This next episode of Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with author and professor Grant Havers on his conservative critique of Leo Strauss. Many conservatives hold Strauss in high regard as a thinker who shaped their intellectual commitments. Havers discusses the question: what's so conservative about Strauss' philosophy? Havers' recent book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique contends that Strauss was a liberal Cold War warrior who most wanted to defend the foundational principles of British and American democracy. Going to the heart of Strauss' philosophical principles and his grounding of modern constitutional liberty in classical Greek political thought,…
The Enduring Importance of Willmoore Kendall
Once upon a time in America, conservatives celebrated Congress as the last best hope to preserve the authentic traditions of republican government. As recently as the 1960s, it was “conservative” to look to the first branch of government as the indispensable bulwark against the Imperial Presidency, Supreme Court activism, plebiscitary democracy, and federal social engineering programs. As long as the American people also looked to Congress to play this defensive role, the political system would remain intact.
No postwar conservative was more optimistically wedded to this perspective than Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967). Kendall, a defender of majority-rule (with some qualifications), particularly stood out among conservatives of his time as a fervent believer in the good sense of his fellow Americans to elect the “best men” to office. Americans were at least capable of being the “virtuous people,” who would insist that Congress preserve the traditions of the Founding. The principal evidence to which Kendall referred here was The Federalist, a text that he treated as political scripture for Americans. Kendall insisted that the Federalist provides the best possible interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. In his 1965 essay, “How to read ‘The Federalist,’” (which can be conveniently found along with his other major political essays in Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall, University Press, 1994), Kendall explained why this great work of political philosophy laid out what conservatives ought to be busy conserving: a particularly aristocratic version of majority-rule. “Publius,” the famed pseudonymous author of The Federalist, teaches
In today’s America, there are two conventional ways of understanding Leo Strauss’s ideas. These two perspectives, predictably, reflect the opposite poles of the established political spectrum. On the Left, critics have portrayed Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who escaped the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, as an enemy of liberal democracy who built a vast intellectual movement in the United States in order to foster a right-wing agenda that is devoted to sexism, class hierarchy, and fascist wars of conquest. Shadia Drury’s The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988) was only the first volley that leftist opponents have leveled against Strauss. Leftists like Stephen Holmes, Nicholas Xenos, and William Altman have continued to portray Strauss as an evil elitist bent on creating a Platonic regime that would feed “noble lies” to the ignorant masses in order to cajole them into embracing perpetual war against the forces of social progress.
On the Right, Strauss’s numerous disciples and neoconservative fellow travelers insist that their master was a sincere defender of the democratic regime and the liberal ideals of freedom and equality. These supporters, who are usually either his students or students of his students, contend that Strauss was a supporter of a classical liberal tradition that is now facing deadly threats from the Left. This kinder, gentler version of Strauss can be easily found in the writings of Thomas Pangle, Michael and Catherine Zuckert, Harry Jaffa, and Peter Minowitz, all of whom insist that this quiet, reserved teacher of the “Great Works” of political philosophy sincerely admired Anglo-American democracy, celebrated Lincoln and Churchill as stalwart defenders of liberty, and viscerally opposed Nazism and Communism as grave threats to western civilization. In their view, the best evidence for Strauss’s democratic credentials comes from his lifelong opposition to noxious ideas like “historicism” and “relativism” that fail to distinguish the virtues of democracy from the vices of tyranny.