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In his discussion of political philosophy, Leo Strauss advocates a return to universal principles, or natural law. He argues that historicism, or the evaluation of events and processes within their contemporary context, is often taken too far, encouraging analysts to reject that basic moral standards apply to all times and...

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In his discussion of political philosophy, Leo Strauss advocates a return to universal principles, or natural law. He argues that historicism, or the evaluation of events and processes within their contemporary context, is often taken too far, encouraging analysts to reject that basic moral standards apply to all times and places. Extending his analysis back into classical times, he traces ideas about natural right up until modern times.

Strauss argues that the rise of historicism in the 19th century both followed from and rejected some principles of the Enlightenment, which sought to separate divine and natural law. Rather than reject the notion of an immutable law that is fundamentally unknowable to humans, Strauss argues that the underlying idea of nature as infallible offers a sound basis for believing in the existence of natural right even though it is not completely knowable.

Closely related to Strauss’ understanding of principles is that of rights. He argues in favor of natural rights that all people have, of which states or other governmental entities cannot justly deprive them.

Originally published in 1953, Natural Right and History is itself historically contextualized, however, in the post-World War II re-evaluation of human behavior and state policies and practices in the wake of Nazi Germany’s excesses.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185

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

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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 appeal. Knowledge and political power no longer were matters of the rule of a small select group of the wise. In the age of revolution, beginning in the eighteenth century, the belief in universal standards was demolished. History, not nature, became the standard of judgment. Because societies differed over the course of time, there could be no uniformity of values, only an “indefinite variety of notions of right or justice.” In other words, Strauss concludes, “there cannot be natural right if there are no immutable principles of justice, but history shows us that all principles of justice are mutable.”

The trouble with historicism (the concept that all values must be treated historically) is that it is also a product of history and hence also impermanent; it cannot be used, therefore, as a means of knowledge. Instead, thinkers must return to the approach of the ancients, the “humanizing quest for the eternal order.” Strauss realizes there will be much debate over what that eternal order means, but without such a quest, humanity loses its “pure source of human inspiration and aspiration.”

Facts and Values

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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

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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 of humanity’s desire to reconnect itself with nature. Knowledge, valued for itself, becomes merely a product of human history, and humanity loses a sense of a universal context in which it can measure its claims to knowledge. Niccolò Machiavelli had earlier initiated political philosophy as a study of what the prince (or politicians) actually does rather than continuing the ancient tradition of asking what the prince (or the rulers of the state) ought to do. His revolt against the classical tradition, his realism, devalues the idea of both political virtue and the contemplative life. The result is a lowering of standards and expectations. Just as Hobbes claimed that the goal of knowledge was more knowledge (not an understanding of nature), Machiavelli claimed that the proper actions of the prince consisted of achieving the political virtue of patriotism, a loyalty to the state, but with no overriding grasp of the state’s origins in nature. Compared with the ancient Greeks, then, modern political philosophy represents a decline—even a degradation of what human beings can achieve, Strauss implies. Natural right or law, then, becomes merely a deduction from the way people actually live, not from how they ought to live. The quest for moral virtue and intellectual excellence has been depreciated.

Rousseau and Burke

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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 a guide not to universal values but to the way in which those values were observed and enforced by society. For him, the arguments for the French Revolution were too speculative, too theoretical, and too legalistic. The people had rights, to be sure, but to exercise those rights in every case meant chaos and intolerable destruction. The American Revolution, on the other hand, which derived from the same principles as the French, nevertheless seemed to him justifiable in terms of its practical and judicious aims. For Strauss, it seems to be the tension between nature and history in Burke’s thought that is most appealing. He does not resolve the debate between natural right and history so much as he finds a way to concede the value of history without substituting it for the claims of classic natural right.

That Strauss should end his book with Burke suggests that he did not believe that modern political philosophy had advanced much beyond Burke. It must continue to recover and conserve the wisdom of the ancients while responding, flexibly, to the demands of history.

Mixed Reception

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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.


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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 America.

Deutsch, Kenneth L., and Walter Nicgorski, eds. Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. Includes an excellent introduction to Strauss’s life and work, along with essays on his major books and his influence on other thinkers.

Devigne, Robert. Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss, and the Response to Postmodernism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Chapters on British and American conservatism and on new conservative theory. Devigne shows how in Britain and in the United States, Oakeshott and Strauss reshaped the meaning of conservatism according to their interpretation of principles derived from classical philosophy.

Drury, Shadia. Leo Strauss and the American Right. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A valuable source on Strauss’s contributions to political science.

Drury, Shadia. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Contains an excellent biographical/critical introduction and chapters on Strauss as teacher and philosopher; on his theology; on his interpretation of Socrates, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Plato, and Nietzsche; and on modernity. Concludes with a critique of Strauss’s ideas. Notes, annotated bibliography, and index.

Emberly, Peter, and Barry Cooper, eds. Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Vogelin, 1934. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. In addition to the correspondence between the philosophers, which explores Strauss’s views on reason and revelation, the volume includes essays by Strauss and Vogelin, along with commentaries by other scholars on the Strauss/Vogelin dialogue.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Seabury Press, 1975. Contains an explanation and criticism of Strauss’s antihistoricism.

Jaffa, Harry V. American Conservatism and the American Founding. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984. Chapters 8-10 are especially helpful in situating Strauss within the history of American conservatism.

Lampert, Laurence. Leo Strauss and Nietzsche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. A very readable account of Strauss’s ideas and his interpretation of Nietzsche. A bibliography and index are included.

National Review 25 (December 7, 1973): 1347-1357. This issue, entitled “The Achievement of Leo Strauss,” includes tributes to Strauss’s work and to his influence. One of the more accessible introductions to Strauss’s impact on American conservatives.

Rosen, Stanley. Hermeneutics as Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A useful explanation of how Strauss uses hermeneutics (interpretation) in his studies of political philosophy.

Scott, Warren. The Emergence of Dialectical Theory: Philosophy and Political Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Examines Strauss’s criticism of value-free social science and his handling of classical political philosophy, which Scott finds disappointing.

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