Straussians Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Classical and Modern Political Science

A. The Critique of Science

B. The Problem of Common Sense

C. The Analysis of Regimes

III. Straussian Studies

IV. Politics and Political Science

V. Straussians, East and West

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Leo Strauss was one of the most prominent and controversial political theorists of the 20th century. He is perhaps most well-known for his view that classical political science, exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, is superior to modern political science in its various forms. Strauss cultivated in his students and admirers a certain disdain for contemporary political science, which he believed was largely irrelevant or even dangerous to political life. He emphasized the need for political science to be prescriptive with respect to the ends as well as the means of political action.

Strauss’s followers are now commonly known as the Straussians, although some of them resist the label. While there are disagreements among them, they generally adhere to his rejection of mainstream political science, with its emphasis on method, math, and theory. They make up a relatively small but important group within academic political science, several holding posts in some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. While most of them hold formal positions in the field of political philosophy, their work extends to all the substantive fields of contemporary academic political science.

In what follows, the Straussian approach to political science and the place of the Straussians within the discipline are examined. First, the Straussian preference for classical political science is explained. Second, the array of Straussian scholarship is reviewed, particularly with a view to its practical ends. Third, given the political emphasis of the Straussians, the political reaction to their work is explored. Finally, the political and philosophic divisions among the Straussians are examined.

II. Classical and Modern Political Science

The Straussian approach to political science may be understood in light of what Strauss viewed as the crisis of liberal democracy. The crisis consists in the loss of confidence in the principles underlying liberal democracy (Strauss, 1964). This loss of confidence was largely caused, Strauss argued, by tendencies manifested in the practical application of those principles, including an excessive preference for rights over duties, a naive and even dangerous belief in progress, and an inclination to moral relativism. Stated differently, liberal democracy had become too liberal and too democratic. Contemporary academic political science, Strauss argued, merely reflects this more general crisis. Strauss and his students believe that classical political philosophy and science may provide a needed corrective to these problems.

The lengthiest Straussian critique of academic political science is Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (Storing, 1962), a collection of articles written by Strauss and several of his students. The essays are sharply critical reviews of several major works in behavioral political science, which the authors term the new political science. The book provoked a vigorous response within the discipline. John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin (1963) wrote a lengthy, well-known critique. They were taken aback by what they took to be the “unrelievedly hostile and destructive” temper of the book (p. 126). Even Strauss’s supporters have noted the “bellicose” style of his memorable epilogue to the volume (Behnegar, 2003, p. 143). The book as a whole, and Strauss’s essay in particular, may be taken as the quasi-official declaration of the distinctively Straussian approach to political science.

A. The Critique of Science

In the epilogue to Essays, Strauss criticizes behavioral political science from the classical point of view, which he locates in the thought of Aristotle. First, the new political science drops the Aristotelian distinction between theoretical and practical sciences. The practical success of modern physics and mathematics, which in themselves are theoretical, led to the adoption of those sciences as the models for the practical sciences, including political science. In this way, the sciences as such came to be thought of as distinct from and superior to philosophy. Second, the blurring of the practical and theoretical sciences leads to the distortion of political things, which properly concern matters of action rather than contemplation. The classical view, moreover, held that political action contained principles of its own, irrespective of the claims of theory. The political sphere may require a theoretical defense from the intrusions of visionary or theoretical claims, but politics properly understood is altogether practical in nature (Strauss, 1962).

Third, since politics falls into the realm of practical science, political scientists cannot be mere neutral observers of political action. Political scientists, according to the classical view, must be directly engaged in political affairs. But since political scientists are more learned in the nature of political things, they become “umpires” of political disputes; they are more than mere partisans in those disputes. The new and more theoretical political science, on the other hand, seeks to refrain from such activity as a matter of scientific neutrality. Fourth, because of their political role, classical political scientists necessarily evaluate political phenomena. The new political science, in contrast, precisely insists on not making value judgments. Its scientific neutrality assumes the separation of facts from values; only the former are the proper objects of scientific analysis.

The source of the stridency of the Straussian critique of the new political science may be found in Strauss’s (1962) summary claim that “the political is sui generis and cannot be understood as derivative from the sub-political” (p. 311). The new political science deprives human beings of their dignity, according to Strauss, because it does not understand those beings on their own terms. It understands political things as the consequence of subrational or subpolitical forces or causes. The political and subpolitical realms are blurred. Classical political science, in contrast, assumes that human beings occupy a distinct place, that is, the political community, within a greater whole. As a discrete part within the greater whole that is the world, the political community comes to sight as a whole on its own. It is this wholeness of the political community, in turn, that is the ground of the common good. Human beings as citizens in the community share something in common with one another that is different from what those same human beings share with the larger animal and material world. What is shared is their common ends or purposes as political beings, beings concerned with the good, the just, the advantageous, and so on.

The new political science, on the other hand, denies the possibility of human dignity and the common good because it understands the human in the same way that modern science understands the nonhuman; it understands human beings in terms of their origins or causes rather than their ends. According to the new political science, Strauss argues, there is only a difference in degree, and not in kind, between man and beast. The new political science rejects the commonsense or prescientific understanding of the whole made up of political phenomena. This commonsense view, Strauss insists, is the necessary basis of any practical science.

B. The Problem of Common Sense

Strauss (1962) argues that the obscuring of common sense renders the new political science incapable of either adding anything important to ordinary political understanding or distinguishing the politically relevant from the politically irrelevant. He argues for a genuinely empirical political science against what he considers the spurious empiricism of the new approach. But Schaar and Wolin (1963) quite reasonably point out that, although political science should be addressed to what is practically meaningful rather than what is practically meaningless, it is not always evident that common sense enables us to make that distinction. Indeed, they insist that Strauss does not provide a clear account of common sense as such. Strauss (1962) mentions, for example, the older commonsense view that assumed that witches are real. He argues that the “errors” regarding such things were eventually discovered without the aid of empiricism (p. 317). This means that on the basis of common sense, it came to be understood that people should not be accused of being witches, even though the belief in witches was originally a part of common sense. Schaar and Wolin (1963) suggest that Strauss does not really explain how this was done or what kind of knowledge common sense without belief in witches really is. They question whether, on Straussian terms, one can distinguish the truths from the errors of common sense.

The problem of common sense is central to understanding the Straussian approach to political science. Strauss (1964) remarks that his return to classical political science is “tentative or experimental” (p. 11). This tentativeness is necessary because the conditions of the ancient polity that shaped classical political science are very different from those of today. Strauss engaged in close studies of political philosophers from the tradition in order to gain some understanding of the movement from those origins to our contemporary circumstances. This return through the reading of old books entails, among other things, awareness of the original commonsense view of witches, ghosts, and the like (Strauss, 1953). Strauss does not, of course, argue that political scientists today actually should believe in witches. However, he clearly suggests that common sense is not always so common. Moreover, what is common in the modern world is an ordinary life decisively shaped by science; it is a world without witches. This naturally raises the question whether Strauss’s return to classical political philosophy should ever be more than tentative. Critics of the Straussians suggest that such a return is misguided, given the very different conditions of political science today.

These difficulties are compounded by the problematic character of classical political philosophy even in the conditions of the ancient world. Strauss (1964) notes that Plato and Aristotle understood politics from a philosophic point of view; they did not see the political community as it sees itself. They understood the political world according to the philosophic idea of natural justice rather than the commonsense view of religious authority. Strauss suggests that the historian Thucydides did not make this mistake and so was closer to the original commonsense view of politics than were the philosophers. Strauss appeals to Aristotle’s view of common sense, yet he criticizes that view. He seems to admit that classical political philosophy appears to obscure common sense in a manner similar to modern political science.

Nevertheless, Strauss favors a return to classical political science because he believes that the classical approach, whatever its shortcomings, is superior to the modern alternatives. The classical approach is better, not because it is perfect, but because it takes seriously the questions of justice and morality that are central to political life. Modern political science, on the other hand, generally considers moral claims to be relative or subjective value judgments. This is not to say that Strauss thinks that modern political scientists do not take their own political views seriously. Indeed, Strauss contends that political beings properly so called do not consider their political claims to be merely relative or subjective; they consider their claims to be true, or they consider it necessary to present them as true. However, modern political scientists qua scientists exclude these political considerations. While classical political science may be unable to provide a complete or comprehensive account of the commonsense meaning of political life, Strauss suggests, modern political science ignores this meaning altogether as a matter of methodological principle.

C. The Analysis of Regimes

According to the Straussians, value-free modern political science generally fails to perform the central task of genuine political science: the practical study of regimes (Strauss, 1962). Regimes are the formalized claims to rule based on different opinions regarding justice and morality. These claims are traditionally embodied in the various groups or parties (democrats, oligarchs, etc.) that arise in political communities. But these claims are almost always defective or incomplete in some way. In order to act as umpire within the community, the political scientist must articulate, at least in outline, what a complete regime without defects would be. The philosophers call this the best regime (Strauss, 1953). Political scientists presumably are able to articulate the best regime because of their deeper study of politics. Stated differently, Straussians aim to politicize political science as a science. This means more than using what is learned from political science for political ends. It means that political science should aim to discover those ends. In this sense, political science is really only an extension of politics.

However, political scientists do not necessarily attempt to reform the political community in order to make it identical to the best regime. Political scientists are not to act as partisans, convinced of the absolute superiority of their view. The best regime normally provides only a general measure of the health of actual political communities. It is most often useful because it shows why perfection is not possible in actual political life. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that the best regime includes a significant communist element requiring the abolition of families and private property. Moreover, this best regime requires the rule of philosopher kings who are not bound by the rule of law. Because of the extreme character of this best regime, Straussians usually interpret it to be a practical impossibility (Strauss, 1953). The political scientist learns from the articulation of the best regime what the practical limits of political life are.

The best regime is the regime that is best everywhere and always. It is not bound to or limited by any transitory conditions. This means that the best regime is the regime that accords with nature or is what is right by nature. The attempt to recover the classical idea of natural right is one of the most important features of Straussian political science. However, because the best regime by nature is rarely practical or possible, classical political science articulates a prudent moderation of its aims. As a practical matter, the rule of law and the tutelage of gentlemen is to be preferred to communism and the rule of philosophers (Strauss, 1953). Stated differently, natural right is diluted by or for the sake of political right. The political philosophers may influence politics, but they are to do so in a circumspect and practical manner.

Political philosophers nevertheless always stand in some tension with their political communities because they necessarily question the prevailing regime claims in light of the best regime (Strauss, 1959). The most famous example of this tension was the conflict between Socrates and Athens. Socrates claimed to be helping the Athenians, but they perceived his questioning of their beliefs to be a threat to what they held most dear. They eventually put him to death for what they perceived to be his crimes. One goal of political scientists, according to the tradition that followed Socrates, is to improve political life without suffering his fate (Strauss, 1959). This requires that the political scientist support the political community while nevertheless criticizing it. For this reason, Straussians generally describe themselves as friendly critics of liberal democracy. While they often use classical sources in order to criticize modern politics, they defend this criticism as helpful to modern politics.

The Straussian emphasis on the practical character of political science resembles in certain respects two broad movements in academic political science that gained prominence in the discipline after Strauss’s death: postbehavioralism and rational choice. Both of these approaches stress the idea that political science should prescribe political action, not merely describe and explain it. However, James Ceaser (1992) has expressed most fully the Straussian view that these approaches share behavioralism’s main flaw, namely, indifference to the regime question. While these approaches may provide interesting or useful information about how to achieve the ends of political life, they do not seek to identify those ends in light of the best regime. Straussians believe political science proceeds directly from the commonsense arguments inherent in political life regarding the right and just ordering of society. The techniques of modern political science can be, at best, only instrumental to the precisely political role of political science.

III. Straussian Studies

Many of Strauss’s students and admirers have followed his example of studying the great books of the philosophic tradition. Such studies are often viewed as propaedeutic, a necessary part of understanding the basic questions of political life. Straussians are known in particular for their very close readings of classic texts. This includes what some critics consider the controversial attempt to understand the great philosophers as they understood themselves, without modern presuppositions affecting the interpretation of the classics. In keeping with this approach, the Straussians have produced quite literal translations of many classic texts. Such translations are considered a part of both effective teaching and sound scholarship. The need to return to the classic tradition has even led some Straussians, most notably Seth Benardete (1989, 2000), to concentrate their work almost entirely on the study of ancient Greek philosophy and poetry.

Most Straussians, however, do not limit their scholarly work to the study of classical texts. They have produced work in all the substantive fields within academic political science. Despite the variety of their work, they may be said to share Strauss’s view that political science should proceed from the ordinary questions of political life and have as its aim the improvement of the political community. This political disposition is evident in the variety of Straussian studies. Thomas Pangle (2006) and John Murley (2005) have provided extensive reviews of these works. It is helpful here to highlight briefly several characteristic examples of Straussian scholarship.

Allan Bloom is perhaps the most well-known of Strauss’s students. He earned popular acclaim with his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The book is largely an indictment of higher education and popular culture in the United States from the Straussian point of view, particularly the idea that the classical emphasis on moral and intellectual virtue has been vitiated in the name of the modern turn to egalitarian and democratic principles. The book was especially popular for its often amusing take on the manner in which these modern tendencies manifest themselves in the social lives of college students. In this respect, the reaction to the book provides some insight into the popularity of Straussian ideas among many college students exposed to them. More broadly, the attention paid to Bloom’s book reflects the attractiveness of the Straussian critique of modernity. There are a number of postmodern criticisms of modern life, but with their appeal to the philosophic tradition and common sense, Straussians offer a distinct alternative, however controversial, within the academy.

Consistent with Strauss’s emphasis on common sense and traditional thought, Straussians place great importance on the study of the origins of political communities. Given that most Straussians live in the United States, this naturally has resulted in an interest in the American regime. Martin Diamond (1992) and Herbert Storing (1995), for example, emphasized the role that political ideas and statesmanship played in the founding of the United States. This approach rejects theories that find in economic or psychological forces the chief causes of the founders’ actions. Straussians examine the regime claims of the various partisans of the time, and the arguments made in support of those claims, with a view to an articulation of the genuine meaning of the Constitution and other major documents of the founding.

The Constitution’s influence has been a particularly important part of the Straussian study of the United States. Harvey Mansfield (1991), for example, has suggested that the forms of the Constitution serve as the principal brake on the democratic tendencies of the regime. Those tendencies are derived from the revolutionary and egalitarian origins of the United States. The maintenance of constitutional forms is, Mansfield argues, crucial to the success of the regime. In this respect, like many Straussians, he follows Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of the customs and mores that sustain or harm regimes.

Indeed, according to many Straussians, Tocqueville’s work is the model for classical political science in the modern world (Ceaser, 1992). In keeping with the idea that one should be a friendly critic of liberal democracy, Tocqueville criticized the United States and France with the intention of improving liberal democracy as the best practical form of government under modern conditions. In similar fashion, while many Straussians are critical of the underlying principles of the United States as unduly modern, they often stress what they take to be the more salutary elements of the regime, such as the adherence to constitutional forms.

Straussians generally emphasize the need for moderation in liberal democracy, particularly in light of the rise of progressive ideas in the past century. They look to the classical descriptions of the gentleman and the statesman as models for politicians today. Strauss suggested that the classical philosophic notion of aristocracy, however inapplicable to modern conditions, remained in principle the generally superior regime type. In keeping with this idea, Straussians generally argue that the aristocratic elements of liberal democracies should be encouraged if those democracies are not to suffer the traditional failings of popular governments. Supporting the aristocratic elements requires, in addition to the defense of constitutional forms, support for the cultivation of principled statesmanship. Respect for forms and the teaching of statesmanship are related aspects of regime analysis, for the holders of duly constituted public offices are the practical embodiment of the regime.

Accordingly, with respect to the courts, Straussians such as Walter Berns (1987) tend to share with other conservative scholars a respect for constitutional forms and, in particular, a preference for judicial restraint. They generally oppose the idea that the meaning of the Constitution evolves or changes over time. This opposition follows from the Straussian concern to maintain the forms of the Constitution as the moderating force in the democracy. When deciding cases, judges should look more often than they do to the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution and the great jurists of the founding era.

Straussians have examined the American presidency in a similar fashion. Jeffrey Tulis (1987), for example, has criticized the rise of the modern progressive presidency, with its emphasis on popular rhetoric and dependence on democratic opinion. James Ceaser (1979) has examined the extent to which changes in electoral arrangements have contributed to this development. These studies argue that under current circumstances, the presidency is much less able to fulfill the moderating and quasi-aristocratic role in the regime intended for it by the founders. Classical regime analysis in this case reveals the particular problem of democratic decay in the conditions of the modern state.

Other Straussians, especially Diamond and Storing, as well as their students, have taken an alternate view, but with the same intention, by locating potentially moderating institutions and practices within contemporary U.S. government. In general, they are less critical of liberal democracy in general than are most other Straussians. For example, Joseph Bessette (1994) has argued that the modern Congress, despite its shortcomings, in many ways fulfills the founders’ original hope for a deliberative legislative process. John Rohr (1986) has considered the possibility that the modern civil service, despite its significant role in the modern state, might, with the proper guidance, play a moderating or even statesmanlike role in the mature American regime.

The most significant Straussian scholar of American politics is Harry Jaffa. Among Straussian works, his writings on Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War provide the most searching account of the relationship between political philosophy and statesmanship. In his early writings, Jaffa (1959) argued that Lincoln corrected the regime of the founding fathers, which unduly relied on the modern idea that the preservation of private rights is more important than moral obligation. In his later writings, Jaffa (2000) has presented a more subtle and complex interpretation, arguing that Lincoln did not correct the founders’ modern principles but actually recovered the classical core of their thought. Jaffa insists on the need to understand the thought of the founders and Lincoln on its own terms and not simply as a by-product of the general currents of modern thought.

Straussians highlight the degree to which the ideas and principles of rulers, as opposed to economic or psychological causes, shape the course of events. As exemplified in Jaffa’s work, Straussians often focus their studies on the writings and speeches, the reasoned arguments, of political leaders. This follows from the idea that political things must be taken on their own terms if we are to see them fully for what they are. Straussians have taken this approach to other areas as well, including political psychology and political economy. These studies aim to show that the phenomena in question are decisively political in character and not reducible to other causes. This is especially evident in Straussian studies of the problem of tyranny. Scholars such as Charles Fairbanks (1993) and Myron Rush (1974), for example, have followed Strauss’s (1991) example by showing that modern communist and fascist tyrants are best understood in terms of their ideological self-understanding.

Also noteworthy are Straussian works in the area of international relations. In keeping with the return to classical sources, Clifford Orwin (1994) and others have engaged in close and detailed studies of Thucydides and other great books in the tradition. They have followed Strauss’s lead in reading Thucydides’ account of justice between nations as a companion to the works of the great philosophers. These new interpretations diverge from more traditional “realist” accounts of the Greek historian. Added to this work have been further Straussian studies of Machiavelli, Kant, and other sources of modern realism, neorealism, and idealism. These philosophical and historical readings have led Straussians to question a number of the assumptions of these more contemporary theories.

Not surprisingly, Straussians emphasize the important relationship between political regimes and the conduct of international affairs. Classical political philosophers wrote more extensively on domestic matters than on foreign affairs. From the classical perspective, policy concerns regarding war and diplomacy cannot be understood apart from regime analysis. The most famous classical example of this is Socrates’ depiction of the guardian class in Plato’s Republic. In this light, Straussians have explored the relationship between foreign affairs and the character of modern liberal democracies. Jeremy Rabkin (2005), for example, has argued that sovereignty is an essential element of constitutional democracies. Only sovereign governments can make and enforce laws needed for the protection of individual rights and the maintenance of democratic norms. Straussians generally are wary of the contemporary trend toward multilateral agreements and the like, which they believe can pose serious threats to sovereignty and constitutional government.

IV. Politics and Political Science

Any discussion of the Straussians must address the political controversies surrounding their work. Straussians have come under criticism, some of it quite severe, for appearing to suggest that they have special knowledge of the best regime. This criticism is intensified by the political conservatism of most Straussians.Anumber of Straussians are or have been active in conservative media outlets and public policy institutes, as well as in the Republican Party. While not all Straussians are politically conservative, relatively few of them are liberal.

The political criticism of the Straussians became most acute during the administration of President George W. Bush, which employed a number of foreign policy assistants with varying connections to Strauss or the Straussians. The Straussians were criticized, in particular, for their association with neoconservatives, who generally have favored an interventionist and unilateral foreign policy. The harshest critics accuse the Straussians of being a cabal that deceives the public in order to justify war and undermine democracy. This charge of deception was made most often with respect to the Bush administration’s claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

While many of these critics may be dismissed as narrowly partisan, the controversy did highlight an important element of the Straussian approach to political science. Several academic critics of Strauss, most notably Shadia Drury (2005), have argued that Strauss believed philosophers like himself were fundamentally superior to ordinary human beings. Strauss’s best regime of natural right, Drury suggests, really amounts to only a defense of the rule of the strong over the weak. The Straussians, she claims, believe they are a kind of philosophic aristocracy. They believe the ignorant many exist only to serve the philosophic few. In this reading, Strauss follows Machiavelli and Nietzsche by glorifying fraud and power.

The principal source for Drury’s charge is Strauss’s well-known view that political philosophers often write in a manner that both reveals and conceals what they really think (Strauss, 1952). The philosophers do this as a matter of prudence. On one hand, the philosopher may be persecuted, as in the case of Socrates, because the people perceive the philosopher’s questioning to be a threat to the community. On the other hand, the philosopher’s questioning may very well undermine the necessary beliefs of the community. In this sense, Athens may actually have been justified in condemning Socrates. The solution to this problem is represented most famously by Plato, who communicates poetically through the characters in his dialogues and not directly in his own name. Only the philosophic few presumably can decipher the secret meaning of Plato’s texts. In this way, the philosopher writes exoterically for the many and esoterically for the few.

Most Straussians defend the general notion of esoteric speech and writing as a part of political life itself. It is commonly understood that statesmen often refrain from fully stating their opinions. For example, as Jaffa (1959) has argued, Abraham Lincoln’s rhetorical efforts to navigate between the competing forces of slavery and abolition were akin to exoteric writing. Even though he favored abolition, Lincoln could not state explicitly his real aim to end slavery in the South. Similarly, given the racist opinions of his time, he could not openly support social and political equality for African Americans. Lincoln’s calculated rhetoric, Jaffa argues, was intended to serve practically the ends of equality and freedom rightly understood. Straussians similarly defend their political science as a form of prudence.

Political scientists of almost every stripe, including Drury, admit that some degree of elitism, if only for the sake of competence, is necessary and even desirable in liberal democratic politics. The larger question concerns the appropriate degree and form of elitism. At various places in his writings, Strauss refers to a fundamental conflict between philosophy and politics. Because of their greater knowledge, philosophers tend to form a class separate from the rest of the community. Because of this, politics and philosophy cannot be completely reconciled. Moreover, the separation of politics and philosophy in some sense is necessary for the proper understanding of both.

The Straussian critique of modern political philosophy centers on the modern attempt to overcome the separation between politics and philosophy. Classical political philosophy proceeded from the view that the many could never become truly philosophic. Modern philosophy, on the other hand, attempted to make the many philosophic, in a sense. It did this by means of enlightenment. But in order to enlighten, modern philosophers had to simplify political life. Human things had to be portrayed in nonhuman terms. This is, as mentioned above, the root of the Straussian critique of contemporary political science. Strauss argued that the simplification of human things brought about a distortion of political philosophy. A characteristic trait of genuine political philosophy is awareness of the immense complexity of human things. Political philosophy lacks a complete account of all things and so cannot rule political life in a comprehensive way. Stated in Straussian terms, natural right cannot completely replace political right. Strauss argues that modern philosophy’s simplification of human things through enlightenment is, in effect, an attempt at such replacement. It is the real effort to subordinate politics to philosophy.

A number of Straussians have defended Strauss from the charges by Drury and others. Catherine and Michael Zuckert (2006) have presented the lengthiest such defense. The novelty of their argument is the claim that Strauss did not, in fact, write esoterically. In particular, they claim that Strauss did not have a secret teaching. Strauss is known for often writing in a cryptic and enigmatic manner. This has naturally led many observers to think, in light of his explicit descriptions of esoteric methods, that Strauss also wrote esoterically. The Zuckerts, however, argue that Strauss’s writing style indicates his “pedagogical reserve,” not his esotericism (p. 136). Modern liberal democracy, with its relative degree of openness, has largely eliminated the need for esoteric writing. But while esoteric writing is no longer necessary, the need for restraint in philosophic education of students remains. Complete openness at the outset of such education might undermine students’ emerging appreciation of the peculiar pleasures of philosophy. Strauss’s manner of writing, the Zuckerts suggest, does not serve a political purpose.

Many observers, including many or most Straussians, remain unconvinced by the Zuckerts. Given the fact that any esoteric teaching would necessarily be difficult to discern, it is difficult to conclude that Strauss did not have one. In any case, it is not clear that such a teaching, even if it existed, must be hostile to liberal democracy. While it is fair to say that much of their work is critical of democracy in its contemporary form, it is also reasonable to conclude that the Straussians do not intend to overthrow democracy.

V. Straussians, East and West

The Straussians at times appear to disagree among themselves as much as they do with the wider academic and political communities. The differences among them illustrate several key aspects of the Straussian approach, particularly their understanding of the relationship between liberal democracy and political science. The Zuckerts have noted at least three distinct types of Straussians, typically identified according to the geographical locations of their principal representatives. The “East Coast” Straussians, who appear to be the greatest in number, are the most critical of liberal democracy, which they see as too modern in its origins and principles. Prominent East Coast Straussians include Bloom, Berns, and Pangle. Jaffa and his admirers are the “West Coast” Straussians, who vigorously defend the regime of the American Founding and deny that its principles are fundamentally modern. A third group, which the Zuckerts call the “Midwest” Straussians, believes that the American Founding is fully modern but that modern principles are not as bad as other Straussians tend to think. Diamond and Storing are the most notable members of this group. Insofar as they are the least critical of modern political philosophy, the Zuckerts note, they are the least Straussian of the three groups.

The sharpest exchanges between the Straussians have been initiated by Jaffa (Zentner, 2003). He has criticized Diamond, Berns, Pangle, and Bloom, as well as prominent conservative admirers of Strauss such as Irving Kristol and Wilmoore Kendall. He insists that both sound public policy and genuine political philosophy require adherence to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Most Straussians, he argues, wrongly apply to the American Founders Strauss’s critique of early modern philosophers such as John Locke. Strauss criticized Locke for favoring rights over duties and self-preservation over virtue. Jaffa suggests that while Strauss’s account of Locke is perhaps at the deepest level true, it does not apply to the founders since they did not read Locke in the manner that Strauss did. Their thought, Jaffa insists, must be understood on its own terms.

Jaffa’s Straussian opponents argue that he wrongly characterizes their critique of the American Founders as more extreme than it really is. They follow, in their view, Strauss’s example of the loyal critic of liberal democracy. Moreover, they suggest that Jaffa’s approach lacks the skepticism required of the political philosopher. Berns, for example, suggests that Jaffa assumes political philosophy should be edifying. According to Berns, Strauss specifically denied this role to philosophy. Pangle has similarly characterized Jaffa as much too strident. The political role of the philosopher, he argues, should be more circumspect. Political philosophers necessarily follow Socrates’ example and question the orthodox opinions of their fellow citizens. Political philosophers in the U.S., then, must call into question, however gently, the founders’ egalitarian and democratic principles.

The quarrel among the Straussians derives, in part, from their opposed interpretations of the core of Strauss’s thought. Strauss (1997) considered the “theological-political problem” the theme of his life’s work (p. 453). This problem, briefly stated, concerns the tension between particularistic identities, on one hand, and universalistic commitments, on the other. Strauss observed that this was a perennial human problem. Every human being, in both ancient and modern times, is at once a natural being and a citizen, a universal being and a political being. The tension between these two aspects of life became acute with the rise of biblical religion and its universal moral beliefs. Before biblical religion, there rarely was an explicit division between political and religious authority. All authorities in the ancient city were political or particularistic. The ancient city was what we today call a closed society. In that world, the awareness of the human or the universal in a meaningful sense became evident, if at all, only when philosophers appeared and began to articulate the universal idea of nature. Biblical religion, especially Christianity, was unlike the other ancient religions because it exhibited a universalism similar to philosophy. In this way, the relationship between politics and religion became confused or incoherent. Religion no longer provided the authority for politics in an unproblematic way.

Indeed, the West became the arena for the working out of the two universalistic claimants to temporal and political authority: Greek philosophy and biblical religion. Strauss (1997) suggested that this tension between reason and revelation was the vitality of the Western world. The tension largely emerged out of the philosophic attempt to provide or restore theological-political coherence to human life. Sometimes, as in the case of medieval natural law doctrines, this philosophic attempt actually appeared in the guise of religion. Strauss was somewhat more sympathetic, however, with modern philosophers, such as Spinoza, who attempted to provide through liberal democracy something like a commonsense ground for political life apart from religion.

Liberal democracy was intended to solve the theological-political problem by separating the state from society and the church from the state. Religious beliefs as well as different forms of prejudice, racial and otherwise, would be left to the private realm. The public realm would be dedicated to the shared concern for the protection of individual rights and a limited public good. But Strauss (1997) emphasized two basic problems with this solution. First, prejudice could fester and become more dangerous precisely because it was left alone in the private realm. Second, the separation of church and state leaves the state without the support of the highest and most binding authorities: God and divine law. The result would likely be an anemic state that could not hold sway over a society moved by prejudices of one sort or another. Strauss interpreted the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the rise of the Nazis in just this way. In related fashion, he likened the predicament of African Americans in the United States to that of the Jews in Germany.

The disagreements among the Straussians regarding liberal democracy and the American Founding reflect Strauss’s ambivalence about both. The East Coast Straussians appear to have adopted the more sober aspect of Strauss’s view. Although they support liberal democracy in general, and the U.S. constitutional system in particular, they tend to emphasize the need to correct what they take to be their defects. This approach is in line with the more general Straussian antipathy toward modernity. The Midwest Straussians, it should be noted, do not differ substantially from the East Coast Straussians with respect to their general interpretation of liberal democracy and the American Founding. However, they evaluate both more positively. The emphasis on private rights and self-preservation has, they suggest, resulted in a more or less decent system of government broadly consistent with the human good. Liberal democracy appears to be particularly favorable in comparison with other available forms of government in the modern world.

The West Coast Straussian view represents the clearer innovation on Strauss’s theme. Jaffa’s interpretation of the American Founders and Lincoln seems tailored to address the particular problem of liberal democracy that Strauss describes. That problem rests on the hollowness of liberal democracy itself, particularly the public indifference to private opinion. Jaffa’s interpretation of Lincoln and slavery suggests that liberal democracy need not be understood in narrowly Lockean or self-interested terms. He defends Lincoln’s argument that the Founders’ principles provide clear moral guidance on the question of slavery. The protections for slavery in the South were compromises necessary to secure the Union. But as compromises, they reflect the underlying moral principle of natural human equality. Jaffa suggests that the founders’ principles reflect in important ways traditional elements of natural right that ultimately find their roots in the thought of Plato and Aristotle.

Many East Coast and Midwest Straussians believe that Jaffa has mixed classical and modern principles in untenable ways. For example, they often point out that classical natural right, which emphasizes duties over rights, is essentially inconsistent with modern natural right, which emphasizes rights over duties. Jaffa’s response is that the emphasis on natural rights as an answer to the theological-political problem, that is, the basis for the separation of church and state, should be understood primarily in practical and not theoretical terms. In other words, he argues that he returns to the commonsense understanding of political life that Strauss urged on political scientists. The difficulty, as Jaffa admits, is that the commonsense understanding of practical life today is greatly influenced by theoretical considerations. This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the idea of natural rights, on which the founders base their politics, is a product of theory and philosophy. The East Coast and Midwest Straussians emphasize this important point.

VI. Conclusion

The Straussians are likely to continue to quarrel among themselves, not only about the principles and practices of liberal democracy, but about the meaning of Strauss’s work as well. They also likely will continue to provide provocative accounts of contemporary politics and public policy, which will in turn draw further criticism. Their peculiar form of traditional political science represents a distinct, if at times controversial, voice in the world of academic political science. However, in this the Straussians are not unusual. Their contentious views may best be seen as part of the ongoing discussions, well-known within political science, about the very meaning and purpose of the discipline.


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