Rothbard on Strauss
by David Gordon
Paul Wolfowitz and other architects of American foreign policy, according to a recent article by James Atlas linked on this site from the New York Times, are "Straussians," i.e., disciples of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss's intricate works on Plato, Alfarabi, Spinoza, and Hobbes, among others, are decidedly an acquired taste; but even those uninterested in Strauss's distinction between natural law and natural right, or his theory of esoteric writing, need to understand the basics of his thought, in view of Mr. Atlas's revelations.
What are we to think of Strauss? Murray Rothbard addressed this question more than forty years ago, in several reviews of Strauss's works, written for the William Volker Fund. The situation that Rothbard confronted differed entirely from the present. Strauss did not then appear, whether rightly or wrongly, as the supposed mastermind behind an aggressive American foreign policy. Quite the contrary, to most American conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s, Strauss seemed a valiant battler against positivism and historicism in political science. In their stead, he wished to revive the study of the Greek classics; and he appeared to defend natural law against its modern detractors. Would Rothbard, himself a champion of natural law, find in Strauss a welcome ally?
Rothbard located a fatal flaw in Strauss's work. He was no friend whom libertarians should rush to embrace: his view of natural law was entirely mistaken. Further, his mistake was not a mere theoretical failing, of interest to no one but a few scholars. The misunderstanding of morality that ran through Strauss's work might lead, if applied in practice, to immense harm. Strauss wished to replace the ironclad restrictions on the state, imposed by natural law rightly understood, with the "prudential" judgments of political leaders who aim to enhance national power.
Though he opposed Strauss, Rothbard paid generous tribute to his insights: Strauss's "virtue is that he is in the forefront of the fight to restore and resurrect political philosophy from the interment given it by modern positivists and adherents of scientism — in short, that he wants to restore values and political ethics to the study of politics."(All quotations are from unpublished letters by Rothbard, written in 1960.)
Rothbard found Strauss effective in his criticism of assorted relativists and historicists: "Strauss begins [an essay on relativism] with the almost incredibly confused and overrated Isaiah Berlin, and has no trouble demolishing Berlin and exposing his confusions — Berlin trying to be at the same time an exponent of ‘positive freedom', ‘negative freedom', absolutism and relativism." Strauss shows that, "in denying the possibility of rational ends [as relativists do] rational means are not on a very secure basis either."
Strauss has demolished relativism; but what does he propose to put in its place? The version of natural law that Strauss supports fails to extricate us fully from relativism. "Strauss, while favoring what he considers to be the classical and Christian concepts of natural law, is bitterly opposed to the 17th—18th Century conceptions of Locke and the rationalists, particularly to their ‘abstract', ‘deductive' championing of the rights of the individual: liberty, property, etc." Strauss's own arguments against the relativists show that we must have an ethics based on reason, but the version of natural law he favors does not meet this requirement.
As Strauss sees matters, classical and Christian natural law did not impose strict and absolute limits on state power; instead, all is left to the prudential judgment of the wise statesman. From this contention, Rothbard vigorously dissents. "In this [Straussian] reading, Hobbes and Locke are the great villains in the alleged perversion of natural law. To my mind, the ‘perversion' was a healthy sharpening and development of the concept." In Rothbard's view, medieval natural law thinkers fully recognized that individuals have rights. Incidentally, the foremost work of contemporary scholarship on this issue, Brian Tierney's The Idea of Natural Rights, vindicates Rothbard's side of the dispute.
Strauss's rejection of individual rights led him to espouse political views that Rothbard found repellent: "We find Strauss . . . praising ‘farsighted', ‘sober' British imperialism; we find him discoursing on the ‘good' Caesarism, on Caesarism as often necessary and not really tyranny, etc... he praises political philosophers for yes, lying to their readers for the sake of the ‘social good'…. I must say that this is an odd position for a supposed moralist to take."
Not only did Rothbard oppose Strauss's account of natural law; he also found risible the method of textual analysis by which Strauss arrived at his conclusions. Strauss believed that the great political philosophers faced a dilemma. They often held views at odds with prevailing orthodoxy; should they propagate their dissent openly, they faced persecution. In any case, their doctrines were meant for an elite group of disciples, not for an unlearned public unfit to judge them.
What then was to be done? According to Strauss, the philosophers concealed their true opinions through esoteric writing. Seeming contradictions in a text by a great philosopher were not mistakes; they instead signaled the presence of a hidden message.
Rothbard, to say the least, found Strauss's method unpersuasive. Strauss's most extended presentation of esoteric interpretation is contained in his Thoughts on Machiavelli. About this work Rothbard comments: "But it is one thing to look for circumspection, and quite another to construct a veritable architectonic of myth and conjecture based on the assumption of Machiavelli as an omniscient Devil, writing on a dozen different levels of ‘hidden meaning'. The Straussian ratiocination is generally so absurd as to be a kind of scholar's version of the Great Pyramid crackpots."
Rothbard offers this as an example of Strauss's striving for esoteric novelty: "Note the odd ‘reasoning': ‘Since the Prince consists of twenty-six chapters and the Prince does not give us any information as to the possible meaning of this number, we turn to the twenty-sixth chapter of the Discourses'. Note the ‘since', as if this had the sweet logic of a syllogism." Perhaps it is by similar "reasoning" that Straussians in the Department of Defense have convinced themselves that their schemes for American hegemony are purely defensive in nature.
May 8, 2003
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