Straussian Approaches to the Study of Politics

Thomas Pangle. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. Sage Publication. 2004.

The Originating Impulse and Agenda

The studies that fall under this rubric take their inspiration from Leo Strauss’s (1899-1973) critique of twentieth-century political thought and action. Born into a Jewish orthodox community in rural Wilhelminian Germany, Strauss was initially drawn to the Marburg neo-Kantian school. There he encountered a purportedly rigorous foundation for progressive liberal constitutionalism, and an interpretation of Judaism as being or as culminating in ‘the religion of reason.’ But Strauss soon found himself unable to deny the devastating power of Nietzsche’s, and then Heidegger’s and Rosenzweig’s, ruthless exposure of the groundlessness, and hence the ultimately nihilistic and degrading spiritual consequences, of the claims of Western rationalism (1965: 7-8, 11, 15, 21; 1983: chs 1, 7, 15).

The ‘Crisis of the West’

In this light, the Great Tradition of Western rationalism stands revealed as in the last stages of terminal illness. For that tradition lived through the mutually invigorating dialogue between competing versions of the claim to ascend from subjective cultural opinion to objective verifiable knowledge of final moral Truth. All such purported ‘truths,’ and the very attempt to ascend toward such truth, have become incredible. Western humanism is left defended only by ‘theories of justice’ that explicitly abandon all pretensions to foundational and permanent truth. These ‘theories’ are thus at bottom indistinguishable from subtle ideology defending beloved inherited (and admittedly transient) cultural prejudices. No sooner had World War II ended than the defeat of fascism, and the hoped-for defeat or neutralization of Marxism, was authoritatively interpreted as the victory of a dogmatic historicist relativism, issuing the following fiat: ‘thou shalt embrace and serve secular individualistic and egalitarian norms which are ultimately unjustified and unjustifiable, but which reign historically, for the foreseeable future, on account of economic, technological, and military power’ (Bloom, 1975; Strauss, 1971: introduction; 1989: chs 1, 2).

Strauss was incapable of surrendering his intellectual integrity to this ‘manifest and deliberate collectivization or coordination of thought’ (Strauss and Kojève, 1991: 27). Moreover, he anticipated the ‘postmodernist’ recognition that this questionably ‘liberal’ historicist relativism lacked any coherent defence against the more honestly authoritarian counter-commands of militant illiberal religious orthodoxy (cf Strauss, 1965, with Owen, 2001)

Strauss’s Response

Strauss came to grips with the crisis by launching a vast research project to explore meticulously the possibility of recovering, from the greatest rationalist political philosophers of the past, an objectively defensible conception of and standard for intellectual freedom and civic dignity. His initial studies of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Calvin (Strauss, 1930) uncovered, as the root of the ‘crisis,’ reason’s apparently insuperable failure to dispose of the ‘fundamental alternative’ posed by the claimed experiential testimony of miraculous divine revelation, validating the comprehensive ‘suprarational’ laws elaborated in sacred Scriptures. Following Spinoza, Strauss termed this all-embracing challenge ‘the theologico-political problem,’ and this problem, Strauss wrote late in his life, ‘has remained the theme of my studies’ (1965; 1996: III, 8).

The Rediscovery of Classical Rationalism and of ‘Esoteric Writing’

Increasing dissatisfaction with Spinoza’s arguments against Maimonides helped propel Strauss back to a startling encounter with the medieval rationalism elaborated in the Arab-speaking world by Alfarabi and his successors. There Strauss discovered a forgotten re-enactment of authentic classical political philosophy—a re-enactment that exposed the shallowness and naïveté of all accepted scholarly interpretations of the classics. Alfarabi, Avicenna, Averroës, Halevi, and Maimonides taught Strauss to recognize that the Socratic enterprise is centred on a mode of conversational argumentation (‘dialectic’) which, while forging an impregnable foundation for philosophy or science, exposes the theoretical way of life to persecution—a persecution that is understandable, since Socratic or ‘zetetic’ scepticism threatens to corrode grounding opinions essential to healthy, especially republican, civic spirit. The practical response is ‘Socratic rhetoric’: an intricate theory of communication, oral and written, by which otherwise potentially subversive philosophic inquiry is carried on through painstakingly wrought veils that contribute to enhancing and deepening civic life, while they entice the most capable young toward radical questioning.

It thus transpires that all conventional scholarly interpretations of classical political philosophy fail to appreciate the self-consciously strategic relation of that philosophy to its historical context. Strauss suggests that the obfuscation of the nature of ‘esoteric writing’ (and hence of the true, radical substance of classical philosophy) began to occur through the tradition of Christian Platonism and scholasticism. But complete ignorance has set in, he observes, only under the reign of the twin (and contradictory) late modern dogmas: on the one hand, the ‘taking for granted’ of ‘the essential harmony between thought and society or between intellectual progress and social progress’; and, on the other hand, the unquestioned assumption that all thought, even philosophy, is determined and decisively limited by its historical epoch.

Ancients versus Moderns

Strauss’s recovery of the lost genuine theory and practice of classical political rationalism (which ‘is liberal in the original sense of the term’) enables a restoration of the true meaning of the ‘great alternative’ seen in modern rationalism and modern ‘liberalism’ (1968: x and chs 1-3). The ‘moderns,’ beginning with Machiavelli, having lost sight of the hidden core of Socratism, launched a very different ‘project,’ with a different kind of ‘esoteric writing.’ The ‘moderns’ employed partially disguised propa-gandistic rhetoric to promulgate new doctrines of justice and virtue aimed at a cultural revolution that would transform the world so as to make secular reason actually rule society (1958: 172-3, 295-8; 1971: 166-79; 1995: introduction). But this ‘Enlightenment’ required or consisted in a drastic ‘lowering of the goals’ of both republicanism and philosophy. On the one hand, civic virtue has become chiefly if not simply instrumental to the pursuit of a freedom conceived as ‘individuality’ that is ‘unredeemed and unjustified’—and that is in fact consumed by what Max Weber ‘rightly identified’ as the ‘spirit of capitalism’: unlimited material gain achieved by endless acquisitive labour, or ‘the joyless quest for joy’ (1971: 5-6, 60, 246-51, 294, 323). On the other hand, philosophy, which was ‘originally’ the ‘humanizing quest for the eternal order,’ has ‘since the seventeenth century’ become ‘thoroughly politicized,’ ‘a weapon and hence an instrument’ (1971: 34).

Strauss expresses his deep admiration for the ‘intrepidity of thought,’ the ‘grandeur of vision,’ the ‘graceful subtlety of speech,’ and the profound political astuteness or ‘public spirit’ that characterize the great modern project, at least in its philosophic originators (1958: 13, 120-2, 207-8, 218, 252-3, 289-90; 1971: 177, 206-7). He readily acknowledges the magnitude of the project’s world-historical achievements. But he argues that modernity, taken as a whole in all its unfolding richness, represents an estrangement from ‘erotic’ human nature as revealed or confirmed by Socratic dialectics (1959: 55; 1971: 175-6, 201-2). Strauss’s complex diagnosis of the roots or causes points a path through the crisis—‘the tentative or experimental’ revival of Socratic political philosophy—and our own original application, to our unprecedented form of society, of the Aristotelian political science and liberal education that was the fullest civic expression of Socratic philosophy (1964: 11; 1968: chs 1 and 2).

An Aristotelian Science of Modern Politics: The Theoretical Framework

The Straussian philosophy of social science begins from the civic premise that a responsible science of politics should be concerned to promote political health or fitness. But then political philosophy must guide, rather than be separated from, sound political science. For political philosophy pursues the essential questions, what is civic health, what is justice or the common good, what is human flourishing? Yet this pursuit in its proper form—the model for which is Plato’s Laws together with Aristotle’s paired Ethics and Politics takes its bearings by first listening with docility to, and then questioning, clarifying, and critically deepening (and thus defending) the ‘political wisdom’ of respected and experienced citizens. For sound guiding principles of civic action are known, if not perfectly known, to reflective ‘common sense,’ prior to and independent of theoretical science or philosophy. Strauss goes so far as to declare that ‘the sphere governed by prudence’ is ‘in principle self-sufficient.’ He immediately concedes, however, that in fact this sphere is ceaselessly breached by perplexing assaults from ‘false doctrines’ that claim to provide answers to questions that are ‘the most important questions’ about the coherence of justice and about humanity’s situation and fate within the whole. These questions are not stated, let alone answered, with sufficient clarity by practical wisdom itself. It is the need to have these questions, and the challenges that raise them, disposed of that makes ‘practical wisdom’ dependent, de facto though not de jure on political philosophy as ‘practical science.’

The Pit beneath the Natural Cave’

Beginning in the medieval period, and reaching a pitch in our time, this defensive task takes on a new complexity unknown to the classics. As Strauss puts it, revising a famous Platonic metaphor, the emergence of ‘pseudo-philosophy’ has cast the human spirit into ‘a pit beneath the natural cave’ (1952: 154-8). The cultural revolution effected by ‘modern’ political philosophy has immensely deepened this problem, by making it appear that theory must be the source, as well as the guide, of practical norms. As a result, common sense has been pervasively contaminated by a parade of competing, philosophic or theoretical, moral doctrines (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, Marx, utilitarianism, etc.). The successive failure of these leaves common sense, in our time, sliding into still more self-alienating enthralment to the historicist-relativistic ‘scientific study of politics,’ which looks to mathematized and materialistic physics and biology as a model, or as a source of ‘method’ and ‘epistemology.’ This move is not without reason, since ‘mathematical science’ is the sole part of modern rationalism that has not undergone disgraceful self-destruction. Yet ‘social science’ goes widely astray in so far as it looks to modern science as anything more than a subordinate, if (within its proper narrow bounds) marvellously effective, tool for gathering and establishing correlations among quantifiable data. For the modern scientific method in all its versions has no eyes to see what is in fact the critical factor in all human ‘behaviour’: humanity’s passionate concern with to kalon with self-respect, with dignity, with the human as a rational and thus free being capable of dedication, devotion, and even sacrifice, for the sake of causes perceived as just and as thereby partaking of transcendent or eternal value.

The Politeia or Regime

This moral core of the human as the ‘political animal’ (Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, ch. 6) is the deepest source of the contest that keeps politics ceaselessly in motion. For, as we learn vividly in Book 3 of Aristotle’s Politics, the moral virtues, distilled in the Ethics as the core of true dignity, manifest themselves politically in forms distorted by passions—evil, crass, and sublime. The claim to uphold and advance some notion of justice, of fairness and the common good, is always at the heart of political action; but this claim is always put forth, justice is always in practice defined, in a partisan and biased spirit. Political life is riven by competition among adherents of conflicting ‘regimes’ (politeiai)—democracy and oligarchy and aristocracy and monarchy and theocracy and so forth, in their various versions and even mixtures. What is at stake becomes evident only when one recognizes, with Aristotle, that each ‘regime’ stands for, and as it gains victory imposes, a specific moral ranking of the various human types and their excellences (the priests, the warriors, the proletarians, the yeoman farmers, the merchants and businessmen, etc., etc.). The ranking is clearly expressed by the degree of civic authority or share in rule assigned to each human class or type by each of the competing regimes. Each such ranking, each ‘regime,’ lays a claim to justice that implies a more or less severe moral condemnation of contrasting and competing ‘regimes’ and their rankings. The regime, as the outcome of the struggle over which human type or types will be morally preponderant, shapes the ‘way of life’ in each society more than any other formative factor except for nature itself. The contest among competing aspirants to define the regime is then the supremely important contest in human existence, and a political science worthy of the name must keep this most fundamental political fact squarely in view (Strauss, 1959: 33-6; 1964: 30-5, 45-9; 1971: 135-45). One may make the same point by declaring that genuine social science is political science—and its self-conscious subordinates, political economy, political psychology, political history, etc. All social sciences, in our time, which claim autonomy from political science fundamentally misunderstand the nature of human society.

A sound science of humanity will make the conflict over the regime, or among competing regimes, or among competing versions of the existing regime, its cynosure. It will view the regime contest in the light of the ‘best regime simply,’ the regime that would be dedicated to the maximum possible human fulfilment. It will do so knowing that, while the best regime must be articulated as a standard, it cannot be regarded as a practical goal. In fact, the full articulation of the best regime reveals it to be itself riven by insoluble tensions—above all, between the highest, intellectual virtues and the civic virtues. These tensions clarify the limitations on all political life, and make precise the intractability of human nature (Bartlett, 1994; Bruell, 1994; Strauss, 1959: 34-5; 1964: ch. 2; Strauss and Kojève, 1991: 187-8). None of the actual forms of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, tyranny, theocracy, etc. (and mixtures thereof) stand for more than a partial and dimly perceived version of justice and the good life. Yet each, by the same token, is defined above all by its dedication to some dim conception of the just and good life. The political scientist’s proper role in the conflict among regimes and over the regime is neither that of a partisan nor that of a neutral ‘scientific’ observer engaging in merely ‘comparative’ politics. The political scientist’s proper role is that of an unofficial umpire or judge. The best example of such a political science as applied to modern democracy may be said to be Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

The gravest dangers for any particular regime are always those least noted by its partisans because those dangers are inherent in the unchecked supremacy of the regime’s own favourite and dominant moral spirit—and because, as a consequence, those who dare to prescribe the needed antidotes will almost inevitably be suspected of being ‘anti-regime’ (Aristotle, Politics, Book 5, ch. 9 end). Now since the political scientist, as a loyal citizen, will exert his chastising scientific efforts first and foremost on his own regime, in its competing strands and in controversy with its most serious international and historical competitors, this means that the genuine political scientist will almost inevitably incur moral opprobrium in his own community.

In modern democracy, the courageously loyal political scientist will, imitating Tocqueville, limn the democratic dangers to democracy by reminding of aristocracy’s and monarchy’s contrasting moral and spiritual and civic strengths. He will not allow it to be forgotten that democracy ‘is meant to be an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy’; that ‘liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.’ He will endure, even as a badge of pride, the odium that attends the democratic political scientist who, if he is the genuine article, relentlessly points, in a reformist spirit, to the dangers inherent in the unchecked advance of the treasured moral principles of equality and individual liberty and popular sovereignty and economic ‘growth’: in Strauss’s lapidary words, ‘we are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy’ (1968: 4-5, 10-25).

An Aristotelian Science of Modern Politics: The Execution

The grounding expressions of Straussian neo-Aristotelian political science are necessarily polemical: in our epoch, common sense has first to be sprung free from the thought control exercised by the established intelligentsia of left and right. Leading the way are Strauss’s dissection of Max Weber’s ‘nihilist’ self-contradictions, and Herbert J. Storing’s exposure of the debilitating incoherences in the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon’s theory of decision and management (Storing, 1962: ch. 2; Strauss, 1971: ch. 2). But, while this kind of foundational criticism has continued, expanding to meet new manifestations of the relativistic and historicist ‘scientific study’ of politics (Ceaser, 1990; Mansfield, 1978; 1991: chs 1 and 11), there has been erected on these foundations a substantial literature exemplifying an alternative analysis, including the proper employment of the new quantitative tools modern science makes available.

Political Economy

A constructive sequel to Storing’s critique of Simon is Steven E. Rhoads’s (1985) sympathetic analysis of ‘the economist’s view of the world.’ This book delineates the moral as well as empirical strengths of microeconomic, welfare economic, and benefit-cost analyses, while showing precisely how those very strengths risk hypertrophic distortion of their subject matter if they do not submit to governance by political philosophy, and especially by moral, cultural, and psychological categories made available in Straussian explications of Plato, Rousseau, and Tocqueville (for illuminating specific applications, see Rhoads, 1993). In general, Straussian engagement with contemporary economic thinking has insisted on the need for continual re-encounter with the texts of the philosophic founders of modern ‘political economy’ (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, Ferguson, etc.), on the grounds that in those texts alone can one find, and truly test the cogency of, justifications for the most basic (and controversial, nay deeply problematic) moral commitments uncritically and often unconsciously at work in contemporary economics and so-called ‘rational choice’ (e.g. Danford, 1980; Lerner, 1987: ch. 6; Nichols and Wright, 1990: chs 1-3, 5, 10; Shulsky, 1991b). In this enterprise, and in the retrieval, from the ashen hands of conventional historicist scholarship, of the true but half-hidden positions of thinkers such as Locke, there is some overlap between Straussian and the most sophisticated Marxist scholarship (Macpherson, 1962; 1973; Strauss, 1983: ch. 13).

Political Psychology

Horwitz’s searing critique of Lasswell’s Freudian-inspired science of leadership ‘personality’ (Storing, 1962: ch. 4) has been carried forward in Straussian criticism of the application of scientific-psychological ‘personality’ typologies to the American presidency. Truly empirical psychology of leadership, Straussians contend, has to rise to the difficult challenge of evaluating the virtues and vices, the moral character, of leaders as leaders; for character is the true phenomenon underlying and generating the epiphenomena of ‘personality’ and ‘style’ with which contemporary political psychology is (to its discredit) obsessed. And acutely significant in this regard is painstaking analysis of the meaning and role played by the longing for eternity that expresses itself as the love of fame (Bessette and Tulis, 1981: chs 8-9; Frisch and Stevens, 1971; McNamara, 1999; Ruderman, 1997a; 1997b).

H. Donald Forbes’s (1985) work has shown how the Straussian-inspired deployment of the Platonic regime psychology adumbrated in the eighth book of Plato’s Republic can provide the basis for a sound critical revision of the Frankfurt school’s political personality studies and their implications. Forbes’s later (1997) work on ethnic conflict, testing systematically the famous ‘contact hypothesis’ (roughly speaking, the hypothesis that increased familiar intermingling between ethnic groups promotes greater mutual acceptance), is exemplary of Straussian employment of quantitative methods, where appropriate, in the execution of a political psychology and sociology whose horizon is explicitly Montesquieuian in human breadth and moral depth.

The Science of Regimes

The Straussian approach subordinates, however, the study of quantifiable mass effects, opinion, and ‘behaviour’ to the scrutiny of writings, speeches, and recorded utterances, authored by leaders at various levels but especially at the highest, when they are engaged in turning points of action—and in the formative past of a regime or nation as much as or more than in the immediate present. The working hypothesis is that the conceptions shaping the evolution of a political society’s way of life are most visibly in play where those with access to rule, or seeking such access, articulate and fight over moral goals, principles, and priorities, in response to defining problems and crises.

Communist Regimes

The paramountcy, as shaping causal forces, of struggles over the regime holds even in tyrannic regimes. Straussian analysis stresses the supreme importance of the need never to lose sight of the moral inferiority of tyrannies, despite the partial and disquieting advantages they may possess. But even tyrants cannot escape the natural and overriding human need for justification. Straussian study of the inner workings of tyrannies focuses here on the (often Byzantine) contests among aspirants to embody the regime’s leading human qualities. These competitions take on a new, characteristic complexity in modernity, in as much as tyranny manifests itself in a new, distinctly modern, form: modern tyranny tends to be ‘ideological,’ or to understand itself as guided by some comprehensive theoretical analysis of the human situation. The struggle over the regime is therefore simultaneously a struggle over what is to be the orthodox interpretation of the justifying ideological theory. This characteristic of modern tyranny was exhibited most powerfully in communism. Paradigmatic Straussian studies are Victor Baras’s (1975) account of the crucial stages in Ulbricht’s, and thereby East Germany’s, career of self-definition; Myron Rush’s (1958; 1965; 1974; 1993) analyses of the evolution of the post-Stalinist Soviet and East European regimes, centring on the succession struggles in the leadership; and Charles H. Fairbanks’s (1993; 1995a; 1995b; 1997) explorations of the reasons for the decline, fall and aftermath of the Soviet Union.

International Relations

Straussian study of foreign policy and international relations (including international law) has been rooted in a revolution in Thucydidean interpretation, bringing out the close kinship between Thucydides and the Socratics. The predominant pre-Straussian notion of Thucydides among political theorists is expressed in Michael Walzer’s still-influential treatment (1977: ch. 1), which dismisses Thucydides as representative of a ‘realism’ whose ‘purpose’ is to make moral ‘discourse about particular cases appear to be idle chatter.’ Strauss and his followers have executed sustained exegesis in arguing that, on the contrary, Thucydides’s central theme is an exploration, unrivalled in its depth and lack of sentimentality, of the true meaning and full force of justice in political speech and action at its peak (Bolotin, 1987; Bruell, 1974; Orwin, 1994; Strauss, 1964: ch. 3). Straussian Thucydidean studies have exposed contemporary so-called ‘realist’ and ‘neorealist’ international theory as unrealistic in its failure to take into account how drastically foreign policy and international behaviour varies with the varying regimes and their competing moral outlooks (Ahrensdorf, 1997; Forde, 1995; Hassner, 1995; Pangle and Ahrensdorf, 1999: chs 7-8; Shulsky, 1991a). As an antistrophe, we find a line of sympathetic but sceptical Straussian examinations of the strengths and weaknesses of modern philosophic, especially Kantian, international idealism—in practice as well as in theory (Forde, 1998; Hassner, 1961; 1997; Knippenberg, 1989; Pangle and Ahrensdorf, 1999: ch. 6; Plattner, 1984; Tarcov, 1984b; 1989a; 1989b). Last but not least, Francis Fukuyama (1992), inspired by Strauss, but breaking with him, has made famous the provocative thesis that Strauss’s dialogic antagonist, Alexandre Kojève, in fact set forth the true (Hegelian) philosophic account that explains the world-historical meaning of the fall of Soviet communism and thus the fated dispensation of the centuries upon which we are entering.

The American Regime

At the heart of American politics, in the Straussian view, is the Constitution and its evolution—viewed as the working out of the basic principles enunciated in the Revolution and above all in the Declaration of Independence. To discover the Constitution’s full meaning as the basic law of the regime is to achieve clarity about the overarching moral goals, the way of life, the human types, that the Constitution fosters—and, conversely, those that it discourages. Now the study of the Founding epoch is especially revealing in these regards—and not only because we may observe the foundations in the act of being laid. In the American case the Founding was blessed with leaders—and opponents—of unusual wisdom and articulateness. Not only do these men of action speak for themselves, but they point us with some explicitness to their philosophic teachers, above all (though by no means exclusively) Locke and Montesquieu. The Founding is of course not the end, it is only the pregnant beginning of the story. But the Founding sets the horizon within which move subsequent developments—even when they verge on ‘refoundings’ (the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements, the struggles over slavery and race, the response to the Great Depression, the Cold War). The Founding exhibits unsolved and even insoluble problems that keep the regime in disquieting motion. The scientist of American government will continually miss the deep (and contestable) presuppositions and entailments of the system he is studying if he fails constantly to recur to a meticulous and meditative reflection on the writings and especially the debates of the Founding period, situating them in contrast with the great alternative philosophies of republicanism ancient and modern.

This means, to be sure, that the neo-Aristotelian political scientist will soon become aware of a deep and half-hidden complexity in the nature of the ‘regime’ under the conditions of modern political life—shaped as that life is, largely though by no means completely, by modern political theory. For one can say that it is the deliberate intention of modern political philosophy to try to truncate the regime character of politics: to replace reliance on human character, and therefore overt encouragement of specific character traits, with reliance on institutions, and on the minimal modifications of human behaviour and outlook required by a civic virtue that is principally ‘self-interest rightly understood.’ Paradoxically, the aim constantly pursued, with enormous political and legal energy, by modern liberal politics at its deepest or most self-conscious is the depoliticization of human existence. The modern liberal regime seeks to submerge its own regime character: the distinctive way of life and the restricted range of human types forcibly encouraged by liberal democracy are meant to appear to be the product of an openness to the greatest diversity of ways and types. But the distinctive human ways and characteristics actually fostered tolerance, competitive and acquisitive entrepreneurial talent, the privatization of religious and moral demands, egalitarianism and individualism, etc.—have never been sufficient to provide the civic virtue needed in a republican form of government, even in a liberal republican form. And the various complex institutional arrangements suggested by a succession of great modern theorists (federalism, representation, separation of powers, the party system, etc.) have never gone as far as intended in obviating the need for statesmanship of a high order as well as a public spirited citizenry. So a major and persisting problematic of Straussian study has been the investigation and explanation of how precisely the modern liberal project has had to be modified, or has had to modify itself, in an attempt to incorporate essential or abiding demands of humanity’s political nature, made most visible in classical republican life and thought (see esp. Diamond, 1992: ch. 21; Mansfield, 1965a; 1965b; 1971; 1978: ch. 1; 1991: Part Three).

The Judiciary

Straussian approaches to American government are distinguished by the importance given to the observation that the higher judiciary, in the American system, is uniquely delegated to deliver a publicly reasoned justification of the laws through which, above all else, the regime evolves. An Aristotelian perspective on the regime context spotlights, however, the deeply problematic fact that this is an essentially aristocratic function uneasily situated within, and meant to temper, a basically democratic regime. The practice of ‘judicial review’ therefore requires a delicate and circumspect judicial prudence. The most fruitful focus of study of the American judiciary is, accordingly, not the ‘judicial behaviour’ so fashionable in ‘scientific studies’ (seeking to discover the sub-jurisprudential and therefore supposedly more predictable sources of judicial decisions) but rather judicial reasoning linked to judicial statesmanship. The task of sound political scientific study of the judiciary is that of examining the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, in light of their civic implications and effects (discerned partly by looking to later political and legal consequences). This entails simultaneous evaluative scrutiny of the dialogue between the judicial pronouncements and the words and deeds of the various legislatures and executives (Landy and Levin, 1995; Melnick, 1983; 1994; Rabkin, 1989). Of the greatest importance are some of the earliest opinions, especially by Marshall (in sharp contrast to Taney’s Dred Scott decision): these not only laid the groundwork of American constitutional jurisprudence, but were compelled to take far less for granted than is the case with contemporary jurisprudence. Straussians, led by Walter Berns, are not hesitant to argue the superior wisdom of those early opinions—especially as regards their grasp of the nature of judicial review, of the meaning of original intent, of the legal and political status of religion, and of the reasons that justify (and thus define) freedom of speech as well as other basic rights (Berns, 1957; 1984: chs 2 and 15; 1987; Brubaker, 1987; Canavan, 1971; Clor, 1969; Faulkner, 1968; Frisch and Stevens, 1971; Malbin, 1981).

The Executive

A natural leitmotif of Straussian study of American politics is critical evaluation of those presidents and would-be presidents in the course of whose careers the regime has undergone severe and often transformative testing. Here are illuminated the evolving potentials and limits of the office, and its relation to the rest of the constitutional regime. A distinctive theme of the Straussian study of presidential selection has been a quest to recover or discover institutional and civic resources that might help check the regime’s proclivity to drift toward more narrowly power-centred, and more demagogic, conceptions of the presidency. Part of this effort has been the retrieval and development of the Hamiltonian understanding of the presidency as a responsible republican substitute for monarchy. Looming large here are accounts, especially Harvey C. Mansfield’s, of the evolution of the modern constitutional executive out of the struggle of the great philosophers to ‘tame’ Machiavelli’s conception of ‘the prince’—and to find a substitute for Aristotelian monarchy, as developed especially by Marsilius of Padua. In unpacking this dimension of the evolution of modern constitutional theory, light is shed not only on the nature of the presidency (as well as parliamentary leadership), but also on some of the conundrums of the modern philosophers’s attempts to overcome the limitations of the rule of law and institutionalized rationality (Bessette and Tulis, 1981; Diamond, 1992: chs 4 and 15; Flaumenhaff, 1992; Frisch and Stevens, 1971; Mansfield, 1989; 1991: chs 2-5 and 9; 1996: ch. 13; McNamara, 1999: chs 3 and 4; Milkis, 1993: chs 3-6; Stourzh, 1970; Storing, 1995: chs 18-22; Tarcov, 1990).

Straussians by no means ignore the enormous role played by the more anonymous and undramatic lower echelons of the modern executive—‘bureaucratic’ politics or ‘public administration.’ But Straussian approaches typically protest against, and try to repair, the scholarly tendency to pay insufficient heed to how much the natures of bureaucracies are decisively differentiated by the distinctive moral goals set by the particular regime—and by political struggles over defining the regime—in which bureaucratic politics operate (Fairbanks, 1987; 1993: 53-6; Melnick, 2000; Shulsky, 1991a: ch. 6). Following Storing’s lead, Straussian study of public administration in the American regime looks for ways to foster a distinctly American version of a ‘higher’ or ‘senior’ civil service akin to that of the United Kingdom: bureaucrats responsive to the commands of the elected government, who yet pose a moral counterweight because they are endowed with an ethos not of mere technical competence and ‘neutrality,’ but of self-conscious responsibility to and for the overarching national interest (Lawler, Schaefer and Schaefer, 1997; Storing, 1995: chs 13-17).

The Legislative Branch and Political Parties

Paradigmatic for the Straussian perspective on Congress is Joseph Bessette’s (1994) insistence on the deliberative nature of legislative bodies. This approach opposes the fashionable analytic tendency to reduce congressional deliberations to ‘decisions’ that express nothing more than the outcome of the perhaps quantifiable sum of the vectors of the tug and pull of interest-group struggle and the drive for re-election. Without by any means denying the strength of these powerful forces, Straussian analysis lays out the manifold evidence for a process in which reasoning in quest of compromises that serve the common good can supervene to mediate and to elevate the ever-active, narrow and self-serving interest struggle (Landy and Levin, 1995; Melnick, 1983; 1994). The broad-based political parties are shown to be major contributors to the deliberative dimension of the interest-group struggle, and one can characterize Straussian political science as evincing unusually high respect for the two-party system in the United States, and even for rather unpopular practices (such as party-controlled redistricting) and institutions (such as the electoral college) that arguably help maintain or strengthen the major parties. Wilson Carey McWilliams (2000) and others have highlighted the importance of parties in fostering an otherwise weak and threatened ‘fraternal,’ local or decentralized, and participatory dimension of democracy. Harry V. Jaffa’s interpretation (1965: ch. 1) of the evolution of party realignment has shown how the two-party system, strangely unforeseen at the Founding, is rooted in (though surely not wholly explained by) the irrepressible if usually muted and, on the whole, healthy continuation of regime differences, or of fundamental debate over the regime. This same analysis serves to underline the important function played in American civic development by dissenters from the existing regime (Storing, 1962: ch. 3 and 319, 323; 1995: chs 12, 13; Fairbanks, 1997).

The Contribution Made by Dissenters

Indeed, radical ‘unofficial’ opposition, and the moral challenges it forces upon the reigning regime, are spotlighted in the Straussian optic both as shapers of regime evolution and, even when the dissent fails, as uniquely revealing indicators of the nature of the regime. It is no accident that the biggest work of Straussian study of American political thought is Storing’s seven-volume Complete Anti-Federalist (1981), or that the single most influential volume of Straussian ‘American politics’ is Jaffa’s (1959) account of the intellectual evolution of the two great radicals, Douglas and Lincoln—and their decisive debates, in which and through which the American regime was transformed forever, or indeed refounded. McWilliams (1983; 1984; 1987), pre-eminent among others influenced by Strauss, has limned the contribution made by America’s Puritan-based religious traditions, especially in their dissent from secular liberalism, to moderating the atomization that haunts modern democracy. Straussian study of the American regime has from the beginning brought to the fore the challenge to the regime’s moral self-definition posed by the core problem of race, and has made it a major project to recover African-American theorists, pre-eminently Frederick Douglass, but also theorists of ‘Black Nationalism’ and ‘Black Power,’ in their dialogue with theorists of assimilation.

Interest Groups, Civil Society, and Cultural Criticism

The characteristic Straussian approach to the study of interest-group politics and of ‘civil society’ relies on a new exegesis of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. This interpretation, opposing or subordinating more conventional ‘sociological’ readings, insists on the philosophically inspired, and partially Aristotelian, character of what Tocqueville calls his ‘new science of politics’ (Ceaser, 1990; Koritansky, 1986; Lawler, 1993; Manent, 1982; Mansfield, 1991: chs 13, 14; McWilliams, 1992). The light cast by this science, so understood, does more than help illuminate how ‘associations’ in modern democracy can function, in interaction with local government and political party participation, to sublimate private group interest into public interest. More specifically and controversially, what becomes prominent in Straussian Tocquevillean societal analysis is the vacuum of meaning and sources of dedication that looms as the greatest threat to the human spirit in American democracy. Seen from the Straussian Tocquevillean perspective, the challenge of filling this vacuum calls for strengthening organized religion as well as organized parties, for preserving as much as can be preserved of traditional family mores and structure, and for the revival of democratic liberal education informed by a concern more characteristic of aristocracy—that is, spiritual deepening and intellectual refinement (as well as character development and civic spirit) (Clor, 1996; McWilliams, 1987; Melzer, Weinberger and Zinman, 1998; Schwartz, 2000; Yarbrough, 1998).

The most dramatic application of this perspective to cultural criticism of contemporary democracy is Alan Bloom’s (1987) explosive bestseller, whose impact proved the potential of Straussian political theory to reach out and speak with arresting power to the spiritual perplexities of the broad mass of the reading public in our age. Presenting a dedicated teacher’s ‘first-person’ report on the soulless disintegration of the liberal arts in the university, Bloom offered, as an alternative, a vision of a liberating, erotic encounter with the Great Books, whose deepest unifying theme he explicated through a sustained meditation on the history of political philosophy since Socrates. (What was most original in Bloom’s scholarship was his pioneering readings of great works of literature as vehicles for affording vivid access, in our parochially secular democratic age, to the great alternatives among regimes, among types of human excellence, and among experiences of erotic passion and thought). Bloom argued that the modern democratic hopes for participating in such a truly liberal, because liberating, education are being washed away by profoundly antidemocratic and anti-rational intellectual trends derived from proto-fascistic distortions of twentieth-century continental philosophy. The scholarly purveyors of these trends, which have come to dominate the liberal arts in the universities, believe themselves to be contributing to democracy while they inadvertently sap its essential moral and mental fibre. That Bloom had struck a nerve became obvious from the thunderous howls of truly febrile indignation that arose from the academic establishment: the ‘culture war’ (or wars) that Bloom’s volcanic eruption ignited have not died out.

Straussian Tocquevillean concern to shore up or repair the pillars of democratic health may be said to overlap with at least some versions of ‘communitarian’ critique and analysis. But the Straussian approach diverges from the ‘communitarian’ in at least three important (and not necessarily harmonious) ways. In the first place, Straussians are more inclined to respect, and to seek to revitalize, the concern for individual autonomy, responsibility, and hence dignity retrievable from the older Lockean individualist and free enterprise philosophic tradition (Brubaker, 1988; Kautz, 1995; Lerner, 1987: ch. 1; Tarcov, 1984a). In the second place, Straussians (or communitarians influenced by the Straussian approach) are more likely to look to religion and to the religious traditions in America, for counterweights to what are seen as in part excessively secular sources of individualism, materialism, and civic apathy or cynicism (Elazar, 1996-8; Kraynak, 2001; Lawler, 1993; 1999; McWilliams, 1984; 1987). Third, Straussians tend to fault communitarians for neglecting to recognize how much their continental philosophic sources are profoundly anti-liberal, anti-egalitarian, and antidemocratic. Straussians are far from denying that something very important is to be learned from continental political theory’s explicit and implicit critiques of liberal democracy in America, but they tend to insist that the fully discomfiting character of those critiques needs to be confronted, so that we can learn from them what communitarians are prone to overlook—the dangers in the excesses of the democratic spirit itself, and not least in unchecked egalitarianism and egalitarian communalism (Bloom, 1990b; Ceaser, 1997).

From Cultural Criticism to the Fundamental Questions

Thus the Straussian critical theory of American civil society draws from and conduces to hermeneutic scholarship aimed at bringing to light the full force and depth of the late modern critique, rooted in Rousseau, of Enlightenment rationalism in theory and in practice. First Rousseau, and then, successively, his more systematic if less intransigent German heirs, diagnosed the imperfections of the Enlightenment-with a view to refurbishing it and thus consummating its deepest (this-worldly) intentions. It was the apparent failure of these magnificent efforts that led Nietzsche to proclaim the need for a shattering transrational departure. But to what extent is this historical dialectic inevitable? And are its results necessarily as crisis-prone as Strauss seems to have concluded? Can we not seriously consider a return to one or another stage of the unfolding drama, there to recover the essential complement that will make a reformed modernity, and perhaps a reformed America, truly defensible? The challenge to modernity that Strauss laid down, in his opposition of ancients to moderns, continues to inspire manifold Straussian interpretive work, on Rousseau (e.g. Bloom, 1993: Part One; Kelly, 1987; Meier, 1984; Melzer, 1990; Orwin and Tarcov, 1997; Schwartz, 1984), Kant (Galston, 1975; Knippenberg, 1993; Shell, 1980; Velkley, 1989), Hegel (Frost, 1999; Maletz, 1983; 1989; Smith, 1989), and Nietzsche (Dannhauser, 1974; Detwiler, 1990; Lampert, 1986; 2001). This scholarship follows with gratitude Strauss’s lead, but often seeks, implicitly if not explicitly, to find a way to overcome his profoundly troubling conclusions.

In other words, there is discernible in the work of many of those Strauss has inspired a search, not always explicit (perhaps not even fully self-conscious), for a circumvention of the radical theses that express the core of his thought. This is most apparent in the fissures that have opened up among competing interpretations of the foundations of the American regime and of the Enlightenment rationalism that informs it. Jaffa and his followers go so far as to argue that the American regime, centred on Lincoln, shakes off the contamination of modern philosophy (whose failure Strauss is conceded to have correctly diagnosed) through a quasi-divinatory recovery of Aristotelian praxis. Most others among the first generation of Strauss’s students (for the best articulation, see Diamond, 1992: ch. 21) have remained more soberly and modestly, if reluctantly, close to Strauss’s own judgement-as indicated in his relentless essay on Locke (Strauss, 1971) and in his brief but incisive remarks there and elsewhere on the distinctly modern principles animating the American regime (McWilliams, 1998). Yet is it possible that the living presence of Strauss, and the reverence he naturally aroused, shielded the sober and modest students from facing, paradoxically, the very grave difficulties that his thought teaches must be faced? Strauss not only brought back to life the philosophic quest for final moral truth, he deliberately resuscitated the possibility and the necessity of studying the American regime with genuine, and passionately hopeful, respect for its Founding claim to be grounded on moral ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident’: ‘the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’ But Strauss also compelled the recognition that genuine respect for such a claim requires genuine testing of its validity—leading perhaps to the discovery, in the process, of something of the utmost importance regarding one’s own soul. Now given Strauss’s insistence on ‘the lowering of the goals’ that comes to sight at the very heart of modern political thought; given Strauss’s unmistakable inclination to judge modern rationalism to be ultimately an erroneous if magnificent failure, and to judge classical philosophy to be, in contrast, simply true; given Strauss’s much more qualified endorsement of the superiority of ancient to modern practice (his meticulous account of Plato’s unvarnished analysis of life in the polis at its best: Strauss, 1975b); given these intransigently severe features of Strauss’s central contentions, I say, it is understandable that those deeply affected by the serious initial hopes Strauss inspired should encounter, sooner or later, deep perplexity. It is understandable that even or especially those loyally indebted to and respectful of Strauss should find it hard, as dedicated citizens of America or of the West, to accept the detachment from the achievements of modernity, and from the love of one’s own, that the logic of Strauss’s critique demands. It is not surprising, then, that there has emerged a growing inclination among his followers to depart from Strauss, to challenge his relentless exposure of Locke’s Hobbesian individualism and atheism and to seek to discover in Locke, as well as in other early moderns, and thence in the theory and not only the practice of modernity, especially in America, a nobler, and even a more religious, outlook than Strauss’s own analysis allows. By the same token, the question has been pressed whether Strauss’s unflattering judgement on modernity, in comparison with antiquity, can stand, once one faces squarely the harshness and inhumanity of the polis. Prominent here are the massive though very different books of Paul Rahe (1992) and Michael Zuckert (1994), whose sophisticated historical erudition has greatly enriched, from somewhat divergent perspectives, our understanding of the precise stages in the evolution of republican thought from Machiavelli to the American Founding.

The great question is whether these restive quests, sensible enough on their own terms, for a way out of the Straussian problematic, do not spring from a failure to appreciate what was for Strauss the heart of the matter. That heart is the challenge posed by revelation, and the Socratic dialectical investigation of justice and nobility as the key to meeting that challenge, and thus as the grounding of the truly natural life for man: the contemplative life, consumed by the serene (if mortal and therefore melancholy) joy of the free investigation of the permanent nature of the beings.

Efforts at achieving the appreciation of which I speak, through re-enacting Strauss’s confrontation with the Bible and with the capital texts of ancient and medieval rationalism, represent the most profound of the scholarly endeavours that carry forward Strauss’s approach to the study of politics. It is fair to wonder, however, whether any of us has yet fully plumbed the existential meaning of that ‘permanent human problem’ to which Strauss sought to reawaken modern mankind. That problem, I believe Strauss was convinced by Socrates, has gnawed at the marrow, and has propelled the thinking, of every mind genuinely penetrated by the truth of the human condition. It is the lobotomizing of the modern brain’s capacity to recognize this problem—it is the ‘oblivion of eternity, or, in other words, estrangement from man’s deepest desire and therewith from the primary issues’ (Strauss, 1959: 55)—that is the soul-destroying consequence which constitutes the decisive inferiority of all modern thought and life to ancient (and medieval) thought and life.