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Saving Strauss from the Straussians

Tim Rice

In September, Claremont Graduate University “ended its graduate program in political philosophy after nearly six decades,” the campus paper Claremont Independent reported.

The proximate cause of the program’s demise remains murky. The school claims that there were not enough faculty to support graduate students. The faculty suspect the school simply wanted to cut loose what it considers, in the words of Claremont political philosophy professor Charles Kesler, an “old fashioned, unscientific” program.

Simmering beneath this relatively amicable disagreement is a long-running philosophical tension. Kesler, like most of the political philosophy professors at the graduate school, is also affiliated with the conservative Claremont Institute. Though an independent entity, the Institute is bound to the university through its founders, scholars, and students, many of whom earned their degrees from, or at one point held appointments with, CGU.

That connection, which likely never pleased the relatively-liberal faculty at CGU, has only gotten thornier over time. In recent years, the Claremont Institute has emerged as an intellectual force behind MAGA, and has now found common cause with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and leading figures of the “New Right.”

It wouldn’t be shocking if CGU did defenestrate its political philosophy program just to distance itself from the Claremont Institute. What’s more curious is that the members of the Claremont Institute have taken this development in stride. The “Claremonsters,” as they’re somewhat affectionately known, love a good fight—a scrappiness they inherit from their godfather, the late Claremont professor Harry Jaffa, who helped create CGU’s political philosophy program when he joined the faculty in 1964.

Perhaps their uncharacteristic reserve can be explained by the fact that Claremont is no longer the sole custodian of Jaffa’s legacy. Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn, who earned his Ph.D. from Claremont under Jaffa and co-founded the Claremont Institute in 1979, has transformed the idyllic Michigan college into a conservative powerhouse packed with CGU graduates.

In January 2023, DeSantis named Hillsdale professor and CGU graduate Matthew Spalding to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida, where he serves alongside Kesler. A month later, the Claremont Institute opened a satellite office in Florida, the latest step in a deepening relationship between the Institute and the DeSantis administration.

In other words, the Claremont “school” has never been more influential or less dependent on CGU. And if the demise of the university’s political philosophy program was sudden, the rise of the broader Claremont school has been unfolding for years.

Before it served as Trump’s think tank and DeSantis’s brain trust, the Claremont Institute was known as the home of so-called West Coast Straussianism, one of several intellectual factions left behind by Jaffa’s teacher, the political scientist Leo Strauss. Strauss, who died 50 years ago today, did not set out to craft a political dogma. Instead, he taught students to read texts carefully, attentive to the author's use of rhetoric and narrative as well as formal arguments. He introduced his students to the central ideas and great debates that define the Western tradition. They in turn explored an array of books and issues, including the Hebrew Bible and the American Founding, in the spirit of Strauss.

They also formed opposing camps, which began warring over politics and philosophy even while their teacher was alive. For years, the battle between East and West Coast Straussians, was largely confined to the academy. Each side had its own conferences, think tanks, and journals, from which they could fight about Aristotle or Spinoza and stoke the embers of decades-old personal grievances.

But while the Claremont Institute swung for Trump in 2016, many East Coast Straussians joined the “Never Trump” movement, breathing new life into the decades-old feud—and giving it unprecedented relevance.

As Straussians of all stripes became more active in American politics, they also found themselves the subject of mainstream media profiles and online debates about the future of American conservatism and the Republican Party. As a result, students of political philosophy have never had more points of entry into the Straussian universe.

But learning from Straussians is not the same as learning from Strauss—and the distance is growing wider by the day. Those who hold closest to Strauss’s lesson about philosophical inquiry encourage students to think for themselves. Many of these teachers will go so far as to deny that there is such a thing as a “Straussian,” dismissing the label as a derogatory catch-all coined by Strauss’s critics.

Even though it is well-intentioned, this denial imperils Strauss’s legacy. If Strauss demurely raises questions without teaching anything, many formidable students will find themselves seduced by more brazen voices who ransack Strauss’s work to find simple answers to today’s problems.

The Real Leo Strauss

It’s true that Strauss was reluctant to express views on electoral politics or matters of policy. But he offered a positive agenda with his defense of liberal education and, in a more qualified way, liberal democracy. The former, which calls for a serious engagement with the history of political philosophy beginning with Plato and Aristotle, is often neglected by the more political Straussians, who miss Strauss’ recognition that every regime is imperfect. The more philosophical Straussians, meanwhile, tend not to share Strauss’s commitment to liberal democracy or concern with the survival of its last best hope, the United States of America.

Clearing through a half-century’s worth of contradictions and recovering the core of Strauss’s thought poses a real challenge. Fortunately, Strauss’s own writings offer us a guide on how to do that.

To understand Strauss’s defense of liberal democracy, we must first consider how he arrived at this position. Especially since Strauss’ work dating from before his emigration to the United States began to be republished in the 1990s, critics have argued that Strauss was an anti-liberal or even a closet fascist. The younger Strauss, they say, dismissed liberalism as an anemic governing philosophy that denied the potential for human greatness in order to secure the bourgeois values of peace and prosperity.

To bolster their claims, these critics point to the fact that Strauss studied under and admired Martin Heidegger, and seemed to have a friendly engagement with Carl Schmitt. The claim that Strauss would share the beliefs of these two Nazi philosophers and enemies of liberal democracy seems bolstered by a 1933 letter from Strauss to the philosopher Karl Löwith in which Strauss extols the “fascist, authoritarian, [and] imperial” principles of the right over liberalism’s “laughable and pathetic” appeals to the rights of man.

At first blush, this seems like a fairly damning indictment of Strauss’s politics. But a number of things must be said in Strauss’s defense.

First, Strauss’s relationship with Schmitt has been largely misunderstood, as have his critical notes on Schmitt’s seminal critique of liberalism, The Concept of the Political. In the book, Schmitt, one of the leading Nazi jurists, advances his now infamous theory of the “friend-enemy distinction.” Schmitt asserts that liberalism’s cardinal sin is its obfuscation of this distinction, which if followed to its logical conclusion necessitates a Hitlerian destruction of targeted “others.”

Strauss responded to The Concept of the Political with detailed, section-by-section notes, which are an influential work of political theory in their own right, and today are often included in printings of Concept. Though the elder thinker never acknowledged or responded to Strauss’s “Notes”, he did revise several sections of his book to address Strauss’s critiques in later editions.

But because Strauss sought to understand thinkers on their own terms, many who read the “Notes” mistake Strauss’s initial good-faith restatement of Schmitt’s position as an endorsement. Read carefully, however, Strauss’s “Notes” reveal the flaws and limitations with the Schmittian position, particularly Schmitt’s diagnosis of the limits of liberalism.

Moreover, Strauss himself credits his engagement with the Concept of the Political with encouraging him to reexamine Schmitt’s primary influence, Thomas Hobbes. It was precisely this engagement that would launch Strauss’s philosophical project, which began with his first major work, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes.

Second, it’s true that Strauss was an admirer of Heidegger. But Strauss first encountered Heidegger as a student in 1922, well before the latter joined up with the Nazis. And was clear-eyed about Heidegger’s fascist politics after his teacher joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Indeed, Strauss would say in a 1956 lecture on “Existentialism” that “the great trouble” of our time is that, while only a great thinker could “find a solid basis for rational liberalism” in the 20th century, the only great thinker we had was Heidegger.

Those who wish to paint Strauss as an antiliberal or a nihilist read this remark in a defeatist tone: that is to say, they take it as Strauss’s coy admission that articulating a philosophical defense of liberalism is impossible, since there is no thinker who outranks Heidegger. Taken this way, Strauss’s comment could also be seen to imply that the fascism Heidegger favored is the best, or at least the most philosophically sound, political system. But an honest reading of the Strauss’s remarks—to say nothing of Strauss’s philosophical project—clearly shows that Strauss’s remark is an opening salvo, not a final statement, on the matter.

As for “The Letter,” Harvey Mansfield observes that, far from proving Strauss’s fascism, it rather captures his “disgust with the liberalism of Weimar Germany, a pitiful and cowardly liberalism unable to defend itself against the Nazis because it had abandoned its own fixed truths and absorbed much of the relativism of German nihilism.” Mansfield further notes two crucial points: Weimar Germany was not the world’s only liberal democracy, and “The Letter” was not Strauss’s statement on the subject.

Strauss in America

Strauss began reevaluating his position after coming to the United States in 1937. In America, Strauss encountered, and came under the protection of, a strong liberal democracy. After watching the United States beat back tyranny abroad while preserving domestic tranquility, Strauss reconsidered his earlier animosity towards liberal democracy in general, and undertook a serious study of American democracy in particular.

Strauss’s journey was not atypical among the German émigré intellectuals. Hannah Arendt studied St. Augustine and German Romanticism and was a disciple of Heidegger, who was also her lover, until coming to the United States in 1941. After settling in New York, Arendt shifted her focus to politics.

The influence of the United States on Arendt’s political theory cannot be understated. Speaking at her funeral, her friend, the philosopher Hans Jonas remarked that “It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking,” and that “the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.”

While Strauss has become strongly associated with American politics thanks to the work of his students and intellectual heirs, it was Arendt who spent much of her career engaging with, and writing on, contemporary American politics. In both her academic writing and frequent contributions to magazines like Commentary and The New Yorker, Arendt tried to offer philosophical explanations for such phenomena as the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and Watergate.

But nowhere is Arendt’s American turn clearer than in her 1963 book On Revolution, in which she praises the “grandeur” of the Declaration of Independence and praises the classical republicanism of the American Revolution (in contradistinction from the tyranny of the French Revolution), a strong philosophical foundation she locates in the thought of John Adams. Throughout On Revolution, Arendt argues that the classical foundations of the American Revolution made the United States the best modern republic.

The German novelist Thomas Mann offered a similar sentiment in the American lectures that would form his 1938 book, The Coming Victory of Democracy. Like Arendt and Strauss, Mann was critical of liberal democracy until the Nazis took power. After taking refuge in the United States, though, he reconsidered his objections and became one of its most vigorous defenders.

Strauss followed his own route to a similar destination. “It is possible,” writes George Anastaplo, “that the United States, with its stable and productive liberal democracy, may have helped save Mr. Strauss from the liabilities of European intellectual life in the twentieth century.” Anastaplo notes that Strauss, as a professor of politics at the University of Chicago, began to teach “practical Americans…how to be sensible (that is, truly practical) about the institutions, principles, and politics of their country.” It was exactly this practical quality that Strauss found lacking among Germans.

It was at Chicago that Strauss wrote three books which contain his most sustained meditations on America: Natural Right and History, Thoughts on Machiavelli, and The City and Man. Each book opens with an introductory essay that outlines not just the books themselves, but also the concerns that inspire Strauss’s broader thought. Together, the trio of illuminates Strauss’s defense of liberal democracy.

In the introduction to The City and Man, Strauss contends that the West is in crisis because it has become “uncertain of its purpose,” which involves providing a “clear vision of its future as the future of mankind.” To rediscover the West’s purpose, Strauss prescribes liberal education. Specifically, he calls students to study the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle “as they were understood by their originators in contradistinction to the way in which they were understood by their adherents, and various kinds of their adherents” (emphasis added).

Strauss repeats “adherents, and various kinds of their adherents,” as if to underscore the notion that great thinkers will not just have disciples who present interpretations of their thought, but a wide range of disciples who offer varied interpretations, each of which seeks to be recognized as the authoritative interpretation of the original. Those interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but should not be taken as dispositive. Instead, we need to return to the sources and discover for ourselves what they say. Consequently, we must also distinguish Strauss’s own teaching from his teaching as transmitted by his students.

Strauss expands on the case for taking philosophers on their own terms in the Thoughts on Machiavelli. Properly understanding Machiavelli, Strauss argues, requires abandoning “a Machiavelli who has become old and our own” and trying to understand the Florentine how his contemporaries would have, as a “new and strange” thinker.

Like Machiavelli, Strauss has become the victim of the success of his philosophical writings. Contemporary students of political philosophy may take for granted the importance of close-reading and other teachings that were revolutionary when Strauss introduced them. Straussians especially may be so familiar with Strauss’s ideas that they grow numb to his radicalism. As a result, Strauss says, “one may wonder whether the up-to-date scholars do not err much more grievously than the old-fashioned and simple.”

He doesn’t leave us wondering for long, noting that “we thus regard the simple opinion about Machiavelli as indeed decisively superior to the prevailing sophisticated views.” The simple opinion, according to Strauss, is that Machiavelli’s endorsement of deception and violence makes him a “teacher of evil”. This is not to assert that the simple opinion is the last word. Strauss goes on to issue his famous maxim, that “the problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” In this case, the problem is that Machiavelli is not wrong to observe that deception and violence sometimes lead to political success, no matter how much we might wish things were otherwise.

Looking beyond Machiavelli, Strauss is suggesting that while great thinkers have complex teachings, we shouldn’t allow complex interpretations to cloud our thinking such that we brush past their central concerns. Instead, we should focus on the themes to which they return again and again. For Strauss, that theme is the threat posed by tyranny to liberal democracy.

Liberalism, True and False

Nowhere does Strauss make this clearer than his 1953 opus, Natural Right and History.

Strauss opens by invoking a line from the Declaration of Independence which "Strauss opens by invoking a line from the Declaration of Independence which “has frequently been quoted" but has escaped “the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt” and “misuse which breeds disgust” thanks to "its weight and elevation."

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Strauss goes on to note that the United States has become “the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth” in a large part because of its dedication to “this proposition.” But, Strauss wonders, “Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised? Does it still hold those ‘truths to be self-evident’?”

Even in the mid-20th century, Strauss was not confident that it did. Indeed, he believed that modern Americans had rejected the heritage of their Founding, and warned that “the rejection of natural right is bound to lead to disastrous consequences,” among them relativism, nihilism, and tyranny.

Strauss also touches on this theme in Thoughts on Machiavelli. After characterizing Machiavelli as a “teacher of evil,” Strauss argues that “contemporary tyranny has its roots in Machiavelli's thought. Contemporary tyranny stands in contrast to “the United States of America [which] may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles,” and remains, according to Strauss, “the bulwark of freedom.”

One could object that Strauss, who famously rediscovered the art of esoteric writing, cannot be taken so literally—and indeed, many do. Critics like Shadia Drury and others claim that Strauss’s defense of liberal democracy is only a facade, a “noble lie” meant to placate the huddled masses while the truly wise mock them from within the halls of power.

But as Catherine and Michael Zuckert argue in The Truth About Leo Strauss, Strauss did not write esoterically, but rather practiced “pedagogical reserve.” In other words, Strauss held back the fullness of his teaching not to cloak radical truths but to force his students to think through the arguments themselves.

Given what we know about Strauss and America, it seems like a stretch to say that he was pushing his students to think critically so they would arrive at a militantly anti-liberal or anti-democratic conclusion. It is far more likely that his aim was for students to think critically about liberal democracy in order to recognize the weaknesses that it possesses along with every other regime. The goal of recognizing those weaknesses it to engage in more effective defense than naïve glorification allows.

Truly liberal education aids in the preservation of liberal democracy, and vice versa. Indeed, as Allan Bloom notes in the forward to Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Strauss was “a friend of liberal democracy” who “summons true liberals to counteract the perverted liberalism that forgets quality, excellence, or virtue.”

For Strauss, that kind of liberalism was also conservative, at least in America. In the introduction to the same volume, Strauss says that “the conservatism of our age is identical with what originally was liberalism, more or less modified by changes in the direction of present-day liberalism.” We can thus expand on Bloom’s claim to say that Strauss summons true conservatives to counteract perverted conservatism of the day.

That task is still with us. The issue is not specific policies, where prudence may lead to different conclusions. It is rejection of the modern—and American—tradition of freedom exemplified by the Declaration of Independence. Some conservatives recognize this danger and call for a revival of patriotic education. That has its place, especially in the lower grades. But it should not interfere with the questioning required for liberal education in college and beyond.

Unfortunately, many who consider themselves Straussians—including some who claim to possess the truest understanding of what Strauss taught—now discourage the Socratic approach to education and push political programs that ignore and attack liberal democracy. But those individuals cannot justly claim Strauss’s legacy. Indeed, they threaten it.

Rather than taking up sides in the Straussian civil war, those who share Strauss’s commitment to liberal education and liberal democracy ought to push for a renewed engagement with his teaching as he himself understood it. By recovering Strauss’s spirit of philosophical inquiry and his efforts to fortify liberal democracy against its external enemies and internal weaknesses and confusions, we can help arrest the crisis of the West—and maybe even save Strauss from the Straussians.

Tim Rice is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon.


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