Over at Public Discourse, I have a review of Michael and Catherine Zuckert’s excellent new book on Leo Strauss, the German-American teacher of political philosophy whose legacy has proven so controversial. In the review, I try to orient Strauss in relation to American conservatism. The relationship is more complicated than many people think, I argue.
On the one hand, contrary to what some liberals seem to think, Strauss was not really a conservative. He was primarily interested in political philosophy–which he understood to be the rational quest for knowledge of the best regime–which he distinguished from political thought–or thinking about politics that is essentially conditioned by the existing regime, or in service to it. On any plausible view, American conservatism is not really philosophy as Strauss understood it because that conservatism is oriented by the American regime and the desire to preserve it. Nothing wrong with that, by the way–it’s just not philosophy and not what Strauss was mostly interested in.
Nevertheless, I go on and argue, Strauss is a kind of ally to conservatives, insofar as he is interested in the past and determined to treat it respectfully, as a possible source of genuine wisdom. This distinguishes him from the contemporary progressive.
Catholics might also find something of value in Strauss. At least, Strauss–who was Jewish–seemed to find something of interest in Catholicism. He generally spoke respectfully of religious belief, and in his pointed critiques of contemporary social science he would usually exempt Catholic social science, which he regarded as more serious and wholesome because it took moral questions seriously. Strauss’s relationship to Catholicism is ambiguous, like his relationship to conservatism. On the one hand, Strauss agreed with Catholicism in holding a teleological view of man: he thought human beings had a purpose given by their nature. On the other hand, he did not agree with Catholicism on what, exactly, that purpose is: Strauss thought the life of rational philosophy is the best way of life by nature, which is not what Catholics think.