Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

This week’s Strauss controversy

This is one of the more sophisticated versions of the "Leo Strauss is a Jewish fascist" arguments I’ve seen. It’s based largely on a letter Strauss wrote to Karl Loewith in 1933, of which this is the most relevant part:

Of course I can’t opt for just any other country - one doesn’t choose a homeland and, above all, a mother tongue, and in any event I will never be able to write other than in German, even if I must write in another language. On the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility of living under the swastika, i.e., under a symbol that says nothing more to me than: you and your ilk, you are physei(3) subhumans and therefore justly pariahs. There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, “men of science,” - as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves - non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus…(4) And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right.To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme(5) to protest against the shabby abomination.(6) I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.(7) There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.[My emphasis.]

Here’s part of the poster’s commentary on this:

It seems fair to say that fascist thought was appealing to Strauss, otherwise why would he be willing to toy with the label? At the same time, the aspect of fascism that most appealed to Strauss is also evident from the letter: it is the reliance on thoughts of classical antiquity, particularly of the early imperial era of Rome, as they were distorted in the political mirror of the thirties - most effectively by the Italian fascists.

I think that it would be fairer to say that to the extent that "classical antiquity" appealed to Strauss, it was the straight stuff, not as mediated by buffoons like Mussolini. Rob Howse, who has visited NLT from time to time, offers some of the best commentary on the site:

I believe that Strauss’s reading of the political situation in Germany at that time was largely correct (even though I am no expert on Weimar I have read a lot and talked to Weimar scholars extensively in connection with my Strauss research). That is, things had gone so far in an antiliberal direction by the time of that letter that to appeal to liberal principles against Nazism was ridiculous (at least as a matter of political effectiveness). Strauss was probably correct that the only hope--still a hope--was that old style conservativism, even fascism, might displace Hitler (and, yes, he assumed implicitly that even fascism/right wing imperialism would be better than Hitler). I do not believe that Strauss was responding to Lowith not with respect to what was true in principle, the true political morality, but concerning what might be possible in the dark situation in Germany.


Strauss was not an enemy of liberal democracy; as he emphasized, liberal democracy, even in its most permissive egalitarian forms, and perhaps especially in those forms, is favourable to the life of the mind; in letting everyone do and think what they want, at least in principle, liberal democracy is good for philosophy. The questions that seems to have haunted Strausss ever since his Weimar experience were whether a permissive egalitarian liberal democracy would have the backbone to stand up to its enemies and thus defend itself adequately and whether the relativist and positivist strands in liberal theory don’t undermine the moral centre and high aspirations of liberalism itself.

Rob and I might disagree about the status of the last two claims, but I think he comes pretty close to getting Strauss’s practical judgments about the situation in Germany and the situation of "the philosopher" in liberal democracy right.

The poster--Scott Horton--has an extremely simplistic view of the relationship between theory and practice or, if you will, principle and prudence. As other commenters note, "Straussians" (who may or may not agree theoretically) are all over the map in regard to their practical judgments about what our current situation requires. Thus I can speak only for myself here. I agree with Winston Churchill, surely no fascist and as surely a man Strauss admired, largely for "Roman" reasons: liberal democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Its great strength in its Anglo-American varieties is precisely its openness to personalities who are at odds with its fundamental egalitarianism, whether it be "philosophers" or "great-souled men," like Lincoln, who understand and can supplement or overcome its weaknesses. I think I learned from Strauss and his students the "sub-ideal" nature of all actually existing politics and political orders. (One can, of course, learn the same thing from Saint Augustine, albeit from an entirely different perspective.) Horton strikes me as a liberal idealist who has a hard time imagining how a qualified and ironic friend can be something other than an enemy and who--unlike good liberals like John Locke--imagines that the rule of law is adequate to all situations.

Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg, who gets it from Matthew Yglesias, who is, needless to say, quite willing to assume that Strauss is fascist-friendly, as, by extension, are all the so-called Straussians in the Bush Administration.

One last note: One of the least creditable comments apparently comes from this source.

Discussions - 21 Comments

It is a very interesting letter. Is it really true that political judgments are to be based on what’s best for "the philosopher," who is, as Strauss says in the leter, basically rootless? And what are we to make of the remark concerning Strauss’s preference for the ghetto over the cross (including the cross of liberalism)? This is not a baloney rhetorical question. I really don’t know.

It’s also hard (maybe not impossible) to say that the calling an appeal to rights ludicrous and despicable is merely a prudential judgment in the context of this letter. I do think the letter should be read as part of a rather desperate context, but also that we shouldn’t spin what it actually says out of existence.

Compare Tocqueville: "The relative weakness of democratic republics in times of crisis is perhaps the greatest obstacle posed to the founding of such a republic in Europe. In order that a democratic republic subsist without trouble in one European people it would be necessary for it to be established at the same time in all the others." (DIA, "Of What Efforts Democracy Is Capable." Mansfield/Winthrop trans., p. 214).

In an essay titled “Leo Strauss in His Letters” [in “Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner”] in Werner J. Dannhauser does not bother to make such apologetics for Strauss; he believes that Strauss was simply, sadly terribly wrong. (He refers to reading the letter as “painful”.)

Part of Howse’s argument was recently echoed closely by David L. Schaefer in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 2006), responding to Richard Wolin’s use of the same letter. Schaefer writes:

“Wolin attempts to confirm Strauss’s supposed antiliberalism by quoting out of context a 1933 letter Strauss wrote to Karl Lowith, expressing the belief that only in an appeal to "the principles of the Right" rather than references to "inalienable rights" was there hope for deposing Hitler. Given the failure of the liberal but weak Weimar Republic to preserve public order or prevent the rise of Nazism, it is not surprising that Strauss, along with many other sober observers at the time, believed that the only possible (if unlikely) source of effective resistance lay in movements that appealed to conservative German traditions”

Schaefer is rather incoherent, because in the preceding paragraph he denounces Wolin for labeling Strauss an “authoritarian” – and then Schaefer has to go on to assert that Strauss explicitly appealing to “authoritarian” (plus fascist and imperial!) principles might be part of a moderating tradition in his very next paragraph. So Schaefer seems to be, pace Lawler, “spinning Strauss out of existence” here. Dannhauser’s approach appears more honest.

P.S.: The line that “liberal democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” was dismissed as a patently insufficient defense on the last page of Harvey Mansfield’s “Taming the Prince”. So for at least one leading Straussian, that apparently doesn’t amount to real justification.

Mr. anon... (or Ms. anon...),
Do you have a complete reference for the Werner D. article, which seems right to me.? Nobody is right or prudent or whatever all the time. There’s nothing wrong with being an authoritarian, as Will M.’s excellent Tocqueville quote suggests. T’s more general point is that pure "liberal democracy" morphs into pure individualism without authoritarian support that it can’t generate for itself. I would prefer to think that Strauss ended up being for America, based on the experience of the 30s and 40s, and not for the abstraction "liberal democracy."

Here’s the link to the Lexington page for the book, which looks interesting but (unfortunately) is outrageously expensive. I can’t find a nonsubscriber version of the Wolin essay or the Schaefer response on the web.

An much less nuanced reading of Strauss’s letter can be found here.

Let me also add a couple of things to my earlier remarks, though I eagerly look forward to reading Dannhauser’s essay. One need not adopt or endorse Strauss’s precise formulations or understanding of his concrete circumstances, but one can still recognize that abstract and universal principles tend to be a weaker basis of political community and political action than are what Lincoln called the "mystic cords of memory." Both may, from Strauss’s point of view, be mythical, and both obviously can be used or abused to do much harm. Modern politics tends in many ways to be affected by and expressed through a mixture of universalistic abstraction and particularism, often in ways that bring out the worst of both elements.

What, I ask, was the practical basis of the coalition that defeated Hitler? Surely not "sober" authoritarian "fascism," but was it liberal universalism?

As for the Mansfield passage, I’ll have to look it up. I do recall, however, that Mansfield to some degree follows Strauss in regarding liberal democracy as a "mixed regime," with the votaries of "liberty" tempering the excesses of democratic egalitarianism. Strauss has much to say about this in his essays on liberal education.

Lastly, many of Strauss’s critics hold his reticence and sobriety against him, as if he were silently and secretly preparing the way for a kind of pseudo-Nietzschean political takeover. I think that a more plausible explanation of his reticence is that he recognized the fragility of the kind of society in which he and his fellows would be free to cultivate their gardens. Further, it seems to me that any attempt to come to grips with the relationship between Strauss and Nietzsche/Heidegger has to attend to the difference of rhetoric and presentation. What necessity is there for self-restraint and for a politically responsible self-presentation if Nietzsche/Heidegger is right?

I’ll leave the wiser heads to sort this all out.

Never mind anon., I now see that the stuff in quotes is actually the book title for WD. Sorry.

I recognize that this is somewhat tangential, but if I recall correctly Mansfield dismissed the use of Churchill’s quip not as an insufficient defense per se but as insufficient defense to be made by the empirical political scientist who had never seriously reflected on his support for liberal democracy.

Yes, I think Peter is right to suggest that Strauss may have learned a thing or two about practical politics between the years 1933 and 1946 (by which time he had begun to gather some American students). And what he learned about practical politics `fed back’ into the theoretical insights. Recall his comments on Churchill, whom he recognized as a man of magnanimity; if such an Aristotelian figure can turn up in modernity (he observed), historicism must have something wrong with it. And (one might add) if such a man can turn up in a commercial republic (which was also an empire), then commercial republicanism cannot simply be Weimarian-too-Weimarian. The blog cited at the beginning of this thread seemed to say that Strauss merely changed his rhetoric when he got to America, but my hunch is that there was more to it than that.

Werner Dannhauser is my superior in mind and heart. I’m not sure that I agree with him (assuming that the above description of his stance is accurate) that Strauss was "simply" wrong in 1933. Wrong, yes; simply wrong, no. Consider Tocqueville’s point: Europe won’t get republicanism because republicanism can’t defend itself under European conditions. Practically speaking, the regime that can defend liberty under modern European conditions, T. argues, is constitutional monarchy. Now think of what Strauss has seen by 1933. The major constitutional monarchies had either `gone republican’ (England, France) by the last quarter of the previous century or they had died of their own increasingly overweening military ambitions during the Great War (Germany, Austria-Hungary). The great despotic monarchy, Russia, had been overthrown by tyrants of the left, and of course the weak Weimar Republic had just been overthrown by tyrants of the right, with the morally exhausted shell of the French Third Republic sitting across a mere river. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to see why Strauss might wish for a Roman-style empire to keep the peace and prevent the brutal national/race wars predicted by Nietzsche and/or the equally brutal class wars predicted by Marx. Wrong he was, but not simply or maliciously wrong.

I am paraphrasing Dannhauser’s position as Strauss being "simply" wrong. I don’t have the quote in front of me - I’ll try to look it up, and post it later (this evening - excerpts anyway). My point was, he makes no apologetic for Strauss at all. He gives no "reasonable" explanation for Strauss’ position. He uses the expression "painful" to describe his reading the letter. By the way, the whole collection is one of the best Festchrists I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (Bruell and Bolotin have new pieces in there), but yes, outrageously expensive

The Wolin article is entitled "Leo Strauss, Judaism, and Liberalism", Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 2006. Schaefer’s response is in the letters section of May 26, 2006.

The great virtue, and illuminating power, of Will Morrisey’s reading cum gloss is that it "looks and thinks politically" about political things - which was what Strauss was obviously doing (in an understandable dark mood), and which he became very good at. As my "became very good at" indicates, I too think his "experience of America" did alter some of his practical (and hence theoretical) judgments. In the quoted passage above, I’m struck (among other things) how Strauss elides from his Jewishness to his philosopher-ness. On either or both fronts, though, he is looking for an imperial (i.e., a political) response to Hitler. This thought seems to be pretty constant with him during this time. As other letters by him state, including a few to Kojeve when he got to England, he admired the British empire and certainly wanted it to be the German barbarism - although, as we straussians know, he also was a harsh critic of modern civilization, which was based upon Englishmen’s thoughts.


the reason I’m taking a "hard line" on reading Strauss’ letter is this: compare the Wolin piece with Schaefer’s letter. Wolin has real, meaningful praise for Strauss, even though lots of his critique is questionable (including the way he references this letter - he makes no effort to suggest, as some people here have quite fairly, that Strauss might have evolved). But Schaefer comes across as unwilling to look at Strauss straight - don’t call him "authoritarian" in one paragraph, then defend Strauss’ appeal to "authoritarianism" in the next.

That’s why I appreciated Dannhauser’s approach.

"be" should be "defeat" in the antepenultimate line.

So Paul is evolving right before our eyes!

Dannhauser, “Leo Strauss in His Letters”, p. 359:

“When one views his thought as a whole one discovers the admirer of Lincoln and Churchill, the firm but critical defender of liberal democracy as opposed to all other contemporary options, the advocate of a politics of moderation.

It cannot be denied that some of the letters are hard to reconcile with such an image, accurate as it is on the whole. In this respect, the most problematic letter is the one to Karl Lowith of May 19, 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. There Strauss denies the fact that a rightist regime does not tolerate Jews is an argument against the principles of the right, “fascist, authoritarian, imperial”. The reading of such a passage causes pain. It is true that fascism to which Strauss alludes is that Mussolini and not that of Hitler. It is true that in the same letter, in the same breath as it were, he leaves no doubt about his loathing of National Socialism. It is also true that at times he takes a slightly unseemly pleasure in taunting Lowith, or at least in being hyperbolically provocative toward him. And yet, and yet. We must admit that the young Strauss, not yet thirty-five at that time, was more reactionary than we might wish him to be. For that matter, he was slightly more reactionary than many of us students wished him to be in 1964 when he decided to vote for Barry Goldwater. But we had learned to weight such facts against the whole, even as now hope that readers of the letters will subscribe to the principles of weighting I have tried to articulate above”.weight

Mr. anon is right, in the name of the truth, to take a hard line toward the letter in question. In truth, there’s more problematic about it than we’ve said so far. Still, it’s only a private letter to a close and philosophic friend that Strauss apparently enjoyed provoking. (Lowith was nothing if not a very instinctively decent man in spite of his great insight.) David Schaefer--a ferocious, tireless, and extremely able lawyer for Strauss--typically pulverizes his detractors (and often in meticulous, verging on agonizing, detail--see the long version of his case against Ann Norton [who surely didn’t deserve that much attention]).
But in the case before us today he’d have been better off accepting a plea bargin for small fine. Strauss was wrong. Not maliciously wrong. Not simply wrong. Maybe desperately wrong--he was in a genuinly desperate situation. Anyway, maybe someone should pick out another of the lesser known letters for examinatin.

It’s odd that a whole afternoon has gone by without anyone posting anything about Damon Linker’s alleged outing of various bad (undemocratic etc.) things about the Straussians, including their delight in dialectically pulverizing revelation and morality.

Mr. Lawler, I fail to see the error you are insisting is present. I recently replied to a request on the Scott Howard blog for quotes from Strauss on the topic -- the most significant of which is the conclusion of "German Nihilism" (1941) where Strauss repeats certain remarks made in this letter, and in so doing clarifies the original thought. I think these might be passages Mr. Seaton is referring to.

TC, You may well be right, but you gotta say more.

This discussion is really interesting Well this is usual thing now nobody can question this thing. You may not have ever heard of Hime Island, or Himeshia, as it is a small island of Japan, but they have an interesting social experiment ongoing that has been running for decades. It is, in many senses of the term, a communist island.

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