Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview

Strauss often takes this position further, however, making the aristocratic gentleman an economic ideal. While Strauss recognizes that the "superiority" of the gentleman is questionable -- "partly a matter . . . of the accident of birth" -- he justifies the position with an argument from economic necessity.87 Scarcity means that not everyone can afford a proper education. The poor need their children to work. Strauss contends that the rural gentleman is likely to be virtuous because he is concerned only with maintaining his estates and not with increasing them. Monetary necessity is thus unlikely to become an obsessive concern. Strauss understands that this is not a foolproof principle.88 But even granting its logic provisionally (in a moment of charity), the problem of scarcity is transformed by modern technology, expanding capital, and the diffusion of wealth. There is no reason that the merely preliminary requirement of liberal education cannot be broadly met in an advanced and urbanized constitutional democracy. Although it is legitimate for Strauss to raise the sociological question of how best to maintain an ethical elite, his turn toward the aristocracy seems nostalgic and little more. His celebration of the "patriciate" is inadequate as an approach to the problems of wealth and technology in modern economies.

Here is both the problem and the promise of Strauss's politics. Ultimately, Strauss is unable to provide a concrete or fully satisfying alternative to liberalism. Unlike virulent antiliberals like Schmitt or Nietzsche, Strauss rests content at the margin of liberalism. Importantly, however, he suggests a cautionary comportment between philosophy and politics, one that rests upon respect for the rule of law. For Strauss, liberalism is less an enemy than an unsympathetic host, one that requires tempering in its moments of excess. In this analysis, Strauss shares some ground with "communitarian" thought, an association which becomes closer once the nuances of his account of nature and inequality are taken into account. If Strauss's aristocratic rhetoric, both tragic and comic, is hard to accept as a full-fledged politics, it nonetheless accents his critical distance from liberalism without forcing him to reject its obvious strengths. Through his philosophic ethos, Strauss begins to think against modernity, not for its outright rejection, but for its pragmatic amelioration. Read critically and undogmatically, Strauss should be welcomed in the contemporary search for an ethical legitimation of liberal practices and institutions.


NOTES
1
Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
2
See, for example, J. G.A. Pocock, "Prophet and Inquisitor", Political Theory 3 ( 1975): 385-401; M. F. Burnyeat, "Sphinx Without a Secret", New York Review of Books 32 ( May 30, 1985): 30-37; Shadia Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss ( New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); Richard Rorty, "That Old-Time Philosophy", The New Republic 198 ( April 4, 1988): 28-33; Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism.
3
See, for example, Werner Dannhauser, "Leo Strauss: Becoming Naive Again", TheAmerican Scholar

-205-

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