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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

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...

(The entire section contains 2631 words.)

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