Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, and the Foundations for Liberty

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.

–F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty

I agree with C. Bradley Thompson that one cannot successfully defend liberty or indeed grasp what is unique about the American political tradition by embracing neoconservatism.[1] Moreover, I agree that there are elements of neoconservative thought that pose as much a threat to liberty as anything one encounters on the left or from so-called progressivism. Most importantly, I think Thompson is dead right to note the importance of Leo Strauss’s views to neoconservatism.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with the thought of Leo Strauss. While I find it worthwhile to be alert to the possibility that a writer may not always want to state his fundamental message in a forthright manner, as Strauss famously claims, I find some Straussian interpretations of philosophical texts to be strained and unnecessary. But I also think that Strauss had a keen eye for what is fundamental in philosophy and thus understood implicitly the significance of Aristotle’s dictum that “initial deviations from the truth are multiplied later a thousand-fold.” So, it is about one of Strauss’s more fundamental claims regarding natural rights that I wish to make some observations, and though I see my comments as being different from those of Thompson’s, I do think they are complementary.

Strauss claims that when political philosophy in the modern era started speaking of “natural rights,” this entailed an opposition to what is naturally right and morally obligatory.[2]

Through the shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights, 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.[3]

The whole point of natural rights in classical liberalism is, first, to uphold their primacy (specifically, the basic, negative rights to life, liberty, and property[4]) when it comes to determining the principal aim or function of the political/legal order and, second, to reject the idea that the fundamental aim of that order is to make people moral—that is, make them do what is naturally right or morally obligatory. Statecraft is not soulcraft. Yet it is also the case that for classical liberalism (and certainly much of contemporary libertarianism) these natural rights are ethical in character and not simply natural powers. Liberty is not license or merely being unimpeded from doing whatever one wants. As John Locke proclaimed:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.[5]

Strauss’s claim, above, is crucial to understanding neoconservative criticism of natural-rights classical liberalism, for it aims at the individualism that is at the heart of such liberalism. It sets up a conflict between being an advocate for individual liberty and being an advocate for ethical knowledge and a life of morality and virtue.

Regardless of how one ends up interpreting Locke, it should be clear that philosophically speaking Strauss’s claim involves a false alternative. Indeed, it involves many false alternatives. I will note three.

First and most fundamentally, making the individual human being the center of the moral world does not require accepting nominalism, mechanism, or subjectivism. Nor does accepting moderate essentialism, natural (biocentric-based) teleology, or an ethics of human flourishing require rejecting individualism.[6] As Douglas J. Den Uyl and I have noted:

There can be a view of the self or ego that is neither otherworldly nor Hobbesean, but Aristotelian. Further, the achievement of man’s natural end need not be interpreted along Platonic lines. There is no such thing as the flourishing of “man.” There is only the flourishing of individual men.[7]

Strauss’s claim exemplifies a disturbing tendency (also often found among proponents of natural law ethics) to reify the concept “human good” and make it some good that competes with the good of individual human beings. There are no legitimate reasons to follow this tendency.

Second, it is not only perfectly possible for an advocate of individual liberty to uphold ethical knowledge but also it is possible to embrace the thesis that liberty cannot be either defended or understood without such knowledge. Merely saying that some course of conduct ought to be (or ought not to be) done does not mean or imply, by itself, that this course of conduct ought to legally required (or prohibited), and the basic purpose of natural rights theory in the classical liberal tradition is to provide a set of ethical principles that will determine the purpose and scope of the political/legal order but without thereby exhausting all the ethical principles that apply to social life. Or, as Hayek put it, provide “principles that [permit] the coexistence of different sets of values that make it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.”

For the liberal tradition of which I am speaking, not only is not everything political but also not all ethical principles have the same function or are of the same type. Specifically, natural rights are metanorms that address the ethical problem of how to achieve integrated political diversity in manner that is compatible with the diverse, self-directed, and highly individualized character of human flourishing. They establish conditions for the possibility of playing the moral game, so to speak, without thereby trying to provide directions for playing that game well. Finally, it is not because one is a moral minimalist that one advocates a political regime based on basic negative rights; rather it is because of the richness and robustness of the individual moral life in both its personal and social dimensions that one comes to see the paramount importance of liberty.[8] Thus, natural rights classical liberalism (as well as most contemporary libertarianism) can reject the statecraft-is-soulcraft thesis advanced by neoconservatives (as well as by more traditional conservatives)[9] without either denying the existence of moral knowledge or confining moral discourse to rights-talk.

Third, there is no necessary conflict between accepting individual human beings as the center of the moral world and accepting their profoundly social character. Simply put, individualism is not atomism. One can advocate individualism at the moral level and still acknowledge that there are obligations to others. One can further advocate individual rights at the political level and still accept that there is more to social living than simply respecting liberty. In other words, there is plenty of room for a rich and complex civil society where people create various institutions to meet important social needs. It is both false and unnecessary to think that moral individualism requires a rejection of sociality.

There are also other problems with the overall Straussian approach to political philosophy that should be briefly noted.

(1) When it comes to the claim that the political community is the primary unit for moral analysis, it is necessary to recognize that there is a basic ambiguity in the claim that human beings are by nature political animals, and this stems from the Greek word polis. This term fuses together the notions of society and state.[10] So, when Aristotle claims the human beings are political and cannot live without the polis, he is more plausibly understood as noting the social character of human beings and not that humans are naturally creatures of the state. Thus, as Fred D. Miller has noted, Aristotle’s claim that the aim of the polis is to achieve the virtuous and happy life is correct in one sense and not in another:

The end of the polis qua society is the virtuous and happy life, but it does not follow that the function of the polis qua state is to use coercive force against its citizens so as to make them virtuous and happy.[11]

Clearly, the basic ambiguity caused by the word polis affects all discussions of politics, and this ambiguity is not always fully appreciated by Strauss. Most certainly, it is not adequately grasped by neoconservatism.

(2) Talk of the common good of the political community can be understood in both senses of polis, but insofar as one is concerned with explaining the aim of the state (or the political/legal order) in terms of the common good of the community, there is a sense in which classical liberalism can too speak of the common good. This good is not some determinate end that can be used to direct human conduct, but it can be understood as context-setting.[12] Interestingly, this sense of the common good for the political community was noted by Ayn Rand:

It is only with abstract principles that a social system may properly be concerned. A social system cannot force a particular good on a man nor can it force him to seek the good: it can only maintain conditions of existence which leave him free to seek it. A government cannot live a man’s life, it can only protect his freedom. It cannot prescribe concretes, it cannot tell a man how to work, what to produce, what to buy, what to say, what to write, what values to seek, what form of happiness to pursue—it can only uphold the principle of his right to make such choices … . It is in this sense that “the common good” … lies not in what men do when they are free, but in the fact that they are free.[13]

There is much more that can be said about the troublesome concept of the common good of the political community,[14] but there is nonetheless at least one sense of the common good that classical liberalism can endorse.

I will close these comments by noting that C. Bradley Thompson is certainly correct to reject the neoconservative claim that there is a principled gulf between philosophy and politics. Human beings can learn about what is true, good, and right and take actions to make their lives, societies, and political institutions better. But it is nonetheless possible to reject the claim that there is an unbridgeable gulf between philosophy and politics and still say that the philosopher should realize that the world might not ever listen. In other words, one can admit that, while it is possible for philosophy to change hearts and minds, it may nonetheless fail to do so. This admission does not justify neoconservatism, but it still should cause the theorist to be circumspect.[15]


[1] Thanks are owed to Douglas J. Den Uyl and Roger E. Bissell for helpful suggestions in writing this essay.

[2] This opposition is sometimes described as the conflict between modern and classic natural right or as the conflict between subjective (individual) and objective natural right. A good way to keep the difference clear is to think of the Moderns as using “right” as primarily a noun and the Ancients as primarily an adjective. The difference is also sometimes signified by the terms “natural rights” and “natural right.”

[3] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago, 1953), p. 248. As strictly a historical report of the philosophical result of the rejection of natural ends by the Moderns and not a statement about what a natural rights theory must reject, it is not necessary to take exception to it here.

[4] These are often known as individual rights.

[5] John Locke, Second Treatise, Chapter 2, Paragraph 6.

[6] See my and Douglas J. Den Uyl’s works on these matters: Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (Open Court, 1991) and Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).

[7] Liberty and Nature, p. 92.

[8] All of these claims are developed and defended in Norms of Liberty. Further, see Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, “In Search of Universal Political Principles: Avoiding Some of Modernity’s Pitfalls and Discovering the Importance of Liberal Political Order,” The Good Society 19.1 (2010): 79-86.

[9] Norms of Liberty, Chapter 10, “Communitarian and Conservative Critics,” pp. 225-64.

[10] Fred D. Miller, Jr., Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 358.

[11] Ibid. p. 360. On a related matter, Miller provides a devastating critique of Strauss’s (as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s and Michel Villey’s) contention that the concept of rights carries theoretical baggage that is incompatible with the central features of Aristotle’s political theory. Ibid, Sections 4.3 and 4.4, pp. 93-117. Aristotle certainly was no classical liberal, but this is not to say that there are not resources in his thought that cannot be used to buttress an argument for natural rights.

[12] See Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, “The Myth of Atomism,” The Review of Metaphysics 59 (June 2006): 843-870.

[13] Ayn Rand, “From My ‘Future File,’” The Ayn Rand Letter no. 3, September 23, 1974: 4-5 (first emphasis added).

[14] For an examination of this concept, see Liberty and Nature, pp. 131-71 and Norms of Liberty, pp. 197-205.

[15] This recognition of the need for theoretical caution does suggest that thought should be given to what is involved in creating a culture that is supportive of the values and ideals that sustain and maintain a liberal political/legal order. There is then an important role for not only rhetoric and literature but indeed the arts. However, it does not follow that such a task falls to the state. See Norms of Liberty, pp. 242-44.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.