Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.

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