Squinting at Leo Strauss: Impartiality and the Art of Writing

“We cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize.”1

Two reviews of my new book on Harry Jaffa raise what loosely may be called East Coast Straussian criticisms of Jaffa, as well as of me and some of my colleagues. A review by Peter Berkowitz posted on September 19 in the Washington Free Beacon includes gratifying words of praise, along with criticisms that while relatively mild and reasonable raise important questions. Another review, by Thomas Merrill, is rather less mild and inadvertently raises even more important questions. 

Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, opens his review with the famous 1964 Republican nomination speech delivered by Barry Goldwater that memorably defended “extremism in the defense of liberty.” The principal author of that speech was none other than Harry Jaffa, then a 46-year-old campaign advisor on leave from his faculty appointment at Ohio State University. Jaffa’s “praise of immoderation” strikes Berkowitz as dubious if not misguided. Noting that “Jaffa is the only Straussian to form a separate school around himself,” Berkowitz worries that many “Claremont fellows seem to have concluded that as in 1964, so today: The defense of liberty and the pursuit of justice require uninhibited rhetoric and drastic measures.” (Though these geographical distinctions matter less and less, Jaffa’s students are often referred to as West Coast Straussians because of Jaffa’s long career at Claremont McKenna College, and the creation of the separate, but nearby, Claremont Institute—both in Southern California.) “In contrast to many East Coast Straussians,” Berkowitz claims that “West Coast Straussians press an apocalyptic diagnosis of contemporary liberal democracy.” He refers to an essay of mine published at the Institute’s The American Mind, which argues that in light of the increasingly parlous state of the republic, “conservatives must become radicals and re-founders,” in Berkowitz’s words. 

These distressing pronouncements, Berkowitz argues, derive from Jaffa’s own “countervailing tendencies,” which promote moderate and prudent statesmanship, yet also “encourage the immoderate conceit that Jaffa’s writings transmit an indispensable teaching to an elect few into the true character of the American political order and its fundamental requirements.” Berkowitz regrets the latter tendency and ends his review by affirming that “the vice of extremism imperils liberty and that the virtue of moderation is essential to the pursuit of justice.” 

Such anodyne cautions might seem sensible. But in politics, the details matter. Berkowitz’s judgment about (or rather against) Jaffa, his students generally, and the Claremont Institute particularly, are informed by this empirical observation:

Even amid today’s acrimony and vituperation, the simple but defining belief in the freedom and equality of all human beings can still be observed in the opinions and conduct—however misguided their policy preferences—of many on the left as well as the right. This abiding conviction should serve as the foundation for rededication to the task of conserving a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Berkowitz’s entire critique, which is ultimately a matter of practical not theoretical reasoning, would seem to stand or fall by this analysis. He claims to “observe” what I simply do not see: that “many on the left” still accept the “equality of all human beings.” He believes, as I regretfully but unequivocally cannot, that “the task of conserving a nation” is still possible by uniting Right and Left in this common “abiding conviction.” The Claremont rhetoric and political strategy that Berkowitz sees as “uninhibited,” “apocalyptic,” and arising from an “immoderate conceit,” I (along with many of my colleagues) see in nearly opposite terms: as necessary, urgent, and arising from obvious facts. 

The source of this profound practical difference is traceable to deeper philosophical questions about what Jaffa learned from Leo Strauss, and in turn the meaning of Strauss’ own project. To the degree that our current politics are so chaotic and confusing, getting some clarity on these matters might help us figure out what to do. I investigate a few of these questions below.

Thomas Merrill’s evaluation of my book in the Bulwark is in certain ways similar to Berkowitz’s, but with a less charitable appraisal of my shortcomings as a scholar and polemicist. (Paul Gottfried, hardly a Jaffa acolyte, has noted the review’s peevish and condescending tone.) According to Merrill—a professor at American University—Jaffa himself deserves to be taken seriously, but my take on him is “partisan,” because I fail “to explain how Jaffa might speak to people on the other side [of today’s] culture wars.” Jaffa would be revealed as a “more interesting figure” if I had shown him “more impartially,” without “Claremont partisanship,” and did not “squint at today’s controversies.”

Although The Soul of Politics is “an academic book and a contribution to scholarship,” Merrill thinks that I wrote this book  

to be a rallying cry for a present-day political-cultural movement: Trump-sympathetic conservatism. By presenting the book as a political and a practical statement, not just a scholarly one, Ellmers invites us to offer a political response. This is the most controversial thing and the least likely to result in a productive conversation. On the other hand, our judgment of the book will be incomplete without saying something about this aspect of Ellmers’ argument. Rather than engaging in more polemics, then, let us ask: What more can we say about today’s Claremont school and the political-cultural place they have managed to work themselves into in the light of what we’ve learned about Harry Jaffa? Does Jaffa bear some responsibility for the current condition of the Claremont school?

Ellmers makes clear his political hopes in the opening pages of the book. He says he is addressing “you, spirited moral gentlemen, America’s natural aristoi,” in the hopes of spurring those readers into rising up to confront “the crisis of Western civilization, of civilization itself.” This is a close relative of the argument made in Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93 Election” article. Like Anton, Ellmers understands the project of saving Western civilization as above all a partisan project. . . . Ellmers calls us, first and foremost, not to reflect or to understand but to act—and he thinks Jaffa can be a kind of patron saint or guru of a new conservative movement to do battle with the “woke.”

Professor Merrill reminds his readers that “Governing requires an effort to understand people who disagree with you.” But, he observes, “that’s not the Claremont way or Ellmers’ way.” (Is it, I can’t help but wonder, the Chicago way?) 

The theme of partisanship, and especially Merrill’s strong aversion to it, pervades the review. This aversion leads to a broad critique of Claremont scholars (specifically Anton and me) as “intellectuals” with an inordinate attachment to a “unified” “narrative” that shapes our “sense of self” and “sense of the world.” Merrill seems to think there is something wrong with having a “narrative.” But don’t most people have an intellectual framework in which they situate their identity and perception of the world? As Merrill sees it, however, Jaffa’s students 

think that politics is ultimately about dueling theories of the world—as if politics really were just a grand version of a freshman political theory class. Having a theory is a source of pride. It gives one a suit of armor to go out and do battle in the world. . . .

In other words, the intellectual does not realize that his practical, partisan attachments are actually more important to him than are either trying to uncover and investigate impartially the foundations of one’s beliefs or seeing the practical realities of the world clearly. . . .

The danger is that you might become so invested in your theory that you can’t see what’s in front of you clearly. Rather than being more reflective about practice, you become more doctrinaire, more likely to allow your partisan attachment to shape your sense of reality. (Emphasis added)

Well, ok. But on the assumption that Merrill is not dismissing all “theory” out of hand, I kept looking for some explanation of what exactly the Claremont narrative is, and why our particular theory leads me and my colleagues so egregiously astray. After all, Merrill is himself a professor, the assistant director of AU’s Political Theory Institute, and the author of a book on David Hume. Reckless people might even call him an intellectual. Nor is he bashful about expressing his own partisan opinions, which revolve intently and predictably around Donald Trump: “a bad actor with bad judgment.” (Trump’s name is mentioned far more times in Merrill’s review than in my entire book.) In any event, if there is in fact some place for theory in political life, Merrill ought to have explained what that place is, its proper and improper application, and why Claremont’s version leads us to be “doctrinaire,” “Manichean,” and (of course) “partisan.” But he never does, and instead settles for insinuations—obviously Claremont’s “conspiracies” are ridiculous, he winks—that strike me as mere gestures of solidarity with his Bulwark audience. Ironically, he accuses me of pandering to my readers. 

Merrill’s constant disparagement of “partisanship” (notwithstanding the timber in his own eye) seems to be related to his almost complete refusal to acknowledge that there can be genuine differences of political principle. If such differences do somehow arise, he seems to be convinced that they are always reconcilable by further dialogue. Thus, the principal activity or goal of politics is to foster “productive conversation.” This leads Merrill to dismiss Jaffa’s famous and often instructive quarrels as “foolish, almost fratricidal, disputes.” He even goes so far as to say that Jaffa didn’t really understand what he was arguing about. Regarding one notable colloquy with Harvey C. Mansfield, Merrill asserts that “Jaffa was confused” because he “didn’t recognize who his friends were, and so was fighting people who were mostly allied with him as if they were enemies.” Ah. 

One gathers that for Merrill, being a political philosopher means never having to say you’re sorry, mainly because one should never say anything controversial enough to offend anyone. (This was certainly not Strauss’ attitude.) 

Lincoln’s debate with Stephen A. Douglas. iStock/Getty Images

The Limits of Speech

It seems hard to believe that someone with his credentials could be oblivious to the fact that human beings have always been inclined to differ—sometimes violently—over justice; and partially as a result of this, coercion or punitive law has always been a feature of every political community. Yet, strange to say, Merrill seems to believe in what Leo Strauss called “the omnipotence of speech,” and is thus blind to “the sternness of politics.”2 His entire review is characterized by a bizarre inability to see both halves of political life: persuasion and force. This is all the more baffling in that Merrill claims to be a great admirer of Jaffa’s first Lincoln book, about the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas (which I allegedly underestimate):

Crisis of the House Divided is a great book because in it Jaffa stays so close to a concrete political moment, an actual debate, with close attention to circumstances and tactics and political rhetoric. His reconstruction of Stephen Douglas’ thought is a marvel of how a scholar can sympathetically reconstruct the point of view even of someone he disagrees with fundamentally. To read that book is to get a political education.

Let me respectfully suggest that Merrill misses the political education to be derived from that book.3 The most salient fact about Jaffa’s interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates is not merely uncovering the particular political circumstances of the 1850s, as if those details are the essence of political education. Still less was the point of the book to show “how a scholar can sympathetically reconstruct the point of view of someone he disagrees with.” As Jaffa himself took great pains to explain, what mattered most in those debates—in a way the only thing that mattered—was whether or not Lincoln was right and Douglas wrong. Merrill’s whole review seems to accept implicitly Carl Becker’s contention that this is a meaningless question, mere partisanship.4

Lincoln wanted to demonstrate that slavery is unjust because it denies the equality of all human beings, who share a common nature, and that this is a statement of moral fact. The greatness of Jaffa’s book lay in recovering this understanding of political justice grounded in nature as the cornerstone of American politics. Intellectuals (if I may challenge Merrill’s appropriation of the term) frequently deny or render incoherent such elementary experiences of right and wrong; they “squint” at the moral sense of the citizen. Against the unquestioned historicism of 20th-century American historiography, Crisis applied Strauss’ insights about trans-historical natural right to vindicate Lincoln’s refutation of “justice as the interest of the stronger.”

If you don’t understand that, you won’t see that Jaffa explored the immense complexity of the antebellum political landscape in order to reveal how Lincoln’s statesmanship prudently adapted to those circumstances to articulate and defend the truth of a moral principle—not merely in speech but in deed. Of course the details matter, but they matter because they reveal how theory connects with practice, how principles come to life within a particular regime with its own specific prejudices and opinions, or endoxa, both good and bad. Similarly, the point of Jaffa’s sympathetic reconstruction of Douglas’ argument was not to turn the 1858 debates into amicable palaver, or dialogue for its own sake. Rather, it was to elaborate in the strongest possible terms the challenge Lincoln confronted and then overcame. It is shocking and sad to see Merrill, while claiming to admire Crisis, miss the very thing that makes the book such an achievement and gives Lincoln’s towering rhetorical triumph over Douglas its real significance.

Yet Lincoln’s rhetorical victory, a victory as forceful and unsparing as Socrates’ conquering of Thrasymachus, was a political failure. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln notes that despite all attempts at reasonable compromise (and despite his own poetic genius, which he does not note) “the war came.” Reading Merrill’s review, with its numerous references to Lincoln, one would never know there was a Civil War, or that the Great Emancipator was anything more than an orator; that speech found its limit, and that Lincoln was compelled to use force, sending the Union army into blood-drenched battle. Jaffa saw the 1858 debates as the theoretical prologue to the war. Merrill sees the debates instead of the war; and thus cuts Lincoln in half, reducing him to a semi-statesman whose sole virtue is “prudential moderation.” Like Berkowitz, he simply cannot see how or why prudence might at times call for extremism, or what at least appears to be immoderation. Barry Goldwater was in this respect a better student of politics, and even a better Aristotelian.5 So too was Martin Luther King, who in 1963 declared in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that Jesus, St. Paul, Jefferson, and Lincoln were all extremists: “[T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” 

Professor Merrill faults me for writing a hagiographic “recapitulation of Jaffa’s opinions” (some people would call this understanding a writer as he understood himself). And he finds himself so unable to relate to, and take seriously, Jaffa’s intellectual battles (what some might call the “surface of things” which is also “the heart of things”) that he wishes the “complexity” of Jaffa’s personality could have been fictionalized into a roman à clef by Saul Bellow in order to provide an adequate “psychological insight.” So much for all the effort Jaffa put into writing down what he thought! But the most disappointing feature of this disappointing review is that there is not a single line that genuinely grapples with what Jaffa often declared to be his overriding intellectual concern: to recover the truth and justice of the principles of the American founding, not merely out of a patriotic desire to restore the health of his country, but because he saw this as an extension or continuation of Strauss’ central project.

iStock/Getty Images

The War of the West

Harry Jaffa’s ambition—as fantastic as this may seem—was to help save America, in both theory and practice; in doing so to save the West; and thus in turn to save both political life and philosophy, which remain even now on the verge of a kind of self-destruction. He saw this as a continuation of Leo Strauss’ project to recover the possibility of political philosophy, in particular classical political rationalism, as the first (albeit colossal) response to the crisis of the West. 

I confess, therefore, without squinting, that I did use my book to bring Jaffa into today’s partisan disputes. But I would contend that he’s been there all along. It’s where he wanted to be, since for Jaffa political philosophy was always about more than counting words and numbering paragraphs (though he did this too). He loved books as much as any scholar, but the close reading he learned from Strauss was not meant to turn texts into crossword puzzles. Rather, we immerse ourselves in the great canon of the Western tradition to illuminate and enlarge our own lived experiences. We read, especially in political philosophy (which for Jaffa included Shakespeare), to help us live well, not only individually but also politically, since only beasts or gods can be truly alone. Today, however, the descent of modern philosophy into radical skepticism, irrationalism, and nihilism has made natural human life increasingly thin and alienated.

I won’t rehearse the details of Strauss’ magnificent achievement: recovering almost single-handedly the serious consideration of the Western philosophical tradition as a source of transhistorical wisdom. The need for that recovery arose from what he called “our predicament” or “the crisis of the West.” Tracing a development through the “three waves” of modern philosophy, Strauss explored the unraveling, as it were, of the premises of the early modern project, which had altered and radically elevated the role of science in its technical and transformative (rather than merely speculative) aspect. The various “-isms” as Strauss sometimes called them—the ideologies of modern and postmodern philosophy—have distorted our understanding of the ordinary world and created a barrier to normal political life. We find ourselves in a deep and artificial pit beneath the natural political “cave.”6 (The cave image, of course, is Plato’s metaphor meant to capture how every “city” or regime depends to some degree on myths and superstitions to promote civic unity and obedience to the laws.)

What Is Political Philosophy?

There will be more to say about this unnatural and subterranean pit, but first there is the matter of the relationship between philosophy and politics, or the nature of political philosophy. Strauss often emphasized the tension between the philosopher and the city. Eastern Straussians tend to see this in terms of the radical separation of the philosopher from political concerns. Philosophy, they hold, is the highest human activity and completely transcends the ordinary, vulgar, and partisan concerns of the hoi polloi. In fact, Strauss’ vigorous defense of natural right (in this view) is reducible to the natural superiority of the philosophic life, which is, he wrote in Natural Right and History, “devoted to the pursuit of something which is absolutely higher in dignity than any human things—the unchangeable truth.” It appears, Strauss continued,

to be against nature that the lower should be preferred to the higher. If striving for knowledge of the eternal truth is the ultimate end of man, justice and moral virtue in general can be fully legitimated only by the fact that they are required for the sake of that ultimate end or that they are conditions of the philosophic life. From this point of view the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being.7

 Philosophy becomes political with or after Socrates not so much in terms of its subject matter, but in its presentation. Wishing to avoid Socrates’ fate, philosophers guard their speech through esoteric dissimulation. Thus, Professor Thomas Pangle writes in his Introduction to Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (a collection of essays by Strauss) that philosophers 

liberate themselves from the sway of opinion and learn to content themselves with the pursuit of the pleasures that are truly or intrin­sically sweet. Since man does, by nature, need the assistance of society, the truly free man will continue to dwell among and profit from his deluded neigh­bors; but spiritually, he will live a life apart.

Another prominent Straussian, Christopher Bruell, sees the nature of political philosophy in similar terms. In an essay titled “A Return to Classical Political Philosophy and the Understanding of the American Founding,” one searches in vain for any substantive treatment of the political history, speeches, or governing institutions of the United States. He observes that Strauss opens Natural Right and History by quoting the Declaration of Independence. This might seem to give “warrant to the expectation that that study, which may be said to culminate in a treatment of classical natural right and make a case for its superiority to all alternatives, would contribute to the strengthening or restoration of our Founding faith.” But Bruell quickly disabuses the reader of that notion. It “was not to political hopes of any sort that Strauss ultimately wished to address himself.” (Emphasis added.) 

He justifies this claim with the following paraphrase and quotation from Strauss. Classical political philosophy, Bruell writes, 

did not intend to provide, or believe it possible to provide, a simply rational basis for any sort of political order, even the best: “it asserts that every political society that ever has been or ever will be rests on a particular fundamental opinion which cannot be replaced by knowledge and hence is of necessity a particular or particularist society.” (Emphasis in original.)

I must, in passing, object to the inaccuracy of this astounding statement, which seems to reject categorically the concept of the best regime as a central concern of political philosophy. Strauss in fact did not deny a rational basis for the best regime in principle or in speech—which is surely one of the more preposterous things ever attributed to him. I cannot imagine why Professor Bruell felt justified in making that claim antecedent to the passage he quotes, in which Strauss quite reasonably says that every actual regime “that has ever been or ever will be” is particular and rests on opinion.8

In any event, Jaffa by contrast saw at least three reasons to believe philosophers are not contemptuous of the moral life of the citizen, and do in fact seek to promote—prudently and indirectly—the cause of justice in politics. Immediately after the striking passage quoted from Natural Right and History quoted above, Strauss goes on to say that

both the obvious dependence of the philosophic life on the city and the natural affection which men have for men, and especially for their kin, regardless of whether or not these men have ‘good natures’ or are potential philosophers, make it necessary for the philosopher to descend again into the cave, i.e., to take care of the affairs of the city, whether in a direct or more remote manner.

That natural affection was shared by Jaffa, who found it all the more compelling as a citizen of the United States—a good and noble regime that had come under attack by malignant theories which Socratic rationalists are duty bound to refute. The political philosopher applies his theoretical wisdom to shape and elevate the authoritative opinions of the regime—to enhance the most just elements. This indirect rule or governance which brings out and strengthens natural right is done discreetly, often through the education of promising and influential young citizens. 9

Regarding the philosopher’s attachment to a political community, Jaffa made an astute point that Strauss merely hints at: there is an important difference between philosophy as a “divine” or perfect activity (“doing” contemplation, so to speak) and the philosopher as a human being. The philosopher is an embodied individual who not only needs food, freedom, and friends but also is susceptible to human imperfections and even questionable temptations. Divine activity should not be confused with divine human beings. 

Second, the moral-political life—including questions about the just and unjust—must be philosophy’s primary subject matter. Jaffa thought “the Socratic turn” away from natural science and toward the human things was not merely a matter of rhetoric but indicated a kind of philosophic necessity. The true causes of things could not be found in the “madness” of Socrates’ materialist predecessors. Strauss states, “the city is the only whole within the whole or the only part of the whole whose essence can be wholly known.”10 That is, the comprehensiveness of the political sphere and the questions it raises provide the opening to the investigation of the highest things that cannot be found elsewhere.11 In addition to this observation, Jaffa was especially struck by Strauss’ remarks on the revelatory quality of magnanimous statesmanship. In 1946 Strauss wrote to his friend Karl Löwith, “I know from my experience how incomprehensible and foreign Aristotle’s concept of megalopsychia [great-souled man] was to me originally, and that now I not only theoretically, but also practically, approve of it. A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalopsychia exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century, B.C.”12 (All emphasis by Strauss.) Upon Churchill’s death in 1965, Strauss delivered a eulogy in class, which ends with this observation.

. . . The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness. In our age this duty demands of us in the first place that we liberate ourselves from the supposition that value statements cannot be factual statements.13

Strauss was openly contemptuous of modern value-free social science for its inability to make the most elementary moral and political distinctions. Although the analysis of tyranny, Strauss observed, is “as old as political science itself,” when modern civilization was brought “face to face with tyranny—with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past—our political science failed to recognize it.”14 We need not dwell on the fact that Strauss was himself a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. 

Jaffa concluded that “Strauss’ work pointed therefore toward the restoration of statesmanship, as exemplified in the lives of such men as Lincoln and Churchill,” and in particular, “that combination of intellectual and moral virtue that is the necessary attribute of statesmanship.” He mentions the need to recover “both statesmanship and citizenship,” as well as rhetoric, “the art by which the statesman vindicates the rule of law by securing consent to wise decisions.” But that art can never be separated from “the art of war” because “Strauss never believed that men could be governed by speeches alone.” Jaffa then mentions a favorite Strauss story about Xenophon, the student of Socrates, who could rule both gentlemen and non-gentlemen—unlike the sophists, who thought “men could be ruled by speeches alone.” Jaffa’s own scholarship was characterized by this emphasis on statesmanship, including the recognition that “Lincoln’s and Churchill’s speeches could never be studied profitably apart from their deeds.”15

But a specific problem in our time inhibits and obscures the virtues of statesmanship, which points to Jaffa’s third reason. While the first two apply to philosophy in all times, there is also a particular necessity imposed by our current political circumstances—the crisis in thought and action that arises with Nietzsche and Heidegger—which Jaffa (and in my view, Strauss) believed was also a crisis for philosophy. Jaffa insisted there was nothing esoteric about Strauss’ frequent and emphatic statements on this point. 

It is worth clarifying Strauss’ concern with the crisis of the West, and his description of the pit beneath the natural cave. In one essay, he describes our predicament as the dogmatic belief that “all human thought is historically conditioned or historically determined,” 

or that the attempt to liberate one’s mind from all prejudices or from all historical determination is fantastic. Once this has become a settled conviction constantly reinforced by an ever increasing number of new observations, a final account of the whole—an account which as such would be beyond historical determination—appears to be impossible for reasons which can be made clear to every child. Thereafter, and we are living in this thereafter, there exists no longer a direct access to philosophy in its original meaning as quest for the true and final account of the whole. Once this state has been reached, the original meaning of philosophy, the very idea of philosophy, is accessible only through recollection of what philosophy meant in the past, i.e. through history of philosophy.16

Today, both Right and Left accuse each other of living in a bubble. Indeed, it is concerning how easily we can customize our news, such that there is no commonality across the political spectrum regarding the explanations, or even the facts, of current events. Strauss’ subterranean metaphor describes a similar phenomenon that goes even deeper. With the conviction that all truth is contingent on historical circumstances, modern thought cuts itself off from anything permanent or transcendent—above all nature. We still speak of nature of course. But in our time this means either a quasi-mystical conception of “the environment,” or the inanimate matter governed by mathematical laws, which provides the material for our technological control of the world. 

In any case, the natural order ceases to be the permanent ground for limiting and orienting human life. In the pit beneath the cave, human nature itself becomes malleable, so that we can, if we wish, change little boys into little girls by manipulating their hormones. Our descent into a kind of moral and political blindness detaches us from everyday common sense; we question even our ordinary experiences of right and wrong. When combined with the technocratic manipulation of the world to serve our desires, the result is that philosophy becomes politicized, and politics becomes “philosophical,” i.e., ideological.17

Jaffa came to believe that the Eastern Straussians did not understand the political dimensions of this crisis, which led them to misunderstand this philosophic dimension. Because they are too fixated on dissecting ancient texts in search of esoteric marrow, they are oblivious to a very great danger to philosophy itself. Strauss goes so far in one essay to warn that a global tyranny, brought on by modern ideology, could mean “the end of philosophy on earth.”18

iStock/Getty Images

Render Unto God . . .

In his sweeping assessment of how we arrived at our present predicament, Jaffa emphasized that the original form of political life was inescapably religious. The authority of the fundamental laws or constitution came directly from God (or in the pagan world, the gods). In the pre-Christian world, especially the world of the Greek city-state or polis, political life was comparatively simple. Every city had its own gods, and every citizen worshiped those gods. There was no religious pluralism in these sacred and “closed” societies; although there was a great variety in religious beliefs between the different cities. To be a citizen of Athens or Babylon meant publicly worshiping the gods of Athens or Babylon—who were the source of the laws and all political authority. Citizens were bound by common ties of custom and blood—but those ancestral connections were always rooted in shared civic piety. (Ancient Israel, though not pagan, was like other ancient cities in this respect—the Law came directly from God.) What made this situation relatively simple was that there was no difference between secular and religious authority. 

Christianity changed all that, especially when the Roman empire made Christianity the official religion of the Western world. (I go into all this in more detail in the book.) When that empire fragmented, Christianity remained the universal and obligatory religion. The West was left with many regimes, but only one God. Inevitably, a crisis in citizenship or political obligation emerged from the division between religious and secular authority. Allegiance to one’s prince might, and often did, conflict with allegiance to the Church. Much of European medieval history therefore consisted of violent and tumultuous clashes between kings and popes, and later conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity (with both sides persecuting the Jews). What made these conflicts inevitable was that the laws continued to derive their authority from God, through the famous doctrine of the divine right of kings. In most respects, this principle of divine right remained the only, though hotly contested, basis of political authority until the American founding established the principle of religious liberty as a natural right. As a natural right, this was not a grant of “tolerance” which might be withdrawn by the next king or parliament. By getting the government out of the business of enforcing a theological orthodoxy, a tremendous burden of official persecution was lifted. At the same time, true religious faith—motivated by conscience and not coercion—could flourish. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the Straussian saga there is a long, somewhat complicated (but very interesting) story about the revolt of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Bacon and other early moderns against European theocratic oppression and its distortion of healthy political life. Strauss and virtually all his students (including Jaffa) appreciated the very real problem Machiavelli and others faced. The problem was not with their diagnosis but with their cure, which involved lowering the goals of politics—dispensing with the concern for virtue and the good life we find in Aristotle—and unleashing technology to ensure safety and comfort, which became the new and more modest purpose of political life. This reorientation of political life toward the needs of the body alone seemed reasonable enough in the beginning. Yet the theoretical premises of the solution were quite radical, and although it took a while, those radical premises eventually worked themselves out, and down, into modern and postmodern skepticism, atheism, and nihilism. 

What made Jaffa almost unique was his interest in understanding and explaining how the “theological-political problem” found a practical solution in the best principles of the United States. This wasn’t just mindless patriotism on his part, though he was a patriot. He loved America as a freedom-loving human and a grateful Jew; but he was also fascinated by it as a student of philosophy. William Buckley once observed that Jaffa would have devoted himself to defending the political principles of Lithuania if he thought that’s where the truth was to be found. But what truth was that?

America and the Socratic Return

An interview of Harry Jaffa by Stephen Gregory of the Leo Strauss Center in 2012 included this exchange:

HJ: One of Strauss’ definitive statements in that essay [is] on the nature of the best regime: “Shall we not say that the form of government is best and provides most effectively for the purest selection of the natural aristoi into the offices of government.” You recognize those words?

SG: No, I don’t.

HJ: Whose words do you think they were?

SG: [Pause] They couldn’t be Jefferson’s, could they? 

HJ: They were Jefferson’s. So in this definitive spot, Leo Strauss writing on the classics, the best regime according to Plato and Aristotle, he uses the words of Thomas Jefferson.,19

For Jaffa, the American founders’ powerful defense of religious liberty (drawing on John Locke, among others) was essential to overcoming the oppressiveness of European feudalism. In addition, representative institutions based on consent—and a constitutional structure devoted to protecting natural rights—were necessary to replace unlimited monarchy and artificial aristocracy. But one thing was needed above all to heal the breach that was opened when Rome destroyed the ancient polis. The divine right of kings had to be replaced with a new source of trans-political or trans-legal authority, an authority that would firmly ground not merely limited but just government, and secure the bonds of nationhood and civic obligation. 

In the American founding, Jaffa sees Socratic political philosophy (which derives justice from what is right or fitting by nature) joining with Christianity’s faith in a benevolent and reasonable God, to create a new moral and political whole—a new basis of citizenship that reunited what had been split for over a thousand years. Paradoxically, this most famous part of the founding—the political theology of the Declaration, including “the laws of nature and nature’s God”—is the part least appreciated by many academic political philosophers.

Jaffa explains this truly revolutionary change. For classical political philosophy, particularly Aristotle, 

Divine sanction will support the authority of the laws, although the intrinsic ground of that authority is reasonableness. . . . Nowhere in the Politics does Aristotle confront the question of how the citizens will be persuaded to obey the laws, if there are no gods to whom those laws will be ascribed. Nowhere does he confront the question of how the authority of an unmediated universal nature will replace the authority of the gods. The state of nature and the social contract supply that mediation. Aristotle recognizes that particular polities will require particular institutions—that they will be the work of legislators acting in particular circumstances. But if these legislators can no longer crown their work by appealing to the authority of particular gods as the foundation of their laws, they must appeal directly to nature. They must have some way of translating the authority of a universal nature into the ground of particular laws.20

This is exactly what the Declaration of Independence does. The equality of all human beings by nature or “in the state of nature” is understood, Jaffa explains, “in the light of the differences between man, beast, and God.” Because no humans are gods, nor is any class of humans on the level of beasts, the only legitimate principle of rule is consent. The natural law informing the Declaration and the founding—which transcends human passion and will—is “a natural theology consistent with monotheistic revealed theology.” Reason and revelation, though not synthesized, find an accommodation, indeed may even be said to complement each other.

Of course, Jaffa agreed with Strauss that there is never any complete solution to the imperfections and limitations of human life, including political life. This is an important point, necessary to counteract the misimpression that Jaffa was merely an erudite flag-waver. His complex explanation for why America was “the best regime in principle of the modern world,” is easily misunderstood. Jaffa’s apparently obsessive concern with the centrality of the Declaration of Independence and its political religion is explained by the urgent need to find a path back to the natural cave. In the world of natural politics, citizenship and law always appeal to God or the gods. Even in the modern world, human beings must believe in some transcendent or divine authority that legitimizes the regime.

Most Eastern Straussians haven’t bothered trying to understand Jaffa’s complex project, which he saw as a continuation of Strauss’ response to the crisis of the West. They think it’s enough to chuckle at Joseph Cropsey’s jibe about Jaffa being “a pastiche of Don Quixote and Mrs. Grundy.” The problem is not with the insult itself—Jaffa loved polemical give-and-take, and he dished out more than his share of put-downs. The problem is that Cropsey’s barb doesn’t stick.

As I’ve tried to show, there was a very ambitious, subtle, and thoughtful project at work in Jaffa’s scholarship. He saw America as the last regime with a functioning political piety. Citizenship in the United States was explicitly founded on a transcendent or divine principle of natural right: the state of nature underlying social compact theory, and the natural law of the Declaration. From a philosophical viewpoint, this divine authority was the only basis of citizenship available in the modern world, and thus the only practical and theoretical alternative to the consuming darkness of the subterranean pit.21

In light of this situation, Jaffa’s students gladly accept the charge of partisanship, even as they see the Eastern Straussians not so much as politically divisive but simply useless, and un-Socratic in the way they approach philosophy—all of which arises from a basic theoretical disagreement.

Into the Void

The atheism and nihilism of many Eastern Straussians is not much of a secret. Indeed, Jaffa acknowledges, somewhat surprisingly, that many of his colleagues disagree with him on this most essential question. 

In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Crisis of the House Divided, he writes: “The existence of a timeless reality” is only “an assumption of Socratic philosophy,” although an assumption that “can and does withstand the most serious and competent skeptical analysis.” While the claim of the dogmatic historicist to know the truth of historicism is self-contradictory, Jaffa explains, Strauss’ demonstration of this self-contradiction and his definitive refutation of historicism “does not of itself establish a rational foundation for law and ethics.” Though it is “fashionable” to say this refutation of historicism leads to nihilism, it “also points toward the direction of the classics.” He continues: 

According to Strauss, the classics were abandoned but were never refuted. Among so called Straussians there is a division as to whether he actually believed that modern philosophy had not refuted the classics, and whether Strauss’ assertion was real or merely exoteric. . . . Strauss’ refutation of historicism can lead to a blind nihilism, and for many, including many Straussians, it has done so.

There would seem to be two versions of this Straussian nihilism or existentialism: mild and spicy. The spicy nihilists are the ones who enjoy telling the world about the thrill that comes (supposedly) from confronting the abyss—along with the ever-so-slightly scandalous act of telling their students that Strauss himself shared the thrill. All philosophers, they contend, have been nihilists. Welcome to the club.

Professor Pangle is spicy, writing in his introduction to the book of essays mentioned above, that the philosopher’s “liberation” from every “delusion or false hope” leads him to “bask in the austere light” of the cold truth. Non-philosophers, according to Pangle, are “skaters on thin ice who are unwilling or unable to look down for very long at what lies under our feet.”22

The unmistakable implication here is made explicit by Lawrence Lampert, who sees Strauss as upholding a universal philosophic doctrine of “the sovereignty of becoming” which he calls “a process monism.” But rather than disdain politics, Lampert sees Strauss as exemplifying a Nietzschean will to power, seeking to impose a philosophic tyranny over this meaningless ontological flux.23

In his The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom does not try to turn Strauss into an Ubermensch, yet is frank about what he sees as the nihilist truth of philosophy.24 Discussing the darker side of Sigmund Freud and Max Weber (who are merely second-rate versions of Nietzsche and Heidegger), Blooms notes, “We require values, which in turn requires a peculiar human creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support.” He observes that “value relativism, if it is true and it is believed in, takes one into very dark regions of the soul and very dangerous political experiments.” 

Later in the book, however, he drops the pretense of wondering whether value relativism is true. In describing the emergence of political philosophy in ancient Athens, he says

Very few men are capable of coming to terms with their own extinction. It is not so much stupidity that closes men to philosophy but love of their own, particularly love of their own lives, but also love of their own children and their own cities. It is the hardest task of all to face the lack of cosmic support for what we care about. Socrates, therefore, defines the task of philosophy as ‘learning how to die.’ 

This means, Bloom explains, accepting the radical evanescence of everything “dear in life.” The “somber lesson” of death as the only truth “is only compensated for by the intense pleasure accompanying insight.” Only that pleasure, “which so few have” prevents philosophic insight from being “intolerable.” The philosopher “cherishes no illusion that can crumble. If he is comic, at least he is absolutely immune to tragedy.”25

As for the mild nihilists (among whom I count Tom Merrill) they don’t quite know, or won’t admit, that they believe in nothing except their groundless preferences, including their preference for the “norms” of American constitutionalism—lately destroyed by Donald Trump, upon whom they fix the lingering remains of their moral indignation. The rule of the pre-Trump uniparty establishment was agreeable to them, and they want it back. Thus, some of these professors have decided that they are interested in politics after all and deploy their academic credentials to offer mild, impartial, and nonpartisan advice for returning the United States to her formerly mild, impartial, and nonpartisan condition: the benevolent rule of objective experts in the academic-bureaucratic-corporate nexus.

A leading example of this bland nihilism is a site called The Constitutionalist, which is apparently devoted to saving America through tepid bromides calculated to offend no one important. Not one but three of the site’s academic fellows have posted enthusiastic comments about Professor Merrill’s review of my book.26

In the end, however, I don’t think there’s much difference between the two flavors of nihilism. Neither seems especially alarmed by, or fully aware of, the only fight that really matters: the battle against the tyrannical woke Left, which despises logos itself, and seeks to expunge it from public life in the United States and across the Western world. You might think that would be an overriding concern for Straussian political philosophers. You would be wrong. 

iStock/Getty Images

Wisdom on the Cheap

Let me say a few words about why I think these Straussians are missing in action—at a time when the virtues of courage and wisdom are urgently needed. 

First, many have lapsed into historicism themselves. Since they believe Nietzsche and Heidegger were right—and that Plato and every other philosopher agreed, esoterically, that the cosmos is meaningless—these Straussians actually agree with the ideological presuppositions of the pit. They aren’t in any hurry to escape because there’s nowhere to go. They acknowledge that there was once a natural form of political life—dependent on, and in a way elevated by, intense but mythical opinions about supernatural beings. But that’s gone and it’s not coming back. They voice some occasional platitudes about the nobility of the ancient world, but that is little more than an aesthetic preference, a nostalgic polis envy. They enjoy puzzling through the ancient texts as a kind of intellectual stimulation, but there’s no truth to discover except the same “austere” truth they already know. The view above or outside the cave is basically the same as the view down here: emptiness. They tell themselves and the world and their students how brave they are to live emptily in the emptiness. 

Of course, this is all much too easy—and a disservice to their students, not to mention their country and civilization. What is the point of further indoctrinating young people in the academic orthodoxy of atheism, moral relativism, and nihilism? There’s nothing shocking about these ideas nowadays; you aren’t going to get in trouble with the Inquisition.27 And if you haven’t been exposed to such doctrines already, just spend an hour in front of the screen on Twitter or network television. If the secret, “terrible truth” of all philosophy is standard fare in any freshman anthropology class (Who’s to say cannibalism is wrong?) one hardly needs graduate seminars in Xenophon. 

Doesn’t this make the philosophic life a bit . . . cheap? 

Jaffa, on the other hand, was happy to agree with Strauss that the true philosopher is exceedingly rare, that philosophic contemplation is the most divine activity possible, and that it is genuinely, non-dogmatically open. He didn’t need to sell “philosophy” because he saw an immensely rich field of human variety and virtue in the words and deeds of statesmen. His students, who often devote themselves entirely to studying American political thought, feel no great need to belong to a secret club, as heirs to a Socrates who is really just Nietzsche in a toga. 

On the other hand, if the deepest thing you teach your students is to disparage the moral-political life, and that the quest for wisdom culminates in Jean-Paul Sartre, you would seem to be lowering somewhat the standards for philosophy merit badges. Even if nihilism does turn out to be the ultimate truth (which Jaffa did not believe), it seems somehow . . . unhelpful to tell everyone that ahead of time. How does this foster the kind of intense introspection and intellectual growth that was once the proud accomplishment of any well-educated adult? To be sure, many Straussians and their students are brilliant expositors of texts, linguists, and even superb classroom teachers. Let me come back in a moment to the question of whether this excellence is sufficient. 

In “What is Liberal Education,” Strauss writes 

We must not be deceived by the fact that we meet many people who say that they are philosophers. For those people employ a loose expression which is perhaps necessitated by administrative convenience. Often they mean merely that they are members of philosophy departments. And it is as absurd to expect members of philosophy departments to be philosophers as it is to expect members of art departments to be artists.28

It didn’t take long for Strauss himself to become assimilated—by his own students—into this professional academic Borg. Only a year after his death, the American Political Science Association, that citadel of value-free social science, decided to create a political philosophy award in Strauss’ honor. The move was almost universally endorsed by Straussian professors. Virtually alone, Jaffa opposed the idea, arguing that the award “was, among other things, a white flag, by those who had grown weary of Strauss’ unrelenting contentiousness, and who wanted now to be at peace with the mainstream of the profession.”

iStock/Getty Images

Know Thyself

On the chance anyone reading this is not already a committed nihilist, let me mention a couple of problems that flow from all this for any student who is seriously interested in what Strauss called “the permanent questions.”

If you have been told that being part of the Straussian sect means disdaining politics, or if you wish to avoid at all costs appearing partisan, there is a good chance you will get hung up on Strauss’ historical approach to philosophy. He took that approach only because our modern historicist blinders have made an undogmatic understanding of the classical thinkers impossible. Only for that reason did he suggest philosophy must be studied historically at first. He had to work free of the doctrinal baggage that blocked a fresh understanding of Greek thought. But once this has been achieved—and it is a very great achievement—I can’t imagine Strauss wanted this propaedeutic to be endlessly pantomimed. When a teacher opens a door for you, you walk through it; you don’t spend your life imitating and practicing opening the door. 

The confusion or reluctance about actually doing political philosophy is another reason why so many Straussians perseverate over the opinions of the Athenians, rather than investigate the opinions of their fellow Americans—i.e. the authoritative opinions of our own regime. Books can inform, but not replace, the confrontation with our cave—which is, after all, what has shaped from earliest childhood our views of the cosmos. We become genuinely zetetic philosophers by interrogating our own unquestioned or unconscious shadow paintings. That can only mean taking seriously the question of what it means to be an American, in all of its particular features. 

And yet, many Eastern Straussians treat America not as an actual regime, made up of particular people and concrete institutions, but as just another chapter in the history of political philosophy.29 They see America, and the statesmanship of the American founders, as epiphenomenal of political theory; “we the people” are simply acting out a predetermined script. That leads Professor Bruell to write his essay on political philosophy and America without saying anything about the United States. And it leads to pronouncements like this, from Joseph Cropsey: 

The founding documents are the premise of a gigantic argument, subsequent propositions in which are the decayed or decaying moments of modern thought. . . . It follows that the United States is the microcosm of modernity, repeating in its regime, on the level of popular consciousness, the major noetic events of the modern world.30

To assume, however, that one knows America (and thus oneself) merely through familiarity with some doctrines of modern philosophy is to transform self-exploration into self-congratulation. 

Being in a philosophy club with a secret password and a set of dogmas (Every philosopher is the same; they just write different puzzles!) and being encouraged to think you are superior to everyone else, is pretty much the opposite, in every way, of being Socratic. In his Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero, Strauss writes:

[P]hilosophy, as distinguished from wisdom, necessarily appears in the form of philosophic schools or of sects. Friendship as the classics understood it offers then no solution to the problem of ‘subjective certainty.’ 

Friendship is bound to lead to, or to consist in, the cultivation and perpetuation of common prejudices by a closely knit group of kindred spirits. It is therefore incompatible with the idea of philosophy. The philosopher must leave the closed and charmed circle of the ‘initiated’ if he intends to remain a philosopher. He must go out to the market place; the conflict with the political men cannot be avoided. And this conflict by itself, to say nothing of its cause or its effect, is a political action.31

Claremont is accused of being sectarian and partisan, and it is, insofar as it engages in political rhetoric and education. Politics is supposed to be partisan. The people to be wary of are those sectarians who claim to be nonpartisan. That’s a sure sign of pseudo-philosophers and political fanatics. In The Closing of the American Mind Bloom says that philosophers need “to develop a philosophic politics, a party, as it were, to go along with the other parties, democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic and monarchic, that are always present.” Socrates, Bloom claims, “founded the truth party.” Oh boy. Does that sound right to you?

Contrast Bloom’s odd assertion with an observation by Harry Neumann, a friend and colleague of Jaffa’s who was also a student of Strauss (though a greatly under-appreciated one). Neumann considered most Straussians to be pseudo-nihilists and pseudo-philosophers who flee from the genuine openness that Socrates represented. They can’t face the storm (the Zugwind as Heidegger called it) that batters the philosopher’s soul. As long as the philosopher’s intellectual purity remains intact, he is suspended between the uncompromising piety and moral demands of his closed city (what Neumann called the illiberal pull), and the pull toward genuine open-minded wondering and doubt. The true philosopher, Neumann writes, 

gives whole-souled allegiance neither to his philosophic (liberal) nor to his political (illiberal) desires. He cannot mount a satisfactory defense of either. Legitimation of philosophy would mean its transformation into politics, into Professor Bloom’s truth party.32

Doesn’t Neumann’s account sound more Socratic, more interesting, than what’s offered by those conventional academics who already know what’s behind Curtain Number Two, who take pride in belonging to a “truth party,” and who reject preemptively the illiberal pull of civic piety that keeps the philosopher’s soul in tension? These establishment Straussians can’t even comprehend the patriotism of their fellow citizens; nor, I suspect, could they comprehend any kind of authentic moral-political attachment. Transported to the ancient world, they would be as baffled by the intensity of the Romans’ devotion to their lares and penates as they are by MAGA voters. And their incomprehension of politics is just the flip side of their incomprehension of philosophy.

Strauss famously warned of the “twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.”33 Against the first risk Straussians both East and West seem reasonably protected by their keen awareness of human frailty. But the risk of unmanly contempt for politics requires constant vigilance by those who have been urged, again and again, to the reading of old books. For Strauss also knew first-hand that in the most literate and civilized society of the modern world, books had offered no protection against barbarism. “The Weimar Republic was weak,” he observed. “On the whole it presented the sorry spectacle of justice without a sword or of justice unable to use the sword. . . . The weakness of the Weimar Republic made certain its speedy destruction.”34

If both philosophy and authentic political life (which go together) are to be rescued, it will not be by an army of swordless castrati marching under a banner of impartiality, but by unapologetic defenders of republicanism, moral freedom, and even justice—however imperfectly achieved. The role of reason and natural right in politics is never impartial; they make definite and contestable claims against tyranny, sophistry, and anarchy—which seem today on the verge of overwhelming American society. 

The Danger Within

Let me conclude on that point. Misled by their confusion over esotericism, recoiling from what they see as mere chauvinistic moralizing, the apolitical Straussians have exposed themselves to much greater peril. By rejecting a decent sense of philanthropy, they abandoned the indirect rule of the cave—the shaping of authoritative opinions—to the most wanton and ignoble of poets. While mocking the patriotism of Jaffa and his students, these aloof “philosophers” assumed, with a kind of otherworldly serenity, that all would be well behind the garden walls of their academic enclaves. But as now seems clear even to the meanest intelligence, the authoritative opinions dominating the American regime—from professional sports to popular music, from Facebook to the Justice Department—grow ever more hostile to free speech, rigorous scholarship, due process of law, and (not least) the “privileged” philosophic tradition to which Strauss devoted virtually his whole being. 

Even if Strauss was wrong about the possibility of a world-homogenous state, tyranny looms in other quarters. True philosophers, like Caesars, can take care of themselves. But surely aspiring philosophers, amateur lovers of wisdom, and especially the defenders of “decent constitutionalism” cannot take care of themselves, without help, against the onslaught of woke insanity which spreads like a plague through the regime. Yet Merrill’s book review—obsessing over political extremism—has not a word to say about this menace. Or does he think that Trump supporters are in charge of our elite colleges, publishing houses, and television studios? If nothing else, one might have expected some small recognition that this other partisanship even exists, a fact that could perhaps mitigate or contextualize the “extreme” views of the Claremont Institute. But no; evidently, there are no threats from the Left. 

What a spectacle these bold thinkers present! 

As if bound with bands of iron, they kneel before the ruling opinions. In the cave, a fire burns behind them, consuming the universities, philosophy, reason, the West. They can’t or won’t turn their heads. They see only the flickering shadow play—about Trump and the deplorables on the Right—and they mumble along with the script, blinking in the darkness.

It is by no means inconceivable that the doxxers and deplatformers and denunciators will discover, perhaps soon, some of Strauss’ more astringent statements, and decide that he too must be proscribed, his books removed from Amazon, his name stricken from every syllabus. Would that have any effect on Merrill, his Straussian colleagues, and their Bulwark nonpartisans? What about a bonfire in the middle of a campus quad into which enraged students throw copies of, say, Persecution and the Art of Writing—how would they react to that sickening scene? 

But nothing like that could ever happen. . . .

Harry Jaffa’s students will carry on, with or without the aid—or scorn—of these impartial observers, believing still in the pursuit of wisdom and the love of the Good, mindful that human life moves “as if on an uncharted sea and surely without the benefit of tracks toward the future which is veiled from everyone and which is pregnant with surprises.”


1. Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 7. 

2. The City and Man, 23.

3.  Incidentally, Professor Merrill embarrasses himself when he writes, “I am not sure if Jaffa’s fans in the Claremont school understand how absurd it sounds to suggest that Calhoun has anything to do with Hegel or Marx. Some of their scholars seem to specialize in simplistically smushing and smearing together various bêtes noires.” But it was Richard Hofstadter, in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), not Harry Jaffa, who first besmeared himself, describing Calhoun as “the Marx of the master class.” (Another instance of something I quote in my book which Merrill strangely overlooks.) Nor was Hofstadter the only pre-Jaffa smusher. See, e.g. “Calhoun’s Idea of ‘Concurrent Majority’ and the Constitutional Theory of Hegel,” by Gunnar Heckscher, in the August 1939 APSR. Calhoun did not study in Germany, but he was certainly acquainted with the work of the influential Francis Lieber (1798-1872), a professor in Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina, and among the first in a wave of German émigré scholars who brought the scientific study of politics and state theory to the United States.

4.  It is interesting to observe that many Eastern Straussians continue to profess admiration for Crisis of the House Divided. That is, they like the version of America that Jaffa himself modified and corrected in his later scholarship. This is a topic that must be reserved for another essay. 

5. Leo Strauss was well aware that Jaffa had written Goldwater’s speech. (Strauss discusses it in a letter to Jaffa dated August 10, 1964.) Not only did Strauss express no criticism about the substance of what Goldwater said (though he did worry it could be politically damaging), he explains in class that the most controversial lines—“extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice [and] moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”—represent sound Aristotelian ethics:

Aristotle also says, without contradicting himself (and this had an effect of sorts in the last election), that the mean of any virtue compared to the two opposing vices is in a sense also an extreme—especially because it stands out. Virtue is an excellence: compared with the average, it is an extreme. This landed somehow in the acceptance speech of Senator Goldwater and gave people who didn’t know Aristotle an occasion to be surprised.

This defense of Aristotelian extremism continues to surprise people today. The remark was made in Strauss’ 1965 course “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” (Session 12, no date). Strauss does not mention there that his student Jaffa was the author; perhaps he did not think it seemly to reveal this in class. Incidentally, since I discuss this episode in the book, which Berkowitz clearly read, I’m surprised he didn’t attempt to justify his apparent disagreement with Strauss when he rather emphatically disputes the ethical merit of those lines. 

6.  Philosophy and Law, 136; Persecution and the Art of Writing, 155.

7.  Natural Right and History, 151.

8.  Actually, I can imagine why Professor Bruell does this. He wants to attribute to Strauss his own opinion that political life is driven entirely by irrational passion, or will. The reader should consult for himself the Strauss passage on page x of Liberalism Ancient and Modern (page viii in older editions). Bruell’s essay appears in Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker (1994).

9.  “If the statesman is under an obligation to employ all kinds of ruses in the interest of the material welfare of the ruled, the same duty must be incumbent on those to whom nature has entrusted the spiritual guidance of mankind, i.e., on the philosophers, who are much more exposed to the suspicions of the multitude than the statesman, and therefore in greater need of caution than anyone else.” Persecution and the Art of Writing, 179-80. So far from hiding his secret nihilism, Strauss seems to be suggesting that the philosopher’s spiritual guidance requires obscuring the “dynamite” of undiluted natural right. See Natural Right and History, 152-153. Jaffa believed that Lincoln’s rhetorical artfulness regarding equal civil rights for blacks and women was motivated by the same caution.

10. The City and Man, 29. 

11. The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, 126: “The recognition by philosophy of the fact that the human race is worthy of some seriousness is the origin of political philosophy or political science. If this recognition is to be philosophic, however, this must mean that the political things, the merely human things, are of decisive importance for understanding nature as a whole. The philosopher who was the first to realize this was Socrates, the Socrates who emerged out of the Socrates of the Clouds.”

12. Independent Journal of Philosophy, 1983

13. https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/leo-strauss-on-churchill/

14. On Tyranny, 22-23.

15. “The Legacy of Leo Strauss,” Claremont Review of Books, 1984.

16. “Reason and Revelation,” 1948; reprinted in Meier (2006).

17. See, e.g., Natural Right and History, 34.

18. On Tyranny, 212.

19. https://wslamp70.s3.amazonaws.com/leostrauss/s3fs-public/interviews/pdf/Jaffa%2C%20Harry.pdf.

20. The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics (2019), 44. 

21. The American founders believed that social compact, equality, and consent established an internal basis for the common good. That is, majority rule represented and was limited by the rights and interests of the whole; the common good is broader than one faction or mixture of factions (such as oligarchs or democrats). Principled disagreements, including party differences, within this framework are expected and even healthy—so long as they operate within the principles of constitutional self-government. The framers were also clear that republican government itself is partisan—inasmuch as it is incompatible with monarchy, theocracy, slavocracy, etc. Professor Merrill appears confused about these distinctions, or else he would have explained (rather than simply assuming) that Claremont’s “partisanship” is illegitimate; he would have shown how it differs from Jefferson’s partisanship—i.e. a conviction in favor of republicanism. I wonder if Merrill fails to understand or accept Jefferson’s republican partisanship, because he is—knowingly or not—a disciple of Hobbes’ impartiality, which treats politics as a form of mathematics.

22. Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 12, 21. 

23. The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss (2013), 234.

24. Bloom was a brilliant and influential teacher, who earlier in his career collaborated with Jaffa on a book, Shakespeare’s Politics (1964). Despite their later disagreements, Jaffa always maintained his admiration for Bloom’s work on Shakespeare and his translation of the Republic

25. The Closing of the American Mind (1987), 150, 277.

26. The scholarly commentary posted at The Constitutionalist is heavy on safe opinions approved by the ruling class: 

  • Jonathan Badger downplays the questionable constitutional authority of the CDC and Dr. Fauci because they are not “actually” making policies in some technical sense.
  • Using James Baldwin as a reference, Nicholas Buccola dismisses opponents of critical race theory as “unwilling to confront our history honestly because such a confrontation would force them to rethink their identities in ways that would be nothing short of terrifying.”
  • Laura K. Field defends critical race theory and the “1619 Project.”
  • Field also explains how conservatives and Republicans don’t like or want democracy.
  • Jeffry Tulis cites Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood” to praise “vaccine angels.”
  • Naturally, they support the January 6 Commission.
  • Greg Weiner explains that conservatism is actually more about process than principles.
  • Christina Bambrick doesn’t see much wrong (at least constitutionally) with big tech censorship.

27. Philosophy is supposed to challenge the conventional opinions of the dominant “religion.” Jaffa was actually much more heterodox, inasmuch as he defended traditional morality and the self-evident truths of the American founding, which are considered absurd or heretical by our secular priesthood. 

28. Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 7.

29. This clever observation by Charles Kesler refers to the History of Political Philosophy edited by Strauss and Joseph Cropsey.

30. Political Philosophy and the Issue of Politics (1977), 7, 12-13.

31. On Tyranny, 195.

32. Liberalism (1991), 107.

33. Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 24. 

34. Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 224.

Support Free & Independent Journalism Your support helps protect our independence so that American Greatness can keep delivering top-quality, independent journalism that's free to everyone. Every contribution, however big or small, helps secure our future. If you can, please consider a recurring monthly donation.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.