Magazine article The American Conservative

The Right's False Prophet

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Right's False Prophet

Article excerpt

The Right's False Prophet Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, Paul Gottfried, Cambridge University Press, 182 pages

When writing about the work of an academic historian or philosopher - as opposed to a polemicist, a politician, or a popularizer - there is an obvious threshold question with which to begin: is the writer's work intrinsically interesting or compelling in some way? If this question is answered in the negative, then there is usually no reason to carry on.

The strange case of Leo Strauss, however, proves that there are definite exceptions to this rule. Strauss's work is almost universally dismissed by philosophers and historians, yet he has attracted a following amongst political theorists (hybrid creatures most often associated with political science departments) and neoconservative political activists. So, while the verdict on the intellectual importance of Strauss's historico-philosophical work has been that, like Gertrude Steins Oakland, there is no there there, the practical influence of Strauss, its manifestation as Straussianism, and Straussianism's connection with neoconservatism still present themselves as intriguing problems in contemporary American intellectual history.

In Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America Paul Gottfried, the Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, offers an explanation of the Straussian phenomenon that is concise and compelling. While treating Strausss work with considerable respect, Gottfried concludes that the historians' and philosophers' rejection of Strauss is, for the most part, justified. However, unlike critics on the left who suggest that Strauss is illiberal and anti-modern, Gottfried argues that Strauss's appeal consists largely in his creation of a mythical account of the rise of liberal democracy and its culmination in a creedal conception of the American polity.

According to Gottfried, Strauss and his followers have always been more concerned with practical questions about contemporary politics than with intellectual history or complex philosophical questions. Their primary purpose, which allies the neoconservatives with them, is to develop an abstract legend of American politics that supports a moderate welfare state domestically and a quasi-messianic internationalism in foreign policy.

Gottfried comes to these conclusions from several directions. First, he offers an engaging contextual account of Strauss's intellectual formation. Gottfried argues that three biographical facts are central to understanding Strauss's work; "he was born a Jew, in Germany, at the end of the nineteenth century" Strauss's most important early intellectual encounter was with the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, who attempted to make Kant safe for Judaism and vice versa. Strauss was also influenced by Cohen's sharply critical reading of Spinoza as a proto-libera! intent on conceiving of political life in a secular way that would allow for the successful assimilation of the Jewish people. According to Gottfried, "a profound preoccupation with his Jewishness runs through Strauss's life" and plays a major role in Strauss's development into an apologist for an ideological and universalist version of liberal democracy.

Strauss was also influenced by the intellectual battles being waged in Germany at the turn of the century. The Methodenstreit that was taking place amongst economists was also occurring amongst historians and philosophers, and it resulted in a series of conceptual dichotomies that would appear throughout Strauss's later writings. His trio of bêtes noires (positivism, relativism, and historicism) was at the heart of the conflicts about methodology in Germany, and the outcome of these debates set the terms of critique for Strauss's youth and beyond.

Finally, there was the political situation in Germany, especially after the disastrous end of World War I. The attractions of fascism to someone like Strauss, whose early inclinations were in a more social-democratic direction, would have been obvious, given the instability of Weimar. …

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