Strauss, Voegelin, and Burke: A Tale of Three Conservatives

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Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were scholars in the field of political philosophy, yet they did not have an explicit political teaching. They studied the great political philosophers of the past in order to learn lessons that might become living truths for us today. But Strauss and Voegelin did not write political treatises defending a specific political ideology, such as conservatism or liberalism, or a specific regime, such as ancient Sparta, constitutional monarchy, or liberal democracy. Aside from early writings and occasional statements, their published works do not contain an identifiable political doctrine. (1)

Nevertheless, their approach to philosophy is essentially "political"--rather than metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical in the narrow sense. And they are widely regarded today as "conservatives," with students and followers who are prominent conservatives of one kind or another. For example, Voegelin's legacy is carried on by scholars such as John Hallowell, Ellis Sandoz, and David Walsh who defend the Christian basis of liberal democracy. And Strauss's legacy is carried on by a variety of followers: by "Jaffaites" defending the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln; by Harvey Mansfield defending the Aristotelian basis of politics; by Allan Bloom in his cultural critique of relativism; by Michael Zuckert with his Lockean view of "natural rights republicanism"; by the "faith-based" Straussians following Fr. Ernest Fortin, not to mention the infamous neoconservatives who have been linked to Strauss. (2)

These observations raise important questions about Strauss and Voegelin and their influence as scholars: Is there a political teaching that emerges with any kind of clarity from their writings, and what kind of political legacy is fairly traceable to them? In attempting to answer these questions, I will argue that Voegelin and Strauss were devoted primarily to the recovery of philosophy as the open-ended quest for ultimate truth, and that this goal led them to embrace classical or Christian models of wisdom and made them philosophical radicals in the academy. It also led them to become strong critics of modern currents of thought, although they differed somewhat in diagnosing the ills of modernity. Voegelin saw the false certitude of utopian ideologies or Gnosticism as the main danger and Christianity as part of the solution, leaving a political legacy of scholars who support religiously based, Anglo-American democracy. Strauss saw moral relativism or nihilism as the main problem and natural right as the solution, leaving a legacy of mostly nonreligious natural right thinkers who develop political views from Aristotle, Locke, the American Founders, and Churchill. In contemporary terms, their prudent views on politics fit the label "conservative" and resemble the Anglo-American constitutionalism of Edmund Burke, yet Voegelin and Strauss were reluctant to align themselves with Burkean conservatives and often seem unfairly critical of Burke. These observations point to the difficulty of appropriating Voegelin and Strauss for any political cause, although I will argue that their views may be usefully described as a blend of philosophical radicalism and political conservatism.

The Permanent Problem of Philosophy and Politics

Voegelin and Strauss taught political philosophy, not by writing political treatises, but by presenting a grand interpretation of Western thought through the careful analysis of classic texts. In developing their teachings, they sought to discover the Truth about the permanent problems of man or human nature, which they understood as political problems in the broadest sense. For Strauss, the fundamental issues arose from the relation of law and philosophy, while for Voegelin the abiding issues arose from the relation of political order and the search for cosmic order. Let me elaborate these points in order to show the similarity in overall orientation of the two thinkers, along with some crucial differences. …