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What's Right About Leo StraussWhat's Right About Leo Strauss

What's Right About Leo Strauss

Mark Wegierski reviews Grant Havers’ Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy

Mark Wegierski
5 minute read

This is a very ambitious study of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish exile from Nazi Germany who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, inspired a school of thinkers usually called Straussians, and is considered one of the intellectual darlings of the current-day U.S. right.

Grant Havers, a leading professor of philosophy and politics at Trinity Western University, one of Canada's few private Christian universities, argues that there are deep problems with the common view of Leo Strauss as an arch-conservative (if one is favourably disposed) or a crypto-fascist (if one is more hostile). His critique is mostly from a Presbyterian/ Protestant Christian direction and within the ambit of "Anglo-American" societies.

In the preface, Havers honestly lays out his own philosophical odyssey. He is unapologetically rooted in a conservative Protestant tradition, mostly Calvinist in origin. It is refreshing to see someone state his own outlook so confidently and unabashedly.

Havers examines Strauss' claim that he is upholding timeless, transcendental values, identified mostly with Plato and Aristotle, and argues that the Greek philosophical tradition was considerably darker and far more illiberal than Strauss makes it out to be. In practice, the ancient Greek societies were highly violent, owned slaves and condoned infanticide. The Greek city-states exhausted themselves in interminable wars that eventually led to them being conquered by other powers. They had great difficulties with extending a polity beyond each of their city-states, which were also undermined by constant civil wars and an inability to develop a civic culture of "loyal opposition." Thucydides' histories — especially the Melian dialogue — point to the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Athenians, who were allegedly the most liberal. And a democratic Athens put Socrates to death, though only in his old age. Strauss' claim that one can look up to an "ancient liberalism" is therefore highly questionable. Havers holds that Strauss downplays the importance of Christianity in constituting modern liberalism, thus cutting away what could be seen as the ultimate grounding for many notions of rights — rights that current-day Anglo-American societies view as self-evident. Havers argues that the central moral tenet of Christianity is charity, otherwise known as the Golden Rule, and that it is the ultimate source of contemporary notions of rights. As Christianity increasingly atrophies from the Anglo-American societies, Havers believes, people will find themselves increasingly at a loss to justify notions of human rights, as attested by the vast number of abortions in current Anglo-American societies.

Whereas many modern-day liberals believe that Christianity can be summarily dispensed with on the way to a society that guarantees and upholds ever more rights and permissive freedoms, Havers argues that the junking of Christianity will unleash pandemonium rather than paradise on Earth.

Furthermore, what Straussians see as timeless, transcendental, liberal values foster a desire to impose such values on the entire planet. Societies holding different value systems are seen as a brazen affront to liberal democracy. Real conservatives are not as aggressive towards such societies. This Straussian drive, which largely accounts for the rise of neo-conservativism, thus often creates frictions, especially with societies that do not have long-standing, predominant Christian traditions. It is those traditions that Havers sees as the prerequisite for meaningful democracy. It is their absence that led to the debacle of attempts at establishing democracy in countries such as Iraq.

Unlike many left-wing critics, Havers thus fully acknowledges that Strauss wishes to uphold liberal democracy. However, he laments Strauss' construing of it in terms of timeless values discovered by ancient Greece rather than in terms of the concrete traditions of Anglo-American societies. Straussians use various intellectual methods to conflate Anglo- American liberal democracy with the so-called timeless Greek values. They characterize the latter as liberal — a characterization that Havers rejects on the grounds that any attempt to uphold and defend liberal democracy without reference to Christianity is defective.

Havers examines the Straussian view that Winston Churchill embodied ancient Greek virtues of heroism and statecraft. While agreeing that Churchill was a great historic figure, Havers argues that he was too deeply rooted in British particularity to be portrayed as an upholder of timeless values and points to the famous wartime speeches in which Churchill clearly stated that what was at stake was the very survival of Christian civilization.

Havers then examines two conservatives who greatly admired Strauss: the Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Grant (1918-1988) and the eclectic conservative American thinker Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967). Although both figures found much to admire in Strauss, Havers notes that they overestimated Strauss' ability to set out principles for a truly meaningful and modern conservatism.

George Grant saw Strauss as upholding something absolute against the chaos and disorder of late modernity. Kendall claimed to follow Strauss in rejecting "historicism," "relativism" and "positivism." But Strauss' criticism of historicism and particularity, Havers argues, cuts conservatives off from calling on historical traditions, and particularly on Christianity, in their defence. Havers' viewing of Christianity as a particular tradition rather than a form of universalism seems quite unusual. According to Havers, Strauss' critique of Edmund Burke's "historicism," which Strauss saw as more radical than the Enlightenment opposed by Burke, was particularly wrong-headed. Havers sees Burke as the leading conservative and traditional thinker within the Anglo-American sphere from whom future generations have continued to draw inspiration.

There are a number of angles from which Havers' arguments could be criticized. Modern-day liberals would assert that Christianity is, indeed, superfluous to the current-day modern project and has, furthermore, shown little charity to such groups as gays and unwed mothers. The Straussian defence of what amounts to an older form of liberal democracy also appears highly reactionary in light of today's understanding of human rights.

However, there is one critique of Havers that may be seen as more deeply conservative. First of all, given his desire to arrive at a generally acceptable definition of conservatism, one cannot help thinking that his approach is overly Americano-centric, Anglo-centric and Protestant. He gives short shrift both to Roman Catholicism, which has traditionally harboured deep suspicions about Anglo-American individualism and capitalism, and emphasized the need for a more organically constituted society as well as to the Orthodox tradition, which has always accorded the Russian Orthodox Church an important place throughout most of Russian history. He also gives short shrift to European countries outside the Anglosphere, notably East-Central Europe, where some of the most dynamic resistance to late modern trends is occurring today, as attested by the recent surge of traditionalism under Prime Minister Orbàn in Hungary and the persistence of a conservative Catholic and patriotic tradition in Poland. Furthermore, the deployment of the term Anglo-American suggests a gradual "standardization" or "Americanization" of British and Canadian societies, which may block any resistance to the debilitating aspects of late modernity (as George Grant would argue).

Second, Havers seems to almost unqualifiedly endorse liberal democracy, at least as it appeared prior to the 1960s. One argument that could be made is that current-day Anglo-American societies, dominated as they are by leftist-liberal administrative, juridical, academic and media elites, hardly embody true democracy. What they embody instead is plutocracy, technocracy and the all-devouring consumer society.

Current-day Anglo-American societies are far more anti-conservative, anti-traditionalist and anti-patriotic than would appear to be the case from Havers' book. Serious traditionalist thinkers are being flushed out from every institutional nook and cranny of those societies, as if they were nothing but pestilential rats. In a recent address, Robert P. George, perhaps the leading thinker of modern conservatism, warned that persecutions of Christians are just around the corner in America. Havers only has to look at how his own university's attempt to launch a law school has been treated to know which way the wind is blowing.

Obviously, the misdirecting of any putative opposition to late modernity is an important element of control in the current-day system. One clearly gets the impression from Havers' book that Straussians are one such massive misdirection. They take in generations of spirited young people looking for something higher than the current-day system and steer them in directions that are no real and effective challenge to it, thus dissipating the passion of opposition into intellectually sterile directions. Havers' book thus renders a positive service to the few remaining thoughtful dissidents, some of whom could have become entranced by Strauss.

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