Tag Archives: Machiavelli

Stopping History




Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind:

On Political Reaction 

            Mark Lilla is one of today’s most brilliant scholars writing on European and American intellectual history and the history of ideas. A professor of humanities at Columbia University and previously a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (as well as a native of Detroit!), Lilla first came to public attention in 2001 with his The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. This compact work portrayed eight 20th century thinkers who rejected Western liberal democracy and aligned themselves with totalitarian regimes. Some were well known, such as German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, but more were quite obscure to general readers.  He followed with another thought provoking work, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, a study of “political theology,” the implications of secularism and the degree to which religion and politics have been decoupled in modern Europe.

          In his most recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Lilla probes the elusive and, in his view, understudied mindset of the political reactionary.  The first thing we need to understand about reactionaries, he tells us at the outset, is that they are not conservatives. They are “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings” (p.xii).  The mission of the political reactionary is to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” Lilla writes, quoting a famous line from the first edition of William F. Buckley’s National Review, a publication which he describes as “reactionary” (p.xiii). But the National Review is widely considered as embodying the voice of traditional American conservatism, an indication that the distinction between political reactionary and traditional conservative is not always clear-cut.  Lilla’s notion of political reaction overlaps with other terms such as “anti-modern” and the frequently used “populism.” He mentions both but does not draw out distinctions between them and political reaction.

            For Lilla, political reactionaries have a heightened sense of doom and maintain a more apocalyptic worldview than traditional conservatives. The political reactionary is driven by a nostalgic vision of an idealized, golden past and is likely to blame “elites” for the deplorable current state of affairs. The betrayal of elites is the “linchpin of every reactionary story” (p.xiii), he notes. In a short introduction, Lilla sets forth these definitional parameters and also traces the origins of our concept of political reaction to a certain type of opposition to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment.

          The nostalgia for a lost world “settled like a cloud on European thought after the French Revolution and never fully lifted” (p.xvi), Lilla notes. Whereas conservative Edmund Burke recoiled at the French Revolution’s wholesale uprooting of established institutions and its violence but were willing to admit that France’s ancien régime had grown ossified and required modification, quintessential reactionary Joseph de Maistre mounted a full-throated defense of the ancien régime.   For de Maistre, 1789 “marked the end of a glorious journey, not the beginning of one” (p.xii).

         If the reactionary mind has its roots in counter-revolutionary thinking, it endures today in the absence of political revolution of the type that animated de Maistre. “To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological change, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution,” Lilla writes (p.xiv). For the apocalyptic imagination of the reactionary, “the present, not the past, is a foreign country” (p.137). The reactionary mind is thus a “shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile” (p.xiii).

      The Shipwrecked Mind is not a systematic or historical treatise on the evolution of political reaction. Rather, in a disparate collection of essays, Lilla provides examples of reactionary thinking.  He divides his work into three main sections, “Thinkers,” “Currents,” and “Events.” “Thinkers” portrays three 20th century intellectuals whose works have inspired modern political reaction. “Currents” consists of two essays with catchy titles, “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” and “From Mao to St. Paul;” the former is a study of “theoconservatism,” reactionary religious strains found within traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism; the latter looks at a more leftist nostalgia for a revolutionary past. “Events” contains Lilla’s reflections on the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo publication and a kosher supermarket.  But like the initial “Thinkers” sections, “Currents” and “Events” are above all introductions to the works of reactionary thinkers, most of whom are likely to be unfamiliar to English language readers.

            The Shipwrecked Mind appeared at about the same time as the startling Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, a time when Donald Trump was in the equally startling process of securing the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Neither Brexit nor the Trump campaign figures directly in Lilla’s analysis and  readers will therefore have to connect the dots themselves between his diagnosis of political reaction and these events. Contemporary France looms larger in his effort to explain the reactionary mind, in part because Lilla was in Paris at the time of the January 2015 terrorist attacks.

* * *

            “Thinkers,” Lilla’s initial section, is similar in format to The Reckless Mind, consisting of portraits of Leo Strauss, Eric Voeglin, and Franz Rosenzweig, three German-born theorists whose work is “infused with modern nostalgia” (p.xvii). Of the three, readers are most likely to be familiar with Strauss (1899-1973), a Jewish refugee from Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust. Strauss taught philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1949 up to his death in 1973. Assiduous tomsbooks readers will recall my review in January 2014 of The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, by Michael and Catherine Zuckert, which dismissed the purported connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war as based on a failure to dig deeply enough into Strauss’ complex, tension ridden views about America and liberal democracy. Like the Zuckerts, Lilla considers the connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war “misplaced” and “unseemly,” but, more than the Zuckerts, finds “quite real” the connection between Strauss’ thinking and that of today’s American political right (p.62).

        Strauss’ salience to political reaction starts with his view that Machiavelli, whom Strauss considered the first modern philosopher, is responsible for a decisive historical break in the Western philosophical tradition. Machiavelli turned philosophy from “pure contemplation and political prudence toward willful mastery of nature” (p.xviii), thereby introducing passion into political and social life. Strauss’ most influential work, Natural Right and History, argued that “natural justice” is the “standard by which political arrangements must be judged” (p.56). After the tumult of the 1960s, some of Strauss’ American disciples began to see this work as an argument that the West is in crisis, unable to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Lilla suggests that Natural Right and History has been misconstrued in the United States as an argument that political liberalism’s rejection of natural rights leads invariably to a relativism indistinguishable from nihilism. This misinterpretation led “Straussians” to the notion that the United States has a “redemptive historical mission — an idea nowhere articulated by Strauss himself” (p.61).

          Voeglin (1901-1985), a contemporary of Strauss, was born in Germany and raised in Austria, from which he fled in 1938 at the time of its Anchluss with Germany.   Like Strauss, he spent most of his academic career in the United States, where he sought to explain the collapse of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism in terms of a “calamitous break in the history of ideas, after which intellectual and political decline set in” (p.xviii). Voeglin argued that in inspiring the liberation of politics from religion, the 18th century Enlightenment gave rise in the 20th century to mass ideological movements such as Marxism, fascism and nationalism.  Voeglin considered these movements “’political religions,’ complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices” (p.31). As Lilla puts it, for Voeglin, when you abandon the Lord, it is “only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Führer” (p.31).

        Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a German Jew who gained fame in his time for backing off at the last moment from a conversion to Christianity – the equivalent of leaving his bride at the altar – and went on to dedicate his life to a revitalization of Jewish thought and practice. Rosenzweig shared an intellectual nostalgia prevalent in pre-World War I Germany that saw the political unification of Germany decades earlier, while giving rise to a wealthy bourgeois culture and the triumph of the modern scientific spirit, as having extinguished something essential that could “only be recaptured through some sort of religious leap.” (p.4). Rosenzweig rejected Judaism’s efforts to reform itself “according to modern notions of historical progress, which were rooted in Christianity” in favor of a new form of thinking that would “turn its back on history in order to recapture the vital transcendent essence of Judaism” (p.xvii-xviii).

          Lilla’s sensitivity to the interaction between religion and politics, the subject of The Stillborn God and the portraits of Voeglin and Rosenzweig here, is again on display in the two essays in the middle “Currents” section. In “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” Lilla explores how, despite doctrinal differences, traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism in the United States came to share a “sweeping condemnation of America’s cultural decline and decadence.”  This “theoconservatism” (p.xix) blames today’s perceived decline and decadence on reform movements within these dominations and what they perceive as secular attacks on religion generally, frequently tracing the attacks to the turbulent 1960s as the significant breaking point in American political and religious history.

         Two works figure prominently in this section, Alastir MacInytre’s 1981 After Virtue, and Brad Gregory’s 2012 The Unintended Reformation. MacIntyre, echoing de Maistre, argued that the Enlightenment had undone a system of morality worked out over centuries, unwittingly preparing the way for “acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that that ‘cannot hope to achieve moral consensus’” (p.74-75). Gregory, inspired by MacIntyre, attributed contemporary decline and decadence in significant part to forces unleashed in the Reformation, undercutting the orderliness and certainty of “medieval Christianity,” his term for pre-Reformation Catholicism. Building on Luther and Calvin, Reformation radicals “denied the need for sacraments or relics,” and left believers unequipped to interpret the Bible on their own, leading to widespread religious conflict. Modern liberalism ended these conflicts but left us with the “hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativististic world of today. And that’s how we got from Luther to Walmart” (p.78-79).

        “From St. Paul to Mao” considers a “small but intriguing movement on the academic far left” which maintains a paradoxical nostalgia for “revolution” or “the future,” and sees “deep affinities” between Saint Paul and modern revolutionaries such as Lenin and Chairman Mao (p.xx).  Jacob Taubes, a peripatetic Swiss-born Jew who taught in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Paris, sought to demonstrate in The Political Teachings of Paul that Paul was a “distinctively Jewish fanatic sent to universalize the Bible’s hope of redemption, bringing this revolutionary new idea to the wider world. After Moses, there was never a better Jew than Paul” (p.90). French theorist Alain Badiou, among academia’s last surviving Maoists, argued that Paul was to Jesus as Lenin was to Marx. The far left academic movement’s most prominent theorist is Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s “crown jurist” (p.99), a thinker portrayed in The Reckless Mind who emphasized the importance of human capacity and will rather than principles of natural right in organizing society.

         The third section, “Currents,” considers  France’s simmering cultural war over the place of Islam in French society, particularly in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which Lilla sees as a head-on collision between two forms of political reaction:

On the one side was the nostalgia of the poorly educated killers for an imagined, glorious Muslim past that now inspires dreams of a modern caliphate with global ambitions. On the other was the nostalgia of French intellectuals who saw in the crime a confirmation of their own fatalistic views about the decline of France and the incapacity of Europe to assert itself in the face of a civilizational challenge (p.xx).

        France’s struggle to integrate its Muslim population, Lilla argues, has revived a tradition of cultural despair and nostalgia for a Catholic monarchist past that had flourished in France between the 1789 Revolution and the fall of France in 1940, but fell out of favor after World War II because of its association with the Vichy government and France’s role in the Holocaust. In the early post-war decades in France, it was “permissible for a French writer to be a conservative but not a reactionary, and certainly not a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress” (p.108). Today, it is once again permissible in France to be a reactionary.

          “Currents” concentrates on two best-selling works that manifest the revival of the French reactionary tradition, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide francais, published in 2014, and Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel, Submission, first published on the very day of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, an “astonishing, almost unimaginable” coincidence (p.116). Le Suicide francais presents a “grandiose, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France” (p.108), with a broad range of culprits contributing to the decline, including feminism, multiculturalism, French business elites, and European Union bureaucrats. But Zemmour reserves particular contempt for France’s Muslim citizens.  Le Suicide francais provides the French right with a “common set of enemies,” stirring an “outraged hopelessness – which in contemporary politics is much more powerful than hope” (p.117).

         Submission is the story of an election in France of a Muslim President in 2022, with the support of France’s mainstream political parties which seek to prevent the far right National Front party from winning the presidency.  In Lilla’s interpretation, the novel serves to express a “recurring European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom – freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends – must inevitably lead to disaster” (p.127).  France for Houellebecq “regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self” as a result of wager on history made at the time of the Enlightenment that the more Europeans “extended human freedom, the happier they would be” (p.128-29). For Houellebecq, “by any measure France’s most significant contemporary writer” (p.109), that wager has been lost. “And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God”(p.129).

          Lilla’s section on France ends on this ominous note. But in an “Afterword,” Lilla returns to contemporary Islam, the other party to the head-on collision of competing reactionaries at work in the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and their aftermath.  Islam’s belief in a lost Godden Age is the “most potent and consequential” political nostalgia in operation today (p.140), Lilla contends. According to radical Islamic myth, out of a state of jahiliyya, ignorance and chaos, the Prophet Muhammad was “chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it.” But, “astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it has never been recovered” (p.140). Today the forces of secularism, individualism, and materialism have “combined to bring about a new jahiliyya that every faithful Muslim must struggle against, just as the Prophet did at the dawn of the seventh century” (p.141).

* * *

          The essays in this collection add up to what Lilla describes as a “modest start” (p.xv) in probing  the reactionary mindset and are intriguing as far as they go. But I finished The Shipwrecked Mind hoping that Lilla will extend this modest start. Utilizing his extensive learning and formidable analytical skills, Lilla is ideally equipped to provide a systematic, historical overview of the reactionary tradition, an overview that would highlight its relationship to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment in particular but to other historical landmarks as well, especially the 1960s. In such a work, Lilla might also provide more definitional rigor to the term “political reactionary” than he does here, elaborating upon its relationship to traditional conservatism, populism, and anti-modernism.  Through what might be a separate work, Lilla is also well placed to help us connect the dots between political reaction and the turmoil generated by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  In less than six months, moreover, we will also know whether we will need to ask Lilla to connect dots between his sound discussion here of political reaction in contemporary France and a National Front presidency.


Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 5, 2017






Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion

Tension Ridden Thinker


Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss:

Political Philosophy and American Democracy 

            In 2003, the year of the United States’ fateful invasion of Iraq, the anti-war opposition’s search for the culprits responsible took an odd turn, going well beyond the usual suspects, Rumsfeld, Chaney and their boss, President George W. Bush. Media reports in 2003, both before and after the invasion, were pointing to an obscure, deceased (since 1973) professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust, one Leo Strauss. Strauss was fingered as the thinker whose ideas had inspired a cabal of ambitious young policy wonks who left the University of Chicago to take positions of influence in Washington. These “Straussians” were grouped together as “neo-conservatives,” and, as the popular wisdom still holds, neo-conservatives were the driving force behind the 2003 Iraq invasion.

            Professor Strauss was said to be an adherent of a strong-willed approach to foreign policy which the authors associate with Woodrow Wilson, advocating regime change as a means to implant liberal democracy throughout the world. While this certainly suggests neo-conservatism, Strauss was also portrayed in a somewhat contradictory vein as a resolute Machiavellian who espoused a “very hard-edged realism” that was “unabashedly elitist” (p.6), in which the end justifies the means and “[o]nly philosophers can handle the truth” (p.7). The elite must therefore “lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them – arguably for their own good” (p.7).

            In The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, the authors, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, a husband and wife team at the University of Notre Dame and both former students of Strauss, seek to show that the views attributed to Strauss are at best caricatures, the result of a failure to dig deep enough into the man’s “complex and tension ridden” views about America and liberal democracy (p.20). As to those former students who could be termed Straussians, they are mostly academics like Strauss, with strong but by no means consistent views about the United States and basic American principles. Straussians are “far more interested in exploring the history of political thought than in acquiring or exerting direct and immediate influence on American public policy. The differences among the Straussians are principled and philosophical more than they are partisan or personal” (p.258), the authors contend. The common thread they see to today’s Straussians is a distaste for much of what transpired in American intellectual life in the 1960s.

* * *

            The Zuckerts’s opening chapter, cleverly titled “Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington,” explores how the notion that Strauss’ thinking was behind Bush-era neo-conservatives gained traction in the first place. This part of their story constitutes a good lesson in how mainstream media can get stories wrong (the Iraq war and run up to it are filled, unfortunately, with far more consequential instances of media missing the proverbial boat). The genesis of the notion, the Zuckerts argue, can be traced primarily to an otherwise little-known scholar, Shadia Drury. In 1988, fifteen years after Strauss’ death and fifteen years prior to the second Iraq war, Drury produced what the authors consider a generally sound, objective account of Strauss’ thinking, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. This book established Drury’s credentials as a Strauss scholar. But sometime in the 1990s, the authors argue, Drury lost her objectivity and began to impute dastardly qualities to Strauss’ writing in an effort to tie Strauss to the American right.

            In this phase, Drury found Strauss to be a partisan of “tyrannical teaching,” which holds that there is “only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise over the vulgar” (p.158). Drury even compared Strauss to Adolph Hitler:

Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses – the same that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fuhrer. Strauss’ political philosophy advocates the same solutions to the problems of the recalcitrant masses. (p.17)

             Drury’s more polemical ideas gained traction in the mainstream media, inexplicably aided in no small part by Lyndon Larouche and his followers, whom the authors describe, with considerable restraint, as a “fringe if not quite lunatic group” (p.12). Larouche echoed Drury’s views and led his own drumbeat of anti-Strauss rhetoric. Larouche’s involvement should have been a warning that something fishy was afoot. But Larouche at least as much as Drury provided the mainstream media with its Straussian talking points. The New York Times was an early leader in linking Strauss to the darker side of American conservatism. In November 1994, Brett Staples wrote “Undemocratic Vistas: The Sinister Vogue of Leo Strauss,” followed by Richard Bernstein’s “A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero),” published in the Times in January 1995.

            In 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, the Times ran articles on Strauss bearing the titles “Leo-Cons, A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders” and “The Real Strauss.” The French daily Le Monde weighed in with an influential piece, “Strategist and Philosopher.” Other 2003 articles about Strauss included “Selective Intelligence” (The New Yorker); “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” (International Herald Tribune); “Philosophers and Kings” (The Economist); “ConTract: The Theory Behind Neo-Con Self Deception” (Washington Monthly); and “Neo-Cons Dance A Straussian Waltz” (Asian Times). Those whom the media mistakenly labeled Straussians included Richard Perle, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork (“not a shred of evidence to support these claims,” p.264); Thomas Sowell (“nothing to do with Strauss;” p.10); and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In some accounts, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore were characterized as Straussians. The only neo-conservatives outside academia whom the authors consider to be genuine Straussians are commentator William Kristol and Bush Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, along with Leon Kass, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

              The story of Strauss’ rise as the Darth Vader of the Iraq war seems in one way very European, more French or German than American, with a long deceased scholar of the abstractions of philosophy exercising a direct influence over those in power. That just doesn’t seem like the United States where, as Richard Hoftstadter reminded us a half century ago, anti-intellectualism dominates our public life. But perhaps the Strauss story underscores Hoftstadter’s point: when we Americans repair to abstract philosophy to explain current events, we often get it badly wrong.

              The easy part of the Zuckerts’ book is that devoted to how Strauss came to occupy such a prominent place in the post-Iraq debate, more than forty years after his death. Unfortunately, this story constitutes a relatively small portion of their book. A far larger portion is an effort to help us understand what Strauss was really saying, which necessitates a deep dig into his political philosophy. Readers not already familiar with the arcane debates that dominate the field may find this portion slow going.

* * *

           Strauss’ signature idea was that philosophy should be reconstituted on the thinking of the ancients, especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Strauss “rediscovered an older and very non-standard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy” (p.31). Strauss considered Machiavelli the first philosopher of modernism who, in that capacity, had taken philosophy away from its Socratic and Platonic roots and provided impetus to the idea of reinventing political and social life around the passions. Although the Strauss who appeared in the anti-Iraq War debates was often portrayed as a Machiavellian who believed that elites were justified in doing just about anything necessary to stay in power, Strauss the philosopher was decidedly anti-Machiavelli. He drew the ire of his scholarly peers in the 1950s by describing Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil,” then a very retrograde view of the Florentine, but one that Drury and others would subsequently level at Strauss himself.

            The authors devote much time to Strauss’ “esotericism,” which has a particular meaning in philosophy sharply removed from its everyday use. In the philosophic sense, esotericism involves the hiding of meaning, somewhat akin to what we often refer to today as “speaking in codes” — “first and foremost a device whereby thinkers of the past concealed some part of their thought for the sake of guarding themselves against persecution” (p.120). Strauss wrote about thinkers who wrote “cautiously” because they believed that there are “basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they do harm to many people” (p.126). Strauss called this a “noble lie.” Strauss’ critics pounced on this pronouncement to conclude that Strauss meant to justify political leaders lying to the citizens they serve.

             Strauss was, the authors concede, fascinated by the practice of esotericism, and playfully employed it from time to time. But Strauss was fascinated by this manner of communication primarily because it was effective in societies where writers were not free to say explicitly what they believed. Esotericism is “first and foremost a method for historically understanding writers in the past who lived in illiberal societies, not a prescription for writers living in liberal societies” (p.121). In free societies, Strauss believed, the need for esotericism should not arise. Rather than reinstating esotericism, the authors conclude, “Strauss exposed it” (p.133).

           Strauss was a secular Jew with unorthodox views of religion. Revelation cannot be disproved by reason, he contended. For Strauss, the “core, the nerve of Western intellectual history [and] Western spiritual history,” was the conflict between the “biblical and the philosophical notions of the good life” (p.45), which he sometimes referred to metaphorically as “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The inherent tension between revelation and reason – between Jerusalem and Athens — was for Strauss the secret to the “vitality of Western civilization” (p.45), and exposure of this tension marked the “hallmark of Strauss’ philosophic activity” (p.154).

               In his efforts to go “back to the basics” in philosophy, back to the foundations of the ancients, Strauss was often portrayed as “anti-modern” and “anti-Enlightenment.” The Zuckerts do not disagree with this characterization. But if Strauss was “anti-modern,” and if the United States is the ultimate modern country, wouldn’t that make him anti-United States? Not necessarily, reply the authors. The Zuckerts argue in a syllogistic manner that Strauss found the United States good relative to the alternatives available within modernity; that he found modernity not wholly or uniformly bad; and that he considered the United States not wholly or uniformly modern. The United States’ modernism was tempered by the political thinking behind the United States Constitution, which Strauss found to be a reflection of the ancient philosophers whom he revered (contrary to just about everyone else, Strauss discounted the Enlightenment influence on the Constitution). Strauss adopted the Madisonian view that since the wise will not necessarily rule, government should be limited, and the limits should be established by law. For Strauss, tyranny was the absence of the rule of law.

          The ineffectiveness of Weimar Germany in withstanding the Nazi surge to power in his native Germany heightened Strauss’ reservations about liberal democracy. Democracy’s failure in Germany was for Strauss far more than the product of factors unique to German history and culture. Rather, it was an episode in what he came to call “’the crisis of our times,’ a crisis compounded of extremist ideologies . . . and a congenital weakness of liberal (modern) theory,” which made the “moderate, centrist, liberal order particularly vulnerable to attack from the extremes” (p.189-90). Much like a 20th century de Tocqueville, the authors argue, Strauss nonetheless provided a “restrained but genuine endorsement” of liberal democracy, reminding us that its freedom and openness to virtue can push democratic regimes to be “overly democratic” (p.78). The freedom of modernity opens human beings to the “insidious and powerful challenge of freedom in the phenomena of conformism and mass culture” (p.67). Having been driven from his home country by the Nazis, and having seen the damage of which ideological systems are capable, Strauss preferred individualistic, liberal governments like that of the United States. Strauss probably would have agreed with the quip attributed to Churchill that democracy is the worst of all systems of governance, except for the others.

            But the authors note the irony of Strauss becoming, after his death, a guru for a certain political viewpoint in the United States. Although an American citizen for much of his adult life, Strauss rarely spoke out on political or public matters, and there is virtually no record of his views on the major issues that the United States addressed during his day. Living in the midst of a modern liberal democracy, Strauss did not think he had to promote religious and intellectual toleration so much as self-restraint on the part of intellectuals and philosophers, particularly in criticizing and opposing the religious beliefs of others.

* * *

          After their effort to clarify Strauss’ philosophic views, the authors finish with a chapter on the Straussians, Strauss’ students. Although Strauss himself had little to say about the United States, three of his students made their mark in academic circles in the 1950s by addressing key issues concerning fundamental American principles: Walter Berns advanced a quirky view of freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; Martin Diamond challenged the Progressive view associated with Charles Beard that the framers of the Constitution sought principally to protect their own property interests; and Harry Jaffa wrote what the authors consider still among the greatest works on Abraham Lincoln’s political efforts to bring the United States back to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

              These authors’ work pre-dated what the Zuckerts term the “circus” of the 1960s, a decade which “aroused almost uniform opposition among Straussians on the basis of Straussian principles. Sixties ideals were utopian through and through, and the main theme of Straussian political philosophy was anti-utopian” (p.230). Allen Bloom, probably the best known of the Straussians, published a best seller in the 1980s, The Closing of the American Mind, which the authors describe as “largely a polemic against the sixties” (p.231). From the 1960s onward, the authors contend, all branches of Straussism were attempts to come to terms with the charged political culture associated with that decade. To this extent, Strauss’ approach to philosophy probably gives more comfort to what we would understand as conservatives today than liberals.

             Yet, the admiration of those influenced by Strauss “have not prevented them from thinking through the problems of political philosophy for themselves or coming to disagree . . . with each other and with Strauss himself” (p.253). Among Straussians, there is a “deep going debate and serious division of opinion about the character and meaning of American political principles at the time of the founding and at present” (p.258-59), a debate which Strauss himself only barely touched upon, but one in which his former students were and, in some cases continue to be, passionately engaged. But the authors stress that there is no single Strauss perspective; no sect attempting to impose the rule of philosopher kings by lying to the American public or its elected leaders; nor any cult seeking to implant American democracy around the world through any means necessary.

* * *

                  Setting the record straight as to what Strauss did and did not espouse is a formidable task. But the Zuckerts do a credible job of explaining this complex and elusive thinker for general readers. Although not easy to read, the Zuckert’s book is assuredly worth the effort.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 10, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory