Leo Strauss’s effort to rekindle an appreciation of classical political philosophy in the face of the challenges posed to it, and to any serious effort to recover the truth about political things, is to be commended. Strauss’s seeming “moral realist” approach to the study of political life was viewed by many of his contemporaries, influenced as they were by the tenets of value non-cognitivism, positivism, and historicism, as hopelessly naïve. These proponents of a “value-free”political science believed that one could understand the workings of political institutions and the ideologies that supplied justifications for those institutions without reference to some transcendent source of meaning and purpose. As Strauss ably pointed out, however, these “value-free” efforts were doomed to trivialize the study of political things, replacing political philosophy (“a doctrine which claims to be true”) with the history of political philosophy (“a survey of more or less brilliant errors”).1 For Strauss, liberal modernity was incapable of providing sustenance for an experiment in self-government, most especially that experiment explicitly grounded in an acknowledgement of the “truthfulness’” of natural rights claims.2
For Roman Catholics in particular, Strauss’s work—and the work of the scholars who express an intellectual indebtedness to him—is of special importance. It has forced them to reconsider the relationship between the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition and classical political philosophy. It has also forced them to consider the wisdom of any full-throated embrace of liberal modernity, particularly in light of the development of Catholic social and political thought as embodied in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, as Father James V. Schall has noted, Strauss (along with Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin) has “forcefully raised the question about the relation of reason and revelation, of modern and classical political philosophy to each other,” thus challenging “the very philosophy upon which the modern state has rested.”3
Central to the Roman Catholic tradition’s quest for a fuller understanding of its own intellectual premises, however, is a need to understand the relationship of the tradition to Strauss in particular and to the reading of intellectual history upon which the Straussian distinction between “ancients” and “moderns” rests. The use of the word distinction here is important, for few Roman Catholics would argue that there is indeed a distinction between a type of philosophical and moral realism that acknowledges the existence of a hierarchy of ends within nature itself—usually associated with the tenets of “classical” or “ancient” philosophy—and a philosophical and moral voluntarism and nominalism that acknowledges no natural teleology and reifies human choice as the highest human good—usually associated with “modern” philosophy. To the extent that the Straussian distinction between “ancients” and “moderns” points Catholics back to this fundamental philosophical “turn,” thereby assisting Roman Catholics to appreciate the consequences of liberal modernity’s rejection of the aforementioned transcendent norms and standards that are not a product of human will, it is helpful. To the extent to which it is hardened into something more than a useful distinction—that is, into a principled dichotomy whereunder the person who employs it seems to be pushed into embracing either classical or modern philosophy, especially as Strauss characterizes the distinction—it might fail to do full justice to the richness and integrity of the Catholic intellectual tradition and that tradition’s reflections upon the nature, purpose, and limits of political life. I will argue that Strauss’s distinction between “ancients” and “moderns” in general and between “classical” and “modern” political philosophy in particular does tend toward a dichotomizing of intellectual history whereunder even an ostensibly Catholic view of political life is, upon even a favorable reading of Strauss’s distinction, more classical than Catholic in its philosophic orientation and political ramifications.4
Ted McAllister has pointed out that “Strauss devoted little space [in his works] to an examination of Christianity,” but that “he often employed a more expansive language” in his analysis of natural right and natural law, “designed to suggest to the uninitiated reader a broad Judeo-Christian tradition when he meant the Jewish heritage simply.”5 McAllister’s reference to “the uninitiated reader” and the inference he draws from it is based at least in part on Strauss’s famous hermeneutic distinction between exoteric and esoteric writing and the need for the philosopher, in the interest of the commonweal, to cloak or disguise his true philosophic intentions. On this reading, “the great quarrel” and tension between Jerusalem (representing revelation-based societal adherence to divine law) and Athens (representing the corrosive character of reason and of true philosophic inquiry) is “the root of Western civilization,” not the transition from Greek particularism to Roman universalism.6 The recovery of the root of western civilization, therefore, requires not merely a return to classical political philosophy as Strauss understands it, but to an awareness of the tension between the conflicting demands of reason and revelation. The effort to dissolve the tension in the interest of revelational norms or philosophic truth is one of the hallmarks of modern philosophy and its proclivity toward political utopianism."
There is a lot said here and much of it is, as TVD would say, the "tall weeds" of scholarship. I thought it germane to this blog on many levels but particularly since it mentions modern philosophies "proclivity toward utopianism" which I stated in a recent post was the Enlightenment answer to the Christian notion of the "millennial reign of Christ". This is the much ignored back drop in many discussions on political theory leading up to, and many years after, the founding. It would seem me that one, the other, or both was at the root of "American Exceptionalism". In fact, if this book is correct, this concept was in the forefront of the Puritan mind that spoke of a "City on a Hill".
Anyway, that is what jumped out to me. But, like I said there is a lot here, and I would like to here from others that may have insights.