A Review of Paul Gottfried’s, 'Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America'

Jack Kerwick
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Posted: Nov 03, 2013 12:01 AM
A Review of Paul Gottfried’s, 'Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America'

Many events have conspired over the last several years that have induced in self-avowed conservatives and traditional Republican voters the gnawing suspicion that in spite of what politicians and media personalities would have them believe, “the conservative movement”—their movement—hasn’t been particularly conservative.

Their suspicion is sound.

In reality, the “conservative” movement is the neoconservative movement.

This is the verdict at which ever increasing numbers of self-avowed conservatives are arriving. However, had they been reading Paul Gottfried, they would have reached it long ago.

Friend of such conservative luminaries as Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Pat Buchanan, Gottfried is a first-class scholar who has spent much of his illustrious career studying and writing on the American conservative movement (as well as other ideological movements—like Marxism and multiculturalism—both here and abroad). In spite of its intellectual heftiness, his most recent book—Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America—is must reading for the serious minded interested in learning just what neoconservatism is all about.

Though he is a critic of both Strauss and neoconservatism, Gottfried’s analysis is as sober as it is respectful. He defends Strauss against the familiar objection that the latter was a cunning Machiavellian. At the same time, Gottfried is quick to note both that Strauss’s thought has indeed been appropriated in the service of a neoconservative agenda and that Strauss was no conservative.

The eighteenth century Parliamentarian Edmund Burke is widely credited with being “the father” of modern conservatism. In his relentless critique of the French Revolution, Burke contrasted the abstractness and universalism of the “natural rights” of the revolutionaries with the concreteness and particularity of conservatism’s tradition-centered approach to the moral life.

Strauss charged Burke (and the legions of conservative thinkers that he inspired) with promoting “relativism.” In fact, he blamed them for paving the way to “relativism.” In contrast, Strauss emphatically affirmed “natural rights”—the very natural rights, for example, in the name of which neoconservatives demand a robust foreign policy of intervening in lands that are devoid of “liberal democratic values.”

Strauss and his disciples are known for their special method of reading ancient philosophical works. Every classic text bears a surface meaning, Strauss claimed. But its true meaning is hidden between the lines, so to speak. As Gottfried informs us, it is this peculiar way of reading texts that supplies the link between Straussians and neoconservative foreign policy, for whether it is Plato or Locke, “the secret” meaning of the works of the great philosophers is thought to reveal their fondness for none other than “liberal democracy!”

Gottfried writes: “Strauss and his students seem to be reading their own liberal, secularist values into those whom they praise as ‘philosophers.’” The subjects of Strauss and his students, however long ago they lived, invariably “seem to replicate the cultural mindsets” of their interpreters.

And this is the problem. Gottfried correctly observes that Straussians engage in what Michael Oakeshott once characterized as “retrospective politics.”

“It is for me inconceivable,” he remarks, “that anyone would be sufficiently attracted to Strauss’s hermeneutic, particularly as pursued by his disciples, unless that person is also drawn to certain political systems.” Straussians, Gottfried concludes, have been able to “misrepresent as philosophical inquiries what are often homilies about American liberal democracy.”

These “homilies about American liberal democracy” have dovetailed seamlessly with the purposes of neoconservatives. Yet, as Gottfried notes from the outset, Straussians benefit as much from neoconservatives as vice versa: their relationship is “symbiotic,” as he says. The “nexus” between the two camps “is so tight that it may be impossible to dissociate” them “in any significant way.” He observes that while “neoconservatives draw their rhetoric and heroic models from Straussian discourse,” Straussians in turn “have benefited from the neoconservative ascendancy by gaining access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money and by obtaining positions as government advisors.”

Gottfried adds that it is “hard to think of any critical political issue that has divided the two groups.”

Everyone, but particularly conservatives, would be well rewarded to read Gottfried’s analysis. Not only is its author well versed in his subject, but during this time of rancorous quarreling between self-sworn conservatives, Gottfried provides us with a model of civility.