What is the significance of Leo Strauss for American politics, and particularly for American conservatism? For many, the answer to this question is obvious: Strauss is the philosophic forefather of the neoconservative foreign policy thinking that influenced the administration of George W. Bush and thereby led to the Iraq war.

Unfortunately, because of the overheated and polarized character of our public discourse, the most popularly obvious assessment is not always the most sensible one. Such is the case with regard to this understanding of Strauss’s political significance. It takes an imagination inflamed by partisan and ideological animosity to hold a scholar like Strauss—whose body of work consists almost entirely of meditations on the history of political philosophy, and contains almost no remarks on questions of contemporary public policy—responsible for political decisions taken more than thirty years after his death.

In their 2008 book, The Truth About Leo Strauss, Michael and Catherine Zuckert—both of the University of Notre Dame, and two of Strauss’s most eminent students—performed a valuable public service by providing a detailed refutation of the many foolish and tendentious efforts to involve Strauss in the disputes that have roiled American politics for the last decade. Now, having dealt with such errors, they have turned to a more positive and no doubt more intellectually satisfying task: an account of Strauss’s thought in relation to the core concerns of his scholarship.

The resulting book, Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, is both a pleasure and a challenge. It is a pleasure because the lucidity of the Zuckerts’ exposition renders clear and accessible Strauss’s thinking on some questions that remain somewhat opaque in Strauss’s own writings. These are questions that Strauss—for reasons that the Zuckerts helpfully illuminate—chose to answer only indirectly.

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The book also remains a challenge, however, because the kind of questions to which Strauss dedicated his life—the relationships between reason and revelation, between philosophy and politics, and between ancient and modern thought—are so difficult in themselves, and are treated by Strauss with such penetration, that even the clearest account of them calls for the utmost exertion of the reader’s intellect. The challenge of such exertion, however, ultimately leads back to pleasure, the elevated kind of pleasure Strauss continually praised: the pleasure of understanding the nature of things.

Was Strauss a Conservative?

The book also indicates an answer to the question with which this essay began: what is Leo Strauss’s importance for American conservatism? What is his real political significance in the American context?

Leo Strauss was not himself a conservative in the sense that the ordinary American conservative would recognize. Strauss was primarily interested in political philosophy, which he distinguished from political thought. Political philosophy, according to Strauss, seeks rational knowledge of the best regime or the best way of life for human beings. In its quest for this knowledge, political philosophy starts from common opinion but also challenges it, seeking to transcend it. Ordinary citizens have more or less informed opinions about what is just or good, but under interrogation—the kind of interrogation that Socrates carried out on his fellow Athenians—these opinions turn out to be questionable, imperfect, and incomplete. Strauss thus defined political philosophy as the quest to rise from mere opinion to actual knowledge about the political good.

Political thought, in contrast, remains confined to the realm of opinion. It does not seek knowledge of the best regime but is concerned with the present needs of the actual regime in which it develops. Where political philosophy seeks to transcend the dominant opinion imposed by the existing political arrangements, political thought allows that dominant opinion to set the boundaries within which political debate and inquiry will take place.

On the basis of this distinction, American conservatism clearly ranks as a kind of political thought. Its aim is to preserve the American regime and its traditional institutions and morality, not to question the presuppositions upon which those things are based.

One can debate the question whether Leo Strauss was himself a political philosopher. He usually presented himself as explaining the thought of the great philosophers of the western tradition. The Zuckerts, however, make a good case that Strauss was also using these scholarly endeavors as a vehicle for his own independent philosophizing. In any case, Strauss’s primary interest was clearly political philosophy’s quest for knowledge of the best regime. Strauss, then, was not a conservative, not so much because he was opposed to being a conservative as because he was—in a sense—above being a conservative.

Liberalism, Inequality, and the Good

For the very same reasons, of course, Strauss was also above being a contemporary American liberal. This may account for the liberal hostility to Strauss that leads some to mistake him for a conservative.

Contemporary liberalism is especially concerned with fostering a greater equality of conditions. This is a distinctively modern concern, and to the extent that Strauss was interested in the whole tradition of political philosophy he did not share it, or at least not with the single-minded fervor that contemporary liberalism demands. Indeed, Strauss is well-known for his many suggestions that what we need today is a return to a serious consideration of ancient Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, whose thinking emphasized the politically relevant inequalities among human beings. Under the spell of a belief in moral and political progress leading up to the liberal present, liberals are very, very sure that their belief in the importance of equality of conditions is true and just. Accordingly, Strauss’s philosophic, Socratic skepticism about all socially dominant opinions, including belief in equality, would tend to set off a liberal’s alarm bells. Small wonder, then, that contemporary liberals sense that Strauss is not one of them, and then jump to the understandable but inaccurate assumption that he must be some kind of conservative.

Besides his concern with transcending the realm of mere opinion in which political conservatism finds its home, the substance of Strauss’s thought also often marks him out as a non-conservative. Conservatism is guided by a respect for tradition. Strauss, however, was fond of quoting Aristotle’s observation that men seek the good, not just the traditional. Conservatism tries to assimilate the good to the traditional. This is a very common and human thing to do, and it may even be necessary for the maintenance of a healthy society; but it was something that Strauss was led to resist by his seriousness about the philosophic quest for rational knowledge of the good.

Relativism and the Good Life

In his writings, Strauss often appears as a critic of relativism. Although this is a service that contemporary conservatives must appreciate, many of them would probably be disappointed in the positive teaching that Strauss puts forth in opposition to relativism.

Strauss was more a proponent of what he termed “natural right” than of natural law. In fact, as the Zuckerts explain, Strauss indicated some skepticism about the possibility of natural law. In his view, relativism is wrong not so much because there is a body of specific moral principles that can be known by reason, but because there is a best way of life that can be known by reason. That best way of life, Strauss held, was the life of philosophy, or the life of inquiry into the good for human beings. Strauss, then, held that there is a natural, rational standard by which to judge our lives. To that extent, he was not a nihilist, as some have mistakenly claimed. At the same time, the standard he presented does not provide much direct aid to conservatives in their efforts to preserve traditional American institutions, culture, and morality.

Openness to and Respect for the Past

Yet there is a sense in which Strauss’s concerns are akin to those of conservatives. Conservatism and the thought of Leo Strauss are akin by virtue of the simple fact that both are animated by a kind of openness to and respect for the past that contemporary liberalism does not share. It is more and more characteristic of liberalism to treat the past as useless—or, more often, worse than useless. It is useless because we have supposedly progressed beyond it, beyond any need to reconsider the questions with which it was concerned. It is worse than useless because the thought of the past is bound up with, and has often even justified, conditions of social and political inequality that liberalism finds unacceptable.

Strauss, in contrast, believed that respectful attention to the thought of the past, and especially of the pre-modern thinkers, was, in our time, the necessary path to freedom of the mind. For Strauss, the originators of modern political philosophy—men such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke—powerfully influenced the modern, liberal democratic regimes in which we now live. These men were thinkers of the first rank. They certainly deserve to be considered political philosophers, not mere purveyors of regime-dependent political thought. Nevertheless, they set out to influence the regimes in which they lived, and they proved to be so successful that their thought, or rather a popularized version of it, became the dominant ideology of those regimes.

Put another way, the modern political philosophers set the terms of a new political thought, a new realm of opinion that those who now seek to philosophize must interrogate and transcend. Strauss saw that the most effective way to begin this philosophic interrogation of modern opinion was to bring modern thought into dialogue with the thought of the greatest pre-modern philosophers. Such a project, however, requires as its starting point a certain respect for the thought of the past, a willingness to listen to it as if it might have something important to say, perhaps even something of decisive importance.

One of the biggest challenges that conservatism now faces is contemporary liberalism’s willingness, even eagerness, to forget the past, to slander it, and to shut it out. This tendency is hostile to morality, which is why conservatives must resist it. It is also, however, hostile to the freedom of the mind, which is why Strauss resisted it. The aims may be different, but both projects demand that we challenge the dogmatic dismissal of the past as irrelevant to our flourishing in the present. Leo Strauss is an ally in that fight, and today’s conservatism cannot afford to shun its intelligent allies.