservatives." (4) If Strauss, then, disclaimed any association with conservatism, how successful or fruitful can a comparison of his political philosophy with conservatism be?

Any comparison is further complicated by the impression that Strauss, in the eyes of his critics on the right, takes "unconservative" positions on three issues of importance to any conservative political philosopher: the meaning of democracy, history, and revealed truth. I choose these three issues because conservative critics of Strauss usually evaluate his positions on these concerns when assessing his "conservatism." Increasingly, Strauss has been faulted for being naively optimistic (and thus unconservative) about the prospects of liberal democracy in the world. Moreover, Strauss's battle against historicism has been portrayed as a rejection of history itself (and therefore a rejection of conservative attempts to preserve tradition). Finally, Strauss's perceived preference for "Athens" or Platonic political philosophy over "Jerusalem" or the Bible has put him at odds with conservatives who wish to preserve the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West.

I believe that the contribution of Strauss to conservatism (perhaps despite his own intent) merits discussion. In particular, I shall argue in this article, against the conservative opponents of Strauss, that his views on democracy and history are quite compatible with conservatism. The last accusation, pertaining to Strauss's understanding of the relation between Athens and Jerusalem, is more complex and requires more attention, since this relation is the focus of Strauss's thought. In assessing the implications of Strauss's views on revealed truth for the conservative cause, I shall contrast the views of Strauss with those of his friend and admirer, the conservative political philosopher Willmoore Kendall. I choose Kendall because his own work made a major contribution to American conservatism in the post-war period, a contribution which Strauss greatly respected. Kendall made it his life work to define the meaning of conservatism in the United States and insisted that this meaning is inextricably tied to a Judeo-Christian tradition. Consequently, a comparison of Kendall's ideas with Strauss's own views on revealed truth further deepens our understanding of Strauss's status as a conservative.

Strauss and Liberal Democracy

Traditionally, Strauss has been criticized for opposing liberal democracy as a dangerous regime which panders to the worst appetites of human nature. (This destructive pattern is what Strauss witnessed as the tragedy of the Weimar Republic.) Certainly Strauss believed that an "aristocracy" of educated gentlemen within "democratic mass society" is needed to restrain such desires. (5) Moreover, Strauss's preference for this aristocracy has often raised the suspicions of liberal critics who believe that he opposes democracy altogether. Various opponents on the left have all questioned the depth of Strauss's sympathies with democracy (or at least liberal democracy) because of what they perceive as his unyielding elitist hostility to liberty and equality. (6) More ominously, Richard Rorty has accused both Strauss and his followers of the revolutionary and undemocratic goal of attempting to "extirpate" the "bourgeoisie as a class or, at least, to root out bourgeois culture." (7) This critique of Strauss, as the enemy of liberal democracy, has been the conventional one.

Yet in the past few years this argument has been countered by a radically opposite criticism: that Strauss enthusiastically (and wrongly) supported the establishment of liberal democracy around the world. Conservative critics of Strauss have turned the traditional liberal attack upon his work upside down and have argued that, far from intending to undermine liberal democracy, Strauss and his students have advanced this polity as the best regime for all of humanity. Accordingly, this perceived support for liberal democracy strikes conservatives as "unconservative" for its lack of moderation. Paul Gottfried has faulted Strauss and his students for claiming that modern liberal democracy is open and inclusive to all peoples (a position whose liberalism raises suspicions about Strauss's conservatism). In contrast to the traditionally exclusivist conservative approach to immigration, Gottfried writes:

Another view expressed most forcefully by the followers of Leo Strauss is that the U.S. is a modern democratic republic--one distinct in almost every respect from ancient popular regimes. Ancient republics were indentitarian [sic] and organic, anchoring citizenship in heredity and "long-shared history." By contrast, modern republics are meant to protect individual material interests and are indeterminately elastic with regard to size and composition. Anyone could or should be able to become a citizen of a modern democracy which recognizes a common humanity, while also reducing it to a material common denominator. Unlike ancient or premodern republics, liberal democracy is portrayed as an open vessel receptive to ever- changing social and cultural contents. (8) Gottfried bases his critique of Strauss entirely on the writings of students who have made these claims. Yet, to my knowledge, Strauss himself never contended that a liberal democracy should be inclusive. In fact, as I shall argue below, there is every reason to believe that he lamented this openness of spirit.

In a related vein, Claes Ryn has accused the Straussian camp of following a radical "neo-Jacobin" (or neoconservative) agenda which calls on the United States to force liberal democracy upon all of humanity. The relevant conclusion is that no responsible conservative could ever hold such positions, and therefore Strauss is not a real conservative. While Ryn is careful to make a distinction between what Strauss believed and what his students believe in his name, he nevertheless takes aim at a central premise of Strauss's philosophy for advancing an unconservative agenda: there is a "clear connection between a Straussian anti-historical, abstract notion of natural right and the neo-Jacobin fondness for what it considers universal principles." (9) Liberal...

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