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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 25 - Leo Strauss: Natural Right and History
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
27 September 2003

Starting with #25, IC's Dr. Enrico Peppe reviews the first of IC's top 25 conservative books. Dr. Peppe argues that Strauss' book on natural rights does not advocate either a paleoconservative or a neoconservative position. Strauss is a traditionalist, not a classical liberal.


Published in 1950 when Strauss was a professor at the University of
Chicago, this tour de force is remarkable for the effect it had on the
conservative mind.

Today, the book is equally remarkable for the brouhaha it elicits
amongst the conservative factions. It is well nigh impossible to go a
day or two without reading that the book and Strauss are responsible for
our troubles in Iraq (from the paleos) or that he espoused ideas that
justify our occupation (the neo contention that we should conduct
foreign policy so as to protect liberal democracy).

Both the neos and paleos are skimpy and careless in their analyses. But,
first, what did Strauss say?

In "Natural Right and History" Strauss explicates modern conceptions of
natural law (or its alter ego, natural rights). He discusses Hobbes,
Locke, Rousseau, Burke (yes,Burke) and others. He finds their ideas
wanting because they had departed from the doctrines of Plato,
Aristotle, and Cicero. As a result of not consulting with the classical
sages, an emergence of destructive trends (positivism and historicism)
led to Nihilism and, as we all know, the rest is history.

For Strauss, ignorance of the ancients leads to "...(the) inescapable
practical consequence of ...fanatical obscurantism."
As he says, " Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no
other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them
any more...We cannot live any more as responsible beings. In order to
live, we have to silence...the voice of reason, which tells us that our
principles are in themselves as good or as bad as any other
principles...." The late, great, Will Herberg, writing at about the
same time, and referencing the conservative critique of modernism, says
(this sums up Strauss perfectly!):

"Conservatives, true to the classical tradition, of our culture, whether
Hebrew or Greek...affirm the doctrine of the higher law as the very
cornerstone of their moral, social, and political philosophy. (Liberals)
have frequently rejected this doctrine in favor of some form of legal
positivism, cultural relativism, and moral pragmatism."

And this is what the book is about. No more. No less. So why the vitriolic disputation? For miasmic and stupid reasons, I think.

(1) The conflict between the paleos and neos is not a family quarrel. Both cabals have motives (resulting from their philosophical underpinnings) that result in verbiage designed to entice the public to their side. As a result, inanities prevail. The fact that Irving Kristol hailed Strauss as one of his heroes should not lead to William Pfaff's observation that "...His real appeal to the neoconservatives...is that his (Stauss') eltism presents a principled rationalization for policy expediency and ...necessary lies." Hell, I liked Hendrix 30 years ago; now, I like Segovia. Or, the neo versions, abounding in the "Weekly Standard" that castigate the paleos with the charge of anti-Zionism and worse because Paul Wolfowitz studied under
Strauss, and paleos, as we are told endlessly, fear a Wolfowitz quagmire
in Iraq. Peter Berkowitz, in the 6/02/03 issue of the "Weekly Standard"
says of Strauss and his supposed power that...(the Neos)
are able, a generation and a half after (Strauss') death, to...compel
the actions of highly successful and well-placed individuals not only in
politics, but in the media and the academy." He says this sarcastically,
but his point is germane. Both the paleos and neos are off-kilter --
Strauss made a very important contribution to the conservative canon --
that's all. Both factions would do well to review Kant and his passages
pertaining to epistemology. Kant makes it clear that knowledge either
"is" or "is perceived." The warriors of both sides are perception-whacky I fear.

(2) I have not found a decent analysis of Strauss yet. So forgive my
cheek:

In theology, a distinction is made between transcendence and immanence.
Transcendence refers to the permanent and objective presence of the
Godhead, of the eschaton, if you will. God's status is independent of
His Creation. He intervenes, from time to time, within nature and
history, through miracles. Immanence speaks of God's presence and activity within the arenas of nature, human nature, and what we think of as reality -- as a day-to-day thing. Here, God's status is that of a continual presence within us.

The history of man shows a marked presence for immanence. Eric Voeglin
has warned us to not "immanentize the Christian eschaton." But we do. We
can't help it. Strauss saw transcendence in Plato and immanence in
Hobbes.

And thus we witness Strauss' contribution to the conservative cause. And
I posit, we witness the real Strauss -- a traditionalist pure and
simple, not a classical liberal (sorry, Paleos. Sorry, Neos).

Millard Erickson, theologian extraordinaire, clears it up for me when he
says, "The twentieth century has seen several movements, which place
heavy emphasis upon divine immanence...classical liberalism...has seen
God as immanent within the world. The difference is a world-view...The
conservative operates...with God outside the world...he sees reality as
occupying more than one level (with sound morality an a priori consideration)...The Liberal tends to have a single-story view of reality. (For him), there is no supernatural realm outside of the natural realm...God is within nature rather than beyond or outside it."

Neither the paleos nor neos can claim Strauss. Both camps are well
within the confines of classical liberalism. Both camps pay homage to
it.

Strauss was a traditional Catholic. He just didn't know it.

This is the first of 25 books Dr. Peppe will be reviewing as part of the top 25 conservative books on political philosophy and ideology. Seminal books such as "The Federalist Papers" and "The Wealth of Nations" are not included in this list because they are already on most lists of the top books. Click here for the rest of IC's top 25 books.

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

Email Enrico Peppe

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