Leo Strauss wrote his classic text in an age dominated by historicism, the notion that ideas and values are a result of historical processes, a concept that itself emphasizes change and development. In political philosophy and in the social sciences, historicism means that each culture should be judged in its own terms and not measured against a universal standard. It would be wrong, for example, to condemn one society for not behaving by the standards of another. The point is to understand the evolution of each society’s codes of behavior. This attitude is often called relativism because it recognizes no absolute truths that apply to all groups.

Strauss strenuously objected to what might be called a permissive approach to the study of the state. States might differ in their interpretation of standards and values, he realized, but that did not mean that a permanent canon of precepts did not exist. On the contrary, the ancients had discovered and promulgated an unchanging, universal framework that modern thinkers had nearly obliterated but that could be recovered by reconsidering and commenting on the classics of political philosophy.

The Concept of Natural Right

Chapter 1, “Natural Right and the Historical Approach,” develops Strauss’s idea of what philosophy itself means, and more specifically, how philosophy turned toward a study of politics. If theology is the study of God, then philosophy is the study of nature. There can be no philosophy without this distinction, Strauss argues, and no way for humanity to exercise its ability to reason. He observes that in the Bible, nature as a concept does not exist: There is only God’s word. All authority stems from the divine, which means that humanity derives its knowledge from revelation. In the Bible, it is not humanity’s task to discover the world but instead to receive it as a gift from God.

When the Greeks discovered nature, they simultaneously discovered philosophy, which began an inquiry into the interpretation of nature. Putting a premium on knowledge meant that the concept of natural right became associated with wise people and the right of wise people to rule. Their authority, in other words, was based on their closeness to nature and on their ability to read it, so to speak. The concept of natural right became associated with the wise, who enunciated first principles and universal standards derived from their close inspection of nature.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, the doctrine of natural right began to be replaced by the doctrine of natural law, which enlarged the concept of nature as an authority to which all people might...

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Facts and Values

In Chapter 2, “Natural Right and the Distinction Between Facts and Values,” Strauss demonstrates that Western philosophy from Plato to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed that it could address fundamental political problems that were “susceptible to a final solution.” Whatever their differences, in other words, philosophers agreed to pursue the constant dialogue of philosophy that began with Socrates, a dialogue that addressed the fundamental issue of how humankind ought to live. It is from this vantage point of Western philosophy that Strauss attacks the modern idea of value-free sociology and political science. Strauss insists that scholars in both disciplines cannot simply study a society; they must evaluate it according to standards of truth that they take to be constant: “The sociologist cannot be obliged to abide by the legal fiction which a given group never dared to regard as legal fiction; he is forced to make a distinction between how a given group actually conceives of the authority by which it is ruled and the character of the authority in question.” In other words, the sociologist cannot simply take a group’s rationale (“legal fiction”) for its authority at face value; the very nature of that authority has to be questioned, and such an inquiry cannot be conducted without a set of standards that transcend those of any particular group, a set of standards derived from concepts of natural right, not from a study of changing history.

Natural Right

Chapter 3, “The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right,” fully develops the distinction between the Bible as revelation and philosophy as the study of nature. Philosophers seek to know what is good by the study of nature, not the conventions established by different societies; thus, the “discovery of nature is identical with the actualization of a human possibility,” Strauss maintains. Nature becomes a way of recovering first principles that otherwise can be suppressed by authoritarian societies; nature is an appealing source because it is the “ancestor of all ancestors.”

In chapter 4, “Classic Natural Right,” Strauss surveys the development of philosophy from Socrates to the American constitution, contrasting it in chapter 5 with “Modern Natural Right,” founded on an identification with history. Whereas the concept of a natural right grounded in a perception of nature expanded human possibility and helped humanity understand its place in the whole of creation, the concept of history makes humanity “oblivious of the whole or of eternity.” Strauss concedes that the concept of history “fulfils the function of enhancing the status of man and of his world,” but only at the expense of obliterating a more fundamental knowledge of the universe.

Thinkers such as seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes sought to separate humans from nature, making the quest for knowledge a value in itself rather than an extension...

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Rousseau and Burke

Chapter 6, “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” concludes Strauss’s survey of the ancient and modern worlds of political philosophy with a juxtaposition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. Rousseau reinterpreted both the ancient and modern views of nature. He contended that in a state of nature, humanity lacked virtually everything that might be called human nature. Nature was the primitive state. Human nature had evolved out of humanity’s separation from the state of nature and the creation of a human state. What was human, in other words, was not a gift of nature but precisely the opposite of nature. Rousseau therefore justified the finding of human standards in history: “man’s humanity is the product of the historical process,” as Strauss puts it.

Rousseau then faced a predicament: How could it be proved that the results of historical process were deliberate? Was not much of history the product of accident? How could true principles be derived from the haphazard workings of history? Strauss finds no satisfactory answer to these questions and implies that in a historicist context, the rationale for finding first principles that are tied to historical developments is suspect.

Burke saw no way out of Rousseau’s dilemma, except to return to the study of the ancients. He wished to conserve the sense of rights deriving from nature while also arguing for prudence in the exercise of those rights. History, for Burke, could be...

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Mixed Reception

Like many of Strauss’s books, Natural Right and History received mixed and often puzzled reviews. Philosophers took issue with his contrast between reason and revelation, arguing that the terms need not be as mutually exclusive as he supposed. Others praised his antihistoricist method and his effort to recover the ancient conceptions of natural right. Still others initiated discussions of political philosophy that imitated Strauss’s method of commenting on the thought of philosophers while presenting his own views indirectly, in brief asides. In his lifetime, however, Strauss was generally considered not a philosopher in his own right but rather a historian of ideas.

Since Strauss’s death in 1973, an impressive number of scholars have treated him as presenting a coherent political philosophy. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern conservatism, influencing not only political philosophers but also policymakers and governmental leaders. Strauss’s students and colleagues have perpetuated his methods, so much so that the term “Straussian” is commonly used to describe thinkers trained by him or influenced by his body of work. Indeed, like the ancient philosophers whom he praised for seeking knowledge that is eternal and universal, and for inspiring other thinkers to aspire after this permanent legacy of learning, Strauss and his work have become a focus for new generations of scholars who seek to confirm his recovery of ancient wisdom.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bloom, Allan. “Leo Strauss: September 20, 1899-October 18, 1973.” Political Theory 2 (November, 1974): 372-392. An often cited intellectual biography by one of Strauss’s students and colleagues at the University of Chicago.

Coser, Louis A. Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Singles out Strauss as the only refugee scholar who gained a devoted following of students and colleagues who perpetuated the influence of his work. Coser also casts important light on Strauss’s efforts to come to terms with postwar...

(The entire section is 499 words.)