When LI was in a graduate school in philosophy, one of the philosophers we didn’t read was Leo Strauss. We did read, and we continue to read, a lot of the great conservative writers. There’s no better tonic for a lefty. But Strauss never struck us as an essential figure.
Well, he struck others as one – notably conservatives. So we should have paid more attention. And we have, in a scattered fashion, tried to get some idea of Strauss.
This is why we were interested by a link on Eric Alterman’s blog to this exposition of Strauss by Nicholas Xenos, on . It is an unrelievedly hostile assessment of Strauss from an unapologetically liberal viewpoint. We have nothing against this. Xenos knows his sources, obviously, and is familiar with the “Straussians.” Yet Xenos seems not to understand, or to willfully misunderstand, the ways and customs of conservative thought in the post World War I period in which Strauss came to maturity as a thinker. His root fault is to confuse fascism with any form of opposition to democracy. True, right wing thought since, probably, the period of the Dreyfus trial overlaps the crystallization of fascist thought, and shares certain characteristics. But it would be a mistake to think that fascism succeeded in monopolizing the conservative ‘conceptual space’ of the period.

In Strauss’ case, Xenos’ most damning evidence is a letter that Strauss sent Karl Lowith , after Hitler’s takeover of Germany. Here is Xenos’ translation of a passage in that letter:

“Just because Germany has turned to the right and has expelled us,” meaning Jews, “it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. To the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the right—fascist, authoritarian, imperial [emphasis in original]—is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to ‘the inalienable rights of man’ to protest against the mean nonentity,” the mean nonentity being the Nazi party. In other words, he [Strauss] is attacking the Nazis from the right in this letter. He wrote that he had been reading Caesar’s Commentaries, and valued Virgil’s judgment that, “under imperial rule the subjected are spared and the proud are subdued.” And he concluded, “there is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world the spark glimmers of Roman thinking. And moreover, better than any cross is the ghetto.”

However, Strauss, by this time, was developing a conservatism that was the antithesis of fascism. Xenos doesn’t see this, partly because of the way he interprets Strauss’ Hobbes book:

“Also in 1932, he wrote an extended review of a book by the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt entitled The Concept of the Political, in which Schmitt articulated his notion that the core of the political problem is the distinction between friends and enemies. Schmitt later became a member of the Nazi party and a leading figure in the main legal organization of the Third Reich. In Strauss’s review, he criticized Schmitt from the political right. He argued that “the critique introduced by Schmitt against liberalism can . . . be completed only if one succeeds in gaining a horizon beyond liberalism. In such a horizon Hobbes completed the foundation of liberalism. A radical critique of liberalism is thus possible only on the basis of an adequate understanding of Hobbes.” His point was that Schmitt was, in his criticisms of liberalism, working within the bounds of liberal society because liberalism had become so dominant that it was difficult see beyond it anymore, and it was thus necessary to go back to Hobbes to see what was there before. What was there before was a very strong sense of the absolute dichotomies of good and evil. For Strauss, Hobbes represents the foundation of liberalism and modernism in the claim that these notions of good and evil are nominalist; they simply do not exist in anything other than our judgment about them. So Strauss was suggesting that you had to go back before liberalism to reconnect with the sort of absolutist distinctions upon which Schmitt was attempting to ground the political.”

Xenos, we think, misses the point. Hobbes was a revelation to Strauss not because of some notion of the relativity of good and evil that he saw in Hobbes. Rather, it was because Strauss believed that Hobbes was the first political thinker to shape his philosophy consistently on the notion of Will. It was Will – whether the Will of the People, in Rousseau, or the Will of the Leader, in Fascism, that Strauss felt had to be resisted; and the state and law gains legitimacy only insofar as it resists the temptation to represent it, or, rather, to give him his due, transforms it through those processes that make for natural order. Far from being a fascist, Strauss’ conservatism objected to the first and pretty much only principle of fascism: the Fuhrerprinzip. Hence, the references to the imperial in that letter have to be read in the context of the Nazi contempt for imperial Germany – the Wilhelmine society and its aristocracy that Hitler abhorred. One can think – I think – that Strauss’ nostalgia here is crazy, but it is certainly not nostalgia for a charismatic leader, but for the world before the Bolshies and the Nazis..

Xenos submerges Strauss’s texts with his own language, which is so full of the language of absolutes and cultural relativisms – so full, that is, of the language in which contemporary Straussians like to fire their popguns and charge – that it is easy to confuse with Strauss’ own. But I would suggest another language to understand what is going on with Strauss in the thirties. It is from Max Weber. Weber’s distinction between three ideal types of domination seems particularly apposite both to Strauss’ objection to Hitler and to liberalism. In fact, as odd as it might seem to Xenos, in the 30s there were many conservatives who thought that Hitler was the deviant endpoint of liberalism, with his all embracing state planning, and his way of intruding the state into the private economic affairs of the individual. If I were to make a grand typological generalization about conservatism, or at least the European variety, I would explain in terms of two moments: one is the synthesis, from the conservative’s viewpoint, of the charismatic mode of domination – in the modern era, the will – with what Weber called the rational, or legal mode of domination. The other is the anxiety this arouses. For other conservatives, there is, ultimately, only the pitting of varieties of two modes of domination. One consists of varieties of order, or tradition, the other consists of varieties of charisma, or the will. The conservative – and in this, Strauss is typical – fears the world becoming all too human. He seeks a hedge – nature or God – a limit to the human. He seeks the in-human. One can see this a bit even in a fundamentally liberal thinker like Hayek, with his emphasis on self-organization – that organization that is emergent, rather than planned.

I am no expert on Strauss, and don’t know how he carried through on his program in America. From the little I’ve read, Strauss seemed to suffer from the same adolescent nostalgia as Heidegger. Adolescent nostalgia is for what I have missed; middle aged nostalgia is for what I have done. You can’t have missed something as absolutely as the Golden age of Greek philosophy – hence the dislike for the modern, hardening sclerotically into a dogma.

Thinking about Xenos’ piece, I thought about other conservative writers of the twenties and thirties. In particular, about Bernanos. So I went back and read a 49 memorial elegy on the great Georges, by a man named Ernst Erich Noth. At the same time Strauss was seeking a way to meet Maurras, Bernanos was breaking with him – a break completed by the howl of anguish about Franco’s atrocities in Spain, Les grandes cimetieres sous la lune. Noth doesn’t bother to disguise Bernanos’ place in a line of French thinkers who were “prophetic”, but also anti-semitic, beginning with the odious Drumont. But Bernanos was closer to Bloy – the weirdest of all anti-semites, who seemed to actually believe that persecuting the Jews made the Jews holier – and hence, it was the gentile duty to persecute them. Or something like that. What Bernanos had that Strauss never had was a belief in prophecy. A belief, ultimately, that the in-human really is God. Here’s a quote from Bernanos, via Noth:

Oh, we are not exactly a race of prophets, like the Jews, we do not utter prophecies, but we fulfill them very well. We are not a race of prophets, to such a degree that our prophets themselves are scarcely distinguishable from other citizens, and we perform miracles only at the last minute, when there is no way of doing anything else…