A quick glance at the forgotten decade of Pamphlet Debates reveals why.
The Thinker Who Influenced Ben Shapiro’s View of Western Civilization
In his book The Right Side of History, Ben Shapiro adopts a vision of Western history influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973), arguing that Western civilization owes its birth and vitality to the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, two mutually exclusive symbols of knowing that could never be reconciled.
Both Strauss and Shapiro take a universalist approach to history and the ideas that come from the Western tradition. This deserves some discussion because such universalism has implications that conservatives should remember when they engage with Shapiro’s thought.
The Political Philosophy of the “Best Regime”
Strauss attempted to reconnect America and the wider West to the tradition of political philosophy that seeks the best regime—or, put another way, the rational knowledge about what the political good even is. You could only find this by studying the ancients, specifically Plato and Aristotle, who represented to Strauss the guide to recognizing universal truth.
Of all imperfect political regimes, Strauss saw Anglo-American democracy as the least imperfect and the one most likely to resist the relativism and nihilism that had created Nazism. Strauss urged the recovery of a theory of natural rights from Plato and Aristotle, believing that natural rights were accessible to reason whenever and wherever people were, irrespective of culture or religious background. He argued that such rights provided a firm foundation for the understanding of human nature and truth, for considering what is true and false, and right and wrong. Natural rights were the key to defending liberal democracy and knowing the good, rather than merely having an opinion of it.
The postmodern conservative thinker Peter Lawler, however, pointed out that there seems to be little room in Strauss’s thought for the Christian view of life.
This is strange because Christianity was a greater revolutionary force for equality and justice than ancient Greek philosophy ever was.
Leaving Christianity Out
Yet Strauss neglects Christianity almost completely, as if it were incidental to Anglo-American democracy and not a primary influence. Instead, he argues that America represented the highest achievement in political history because it maintained the conceptions of natural rights based in a universal nature that the ancient Greeks supposedly instantiated. Instead of growing out of various dissenting Protestant sects and the influence of British culture and traditions, the American Founding restored the classical vision of a republic to the world, with the Founders filling the role of Athenian elder statesmen, or Plato’s wise men. As David Gress has written, Strauss’s approach embodies a trend in which “Greece was adopted by the modern West as, in part, a replacement for Christianity.”
While it is true that Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics had sought universals on which to base one’s life, it’s not like this extended to all members of society. In Christianity, humanity comprised individuals made in the image of God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Alongside this was the idea of charity (Love your neighbor as yourself) that is indispensable to a functioning democracy.
The view in the ancient world was quite different. Donald Kagan writes that “to understand the ancient Greeks and Romans, we must be alert to the gap that separates their views … from the opinions of our own times. They knew nothing of such ideals as would later be spoken in the Sermon on the Mount, and they would have regarded them as absurd if they had.”
Larry Siedentop further describes the ancient worldview in Inventing the Individual. Greece and Rome were deeply religious societies built upon an unshakable belief in a natural inequality that was linked to a divine order. The Greeks and Romans possessed no concept of the individual as we would understand it today, separate from the family or the city, nor a notion of free will. Only aristocrats came close to possessing a “free” will. Everyone else was believed to have less ability to think and act freely the further down they were on the pyramid of existence. Knowledge, free will, rationality, and truth were relative. In his book Dominion, Tom Holland points out that the lack of a belief in the inherent dignity of the human person, rooted in a vision of God in human form, meant that practices like slavery and infanticide were common, and that these stemmed from the ancients’ radically different view of humanity.
Strauss’s reading of the ancients stems from his battle against the relativism rooted in historicism.
In his seminal Natural Right and History, Strauss warned that historicism is the belief that “all human thought is historical and hence unable to grasp anything eternal.” Historicism, therefore “destroyed the only solid basis of all efforts to transcend the actual,” as the “unbiased historian had to confess his inability to derive any norms from history: no objective norms remained … thus all standards suggested by history as such proved fundamentally ambiguous and therefore unfit to be considered standards.” Any standards that remained “were of a purely subjective character, standards that had no support other than the free choice of the individual. No objective criterion henceforth allowed the distinction between good and bad choices.” The effect of this relativism was ultimately nihilism. Nothing really mattered anymore, because there was no grounding in objective, universal truth.
Against Edmund Burke
Strauss dismisses (or ignores) the role of historical contingency. It’s clear why when you read his criticism of Edmund Burke (1729–1797) at the end of Natural Right and History. Strauss believed that Burke represents what is wrong with conservatism because Burke teaches that constitutions grow from long accumulated experience rather than from looking to eternal principles of natural rights. Burke’s thought reflects the conservative tendency to erase natural rights by appealing to prescription over universal truths. Burke is therefore guilty of historicism: he doesn’t espouse the superiority of the philosophical life that searches for the way to order the hierarchy of ends in the best regime, but rather is modern in his real but indefinite understanding of individual flourishing. Finally, in his suspicion of abstraction and rationalism, Burke ranks sentiment higher than reason in apprehending beauty along with the best political order.
Strauss’s criticism dismisses those who look to particular traditions for guidance in life. But such a hard separation of the universal and the particular is arguably as illusory as Strauss’s separation of revelation and reason.
We all exist within and are guided by a set, or even sets, of conceptual categories, whether or not we know where those categories come from. However, we are capable with our reason of comprehending, examining, and even correcting our conceptual categories in our lives. Taking inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observations about the impossibility of a private language, Mary Eberstadt writes that both religion and our sense of self are learned and practiced in the family. This is largely an unconscious process that we later become aware of and are able to examine through the use of our limited reason. If family and religion shape our development, why wouldn’t our societies and cultures?
For conservatives, then, viewing cultures and societies and the ideas they produce through the lens of historical and cultural contingency is arguably more realistic and closer to the truth than cleaving them from their context. By removing this context, Strauss and Shapiro adopt an approach to philosophy that is redolent of the present blank-slate approach to human nature that is common among large parts of the left today.
Does Tradition Undermine Reason? Or Universality?
The result, as Claes G. Ryn argues, is that Strauss and Shapiro reductively assume that respect for tradition undermines reason and universality. Edmund Burke’s historical sense is key to apprehending the universal; Strauss’s criticism of Burke’s appreciation and adherence to prescription for its lack of a universal foundation ignores the possibility that individuals can grasp the universal through the particular. As Jaroslav Pelikan puts it, it is “a mark of an authentic and living tradition that it points us beyond itself.”
Abandoning, or at least modifying, Strauss’s and Shapiro’s abstract views of history and universalism does not relinquish us to a soul-sapping relativism. We can still appreciate such universal truths as natural rights through the variety and particularity of where we are. We are not doomed to the false binary choice between universalism and relativism.
Instead, we can view the concreteness of our place in the world as an icon that points to the eternal, grounded in a sense of the sacred toward which we all journey as pilgrims.
When we accept that our world points to the transcendent, we can feel at home where we are.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the U.K. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. He tweets at @intothefuture45.
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