A Leo Straussian Conspiracy

Ken Masugi

February 4, 1998

Who is Leo Strauss that he deserves Shadia Drury’s condemnation not only as the inspiration of the conservative resurgence in America but also as an uncanny nihilist who preached dogmatism, an elitist whose many influential students advocate populism and a savior of America who would destroy its freedoms?

Strauss (1899-1973) revived the serious study of political philosophy for generations of American scholars—among the most prominent being Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Harry V. Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield, Jr. and Thomas G. West. Their students, besides eminent scholars in political philosophy, American politics and foreign policy, include many who have made their mark on American politics, typically in executive branch roles.

A German Jew who fled Adolf Hitler, Strauss did not teach political science in any conventional way. Through a penetrating reading of the great classics of political philosophy and theology, from Thucydides to Maimonides, from Plato to Machiavelli, and from Hobbes to Nietzsche, Strauss presented the drama of the West in the tensions between ancient and modern political philosophy, and between revelation and reason.

Besides collections of his essays and lectures edited by Thomas Pangle and by Kenneth Hart Green, his other works include Natural Right and History and The City and Man. It is fair to say that one cannot consider oneself liberally educated unless one has some degree of familiarity with Strauss’ grand themes, whether presented in his own books or those of his students.

But Miss Drury’s ad hominem assault on Strauss and his students, in Leo Strauss and the American Right, does not linger over the subtleties of Aristotle and how they might be applicable to current politics. She follows the lead of her earlier, caustic The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), where she admits that she—a “skeptical liberal”—”ignores any serious contribution Strauss might have made to the history of political thought” in order to get at what she regards as the many paradoxes within Strauss’ rhetoric. His books themselves are, in her view, “rubbish.”

The current polemic is even more problematic: One cannot tell what the author misunderstands more, Strauss or American conservatism. Her commitment to polemic keeps Miss Drury from dealing with the most interesting work of those Strauss students who have written recently about him. Instead of Susan Orr’s Jerusalem and Athens or Heinrich Meier’s studies, she trots out leftist journalism.

To put her case in a nutshell: Leo Strauss had some bright students, who in turn had other bright students (Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol, to cite the best example) who had considerable influence in the shaping of contemporary conservatism’s theory and practice. For Miss Drury, Washington, D.C. is Kristol City, dominated by the ideas of William’s father Irving and mother Gertrude Himmelfarb. Other prominent neoconservative Straussian revolutionaries include William Bennett, Alan Keyes, George Will, Newt Gingrich and Justice Clarence Thomas. Any connection to Strauss or one of his students, however tenuous, earns that political figure the derisive title, “Straussian.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I advised Clarence Thomas, when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on the articles and speeches Miss Drury cites as reflecting the influence of Strauss student Harry Jaffa, with whom I studied. The author does not cite any Supreme Court opinions to support her labeling of Mr. Thomas as a Straussian. Suffice it to say that Justice Thomas’ jurisprudence is highly principled and looks toward the Founding, and if that is enough to earn one this label, then so be it).

If this description of the Straussians as the “dominant ideology of the Republican-Party” already sounds delusional, Miss Drury’s distortion of Strauss himself is utterly irresponsible: “Strauss points out that the greatest philosophers, those who manage to rise above convention altogether, are pederasts.” Her footnote cites not any statement of Strauss’, but rather the views expressed by the comedian Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium.”

The author makes almost as bizarre a contention when she states that “Strauss’s view of human nature is closer to Hobbes’s than to Aristotle’s.” America, Miss Drury argues, has a “puritanical longing for virtue—a longing that is ultimately incompatible with the love of freedom.” She goes on to describe the self-professed Aristotelian Mr. Jaffa as “first and foremost a Lockean,” and then claim that “There is absolutely nothing Aristotelian about the American Founding… In contrast to Aristotle, the rights of the Declaration (which are enshrined in the amendments to the Constitution) are fundamental.”

Miss Drury damns Strauss for allegedly being a closet Machiavellian, yet she herself says that “Machiavelli may have been right when he said that a prince must love his country more than his soul”—a concession that Strauss would deny. Given all these strange views, it follows that Miss Drury would incoherently condemn Straussians for being both conservative moralists and revolutionary relativists.

What in fact characterizes the best Straussian work is the ability to combine moderation and boldness wisely. Dedicated to virtue and freedom, many Straussians have sought to honor political greatness (as in the Founders and Lincoln) and thus help establish the conditions of freedom. Herein lies Strauss’ “conservatism”—often more evident in him than in some of students.

Since ideas ultimately rule politics, all friends of the American democratic republic should be inspired by the profundity and passion of Strauss and his students’ work. Often, as in the work of Mr. Jaffa, Strauss students clash with one another over the philosophic and political bases of loyalty to America and hence what America’s mission should be. But it is in these debates—and not in those between Straussians and Miss Drury—that one will find illumination about America and its place in the West.

Ken Masugi is a senior fellow at both the John M. Ashbrook Center, Ashland University, and the Claremont Institute.