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Leo Strauss and the Search for

Universal Political Order

Shaun Rieley


In 1949, the world was reeling. In the wake of the most destructive and deadly war that

mankind had ever witnessed, people across the globe were attempting to understand the upheaval

which they had recently encountered, attempting to analyze its causes, and perhaps more

importantly, how to ensure that it would never be possible again. It was in this context which

Leo Strauss delivered his Charles R. Walgreen Foundation lectures at the University of Chicago;

the lecture series which would go on to be published as Natural Right and History in 1953. The

work represents Strauss attempt to grapple with the problems which he views as inherent in

modernity, and to examine the possibilities for alternatives. After all, it seems that for Strauss,

the political ideologies which constituted the preconditions for the events of the Second World

War were thoroughly modern, and were, at least to some extent, the logical outcome of the

philosophical foundations of modernity. But what is modernity and what are its traits?

Furthermore, how could it have led to such destruction, and what should replace it, if we are

to avoid repeating the tragedy? In Natural Right and History, Strauss seems to point toward the

classical sense of the universal as a solution to the ills of modernity, and to the use of mans

uniquely defining characteristic reason as the tool by which it may be accessed. It was this

reorientation by which Strauss seems to have wanted to construct a new way of thinking about

man and mans nature. Or rather, he seems to have wanted to look to the philosophy of the

ancients for insights into the answers to the fundamental questions of man, or what he calls the

Fundamental alternatives, which are, in principle, coeval with human thought. (NRH, 35)


The advent of modernity brought a revolution in political thought. For Strauss, this era

effectively began with the advent of Machiavellis political writings. In these writings,

Machiavelli, who Strauss offhandedly refers to that greater Columbus (NRH, 177) due to his

discovery of an entirely new continent of political thought, reoriented the focus of politics

from understanding man in terms of the greatest good, that is, the highest goals, to the lowest.

Rather than looking to what man ought aspire to, and ordering moral imperatives and political

structure accordingly, Machiavelli instead looked to how men do in fact live, and constructed his

political philosophy on these premises. Thus, Machiavelli dispensed with the assumption that

there are natural and intelligible ends from which the ancients had worked, thereby

fundamentally altering the understanding of what constitutes a society consistent with the

Good, or with formulating a society consistent with the production of human excellence.

Human nature was now open to be interpreted in terms of its base rather than its pinnacle. Or,

more accurately perhaps, the compass necessary to constitute a conception of the base and the

pinnacle of human nature was discarded. According to Strauss, [This] entailed a deliberate

lowering of the ultimate goal. (NRH, 178) These goals were then lowered and redirected

toward patriotism and political virtue, goals which are much more easily attained, and therefore,

are attainable by most. This reformulation opened the door for modernity.

According to Strauss, though Machiavelli discovered the continent suitable for the

construction of modernity, it was Hobbes who erected structure. It was Hobbes who first

formulated the idea of applying science, in the sense of the physical sciences, to politics.


Essentially, this meant that rather than grounding political and social structures in transcendent

and universal ethics derived from an examination of the nature of mans existence as such, he

looked to ground these structures in the imminent. In the same way natural science adopts an

amoral methodology through which it disinterestedly observes fact, arriving at descriptions in

contradistinction to prescriptions, Hobbes attempted to construct an amoral science of politics,

and in which he lowered the theoretical goal of politics from constructing an apparatus for the

promotion of virtuous, contemplative human existence in accordance with nature as conceived

by pre-modern thought, to a conventional edifice, erected in opposition to the solitary, poor,

nasty, brutish and short life which is the estate of man in the state of nature, or with nature

proper. In other words, like Machiavelli, Hobbes looked to the way men actually live, rather

than how they ought to live for his organizing principle, and promoted a realignment of societal

goals from the highest of ends, that is, the contemplative life in accordance with the conception

of the human as a rational animal, to the lowest, that is, mere survival, or avoidance of violent

death. By doing so, both Machiavelli and Hobbes increased the certainty of political order, at the

expense of promoting excellence in accordance with nature as conceived by the ancients, that is,

mans rational nature. Hobbes political philosophy was one centered on human necessity, rather

than human perfection.

This shift in political goals was, according to Strauss, the ultimate result of a belief that

There is no natural harmony between the human mind and the universe. (NRH, 175) If the

universe is fundamentally unintelligible as it actually is, thereby undermining the possibility of


true wisdom, man must construct his world, by convention, to ensure the possibility of attaining

wisdom, albeit a wisdom much different that the wisdom discussed by the ancients. Wisdom, as

defined by Hobbes, is of mans own construction, and therefore, has only the limits placed upon

it by man, if there are any limits at all. Wisdom became attainable, because man, over and

against nature, became the standard by which wisdom was measured. Divorcing man from the

confines of his natural orientation toward purpose, or his telos, Hobbes alienated man, but

introduced a radical liberty unforeseen by the ancients. [Man] is sovereign only because he

is absolutely a stranger in the universehe is forced to be sovereign. (NRH, 175)

Ultimately, it is a paradoxical philosophy of power which Hobbes conveys. Hobbes

teachesthat reason is omnipotent because it is impotent (NRH, 201) The recognition that

humans are alienated within the universe, that his mind has no natural harmony between itself

and the universe, and reason is therefore impotent, leads to a necessary construction of a political

order which is not by nature nature cannot be known but is only consistent with the

conventional designs of man, and therefore can be constructed in any way man sees fit. This

lends unlimited power to man within the limited horizon of his constructed political order, and

therefore allows the moderns to demand much more from their politics; indeed, the possibilities,

within the scope of its horizon, became nearly unlimited.

Though Machiavelli and Hobbes laid the groundwork, modernity comes into full bloom with

the philosophy of John Locke, but according to Strauss, his philosophy is much more subtle,

though fundamentally in agreement with Hobbes. Locke was, Strauss notes, judicious and


made it particularly difficult for us to recognize how modern he is, or how much he deviates

from natural right tradition. (NRH, 165) It is precisely Lockes judicious framing of his

modern conceptions of natural right which allows him to convey his true intentions while

appearing to maintain a philosophy consistent with the classical conceptions of natural right.

That is, it is Lockes use of revelation which allows this subtle shift. Says Strauss:

[For Locke it is] only through revelation [that] we know of the sanctions for
the law of nature or of the only true touchstone of moral rectitude. Nat-
ural reason is therefore unable to know the law of nature as a law. (NRH,

Thus, unassisted reason is incapable of determining the laws of nature, and may only recognize

them as reasonable after the fact, once they are revealed. If, then, Scripture is the only source for

natural law on which a political order may be founded, Strauss says, Locke should have written a

political treatise on principles derived from scripture. The fact that he instead wrote Two

Treatises of Government constitutes a rift between his actions and his words, and Strauss

states that we are forced to suspect that he encountered some hidden obstacles on his way

toward a strictly scriptural natural law teaching regarding government. (NRH, 206) The

problem, simply stated, is that Locke likely doubted the ability of humans to access the complete

law of nature, either through scripture or reason.

Lockes apparent skepticism regarding a human access to a complete law of nature results in,

according to Strauss, an elevation of political happiness to the ultimate goal of political order

and the ultimate goal of each individual. Indeed, the desire for happiness and aversion of pain

and misery in humans is universally and unceasingly effective. (NRH, 226) This view

contrasts with the ancients view that natural rights emanate from human nature and these rights

also implied duties to the political society. The modern (Lockean) view of the pursuit of

happiness as an inalienable right of humanity created an imperative that it cannot and must not

be restrained; there is a fundamental right to it, which no sense of duty may infringe upon.

The desire for happiness and the pursuit of happiness to which it gives rise are not dutiesthere

is, then, an innate natural right, while there is no innate natural duty. (NRH, 226) Strauss goes

further, and states that, for Locke Since the right of nature is innate, the right of nature is more

fundamental than the law of nature [including duties] and is the foundation of the law of nature.

(NRH, 227) Ultimately, Strauss tells us that the truly revolutionary aspect of Lockes teaching is

his teaching on property. His theory of mixed labor, that is, that those things which nature

provides nearly always receive their value only once they have been acted upon by mans mixing

of labor with them, effectively serves to shift the center and origin of the moral world (NRH,

248) from mans ends, that is, mans perfection, to man himself. Thus, morality, and thereby

politics, emerges from the individual rather than from nature. Man is effectively emancipated

from the bonds of nature, and therewith the individual is emancipated from those social bonds

which antedate all consent or compact. (NRH, 248) Thus, the satisfaction of wants is

therefore no longer limited by the demands of the good life but becomes aimless. (NRH, 250)

Each individual, then, has a right to pursue happiness in any way he pleases, and is no longer

duty bound to orient himself by the summum bonum as represented by the perfection and

excellence of man.

Thus can be seen the broad lines of what has come to be known as modernity. By

eliminating the teleological ends associated with pre-modern political thought, effectively

beginning with Socrates and ending with Machiavellis explicit break with this tradition, which

had previously existed in all dominant political philosophy, in one form or another. The ancients

had conceived of society as existing by nature, in accordance with the nature of man, in order

that mans political and rational natures may be fulfilled and perfected. As Strauss states: To

determine what is by nature good for men or the natural human good, one must determine what

the nature of man, or mans natural constitution, is.(NRH, 127) Thus, once a nature had been

deduced, in this case political and rational animal, the application of reason can result in an

articulation of the best possible state to promote optimal human existence. The life according

to nature is the life of human excellence or virtueand not the life of pleasure as pleasure.

(NRH, 127)

According to Strauss, the ancients definition of man as a social animal is derived from the

definition of man as a rational animal. He says Since it is reason or speech that distinguishes

him from other animals, and speech is communication, man is social in a more radical sense than

any other social animal: humanity itself is sociality. (NRH, 129) Thus, it seems that the most

basic definition of man is as a rational animal. Therefore, in order to reach this end, society is

necessary given the fundamentally communicative nature of speech, as well as the additionally

fundamental basis of speech (and language generally) in rationality. According to the ancients,

man as man cannot live alone.

For Strauss, however, the project of modernity contained within itself the necessary conditions

for crisis. It was in the lowering of the political horizon, begun in Machiavelli, expanded in

Hobbes, and perfected in Locke, from which modernity developed. For Strauss, it was

Rousseaus assertion of absolute freedom of the individual over and against both society and

nature which both created the first of two crises of modern natural right, or crises of modernity

itself (the second would be embodied in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche), as well as defined

the next step in the development toward the completion of modernity. According to Strauss,

however, Rousseau believed that it is not freedom which defines man as such, that is, natural

man, but rather, the possibility of perfectibility. He states [for Rousseau] natural man lacks

freedom of will; hence he cannot misuse his freedom; natural man is characterized, not by

freedom, but by perfectibility. (NRH, 271, footnote 38) This seems to contrast with Strauss

assertion that Rousseau represents, as part of modernity, a continuance of the break with classical

political philosophy represented by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, given the teleological

perfection of man present in classical political philosophy. However, Strauss clarifies this

tension by suggesting that for Rousseau, Man has no nature in the precise sense which would

set a limit to what he can make out of himself. (NRH, 271) This is due to mans natural state

preexisting rationality and language; without rationality and language, there can be no

definitions; without definitions, there can be no definitive nature of man. If there is no

nature for natural man, lacking linguistic definition, perfectibility can only have meaning

within the context of conventional society, though the potentiality of perfection lies within man,

even in his pre-rational state. There is no natural constitution of man to speak of: everything

specifically human is acquired or ultimately depends on artifice or convention. (NRH, 271)

That is to say, for Rousseau, man does not become man until he acquires rationality through

language, which presupposes society, or social interaction. Thus, society is a conventional

artifact, which, being prior to reason, was necessarily formed by an accident of fate, rather than

through rational ascent to a social contract.

It was this philosophical development of Rousseau which, according to Strauss, prompted the

development of what he labels historicism, that is, the position that all human ideas are

necessarily particular to their historical epoch, and cannot transcend this limitation. Because

man, or more precisely, the advent of the preconditions which would result in man becoming

man through the development of social interaction and reason is effectively the product of

chance or fate for Rousseau, mans nature is not necessary, and therefore is malleable; natural

man is potentially infinitely perfectible, but is defined by fate, or historical accident. This move

by Rousseau, that is, tying the identity of man at his very origin to history, Strauss indicates, is

what ultimately paves the way for an undermining of political philosophy (as defined as the

ability to rationally deduce fundamental alternatives, as well as to solve them in a final

manner), and thereby leads to the radical historicism present in the 19
and 20

Because the genesis of mans existence as man is tied to historical accident, his nature at any

particular moment in history is attached necessarily to that moment in history. There is nothing

uniquely human which transcends history for Rousseau, but rather mans humanity is the

product of the historical process. (NRH, 274) Thus, the way was opened for the relegation of all

that is human, beginning with reason, to particular historical phenomena, inaccessible from

outside its historical context, or, as Strauss puts it: [For the historicist] the limits of human

thought are set by fate. (NRH, 21)

The fate of political philosophy lies then in the extent to which the historicist position is

valid. If philosophy is the search for the universal understanding of man as man, the historicist

position fundamentally denies this possibility: there is no man as man, there is only man as he is

shaped by his environment, man as the product of his own convention, man as a product of the

particularities of his historical moment. An object can only be said to be known if there is

something unchanging attached to its nature. Political philosophy presupposes an

ability to access knowledge of man as man, that is, to access truth about man on the basis of

accessing knowledge regarding some unchanging aspects of mans nature. This is the goal of

political philosophy as such: to ascertain what Strauss labels the fundamental alternatives, and

to proceed by reason toward knowledge of these unchanging aspects of human nature in an

effort to deduce imperatives with which man should align his life. The assumption of political

philosophy then is to allow men to live a life in accordance with his nature, and thereby in as

close alignment with the good life as possible. The fundamental assumptions of political

philosophy then, are that there is an established nature associated with man which is unchanging

and knowable through reason, and that the fundamental alternatives may be deduced and then

arbitrated between. Strauss states Political philosophy is possible if man is capable of

understanding the fundamental political alternatives[and] the fundamental political problem is

susceptible of a final solution. (NRH, 35-36)

For the ancients, this assumption of the possibility of political philosophy carried with it an

assumption regarding both the existence and the accessibility of human nature as well as a

solution to what Strauss labels the distinction between facts and values, that is to say, the

problem dividing what man ought to do, as compared to what in fact does, or what in fact is.

Strauss indicates that this problem is peculiar to modernity because it is a product of the shift in

political thought represented by modernity. From the point of view of the ancientsone

inquires into the originsof civil society, or of right and wrong, in order to find out if [they] are

based on nature or merely convention. (NRH, 96) That is, this type of inquiry is conducted in

order to parse out what is mans nature in contradistinction to his conventions. This type of

knowledge was considered to be possible by the ancients and thereby, so was political

philosophy. The possibility of political philosophy, and the assumptions which follow,

implicitly provide an immediate solution to the fact-value problem: ethics, being based on

reactions to understandings regarding the type of thing something is, may be arrived at by

analysis of that aspect of the nature of man which fundamental and immutable, or universal.

Applying reason to the understanding of mans nature and the proper nature of political order

directed at universal ends, that is, directed at the teleological end of mans perfection in human

excellence, allows political philosophy through which universals dealing with right and

principles of political order are abstracted from principles of reason resting on the observation of

man as man. For the ancients, these teleological ends exist regardless of whether they have ever

been actualized in a historical particular. Instead, it is through the application of reason in order

to ascertain what it is that human nature, or that which is universal in all humans, strives for.

For the ancients, this consisted of mans defining traits: reason and society; man is a rational and

political animal. However, for the ancients, the best regimeis not only most

desirable; it is also meant to be feasible or possible, i.e. possible on earth. It is both desirable and

possible because it is according to nature. (NRH, 139) For Strauss, then, the ancients, while

concerned with the theoretically best regime, were equally as concerned with postulating a

political order which is be best possible regime. Presumably, this meant the best possible regime

within a given context, that is, given a certain group of humans, with certain natural resources,

certain geography, and so forth is what constitutes the best regime.

If this is the case, the best regime, that is, one which represents the best possible regime in

accordance with the dictates of human nature, from which ideas of justice and right are

necessarily derived, requires what Strauss calls The political art or skill. (NRH, 102) This art

or skill, is presumably not possessed by the masses, or even by the non-philosopher. It is left

then to the political philosopher to establish what is right in each casethat art or skill is

comparable to the art of the physician, who establishes what is in each case healthy or good for

the human body. (NRH, 102) This analysis of what is politically healthy or good is grounded

not in a series of historical particulars (or accidents of history) for the ancients, but rather in a

higherarchy of ends: There is a universally valid higherarchy of ends, but there are no

universally valid rules of action. (NRH, 162) Thus, historically particular actions are judged by

the extent to which they comply with universally determined ends; ends established through

contemplation of human nature.

Fundamentally, then, according to Strauss, the project of modernity defines itself in

contradistinction to the ancient by its dispensation with universal ends in the political order, and

teleology in man. Several elements of these moves would ultimately conclude in the brutal

political regimes of the 20
century, as represented by the totalitarian states of both the right and

the left. While a complete account of the causes of these political and social phenomena would

be difficult, there are, perhaps, some broad strokes that could be pointed to which may be helpful

in understanding the progression from the early modern strains of thought into these regimes.

Strauss tells us that Machiavellis realistic revolt against tradition led to the substitution of

patriotism or merely political virtue for human excellence (NRH, 178) In this way, the end

of man shifted from the ancient ideal of moral virtue and the contemplative life to man as a part

of the city (or state), by convention, rather than man as a social being by nature. Therefore, there

is no nature of man which ultimately transcended the state, and thus mans ends, to the extent

that ends existed, emanated from the state itself, rather than through the political state toward a

higher end, that is, the contemplative state. The so-called reason of state, that is, the maxim

that a ruler may act in ways which are absent or even opposed to virtue if they are recognized to

be ultimately useful or profitable for the state, promoted by Machiavelli further served to

encourage the development of an understanding of man as beholden to the political regime, not

for the sake of human perfection or excellence, but rather for the sake of the state itself; absent

transcendent virtue, man exists for the sake of the state, rather than the state existing for the sake

of man. This step may be recognized as one of the earliest necessary elements of modern thought

which could be seen to have provided the necessary, not to say sufficient, conditions for a

totalitarian political state.

Hobbes concept of natural public law furthered modern thought down this path. Strauss says

Natural public law represents one of the two characteristically modern forms of political

philosophy (NRH, 190) The other is Machiavellis above mentioned reason of state.

Natural public law postulates that a sovereign ruler gains legitimacy acting according to his will,

which is the aggregated will of all, or at least that the will of the sovereign will be regarded as

such. In this way, the sovereign may rule as a sovereign, while gaining legitimacy through the

doctrine of sovereignty, which states that each individual in the society resigns his sovereignty

through assent to the social contract, therefore legitimizing the sovereigns claim to be a

legitimate representation of the will of all. This law is not positive, but rather is the result of the

social contract, and in this sense can be said to be natural. The effect of this development, as

compounded with Machiavellian reason of state, effectively reduces the absolute end of man

to obedience to the state, through the now legitimized sovereign. There is no recourse from this

in the form of appeal to transcendent universals; all such concepts are undermined through these

developments. This development may certainly be analyzed in terms of the development of the

century totalitarian state systems, given its total assumption of the sovereignty of the

individual into that of the sovereign, and the shift of focus of the purpose of state from an

outcropping of the transcendent political nature of man to conventional, subsuming entity.

A final development of modern thought which may be viewed as contributing factors in the

development of the problematic 20
century totalitarian regimes comes in the form of two moves

by Rousseau: the undermining of human nature, and the elevation of the nation as closer to

the state of nature than civil society. (NRH, 289) For Rousseau, in contradistinction to the

predecessors in modernity, the state of nature, rather than being a state which is to be avoided

though the institution of civil society, is rather a state in which man longs to return. According

to Strauss, Rousseaus state of nature is a pre-human state, that is, a state in which there are no

characteristically human attributes present in man; they have not reached the historical

moment from which they will develop, and as such, man lives in a state of goodness, imbued

with compassion. Man is good because he cannot be bad; he has no reason, and therefore no

will. This conception, that man as man is the result of an accident of history, leads to the

conclusion that man has no discernible absolute nature, that he is nearly infinitely malleable,

and there are therefore no limits on what he can make out of himself. This malleability allows

man almost unlimited movement in either an upward direction (toward power) or downward

(toward degradation). Because there is no human nature as such, there can be no absolute

transcendent recourse to natural right: rights are derived from ethical considerations based on an

understanding of the intrinsic nature of an object. Strauss articulates the necessity of human

nature to morality as: however indifferent moral distinctions of the cosmic order may be

thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis

of such distinctions. (NRH, 94) Thus, Rousseaus undermining of human nature undermines

the moral distinction from which natural right may be derived, and, in so doing, undermines any

grounding on which an ethic opposed to the usage of, or elimination of, any particular individual

as a means toward the perfection of the whole of humanity, or toward any conventional goal

whatsoever. This move could certainly be assessed as a necessary precursor to the advent of the

century totalitarian regimes which emerged.

The second move by Rousseau which could be interpreted in this manner is his elevation of

the nation. Strauss states that for Rousseau The nation is closer to the original state of nature

than is civil society, and therefore is in important respects superior to civil society. (NRH, 289)

Strauss then further tells us that in Rousseaus philosophy:

National custom or national cohesion is a deeper root of civil society
than are calculation and self-interest and hence than the social contract.
National custom and national philosophy are the matrix of general will
(NRH, 289-290)

Because Rousseaus conception of the state of nature provides the greatest level of freedom, and

freedom is the highest good (Strauss says that According to Rousseaufreedom is a higher

good than life (NRH, 278)), the state of nature is the most desirable condition in which man

may exist. If, however, the state of nature may no longer be achieved, man must resort to the

next best thing: society according to the general will. But, as noted above, the general will is

only possible when it is birthed from the matrix (or womb) of National custom and National


philosophy, or through customs and philosophies which are unique to particular nations and

particular ages. This closely resembles the state of nature for Rousseau because individuals,

through an amalgamation of their wills, act as their own legislators, in contradistinction to the

natural law of the ancients, in which absolute standards were imposed on individuals by nature.

When positive law replaces natural law, individuals are able to act freely, that is, in

obedience to the law which one has given to ones self. (NRH, 278) Thus the nation, as

opposed to mere civil society in which man is radically dependent rather than free, becomes

elevated for Rousseau as a path to the closest approximation to the state of nature which is

possible on the level of humanity. (NRH, 282) The nation, then, rooted in particular histories of

peoples and exclusive of other people, becomes the defining element of human political

interaction. Because all nations are birthed from unique conditions, each nation constructs its

own national custom and national philosophy, based on its own peculiarities; all right is

subsumed by positive law, and The general will takes the place of natural law. (NRH, 286)

Strauss indicates that Rousseau critiqued the citizens of Geneva because they lack[ed] the

public spirit or the patriotism of the ancients and were more concerned with their private or

domestic affairs than with the fatherland. (NRH, 253) This could be interpreted as an attempt

by Strauss to draw a parallel between Rousseaus philosophy and the rhetoric of the 20

totalitarian governments, particularly the Third Reich. In this way, Rousseaus philosophy of

the general will could be understood to have, directly or indirectly, ultimately resulted in those

century political developments.


For Strauss, then, it seems that the political developments of the 20
century, rather than

being a departure from the political philosophies advanced by the early modern thinkers, is better

understood as a logical progression from the premises laid down in those writings, as well as

through inevitable crises of thought implicit in those premises. If this is the case, the entire

project of modernity was destined and directed toward these developments, and therefore should

be reconsidered beginning with its most basic assumptions. Fundamentally, for Strauss, it is the

possibility of philosophy which provides the way to the solution. The application of philosophy

leads the mind toward the absolute, the transcendent, the ahistorical. It is this search for a

universal political order in which political philosophy finds its meaning, and it is in the finding

of the universal in which man find his ends. For Strauss, universal political order is possible, but

it must be uncovered, layer by layer, through the correct application of reason, that characteristic

trait of man, which fundamentally finds its identity in reaching toward the universal.