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NATURAL RIGHT AND LIBERALISM: LEO STRAUSS IN OUR TIME

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2009

BENJAMIN LAZIER*
Affiliation:
Department of History, Reed College

Extract

Not long ago, the actor and playwright Tim Robbins directed a production in New York and Los Angeles called Embedded. The play is strange, but nowhere more so than in one, infamous scene: a black mass in honor of the deceased political philosopher Leo Strauss, conducted by candlelight by advisers to President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war. Characters who are transparent representations of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice masturbate with abandon, all the while yelping “hail Leo Strauss!” beneath an outsized portrait of his face. The scene reaches a climax with this verbal ejaculation from “Woof” (Wolfowitz): “I'm hard! I'm rock hard!”

Type
Essays
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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References

1 Pangle claims that quotations attributed to Strauss in the Robbins play were in fact those of Larouche himself. He has also performed the service of assembling a series of representative accounts from the European press. Pangle, Thomas, Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore, 2006), 130–31Google Scholar.

2 Lilla, Mark, “Leo Strauss the European,” New York Review of Books 51/16 (21 Oct. 2004)Google Scholar; idem, “The Closing of the Straussian Mind,” New York Review of Books 51/17 (4 Nov. 2004); Norton, Anne, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven, 2004)Google Scholar; Smith, Steven, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Chicago, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Catherine, and Zuckert, Michael, The Truth about Leo Strauss (Chicago, 2006)Google Scholar.

3 See especially Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political (1922), trans. Schwab, George (Chicago, 1996)Google Scholar; and idem, Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie (Berlin, 1970).

4 Janssens, David, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy, Prophecy, and Politics in Leo Strauss's Early Thought (Stony Brook, NY, 2008)Google Scholar; Meier, Heinrich, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (New York, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sheppard, Eugene, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (Lebanon, NH, 2006)Google Scholar; Tanguay, Daniel, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven, 2007)Google Scholar.

5 Some examples: Wolin, Richard, Heidegger's Children (Princeton, 2001)Google Scholar; Lilla, Mark, The Stillborn God (New York, 2007)Google Scholar; Judt, Tony, Past Imperfect (Berkeley, 1992)Google Scholar; Manent, Pierre, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Balinski, Rebecca (Princeton, 1994)Google Scholar; and Ferry, Luc, The New Ecological Order, trans. Volk, Carol (Chicago, 1995)Google Scholar. The recovery of liberalism has also been prominent on the western side of the Atlantic. See, for example, Berman, Paul, A Tale of Two Utopias (New York, 1996)Google Scholar; and Rorty, Richard, Achieving Our Country (Cambridge, MA, 1998)Google Scholar. It is worth noting that practitioners of the new liberal historiography are by no means of a single mind regarding Strauss. For example, Manent and Lilla follow Strauss in ways that Wolin and Ferry do not.

6 For this reason, Samuel Moyn suggests we think of this literature as a “liberal turn” directed against its predecessor. Samuel Moyn, “Intellectual History and the Liberal Turn,” unpublished paper.

7 Gordon, Peter, Rosenzweig and Heidegger: The Fate of Judaism in German Philosophy (Berkeley, 2002), xxvGoogle Scholar.

8 Catherine and Michael Zuckert have identified in addition a Mid-west school of Straussians. See their useful overview, “Straussian Geography” (chap. 7), in The Truth About Leo Strauss.

9 This is not to overlook, however, Strauss's own reservations about Berlin, as both Smith and Pangle point out. On Pangle's reading, Berlin was for Strauss the very paradigm of the “dilemma of liberal relativistic theory.” Pangle, Leo Strauss: An Introduction, 19–22.

10 Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 183.

11 Janssens, Between Athens and Jerusalem, 144.

12 Cited in Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 15.

13 All this is conveyed in lucid prose punctuated by the occasional witty aside and humanizing anecdote. Readers will no doubt enjoy hearing of Strauss's novel approach to halakha on the knotty topic of English breakfasts: “The hams taste too good as to consist of pork and are therefore allowed by the Mosaic law according to atheistic interpretation.” Alumni of the University of Chicago will take pride in his glowing assessment of the school, as a place “to see young people who are not mentally in their seventies.” Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 138.

14 Smith suggests (Reading Leo Strauss, 171), that is, that Strauss hardly calls for a reinvigoration of the Lockean tradition, and esoterically argues that Hobbes was in fact the intellectual godfather of the American regime. There are no “Straussian libertarians,” he points out, who might have radicalized Locke's brief for property rights, because Straussians posit the anteriority of the “regime” to the individual.

15 Meier, Heinrich, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, trans. Lomax, J. Harvey (Chicago, 1995)Google Scholar.

16 Jonas, Hans, Erinnerungen (Frankfurt, 2003), 96Google Scholar.

17 Strauss, Leo, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3 (hereafter GS 3), ed. Meier, Heinrich (Stuttgart, 2001), 625, original emphasesGoogle Scholar. The translation above is adapted from Wolin, Richard, “Leo Strauss, Judaism and Liberalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education 52/32 (14 April 2006), B13B14Google Scholar.

18 Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile, 60–63. For an attempt at rebuttal see Mansfield, Harvey, “Timeless Mind,” Claremont Review of Books 8/1 (Winter, 2007)Google Scholar.

19 Within eight years, Strauss had come to other conclusions about liberal empire, at least to judge by an unpublished lecture he delivered at the New School for Social Research. Strauss devoted the talk to the problem of German nihilism, and cast the then-present war as a contest of German and Anglo-Saxon principles. Strauss favored English prudence over German radicalism, with the result that “it are [sic?] the English, and not the Germans, who deserve to have, and to remain, an imperial nation.” For those inclined to discover in such statements evidence of an enduring directive, the implications are obvious: Strauss not only would have countenanced a notion of liberal empire (as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism), but enthusiastically embraced it. The lecture, “German Nihilism,” Strauss delivered on 26 Feb. 1941. Leo Strauss Papers, Box 8, Folder 15.

20 Mazower, Mark, Dark Continent (New York, 1998), 28, original emphasisGoogle Scholar.

21 Smith appears to accept just this point in his review of Sheppard's book: “A Skeptical Friend of Democracy,” New York Sun, 14 March 2007. And at least one of Strauss's prominent students, Werner Dannhauser, has come to similar conclusions. He offers the most sensitive interpretation of Strauss's letter I have encountered to date: “The reading of such a passage causes pain. It is true that the fascism to which Strauss alludes is that of Mussolini and not of Hitler. It is true that in the same letter, in the same breath as it were, he leaves no doubt about his loathing of National Socialism. It is also true that at times he takes a slightly unseemly pleasure in taunting Löwith, or at least in being hyperbolically provocative toward him. And yet, and yet. We must admit that the young Strauss, not yet thirty-five at the time, was more reactionary than we might wish him to be. For that matter, he was slightly more reactionary than many of us students wished him to be in 1964 when he decided to vote for Barry Goldwater. But we had learned properly to weight such facts against the whole, even as we now hope that readers of the letters will subscribe to the principles of weighting I have tried to articulate above.” Dannhauser, Werner J., “Leo Strauss in His Letters,” in Minkov, Svetozar, ed., Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner (Lanham, MD, 2006), 359, original emphasisGoogle Scholar.

22 Leo Strauss, “Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political,” reprinted in Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 88–9, 106. Strauss developed his ideas about liberalism and the “sovereignty” of modern, human making at greater length in a book written at around the same time: Philosophy and Law, trans. Eve Adler (Albany, 1995).

23 Cited in Meier, GS 3, x, original emphases.

24 Leo Strauss, “Notes on Carl Schmitt,” 88–9, 105–7.

25 This last point is difficult to sustain. After all, Strauss spoke plainly (if often privately) of a desire to recover physis—a teleological notion of nature—in its moral and political aspects, if not its biological ones. See, for example, his famous letter—famous in certain circles—to Karl Löwith, reproduced in GS 3, 660–64, or his unpublished letter to Hans Jonas: “I saw for the first time the connection between this fundamentally earlier study of yours and your present preoccupations [with the philosophy of the organism]. I would state it as follows: gnosticism is the most radical rebellion against physis. Our problem now is to recover physis.” Strauss to Jonas, 19 Nov. 1958 (italics added). Hans-Jonas-Archiv 7–13b-10.

26 Cited in Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 118.

27 Cited in Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 122. Original from Strauss, On Tyranny, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael Roth (Chicago, 2000), 196.

28 Her book has left few observers unmoved. To some, it is the product of insight available only to insiders since gone out; to others, it is simply mendacious. It is estimable or loathsome, but not much in between. For some representative samples from her critics see Schaefer, David Lewis, “Careless Reading,” Review of Politics 67/3 (Summer 2005), 589–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Costopoulos, James, “Anne Norton and the ‘Straussian’ Cabal: How Not to Write a Book,” Interpretation 32/3 (Summer 2005), 269–81Google Scholar. For more appreciative assessments see Schultz, Bart, “Norton, Anne. Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire” (review), Ethics 115/4 (July 2005), 838–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Robin, Corey, “In the Shadow of Empire,” New Statesman 134/4744 (13 June 2005), 48–9Google Scholar.

29 Smith would argue that even to pose the question is to betray Strauss's express and identifiable intent. The title of his final chapter (“WWLSD?”) seems calculated to make precisely that point. To pose the question—what would Leo Strauss do?—is absurd and not a little obscene, as it substitutes Strauss for Christ.

30 Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, 23.

31 Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), 184Google Scholar. Others influenced by Strauss have made similar arguments in different registers. In the field of bioethics, for example, Leon Kass has invoked a “more ancient and teleological understanding of nature” to inveigh on behalf of the institution of “exogamous, monogamous marriage” as best suited to rearing “decent and upright children, that is, children who are truly human.” Kass, Leon, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York, 2003), 294–5Google Scholar.

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