Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History

I wrote this essay analyzing Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History as an undergraduate. I still agree with the conclusion, though I now would likely be more charitable to Mr. Hobbes (lest Dr. Yishaiya Abosch, political science professor at Fresno State and an expert on Hobbes, rain verbal blows upon me). I publish it as Strauss’ name has appeared in the conservative media, this time with a new book by Paul Gottfried, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, a review of that book by Kenneth McIntyre in The American Conservative magazine, and a post on the magazine’s website defending Strauss by Samuel Goldman.


Few in the 20th century have had as much influence on political philosophy and the way it’s studied than Leo Strauss. He has been described as “perhaps the most influential political thinker of the generation of Americans that spanned the mid-point of the twentieth century.”[1] His impact has stretched far and wide. Supposedly, a cadre of “neoconservatives” both within the Bush administration and without were influenced by Strauss’ thought, including, but not limited to, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Abram Shulsky[2], Irving Kristol and Harvey Mansfield, Jr.[3] He has also had impactful students and colleagues that he’s directly influenced, including Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Joseph Cropsey, Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond and Herbert Storing.[4] His thought is so significant that followers of his have their own name — “Straussians.”[5] More conservative-inclined followers of Strauss have taken to calling themselves, in the same vein as the virulent conservative split between “neocons” and “paleocons,” “Leocons.”[6]

Born in 1899 in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family, Strauss was partially led to his thinking by his experiences in the country. He was a soldier in the German army in World War I and received his doctorate from Hamburg University in 1921. With the rise of Nazism and Hitler, Strauss decided to immigrate to the United States in 1938. In 1949, he began teaching at the University of Chicago, where he gave the lectures that became the basis for his most famous work, Natural Right and History.[7]

NRH is based on six lectures Strauss gave at the University of Chicago to the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation.[8] It is by far his most influential work. It is also very controversial. First, let’s talk about the work itself, then others’ critiques of it and finally my own analysis.

The premise of NRH can be summed up thusly: Natural right, the idea that there is immutable truth that is such for all the ages, and the thought of the ancients, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoic philosophers, has been rejected by the modern political philosophers, chiefly Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and, to a lesser extent, Burke. He thought there was a crisis of modernity, and that the way to combat this crisis was to study and contrast both the ancient and the modern philosophers.[9] “The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism — nay, it is identical with nihilism,” argues Strauss.[10] And according to Strauss, the consequences of this line of thinking are dire.

Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than blind choice, we really do not believe in them any more. We cannot wholeheartedly act on them any more. We cannot live any more as responsible beings. In order to live, we have to silence the easily silenced voice of reason, which tells us that our principles are in themselves as good or as bad as any other principles. The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less we are able to be loyal members of society. The inescapable practical consequence of nihilism is fanatical obscurantism.[11]

The first modern philosophy that Strauss takes on is “historicism” — the belief that one cannot ever grasp anything eternal, and that all we know comes from history and mankind’s experiences. “The historicist contention can be reduced to the assertion that natural right is impossible because philosophy in the full sense of the term is impossible,” says the German-émigré. To Strauss, this is nothing but relativism. “The ‘experience of history’ and the less ambiguous experience of the complexity of human affairs may blur,” writes Strauss, “but they cannot extinguish, the evidence of those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right.”[12] History teaches us changes that have happened throughout the ages, but it cannot tell us whether these changes were right or wrong. It cannot differentiate what is good or bad. Just because something has been done a certain way throughout history doesn’t, by itself, make it naturally good and right. And, for Strauss, historicism is what comes out of the so-called crisis of modern natural right. “Originally,” says Strauss, “philosophy had been the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and hence it had been a pure source of human inspiration and aspiration.”

Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has become a weapon, and hence an instrument. It was this politicization of philosophy that was discerned as the root of our troubles by an intellectual who denounced the treason of the intellectuals. He committed the fatal mistake, however, of ignoring the essential difference between intellectuals and philosophers. In this he remained the dupe of the delusion which he denounced. For the politicization of philosophy consists precisely in this, that the difference between intellectuals and philosophers…becomes blurred and finally disappears.[13]

Strauss next turns his wrath to Max Weber, the German sociologist. Strauss ascribes to Weber the view that there are values that are good and naturally right, but they can never be proved and can never be shown to be superior to others. According to Strauss, Weber breaks with the historical school, and not because it rejected natural right. “He objected to the historical school not because it had blurred the idea of natural right but because it had preserved natural right in a historical guise, instead of rejecting it altogether,” wrote Strauss.[14] To Weber, all values are the same. No set of values is inherently better or more good than another set of values. Strauss calls it a “hierarchy of values.” Weber does not believe in it.[15]

Strauss does. He characterizes philosophy as the study of the first things.[16] And the first things he studies, that he thinks are more right than wrong, are the ancient philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Christian thinkers. They all believe in some form of natural right. And their natural right is vastly different than what we think of it as today.

The best men should rule. Not all men have the ability to be the best. All men are not equal. Some are naturally better than others. And the best are wise. Says Strauss, “wisdom takes precedence over consent.”[17] But in order for this society to work, the conditions must be favorable. The unwise, the masses, must be able to recognize who and what is wise, and to allow that person or people to lead. They must obey them instinctively. If they do not, this society, one where the best men rule, is not possible because the wise do not have the ability to persuade the masses. In this case, the masses take over and they cater to the lowest in society. Tyranny and despotism become inevitable.

Ideally, the ancients wanted the previous regime — the absolute rule of the best, wisest men. But practically, this was not possible. In the stead of the wise men, then, the ancients wanted wise laws to rule over people, the rule of law, to be administered by wise men.

But classic natural right teaching has been subverted by a new, modern natural right teaching, propagated by those who came after the ancients. “Through the shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights,” wrote Strauss, “the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man — as distinguished from man’s end — had become that center or origin.”

And though Strauss considered Machiavelli to be the founder of modern political philosophy,[18] it was Hobbes who he thought to be the one who first distorted the classic philosophical thought on natural right. “The man who was the first to draw the consequences for natural right from this momentous change [the emergence of modern natural science] was Thomas Hobbes,” said Strauss, who famously described Hobbes as “that imprudent, impish, and iconoclastic extremist, that first plebeian philosopher, who is so enjoyable a writer because of his almost boyish straightforwardness, his never failing humanity, and his marvelous clarity and force” who “was deservedly punished for his recklessness, especially by his countrymen.”[19] The only strand of thought that Hobbes kept intact from the ancients was the belief that political philosophy was necessary. After that, he rejected everything they taught. The ancients thought man a social, political animal; Hobbes thought man asocial, beings that did not inherently need companionship. The ancients believed in some form of God or gods; Hobbes was a political atheist. The ancients tried to make the best society by pondering how men ought to live; Hobbes thought society should be constructed by how men actually do live. “Necessity rather than moral purpose determines what is in each case the sensible course of action,” wrote Strauss, attributing this thought to Hobbes.[20]

And Locke was a direct descendant of Hobbes. Locke is, perhaps, the most important philosopher to American thought, and because of this, most people think of him as continuing in the classic natural right tradition. He certainly tries to present himself that way—he quotes Hooker and criticizes Hobbes. But his thought is distinctively in the Hobbesian tradition. He assumes that there was a state of nature, when that is anything but classical, and nothing but Hobbesian. He calls the most fundamental right the right of self-preservation, another ode to Hobbes. Hobbes and Locke only differ in their solutions—Hobbes thinks that the problem of the state of nature requires an absolute government, while Locke thinks it requires a limited one. Strauss summarizes Hobbes’ and Locke’s thought thusly: “Life is the joyless quest for joy.”[21]

Rousseau was the first to notice the defect in this modern natural right doctrine represented by the thought of Hobbes and Locke and to attempt to return to the ancients. But he only deepened the chasm between the ancients and the moderns. While he attempts to prove Hobbes’ thought wrong, he makes the mistake of accepting the man’s premises — he accepts the notion of a state of nature. He simply differs with Hobbes, and Locke, on what actually was the state of nature. Rousseau sees that Hobbes’ thought is massively inconsistent — he assumes that man is not social by nature, but establishes the character of natural man by observing his traits in a social society — and seeks to correct it. But by making his thought more consistent, he takes modern natural right teaching even further from the classical natural right teaching of the ancients.

Burke also attempted to return with the ancients. And, indeed, he gets the closest out of those that Strauss studies. “Burke sided with Cicero and with Suarez against Hobbes and against Rousseau,” explained Strauss. But, however good Burke may have been in some regard, he is a precursor, indeed maybe even a founder, of the historical school. Burke thought theory insufficient to practice. The perfect society was not possible, so the best way to provide order is to look to experience and to tradition to guide the way. “Practical wisdom, in contradistinction to theory, requires, therefore, ‘the most delicate and complicated skill,’ a skill which arises only from long and varied practice,” says Strauss, quoting Burke. A wise legislator cannot make a lasting constitution — a constitution must be organic, grown from tradition sowed by experience. It is here where he differs the most from the ancients.

Strauss and NRH are very controversial, especially his contentions about Locke. Michael Zuckert, a former student of Strauss disagreed with his characterization of Locke as a Hobbesian. “Locke assimilates, rejects, and moves beyond the Hobbesian,” says Zuckert. “It is this moving beyond Hobbes that allows Locke to ‘launch liberalism.’”[22] Zuckert believes that, although Strauss was right in the sense that Locke did go through a “Hobbesian moment,” he overlooks the main reason that they are so different: Locke modified Hobbes’ doctrine.

John Plamenatz of Oxford University makes the same point as Zuckert. He acknowledges that Locke is indebted to Hobbes, but also points out that they are vastly different. “According to Locke,” Plamenatz asserts, “every man in the state of nature is bound to respect the rights of other men; but according to Hobbes this is not so.”[23] It is this key difference that sets them apart. Though they start with the same premises, that they end up with much different solutions makes them dissimilar in the extreme.

James Gordon Clapp of Hunter College also finds fault in Strauss’ reading of Locke, though he is largely sympathetic to NRH as a whole. He thinks that Strauss’ suggestion that Locke is dishonest is in want. It requires much more evidence than Strauss provides in his book. “[Strauss] asserts that Locke is cautious (in the pejorative sense) in his writings,” says Clapp, “and that he is really a concealed Hobbesian while he uses the language of Hooker and other ‘right’ authors.”[24] To Clapp, this argument is not sufficient enough to make such an outlandish claim.

I think that Strauss is largely right in his assessment of the four modern philosophers he examines, and is also right in the need to hearken back to the ancient philosophers. I disagree with those who disparage Strauss on Locke because they miss the key point Strauss was making — since Locke accepts the basic deviation of Hobbes from the ancients (the assertion of a state of nature) he diverts from the ancients in every way and therefore is in the Hobbesian tradition, no matter how far he strays from Hobbes’ results. Because he took the wrong course, he is wrong, no matter how you look at it.

Natural right exists. Absolute, immutable truth exists. Some value-sets are inherently better than others. It is possible to know. But it is very difficult, as is evidenced by the thousands of years that man has wrestled with it. I agree with Strauss that historicism is wrong, that to believe something is good simply because it has been handed down to us through tradition and experience is philosophical folly. However, history can help us solidify what is naturally right and good. If something has been done a certain way for a long time and it has worked out to the benefit of a large number of people, it seems certain that it is right, so long as it passes philosophical and logical muster. If something has shown to be a destructive force for humanity, it stands to reason that it would be naturally, inherently bad and evil. In this case, experience and tradition can play a vital role in knowing natural right, but it is not the basis for that right. Experience cannot teach us everything. In this sense, Strauss is indeed correct.

Strauss once said, “Human beings will never create a society which is free of contradictions.”[25] Indeed he was right. But we can sure try. And in our efforts we will invariable create a society which is practically better than it would be. This is what political philosophy is. And after, reading Strauss, I am convinced that is what we need to save us.

[1] Nicgorski, Walter. “Leo Strauss.” Modern Age (1982): 270.

[2] Gottfried, Paul. “Straussians & Realists.” The American Conservative 16 June 2003: 21.

[3] Nicgorski, Walter. “Leo Strauss.” Modern Age (1982): 271-272.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Wilmington, Del.: ISI, 2008. 577.

[7] Ibid. 74-75.

[8] Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 1999. Vi.

[9] Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987. 910.

[10] Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 1999. 5.

[11] Ibid. 6.

[12] Ibid. 31-32.

[13] Ibid. 34.

[14] Ibid. 37.

[15] Ibid. 66.

[16] Ibid. 82.

[17] Ibid. 141.

[18] Stoner, Jr., James R. “Was Leo Strauss Wrong about John Locke?” The Review of Politics 66.4 (2004): 559.

[19] Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 1999. 166

[20] Ibid. 179.

[21] Ibid. 251.

[22] Stoner, Jr., James R. “Was Leo Strauss Wrong about John Locke?” The Review of Politics 66.4 (2004): 556.

[23] Plamenatz, John. “Review.” The Philosophical Review 64.2 (1955): 301.

[24] Clapp, James G. “Review.” Philosophical and Phenomenological Research 16.4 (1956): 574-75.

[25] Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987. 934.

2 thoughts on “Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History

  1. Wonderful work, Tony. That Locke is a Hobbesian seems absurd, but only absurd if you don’t see how they both rejected not just classical philosophy but the Christian [Aquinas-Hooker-Grotius] concept of natural law.

    I disagree with those who disparage Strauss on Locke because they miss the key point Strauss was making — since Locke accepts the basic deviation of Hobbes from the ancients (the assertion of a state of nature) he diverts from the ancients in every way and therefore is in the Hobbesian tradition, no matter how far he strays from Hobbes’ results.

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