Have the Principles of the Right been Discredited? Leo Strauss’s Rome and Ours

by G Sanchez

[T]he 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 [the rights of man] 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 [to rule the peoples . . . to spare the conquered and subdue the proud]. 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 Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.

These striking words, penned by a Leo Strauss in his May 19, 1933 letter to Karl Löwith, remain at the heart of a seemingly endless debate over whether or not one of the most polarizing thinkers of the past century was not only the secret mastermind behind the ideology of neoconservatism, but also a crypto-fascist whose obscure and labyrinthine books lead unsuspecting young men to adopt opprobrious political principles. Had Strauss never become the progenitor of a controversial hermeneutics and the founder of loosely aligned “school” which, if one believes the frequent complaints of Paul Gottfried, has strong-armed itself into unmerited positions of power and prestige in American academia, the paragraph quoted above might be interpreted for what it likely is: a young German Jew’s defiant rejection of an intellectually, morally, and pragmatically bankrupt liberalism which had, since the close of the Great War, helped plunge Germany into socio-economic ruin while proving incapable of stopping the rise of National Socialism. Strauss saw first-hand what the principles of the Left had done to his native land; the principles of the Right—fascist, authoritarian, and imperial—were, to a fledgling scholar who would later inform readers that he was caught in the midst of the theological-political problem, all that was left.

Eight decades later all of us, whether sympathetic to “Straussianism” or not, can appreciate that Strauss was holding to a dream that never came true. Though opinions vary with respect to where Strauss believed “a glimmer of the spark of Roman thought” still existed in the 1930s—Great Britain? Italy? The United States?—it is clear that no imperium came forward in time to vanquish the Nazis before they blanketed the Continent in genocide. Strauss informed Löwith that rather than liberalism he’d “take the ghetto.” Would he have taken the gas chamber, too? Perhaps the horrors which transpired after Strauss wrote his letter changed his mind. By 1937 he was living in the United States and, according to some of his students, voted Democrat. While some still seek to find totalitarian teachings in Strauss’s body of work, it should not go unnoticed that a significant contingent of his students and their own academic progeny have written a library’s worth of commentary on, along with defenses of, the American Founding and the thought of liberal thinkers ranging from John Locke and Montesquieu to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

We living in the West today are far removed from the concrete political situation Strauss was facing in the 1930s. The principles of the Right, so the story goes, proved themselves to be as incapable of sustaining domestic and international order as the principles of the Left—those which informed Soviet Russia and the communist polities of Asia and Latin America. Where the Right has emerged, often in reaction to the Left, it has, at best, quickly decayed into petty authoritarianism or, at worst, initiated years of bloody persecution before eventually ceding to liberal ideology. Have the principles of the Right not been discredited?

The answer to that question is “Yes,” albeit with qualifications. None of the principles of the Right Strauss adumbrates in his 1933 letter are intrinsically good or meaningful in and of themselves. They are lower principles that must be ordered to higher ones; as such they remain negotiable. The Roman thought to which Strauss alludes is, needless to say, not Roman Catholic thought; it is superficially pagan and imperial, untransformed by the light of the Gospel. A new imperium based on “a glimmer of the spark of Roman thought” which can impose a degree of order and stability in an otherwise chaotic world fractured by ideological and religious strife has a certain practical draw to it, but only if one believes—as Strauss likely did—that there should be no notice given to which, if any, of these contending powers marches on the side of Truth. So long as a “new Rome” spares the conquered and subdues the proud, there will be right order. Beyond this brute reality there is nothing left to do except carve out, privately, one’s “way of being.”

And this is where liberalism appears again on the horizon, quickly moving in to ensnare those under it in an unserious, but entertaining, life without the fear of a violent death. Deprived of its gods and cults—without its political theology—what would imperial Rome have been except a more visceral form of liberalism? There is a possible irony here insofar as Strauss, in 1932, excoriated Carl Schmitt for failing to extricate himself fully from the machinery of liberalism in his review of the latter’s anti-liberal polemic The Concept of the Political. “The critique introduced by Schmitt against liberalism,” according to Strauss, “can . . . be completed only if one succeeds in gaining a horizon beyond liberalism”—something Strauss only believed possible from the standpoint of pre-modern philosophy, medieval and ancient. When it came to seeking a concrete power “to the rule the peoples,” Strauss longed for something neither medieval nor ancient, but thoroughly modern.  

Perhaps Strauss wasn’t deaf to this difficulty; maybe he just didn’t care. In looking for a space to live in a world contemptuous toward his existence as a Jew, Strauss was agnostic toward the truth of any prevailing orthodoxy so long as it demanded little while furnishing protection. He would neither flatter nor challenge this orthodoxy; it would let him be and he would, overtly at least, leave it alone. There’s an argument to be made that this is exactly what Strauss did during the last four decades of his life, ensconced in a liberal polity that has become increasingly less bashful about its limp-wristed imperialism and soft socio-economic authoritarianism.

Strauss could hold to that view, but we—Catholics of the 21st Century—cannot. We are not agnostic about orthodoxy and we are rightly hostile toward the prevailing one. Our immediate concern is not with the principles of the Right, but the principles of right. We have no reason to crawl to the false and crooked cross of liberalism or preach its perverted gospel of individualism, materialism, and religious indifferentism, not as long as there is a glimmer of the spark of Catholic thought left in a world rapidly descending into a new dark age where even the most elemental distinctions between high and low, man and woman, child and beast, are blackened out. We do not want the ghetto, but we will, for a time, take it over any compromise or capitulation that would tear us asunder from the indefectible teachings of our Holy Mother the Church and the true Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.