Now here's a puzzle. We have Leo Strauss, an obscure political philosopher of the 1950's at the University of Chicago. He primarily writes on ancient philosophers, such as Xenophon and Plato. Thirty years after his death, we find neoconservatives like Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz saturated in the mainstream, apparently tutored under Strauss. What's the connection?
Amid the recent Leo Strauss craze, perpetuated by a largely sensationalist media blindly driven towards the holy grail of conspiracy theory, I decided to pick up Natural Right and History. While, obviously, one cannot ascertain his entire political message by merely one book, reading Natural Right and History helps obviate the connection.
Natural Right is a "biography" of the idea of natural right. Strauss traces the idea of natural right, from antiquity to modernity to postmodernity. In classic "Straussian" form, to understand the political implications of this book, you have to read painstakingly between the lines.
Strauss starts the book with a rather standard critique of historicism (historical relativism) and conventionalism. His argument against value relativism is very straight forward; hardly any social scientist today makes the claims that Strauss refutes. The new relativism is a more sophisitcated one, couched behind postmodernist word-games.
However, social science is largely built upon the theories of Max Weber. Thus, Strauss uses a reduction proof. If he can reduce social science to Weber, and if he can reduce Weber to historicism, then he can effectively show that the methodologies social science are fallacious, since he shows that historicism is false. Consequently he can show that a historicist understanding of natural right is also bunk. To be sure, this is an extremely risky strategy since the argument relies on a lengthy chain of reasoning.
Having attacked postmodern notions of natural right, Strauss restarts at antiquity and works his way up to modernity. Strauss shows the evolution of the idea of natural right, from "Socrates" to Plato to Aristotle to Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau to Burke.
So which conception of natural rights does Strauss believe in - the classical or the modern (enlightenment)? In short, he subscribes to the classical. Why? Succinctly, Strauss contends that natural right became doomed the second that Hobbes injected his hedonism into natural right.
A different way approach is to look at Strauss's juxtaposition of (classical vs modern) as (republicanism vs. liberalism). By liberalism, I mean classical liberal, i.e. enlightenment liberal. Classical liberalism is the view that individuals are prior to society. By republicanism, I do not mean anything related to the republican party. Republicanism means that individuals are willing to sacrifice their private interests to the public good, i.e. civic virtue. Republicanism means, in extremely superficial terms, that civil society is prior to the individual.
With that said, I totally disagree with Strauss's analysis, for more reasons I can delve into here. I think that the rights of classical liberalism, as Locke conceived it, is largely correct. However, Strauss plays a vital role in the ongoing conversation of rights in political science and philosophy. For producing a very challenging, thought-provoking analysis, this book gets 5 stars. Beware: it's not a light read!