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Leo Strauss Gives a Cheer for Right-Wing Principles: Fascist, Authoritarian, Imperial

Over at Balkinization, Scott Horton translates a letter from Leo Strauss to Karl Loewith:

Balkinization: Paris, May 19, 1933

Dear Mr. Löwith,

On your behalf I have in the meantime made the necessary overture to Groethuysen, who is in London. Besides this I had occasion to speak with Van Sickle, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, and informed him about you, your situation, your work and your interests. He made a note of your name, so I am sure he will remember it when he comes across it in Fehling’s letter.

As concerns me, I will receive the second year. Berlin recommended me, and that was decisive. I will also spend my second year in Paris, and I will attempt in this time to undertake something that will make my further work possible. Clearly I have major “competition”: the entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat is assembled here. It’s terrible - I’d rather just run back to Germany.

But here’s the catch. Of course I can’t opt for just any other country - one doesn’t choose a homeland and, above all, a mother tongue, and in any event I will never be able to write other than in German, even if I must write in another language. On the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility of living under the swastika, i.e., under a symbol that says nothing more to me than: you and your ilk, you are physei subhumans and therefore justly pariahs. There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, “men of science,” - as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves - non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus... And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination. I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio... parcere subjectis et debellare superbos. There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.

I do not therefore fear the fate of the émigré - at most secundum carnem:(8) the hunger or similar deprivations. - In a sense our sort are always “emigrants”; and what concerns the rest, the fear of bitterness, which is certainly very great, and in this sense I think of Klein, who in every sense has always been an emigrant, living proof for the fact that it is not unconquerable.

Dixi, et animam meam salvavi.

Live well! My heartiest greetings to you and your wife

Leo Strauss

My wife sends her thanks for your greetings, and reciprocates heartily.

Published Source: Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 3: Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften, Briefe (Heinrich Meier, ed.), Metzler Verlag 2001, pp. 624-25.

Horton writes:

In the last several months, the New York Times has run four pieces defending Leo Strauss from his critics. By comparison, the Times has run no pieces in which Strauss is actually criticized, which suggests an odd editorial posture. Indeed, the Times seems to have mounted a veritable campaign for the defense of the beleaguered Leo Strauss, which seems strange considering that he has been dead for over thirty years. These pieces are remarkably consistent. For one, each turns the very serious criticism of Strauss and his relationship with the American Neoconservative movement into a point of ridicule. The criticism is grossly distorted and key elements are misstated. For another, they present Strauss as a “liberal democrat,” not in a domestic political context, but rather as a defender of the tradition of liberal democracy we associate with Locke, Hume and J.S. Mill...

Put simply, Strauss takes firm target at the core values of liberal democracy, and particularly the American variant. Before his arrival in America, Strauss was blunt in these criticisms. After his arrival, he adopted a far more circumspect approach. After all, he was in America and writing in English, and his own philosophy would demand that he flatter or indulge national prejudices and write as if he believed in them. Like his mentor, Ernst Cassirer, Strauss had concluded by the mid-thirties that Europe, and even Britain, was simply unsafe. Only America, with its formidable resources and protected by expansive oceans from its potential adversaries, offered the prospect of safe haven...

Both the Rothstein review and the Smith book attempt to present Strauss as a person right at home with the land to which he emigrated and its Enlightenment tradition. This is extremely doubtful. But it is an act of serious deception to present Strauss as “democracy’s best friend” (to quote the last, a review essay by Edward Rothstein published on July 10, in turn quoting Steven Smith’s new book, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism) without at least making clear the deep-boring criticism that Strauss directs at American democracy...

One thing consistent among these defenses of Strauss is either a remarkable ignorance of Strauss, the intellectual milieu from which he came, his life and his thinking, or conscious dissembling about them. Strauss is a fascinating figure, well worth reading today. His scholarship had a strong focus on a handful of texts from classical antiquity – principally Greeks such as Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. This approach seems quaint to Americans, but for those who emerged from the academic milieu of the German-speaking world in the first decades of the twentieth century (think of novels such as Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat [The Blue Angel] or Hermann Hesse’s Unterm Rad [Beneath the Wheel]) it is actually typical. Strauss contemporaries like Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt had a focus on many of the same texts, though they do not adopt Strauss’ at times quite eccentric interpretations...

I am convinced that this is a very candid statement of Strauss’ politics at the time he wrote it, a reading signaled by his confessional closing. Indeed, anyone who carefully reads Strauss’ book on Hobbes (Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft in ihrer Genesis, 1936, but largely complete in 1933; translated in English as The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis) or his dissertation, written on the anti-Enlightenment writer Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, would suspect these sentiments...

It seems almost impossible to imagine a German-Jewish refugee in France, a man who describes his religious upbringing as “Conservative, if not Orthodox” actually embracing the political philosophy of his persecutors. On the other hand, we should be cautious about projecting postwar sensibilities back into the thirties. Strauss was a Middle European intellectual living in a period where liberalism looked exhausted and unable to function, and many of his contemporaries, and indeed many of Strauss’ mentors, were engaging with fascist thought. Specifically, we should consider that the two contemporary thinkers who appear to have exerted the greatest influence on Strauss at this time – Heidegger and Schmitt – were each entering into a dalliance with fascism. In their respective Faustian pacts, one emerged as the rector magnificus of one of Germany’s most famous universities, while the other (indeed, the week of this letter) became a Prussian State Councillor and key legal advisor to the Reich-Chancellor. This situation no doubt contributed to Strauss’ inability to make a clean break...

Nevertheless, the Löwith letter is profoundly revealing of the nature of Leo Strauss’ conservatism. It places his conservatism outside of the Anglo-American tradition that links to figures like Locke, Hume and Burke. Instead, it springs from a traditional Continental European variant which is deeply rooted in religion and in the notion of a benevolent (though sometimes not particularly benevolent) authoritarian leader legitimized by religion. I note that Andrew Sullivan, in his forthcoming book, The Conservative Soul, takes a different view, putting Strauss in the tradition of conservatism of doubt. Andrew’s book is a significant accomplishment, and his dissection of trends in conservative thought in the last generation is little short of dazzling. However, I disagree with him about Strauss, and am particularly confident of my conclusions as to the young Strauss...

Steven B. Smith's book, and Edward Rothstein's and Jonathan Alter's New York Times reviews of it, are either extraordinary examples of failure to do intllectual due diligence, or are Straussian intellectual moves: of course Leo Strauss was not a thinker in the Lockeian tradition, but it is good to say that he was such, for it is good for the "gentlemen" to believe that he was such.

The New York Times has recently published one snarky take on Leo Strauss. Jason de Parle's:

An A-to-Z Book Of Conservatism Now Weighs In - The Archive - The New York Times: The longest entry belongs to ''Straussianism,'' a school of political theory founded by a professor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, that emphasizes classical texts. Embraced by some leading proponents of the Iraq war, Straussianism is often regarded by those beyond its fold as opaque mumbo jumbo, a reputation that five pages of explanation may not dispel...