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Natural Right and History

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In this classic work, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. On the centenary of Strauss's birth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Walgreen Lectures which spawned the work, Natural Right and History remains as controversial and essential as ever.

"Strauss . . . makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves . . . [and] brings to his task an admirable scholarship and a brilliant, incisive mind."—John H. Hallowell, American Political Science Review

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Chicago.

336 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1953

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About the author

Leo Strauss

178 books299 followers
Leo Strauss was a German-American philosopher and philologist of ancient Greek text. In his early years studying in Germany he acquainted himself with seminal German thinkers of the 20th century such as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Ernst Cassirer. As a person of Jewish ancestry, Strauss fled to the United States during the rule of Third Reich and taught at the University of Chicago. There, he wrote commentaries on ancient Greek thought of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the medieval philosophy of Maimonides and Islamic philosophers, and expounded his thought on political philosophy. His legacy remains in the realm of political theories to this day.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 67 reviews
Profile Image for Brad Lyerla.
209 reviews173 followers
July 5, 2023
More than a decade ago, after sharing a few bottles of wine, a very dear friend tried to convince me that Judaism is a higher religion than Christianity or Islam. This happened in the famous President’s Bar located on the second floor of the University Club in Chicago. It is a place where similar high falutin’ conversations used to take place with regularity. I miss it.

My friend is a graduate of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School (and the most perceptive interlocutor I know). He knows how to marshal an eloquent argument when he wants to. He made many points in his favor, all of which are outside the scope of this book review. However, that conversation is relevant here because it uniquely and possibly for the first time fixed my mind on the critical questions addressed in NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY. Namely, what is the best regime (or religion) and what is the standard for addressing such a question? My friend intimated that the standard might be found by studying the writings of Leo Strauss, the 20th century political philosopher, whose most productive years were spent at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. I was deeply skeptical that such a standard can be articulated. Yet, I took the suggestion to read Strauss seriously. As so often happens, other things intervened and I did not have time to pursue reading Strauss until only recently.

I will not bore you with the details, but a time came when I could become part of a reading group that focuses on the writings of Strauss. The group began with the title essay in a collection of Strauss’ essays entitled, WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY? It was a challenge for me. Strauss is an unconventional and elusive writer. I was often unsure whether I understood what he intended. Although older than other members of the group, I was the one with the most incomplete education in the discipline of political philosophy. As we read together, the other members of the group were patient and supportive while I often spun my wheels. But by the conclusion of the several months that it took us to complete WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, I felt that I had advanced sufficiently to keep up with the others.

It required extra work. I located audio files of several of Strauss’ lectures on line. These were very helpful. I also read three Strauss biographies and watched a video of a conversation between Bill Kristol and Harvey Mansfield, the prominent Harvard professor who is a student of Strauss’s philosophy. I learned from Mansfield that, in his opinion, the best book to read to become acquainted with Strauss’s thinking is NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY. Taking his suggestion to heart, when the time came for our reading group to choose our next book, I suggested that we should read NRH and the group agreed.

In NRH, Strauss addresses the question (closely related to that conversation long ago in the President’s Bar), what is the standard for deciding which is the best regime? By ‘regime’, Strauss means more than simply the laws and political organization of society. In regime, he includes also the religion, mores, conventions and other patterns of behavior that bracket the conduct of citizens, both leaders and followers, within a society.

I do not propose to provide a summary of NRH here. You can find several good ones in GoodReads. Instead, I want to talk about Strauss’ project more generally and why we should take it seriously.

We live in a time that philosophers call “post-modern”. Post-modern thinkers have given up searching for something built into nature that makes life or a political regime good. Post-modern thinkers conclude that any notion of the good that may exist in these times is not an enduring or unchanging part of nature. Rather, it is the result of consensus and will last only as long as the consensus holds. Some see this as an advantage in that it enables tolerance of conflicting points of view. The American Pragmatists are an example of such thinkers.

Others see it as a challenge to find genuine meaning in our lives. Nietzsche and Heidegger are examples of thinkers who approach it that way. Generally, thinkers in that vein think that when good is based on mere consensus (also known as conventionalism), it inevitably will resolve into nihilism. In the 20th century, existentialists argued that the solution is for the individual to create his own meaningful existence, a life of authenticity, by imagining a life for oneself and then committing to it. The commitment yields the meaning that saves the individual from nothingness.

Strauss abhors the existentialists and ignores the pragmatists. However, he agrees with the existentialists that consensus inevitably resolves into nihilism. Much of NRH is a discussion of that inevitability. Strauss makes his case well, at least well enough that it cannot be dismissed lightly. He does not deny that conventionalism leaves room for increased toleration of divergent views, a desirable thing, but he predicts that the danger of nihilism may prove to outweigh any temporary advantage gained in accommodating diverse points of view. (Indeed, the behavior of the culture war combatants in the US these days may be an example of the nihilism that Strauss thought was unavoidable.)

Given this conundrum, Strauss blazes a new trail quite unlike other post-moderns. He avoids nihilism by avoiding conventionalism at the outset. To do so, he hearkens back to the ancients. In place of conventionalism, Strauss posits natural right, the idea that what is good is fixed in human nature. (It should be noted that NRH is not Strauss' last word on natural right. He continued to refine his thinking another 20 years after publishing NRH. However, NRH does seem to be a good introduction to his thought on the subject.)

In NRH, Strauss describes two kinds of natural right, classical and modern. Classical natural right was first expounded by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Cicero and Aquinas were also proponents of classical natural right. Strauss credits Thomas Hobbes with inventing modern natural right, which with refinements has come to be known as modern liberal democracy.

Strauss prefers classical natural right. Strauss does not lay out his own positive program for the good regime. The closest he comes is that it is clear that he thinks the problems of post-modernism would not exist in a classical regime. The individual’s relationship to the regime classically was one of responsibility to act virtuously. That is, in the classical world, the citizen had the duty to act virtuously.

In contrast, in modern natural right, the citizen is foremost (if not solely) a holder of rights that the regime may not encroach upon without the citizen’s consent. Strauss details how the modern version of natural right came to be by discussing Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Burke. In modern natural right, the citizen is sovereign. Whereas in classical natural right, the sovereign political unit is the regime.

It is apparent that Strauss thinks that citizens seeking to live virtuously in the classical sense make for a better regime than citizens who are free to pursue happiness in the modern sense, i.e., the solitary pursuit of happiness. Strauss reasons that classical natural right comports with what is natural for human beings, who are by their nature political animals. Human nature calls on the citizens of the good regime to live virtuously, and when they do, rewards them with a happy life. (Aristotle would remind us that to be happy a virtuous citizen must also have a little money and good health too, of course.)

Circling back to my conversation in the President’s Bar, one could conclude that NRH implicitly argues that the highest religion is the religion that most encourages virtuous behavior as described by Plato and Aristotle.

In NRH, Strauss argues more explicitly that the metric for measuring the good regime or the good life is virtue, as Plato and Aristotle thought of it. Unfortunately, in NRH, he does not tell us how to return to that way of living and may concede that it is too late to do so. That is unfortunate. I can’t cite a more important question to ponder in these unsatisfactory times. That Strauss had that question firmly in mind writing NRH in 1949, impresses me enormously.
Profile Image for P.E..
777 reviews558 followers
February 3, 2022
Bearings for travellers in the flow of History

Is man endowed with a set of rights not entirely dependant on History and its successive avatars (political regimes, civil societies, revolutions, wars...) but transcending them?

To answer such a question, Leo Strauss defines conventionalism (= opinion is transient and variable, or arbitrary from the p.o.v. of the highest order ; the quest for the best political order implies transcendence), asserts the existence of universal values, of an essential unity between facts and values, of the relevance of earlier thinkers in this research.

First, he points out the fundamental hedonism of thinkers such as Machiavelli (identifying virtue with patriotism), Hobbes (Taking the fear of violent death, and the drive for self-preservation—that is peaceableness—as the basis of society), and Locke (the latter considering that the point of civil society is to allow the acquisition of property. Property originates in the private individual, and is maintained, secured by society. Consequently, society, by securing property rights, create the conditions for temporal happiness).

The three thinkers initiate a paradigm shift from public duties to natural rights, and pave the way for Adam Smith.

Then Strauss discusses Rousseau, who attacked modernity by using the classical notions of city and virtue. The author of the Discourse on Inequality downgrades reason, said to arise from calculation, whereas the fundamental (=prerational, prelinguistic) state of mankind, according to him, is one of loneliness and compassion. Their chief feature being conscience/sentiment/instinct... Thus, Rousseau promotes general will as the keystone of society, allowing virtue and freedom to happen.

Finally, Strauss studies Edmund Burke. Burke considered that the right to self-preservation and the pursuit of happiness do not endow everyone with the right to participate in the political order. Berating the spirit theory common to Reformation and French Revolution, in favour of 'prudence and experience', he relies on a presupposed purpose within History (Providence). As a consequence, he heralds Hegel, the future distinction used by Marxists between 'progressive' and 'retrograde' and is one of the 'Founding Fathers' of Historicism, with Johann Gottfried von Herder.



'To reject natural right is tantamount to saying that all right is positive right, and this means that what is right is determined exclusively by the legislators and the courts of the various countries.'

'Under democratic regimes it was held that majority will created law and granted rights. Beyond these, no restrictions of law could bind the sovereign state. In recent years that peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon—the totalitarian regime—revived among political philosophers the study of the traditionalist natural law doctrine, with its insistence upon limited state authority.'

'Philosophy is possible only if man, while incapable of acquiring wisdom or full understanding of the whole, is capable of knowing what he does not know, that is to say, of grasping the fundamental problems and therewith, the fundamental alternative, which are, in principle, coeval with human thought.'


'If the city is not a genuine whole, what is called "the good of the whole", or the just, in opposition to the unjust or selfish, is, in fact, merely the demand of collective selfishness; and there is no reason why collective selfishness should claim to be more respectable than the selfishness of the individual.'

'What is true of self-restraint, self-coercion, and power over one's self applies in principle to the restraint and coercion of others and to power over others. To take the extreme case, despotic rule is unjust only if it is applied to being who can be ruled by persuasion or whose understanding is sufficient: Prospero's rule over Caliban is by nature just.'

'The variability of the demands of that justice which men can practice was recognized not only by Aristotle but by Plato as well. Both avoided the Scylla of "absolutism" and the Charybdis of "relativism" by holding a view which one may venture to express as follows: There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action.'

'Just as Machiavelli reduced virtue to the political virtue of patriotism, Hobbes reduced virtue to the social virtue of peaceableness. Those forms of human excellence which have no direct or unambiguous relation to peaceableness—courage, temperance, magnanimity, liberality, to say nothing of wisdom—cease to be virtue in the strict sense.'


'The state of nature became an essential topic of political philosophy only with Hobbes [...]. It is with Hobbes that the philosophic nature of natural law has been essentially a doctrine of the state of nature. Prior to him, the term "state of nature" was at home in Christian theology rather than in political philosophy.'

Rousseau further agrees with Hobbes in finding the principle of natural law in the right of self-preservation, which implies the right of each to be the sole judge of what are the proper means for his self-preservation. This view presupposes, according to both thinkers, that life in the state of nature is "solitary," i.e., that it is characterized by the absence not only of society but even of sociability.'

'The starting point of human efforts is misery: the state of nature is a state of wretchedness. The way toward happiness is a movement away from nature: the negation of nature is the way toward happiness. And if the movement toward happiness is the actuality of freedom, freedom is negativity.


'Locke's thought is perfectly expressed by Madison's statement: "The protection of [different and unequal faculties of acquiring property] is the first object of government.'

'Just like the primary pain itself, the pain that relieves pain [=labor] "ceaseth only in death." Since there are therefore no pure pleasures, there is no necessary tension between civil society as the mighty leviathan or coercive society, on the one hand, and the good life, on the other: hedonism becomes utilitarianism or political hedonism. The painful relief of pain culminates not so much in the the greatest pleasures as "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." Life is the joyless quest for joy'.


'[Burke] rejects the view that constitutions can be "made" in favour of the view that they must "grow" [...]. [...] the best constitution is in accordance with nature or is natural also and primarily because it has come not through planning but through the imitation of natural process, i.e., because it has come into being without guiding reflection, continuously, slowly, not to say imperceptibly,

"in a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents"; all "new fancied and new fabricated republics" are necessarily bad. The best constitution is therefore not "formed upon a regular plan or with any unit of design" but directed toward "the greatest variety of ends."
[...] Accordingly, the sound political order for him, in the last analysis, is the unintended outcome of accidental causation.'

= Burke applies to the production of the sound political order what modern political economy had taught about the production of public prosperity. He accepts a principle of modern political economy at odds with the classical principle regarding acquisitiveness of goods, property, the pursuit of happiness.

In short, 'private vices, public benefits'
(The Fable of the Bees)

That is... the same fundamental principle that is at the bottom of the US & French revolutionary theory.


'For a moment—the moment lasted longer than a century—it seemed possible to seek the standard of human action in the historical process. This solution presupposed that the historical process or its results are unambiguously preferable to the state of nature or that that process is "meaningful". Rousseau could not accept that presupposition. He realized that to the extent to which the historical process is accidental, it cannot supply man with a standard, and that, if that process has a hidden purpose, its purposefulness cannot be recognized except if there are trans-historical standards. The historical process cannot be recognized as progressive without previous knowledge of the end or purpose of the process. To be meaningful, the historical process must culminate in perfect knowledge of the true public right [...]. It is, then, not knowledge of the historical process, but knowledge of the true public right which supplies man with the true standard.'

'By denying the significance, if not the existence, of universal norms, the historical school destroyed the only solid basis of all efforts to transcend the actual. Historicism can therefore be described as a much more extreme form of modern this-worldliness than the French radicalism of the eighteenth century had been.'

'Historicism asserts that all human thoughts or beliefs are historical, and hence deservedly destined to perish ; but historicism itself is a human thought ; hence historicism can be only of temporary validity, or it cannot be simply true.'




La Révolution Française
Nouvelle histoire des guerres de Vendée
La France du XIXe siècle. 1814-1914
Révolutions françaises du Moyen âge à nos jours

Specific works:

The Republic

Democracy in America Volume 1
Democracy in America Volume 2
The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind

Scènes de la vie future
Mes idées politiques


Tristes Tropiques
Race and History

The Rebel (in Essais): dealing with the historicism of German thought (esp. since Herder) and its consequences: unqualified relativism and nihilism.

The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition
Le Déclin du courage

Articulation Economy/politics:

3 minutes pour comprendre les 50 plus grandes théories économiques
The Law
Interventionism: An Economic Analysis
Liberty And Property


Gulliver's Travels: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.
Persian Letters
Crime and Punishment
Notes from the Underground
The Brothers Karamazov
The Red and the Black
Sentimental Education

Totentanz - Franz Liszt
Profile Image for Seyed-Koohzad Esmaeili.
93 reviews64 followers
January 26, 2018
از کتاب‌های بسیار مهم و جدی لئو اشتراس است. خوشبختانه دو سال پیش پس از سال‌ها دوباره تجدید چاپ شد. بسیاری از اصول بنیادی تاریخ‌نگاری فلسفه سیاسی اشتراس مانند نقد پیشرفت‌گرایی و نقد تاریخی‌گری و انتقاد جدی از علوم اجتماعی مدرن در این کتاب بیان می‌شود. تنها می‌ماند ترجمه آن. باقر پرهام از مترجمان باسابقه کشور است. اما برخی اوقات کارهای می‌کند که واقعا قابل درک نیست. مثلا برخی از ارجاعات را حذف کرده و در یکی از پانوشت‌های مقدمه کتاب نوشته:
«نام و مشخصات کتاب ها، و برخی توضیحات دیگر در این فهرست، که دانستن یا ندانستن آنها برای خواننده فارسی زبان ناآشنا به زبان های بیگانه سودی نداشت، به فارسی برگردانده نشده است.»
این حس خودبرتر پنداری و جاهل تصور کردن مخاطب برایم قابل قبول نیست!
به هر حال همین که کتاب را ترجمه کرده باید از ایشان تشکر کرد!
Profile Image for Mike Horne.
556 reviews15 followers
August 22, 2015
This is at least my third reading of this book, and I still don't quite get it. It start with an attack on social science that takes aim mostly at Max Weber.

"According to our social science, we can be or become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but we have to be resigned to utter ignorance in the most important respect: we cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of our choices. . . our ultimate principle have no other support than our arbitrary and hence blind preferences" (Natural Right and History, 4).

Strauss then takes the reader from the classical natural right Plato and Aristotle (and St. Thomas), to the rejection by Hobbes and Locke. He then presents Rousseau's rejection of that natural right. And he ends up with Burke (who he seems to reject also).

Part of the problem with understanding Strauss’ intentions is the question whether Strauss accepts classical natural right or not? He says in the preface of the seventh impression of Natural Right and History that he has not been shaken from his “inclination to prefer ‘natural right,’ especially in its classical from, to the reigning relativist, politivist or historicist.” An “inclination to prefer” is by no means an acceptance of something especially when one prefers it to other things. Strauss, in fact, cautions against accepting as true those things one prefers. He says that “the seriousness of the need of natural right does not prove that the need can be satisfied” (Natural Right and History, 6). Strauss does not prefer modernity to classical natural right, but that does not mean he accepts classical natural right.

I would urge you to read the City and the Man (Strauss), Closing of the American Mind (Allsn Bloom), and After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.
Profile Image for Taha Rabbani.
160 reviews194 followers
June 14, 2020
خاک بر سر باقر پرهام با این ترجمه‌اش. این دومین کتابی است که با ترجمه‌ی او می‌خونم و هنوز چندان پیش‌نرفته رهاش می‌کنم. سر و ته پاراگراف‌های ترجمه‌ی او با هم نمی‌خونه.
خدا را شکر که این کتاب انگلیسی بود و می‌تونستم با متن اصلی تطبیق بدم. قبلاً نمونه‌ای از کتاب مراحل اساسی سیر اندیشه در جامعه‌شناسی از رمون آرون را در وبلاگم (در blog.ir) آورده بودم و نشون داده بودم که چه ترجمه‌ی افتضاحی است، ولی چون متن اصلی به فرانسه بود نمی‌تونستم با متن تطبیقش بدم. اما این کتاب را می‌شود با متن اصلی مقایسه کنم. فقط یک نمونه می‌آرم تا مغشوش‌بودن ذهن مترجم را متوجه شوید، چون هرچقدر هم آدم مترجم بدی باشد، باید متوجه اختلاف ابتدا و انتهای پاراگراف بشود.
پاراگراف اصلی این است:
The historicist argument has a certain plausibility which can easily be accounted for by the preponderance of dogmatism in the past. We are not permitted to forget Voltaire's complaint: "nous avons des bacheliers qui savent tout ce que ces grands hommes ignoraient." Apart from this, many thinkers of the first rank have propounded all-comprehensive doctrines which they regarded as final in all important respects—doctrines which invariably have proved to be in need of radical revision. We ought therefore to welcome historicism as an ally in our fight against dogmatism. But dogmatism—or the
inclination "to identify the goal of our thinking with the point at which we have become tired of thinking" — is so natural to man that it is not likely to be a preserve of the past.
ترجمه‌ی باقر پرهام اینه
«در برهان تاریخ‌گرایان البته جاذبه‌ای فریبنده هست و همین جاذبه است که پیشرفت دگماتیسم را در گذشته توجیه می‌کند. کنایه‌ی ولتر را فراموش نکنیم که می‌گفت: «دیپلمه‌های امروزی ما معلوماتی دارند که آن مردان بزرگ گذشته نداشتند.» از این که بگذریم، بسیاری از متفکران برجسته به نظریه‌های جامع فراگیری رسیده‌اند که به نظر آنان می‌بایست به مهم‌ترین مسایل موجود پاسخی قطعی بدهد: ولی حتی یکی از آن‌ها هم نیست که به تجدیدنظری اساسی تن درنداده باشد. پس لازم است از تاریخ‌گرایی به عنوان متحد و همدست در مبارزه بر ضد دگماتیسم استقبال کنیم. دگماتیسم -یا علاقه‌ی ما به «یکی‌کردن هدف اندیشه‌ی ما با همان نقطه‌ای که اندیشه در آن بازایستاده و از اندیشیدن خسته شده است»- به‌حدی طبیعی بشر است که ممکن نیست فکر کنیم که امری فقط محدود به گذشته بوده ا��ت.» (حقوق طبیعی و تاریخ، لئو اشتراوس، نشر آگه، ۱۳۷۳)
حال باید پرسید که چطور وقتی «برهان تاریخ‌گرایان جاذبه‌ای» داشته که «پیشرفت دگماتیسم را... توجیه می‌کند»، می‌توانیم «از تاریخ‌گرایی به عنوان متحد و همدست در مبارزه بر ضد دگماتیسم استقبال کنیم»؟
تنها دلیل چنین امکانی ناتوانی مترجم در خواندن متن و نداشتن اندکی قوه‌ی تمییز است. ترجمه‌ی درست جمله‌ی اول این است:
«برهان تاریخ‌گرایی مقادیری صحت دارد که این صحت را می‌توان به‌راحتی ناشی از غلبه‌ی دگماتیسم در گذشته دانست.» یعنی دگماتیسم در گذشته غلبه داشته، اما آن‌قدر قابل دفاع نبوده که برهان تاریخ‌گرایی هم بر آن برتری داشته است. و دگماتیسم چیزی است که باید علیه آن حتی با برهان تاریخ‌گرایی هم هم‌دست شد و به همین‌خاطر باید «از تاریخ‌گرایی به عنوان متحد و همدست در مبارزه بر ضد دگماتیسم استقبال کنیم.»
ضمناً کاملاً پیدا است که این کتاب ویراستار داشته و باید از ویراستار کتاب قدردانی کرد، اما ترجمه‌ی بد، به‌خصوص ترجمه‌ی بد مشاهیر، را نمی‌شود تک‌تک با جملات متن اصلی تطبیق داد. این کار ترجمه‌ی دوباره است و از محدوده‌ی وظایف ویراستار خارج.

86 reviews7 followers
August 1, 2017
In NRH, Strauss recovers and valorizes philosophy as a way of life. Examination of the politically urgent question of what is right by nature discloses that natural right is only possible if philosophy in the original sense, as the quest to grasp what is eternal, is possible. Philosophy in this sense had been dismissed both by early (theoretical) historicism and then later by radical (existentialist) historicism. However, Strauss argues that radical historicism cannot disprove the possibility of philosophy and actually points the way to its recovery. Existentialist, delusion-dispelling insights into the insolubility of the “fundamental riddles” prove compatible with philosophy as originally understood, and Strauss questions why the radical historicists view these insights as being dependent on historical fate. Strauss sees radical (existentialist) historicism as but an inadequate articulation of trans-historical Socratic skepticism, which seeks to understand and articulate the permanent problems and alternatives inherent in human existence. In Strauss’s hands, old, seemingly familiar thinkers emerge as strange and vital.

The recovery of philosophy as originally understood is necessary but insufficient for recovering natural right. The positivistic notion that reason is incapable of solving value conflicts (reflected in the fact/value distinction) must also be overcome. Strauss thus critically assails the methodology of Max Weber.

Because Philosophy is a way of life involving the intransigent search for truth, what unites philosophers is more important than their disagreements, and separates them from other men. This is true even when the disagreements are profound. Consider for instance the “Socratic turn,” a momentous change marking the birth of classical political philosophy. Prior to Socrates, philosophers (who take Nature as their standard) had deprecated politics, understanding notions of right to be merely conventional. Socrates, on the other hand, affirmed natural right. He also gave political philosophy an expanded meaning: political philosophy was no longer simply what philosophers thought about the ultimate status of politics, it now became the ascent to philosophy through the serious study of political opinions. Because this new approach to philosophy is interdependent with the perspective of the citizen, philosophy now began taking on responsibility to help guide the city. Socrates, in opposition to the pre-Socratics, taught that man was a political and social animal, and in his behavior, Socrates practiced what he preached. Yet even with this profound change in philosophical teaching and behavior, the classical political philosophers still shared with the pre-Socratics the notion that philosophical contemplation, the questing search for truth that disturbed and undermined society and for which only a tiny minority of individuals were by nature qualified, was man’s highest end. Philosophy still involved an ultimate transcendence of the political realm. Classical political philosophy thus responsibly coupled intransigence with moderation: Philosophy was communicated to the few, the many were supported in their salutary beliefs, and society was intelligently guided through principled yet flexible statecraft to the extent this was possible.

Because political philosophy since Plato has accepted the task of guiding society both for the sake of philosophy and for the general good, what emerges for Strauss is a history of political philosophy, where different teachings can be understood as responses to different historical circumstances, and as supplying adjustments to situations brought about in part by philosophical predecessors. The contrast between classical political philosophy and modern political philosophy looms large for Strauss. This theme in his work is often called “the Ancients vs. the Moderns.” Strauss has a decided preference for classical political philosophy, which he seeks to recover, and in some sense he treats the rebellion against the classics as a giant decline. The moderns rebelled against the Great Tradition of classical political philosophy and the Bible. They did so with great political success, but in the process much was lost. Following Hobbes, the Moderns rejected the classical notion of man as naturally a political and social animal, positing the primacy of rights over duties. Jettisoning the classical concern with character formation and the humanizing focus on “the best regime” as transcending politics, they “realistically” decided to embrace and manipulate human passions in in order guarantee results. This approach has proved socially corrosive over time. Also, in various ways, modern political philosophy has adversely affected the practice of statesmanship.

Modern political philosophy has proceeded in 3 waves. (Strauss does not employ the 3 wave terminology in this book, but he later used this terminology and it helps explain what he is talking about in NRH.) The first wave of modernity culminated with John Locke and has had its greatest practical success in America. The second and third waves involved attempted correctives to problems inherent in modernity, but these attempts have been rooted in modern premises and have served to radicalize modernity, making it even more problematic. The second wave of modernity emerged in the work of Rousseau, involved historicism, and produced among other phenomena the Soviet Union. The third wave of modernity emerged with Nietzche, involved radical (existentialist) historicism, and produced the Third Reich. In America, Strauss considered himself to be living in a first wave Lockean regime that was susceptible to the corrosions of modernity but which was relatively healthy because the second and third waves had yet to play themselves out to the extent they had in Europe and Russia. His return to classical political philosophy can be viewed as a paradoxical attempt to discern and apply ways to fortify modern America against internal decline and external threats. (Even so, many people who have written studies on Strauss point to his ultimate pessimism regarding the eventual fate of all modern regimes.)

It should be mentioned that for Strauss, the emergence of modern political philosophy, though highly problematic, was entirely understandable. A profound change had happened with the triumph of Christianity in the Middle Ages. Philosophy was made the handmaiden of Theology. This not only stifled the true nature of philosophy, it also meant that because of the political influence of priests, classical political philosophy lost its ability to promote moderation and flexible statesmanship. Much political turbulence and religious warfare helps explain the rise of modern political philosophy. Here I’ll make mention of a second major theme for Strauss, the so called “theological-political problem,” which I take to mean that philosophy must find a way to accommodate itself to religious belief without being ruled by it. Modern political philosophy emerged because classical political philosophy was no longer effectively handling this problem: the moderns, in their attempt to restore philosophical guidance and moderation to society, worked to radically undermine the influence of religion. (But of course, Modern political philosophy, from the perspective of Strauss’s theological political problem, leaves itself open to the charge of failing to accommodate itself to religious belief.)

This brings us to another major theme for Strauss, “Athens vs. Jerusalem.” Some of Strauss’s students tend to treat Athens vs. Jerusalem (reason vs. biblical revelation) as simply an example of what they consider the more basic theological political problem that stretches back to the Greek polis. That is, they think that religion is but a salutary and ultimately necessary opium for the masses, and they think that Strauss’s intellectual defense of Biblical faith against modern rationalism (which in effect argues that all alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief and points out how modern rationalism has actually proceeded against religion by way of mockery), is merely an attempt to prop up an ailing superstition. However, though Strauss does view religion as socially salutary and necessary, I think it does not do justice to Strauss to collapse Athens vs. Jerusalem into the theological-political problem. Looking at NRH, especially the chapter on Max Weber, I get the sense that Strauss viewed Biblical faith (the life of obedient love) as truly the great and viable alternative to Philosophy (the life of free insight.) The tension between reason and revelation is a field of rich reflection for Strauss. Though Strauss insists that Athens and Jerusalem are irreducible alternatives, I agree with interpreters of Strauss who contend that in his writings he manages to give his full allegiance to both.

I have used this review to try to articulate Strauss’s perspective rather than critique it. I’m just trying to come to grips with the thought of this influential yet elusive figure. I hope this effort at comprehension proves helpful to other readers. Any comments/ critiques are welcome!
Profile Image for Andrew.
88 reviews92 followers
July 6, 2020
What animated in me the desire to persevere through the (frankly) unforgivingly obscure and punishingly erudite writing of Leo Strauss was the fact that the world has spent the better half of the year (and perhaps much, much longer) in lockdown, and mired in, to put it lightly, a series of political crises. The specter of nuclear escalation with Iran that kicked the year off in January was quickly overshadowed by a plague which shut down the global economy for the better part of three months and sparked widespread skepticism in our political institutions. As if this weren't enough, protests against racial injustice erupted across the nation mid-year in response to a senseless slaying at the hands of the state, precipitating widespread looting and rioting. To top it all off, it's just July.

All of this is to say that for me, the question of politics – and in particular, politics as conceived by the original thinkers of political philosophy and science – was brought to the fore. For how can we understand the crises of modernity without first understanding the causes and conditions that led up to them? To this end, Strauss's unique and painstakingly thorough (albeit a bit eccentric) readings of authors "as they thought of themselves" (as opposed to using a chauvinistic modern lens) is refreshing, especially in an age where anyone with a Twitter account (but who hasn't picked up a serious book or actually taken the time to understand historical ideology) thinks that they have something unique or important to say.

Strauss, then, with his exceedingly fastidious deconstructions of historical political thought, could be counted on to provide exactly what I was looking for.

"Natural Right and History" is concerned with the fundamental questions of political philosophy: of justice and right, state and individual, and truth and deception. Simply, what is the best political regime, and how can we attain it? For Strauss, these all boil down to: what is a sound and proper conception of Right, and can we practically structure a society around it?

To begin answering these questions (Strauss, characteristically, does not explicitly offer his own thoughts – you must work hard to infer them), Strauss engages in careful exegeses of a number of political traditions, primarily contrasting classical conceptions of Right (illustrated by the thought of Socrates / Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Thomas Aquinas) with modern conceptions (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Burke, Weber, and to a lesser extent, Machiavelli).

In large part, the question of Right must boil down to the question of human nature. For the primary distinction between classical and modern/postmodern conceptions of Right lies in their belief and disbelief, respectively, in the essential characteristics of human nature. Classical thinkers saw the purpose of human life as the cultivation of virtue and human excellence, as guided by what is "naturally" true or good. In this way, classic Right was much less about entitlements (as it is with modern Right) and more about obligations and duties. The purpose of a human life is to actualize an essence, and to bring its full philosophic and creative potential to bear. Moreover, because "man is a social animal", virtues can only be realized, expressed, and developed in the context of a city-state. But, "since the classics viewed moral and political matters in light of man's perfection, they were not egalitarians. Not all men are equally equipped by nature for progress toward perfection, or not all 'natures' are 'good natures'." Accordingly, the best (Socratic) regime is one ruled by the wise, in accordance with Nature. There is some discussion around whether or not such a society – governed by and living in accordance with what is Naturally Right – is now, or ever was possible, and what regimes constitute less-than-ideal, but still legitimate political orders. In particular, Strauss is known for influencing a rather pragmatist sort of politician, with the understanding that such an ideal regime can, at best, only be approximated. But that is beyond my understanding, and in any case neither here nor there...

On the other hand, modern Enlightment thinkers (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Burke) began their inquiries with a radical skepticism that rejected all classical conceptions of human nature. Perhaps with an (un)healthy dose of physics / mathematics envy, the Enlightenment sought to derive robust conceptions of Right with mathematical simplicity. By approaching the question with pyrrhonic rigor, the hope was that what emerged could be certain knowledge. To them, the only thing that could be said about human "nature" was that humans fear death. Accordingly, the individual's first and primary prerogative is a rather antisocial self-preservation – what one might call a "negative freedom". So much for being a social animal. In protecting this basic, axiomatic right from the war of all-against-all (where one man's self-preservation may encroach on another's), Enlightenment thinkers had to fabricate a number of theories and theorems to support it, such as the social contract, and to construct the essential characteristics of State, such as its egalitarian commitment to the supposed freedom and equality of all humans with respect to the fundamental right of self-preservation. Egalitarian right, then, could be seen as antithetical to natural right.

There could be many distinctions drawn between these two conceptions of Right, but perhaps the most salient one is that Right shifted from a concept rooted in Nature, and what is "naturally" true and right about human psychology and capabilities, to the Conventional, or the construction of law and human rules. Strauss, it could be said, prefers a conception based on nature ("Nature is older than any tradition; hence it is more venerable than any tradition"), though he doesn't seem to harbor any delusions that we could ever return to a society based on the classical conception of natural right.

Yet it is neither the classical nor the modern view which animates society today. Ours could be called "post-modern". And Strauss assigns Max Weber, the father of social science, the title of spokesperson of the postmodern view – which, taking its cue from the natural sciences and attempting to be a neutral commentator on human affairs (i.e., a science), could be said to lack any concept of Right whatsoever. The multitude of conflicting views of justice throughout history is, so they claim, evidence enough that the question is unresolvable. Instead, what has emerged as modern-day dogma is historicism, which views the whole of human thought as being historically constituted, with no plausible appeal to Right or Wrong as such. If there can be no way of resolving principles of justice in a universally valid manner, then the possibility of natural right is hopeless.

But perhaps this is an approach characteristic of a certain Procrustes. Strauss saw such relativism, and the corresponding contradictions in the liberal, Enlightenment thought that helped bring it about, as inevitably devolving into one or both of nihilism and totalitarianism. But he does not, in response, as do Nietzsche or Sartre, take a page from the existentialist playbook and exhort us to create our own brand of authenticity. Instead, invoking the Allegory of the Cave:

Both the obvious dependence of the philosophic life on the city and the natural affection which men have for men, and especially for their kin, regardless of whether or not these men have "good natures" or are potential philosophers, make it necessary for the philosopher to descend again into the cave, i.e., to take care of the affairs of the city, whether in a direct or more remote manner. In descending into the cave, the philosopher admits that what is intrinsically or by nature the highest is not the most urgent for man, who is essentially an "in-between" being—between the brutes and the gods.
Profile Image for Miloš.
134 reviews
July 25, 2020
Zadovoljstvo koje se manje ili više sigurno očekuje, ne izmamljuje ljudske napore: "Glavni, ako ne i jedini podstrek ljudske marljivosti i postupaka je nezadovoljstvo". Prirodna prednost bola je tako jaka da je odbijanje bola samo po sebi bolno. Bol koji uklanja bol je rad. To je taj bol, pa samim tim i defekt, koji čoveku daje stvarno najznačajnije od svih njegovih prava: patnje i defekti, pre nego zasluge i vrline, stvaraju prava. Hobs je poistovetio razuman život sa životom ispunjenim strahom od straha, strahom koji nas oslobađa straha. Pokretan istim duhom, Lok poistovećuje razuman život koji je ispunjen bolom koji oslobađa bol. Rad predstavlja umetnost koja imitira prirodu. Jer, rad je, po Hegelovim rečima, negativan odnos prema prirodi. Polazna tačka ljudskih napora je beda: prirodno stanje je stanje bede. Put ka sreći je bežanje iz prirodnog stanja, bežanje od prirode: negacija prirode je put ka sreći. A ako je put ka sreći ostvarenje slobode, sloboda je negativnost. Baš kao i sam primarni bol, bol koji oslobađa bol, " i koji se zaustavlja samo smrću". Pošto, zato, ne postoje čista zadovoljstva, ne postoji ni potrebna tenzija između, s jedne strane, građanskog društva kao moćnog Levijatana, ili prinudnog društva, i dobrog života, s druge strane: hedonizam postaje utilitarizam ili politički hedonizam. Bolno oslobađanje od bola dostiže vrhunac ne toliko u najvećim zadovoljstvima koliko "u posedovanju onih stvari koje stvaraju najveća zadovoljstva".
Život je tužna čežnja za zadovoljstvom.
65 reviews15 followers
April 1, 2021
Worth the read for an exposition on how Hobbes and Locke subverted the Christian natural right tradition while pretending to be part of it (and most libs actually buy that lmao).
Profile Image for Aung Sett Kyaw Min.
228 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2022
Perhaps not the best introduction to Strauss if you haven't previously read the hard hitting classics of political philosophy. As the title indicates the bulk of this lecture series deals with the problem of natural right as understood by the titans of political theory (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke) and the fundamental questions it raises concerning the notion of the best political order or "regime"(politeia)". The opening salvo of shots is fired at radical historicism and its denial of the existence of a perennial, 'transhistorical' set of problems that cuts across the boundaries of space, time and culture, occupying the thinking minds of all ages; History can never be ultimate court of appeal. What follows is a lengthy explication of Weber's stance on historicism, which in my opinion is fairly forgettable. So is the subsection on Hobbes' materialism and scientism in Section IV. The rest of the commentary on Hobbes, Rosseau and Locke, however, is very illuminating and masterfully brings out the nuances and subtle tensions in the works of these thinkers that might escape the attention of a novice reader who does not have an penetrating understanding of the grand tradition of political philosophy at their command. Is natural right in the state of nature compatible with the positive rights established by civil society? Is the latter capable of fully absorbing the former? Is civil society a 'natural' outgrowth of the state of nature, or is it an accident that retroactively assumes the shape of fate and destiny? Whatever the answers to these questions are, one thing seems certain for Strauss, though he does not explicitly spell it out--political philosophy, as rises above opinion and mere conventions in its effort to grasp the collective Good, is a vector of subterranean threat against the 'polis' or the established order which in the last instance is but a compromise formation between doxa and knowledge...
Profile Image for Nick.
220 reviews28 followers
May 13, 2023
Strauss demonstrates a great knowledge of the literature of natural right for one who is familiar with them. This work reads more like a overview of natural right than his own thesis, but in addition to the main thesis implicitly in favor of natural right Strauss seems to argue two things: 1) historicism and relativism are motivated politically by the implications of natural right to undermine social order and subjectivity 2) modern natural right is distinguished from ancient due to its influence from Epicureanism. The first thesis seems directed towards the political right since the consequences of historicism and relativism tend toward nihilism and the undermining of their particular favored social order. With these types of arguments I see the risk of discrediting or dismissing an idea or thinker because it can be linked to something found unfavorable.

For the second thesis I find that Strauss is not an Epicurean and so excludes Epicureanism from the classical natural right position as being conventionalist which raises the same concerns but arrives at different conclusions. This is a problem if one rejects Stoicism Platonism or Thomism etc then one has nowhere to go, so Epicureanism should be considered of the classical Socratic tradition to give context to those moderns who themselves saw scholasticism undermined by the new physics and sought an more realistic and universal political basis, but shouldn’t be made into more than an influence where appropriate.
22 reviews
June 4, 2016
While I happen to disagree with Strauss' reading of most of the thinkers that are discussed in this work I would recommend reading this to anyone interested in political philosophy, with a good grasp of the western tradition. If you have not already engaged with Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Heidegger and Hegel this work's value would be questionable, as you would have to assume Strauss' reading of these thinkers. This is my second reading of this book. I read it once about five years ago, and it completely went over my head because of my lack of familiarity with the western tradition. That said, even after reading it this time there are elements of the work that are somewhat mysterious to me.

In a more specific sense, this work offers a unique and nuanced critique of historicism through a geneology of the ancient and modern traditions of natural right. The work does not provide a comprehensive solution to natural right, but it does show the way in which the classical Socratic orientation within political philosophy has not been rendered superfluous by the modern tradition. And further to that, that it is only from the perspective of this classical tradition that we can fully understand many of the problems inherent in the modern tradition of natural right, as well as radical historicism.
23 reviews
December 18, 2020
As pretentious as it is vapid. As useless as it is long. As vague as it is overambitious. Utterly irrelevant to living one’s life in a more moral, happier, fulfilled way. A tragedy of wasted time.
Profile Image for Charles Gonzalez.
119 reviews12 followers
June 20, 2018
5 stars for 2 reasons; a work of monumental intellectual and political resonance and so dense as to make second and third reading almost mandatory to begin to grasp Strauss’ vision and analysis of the arc of reason and rights for humankind. The first part of the book describing ancient classical theories and assumptions of natural right was for this neophyte a challenge of the first order to fully understand and demonstrated to me early on that this volume was going to require a real effort on my part. Thank God for my admittedly weak knowledge of classical thought which allowed me to fake my way, plod I should say through the early chapter, which were , essential to his overall work.
Strauss’ treatment of Hobbes and Locke’s positions on natural right were a welcome respite for my brain as I’m more comfortable in their thinking but still, the author’s overpowering explanations and tying together of those two thinkers was a challenging yet enjoyable review and explanation that enhanced my understanding of them. I must admit to a very limited knowledge and understanding of the thought of Rousseau, towering figure as he is. Strauss’ interpretation and explanations left me exhausted and more than a little confused. It was abundantly clear that I need more work and attention to Rousseau. The chapter on Rousseau began Strauss’ views on modernist natural right and his section title’ “the crisis of modern natural right” suggests his position and belief in how it all started to go off the rails. He ends with a wonderful and concise piece on Burke who argued for a more “prudent” vision and interpretation of natural right. He quotes and paraphrases Burke on pages 310-312, “nation measures or political problems do not primarily concern truth or falsehood. They relate to good and evil..they relate to peace and mutual convenience and their satisfactory handling requires unsuspecting confidence, consent , agreement and compromise. Political action requires a judicious management of the temper of the people....who can read these words and not wonder what Burke would make of our current political culture and our political class, who aim to do exactly the opposite of what Burke believes. One wonders if today’s “conservatives” have even read Burke seriously enough to ponder the value of his words today.
Now on to other Straussian readings, to deepen my understanding and appreciation of his remarkable thought.

Profile Image for J.
13 reviews1 follower
July 19, 2022
Strauss is a reader's philosopher; he's never far from the text he's considering. His estimation and interpretation always follow a thorough exploration of his subject's system of thought to the fullest yet most relevant degree. His familiarity with the texts he considers can be intimidating, but it invites rather than drives away further investigation. Like Alasdair MacIntyre, he identifies the Enlightenment as an era wherein trajectories were shifted and foundations lost. More fascinating (frightening?) is the congruence one finds between Strauss's reckoning of the Enlightenment and modern day politicking. Whether or not you end up agreeing with his understanding of Natural Right, you will come away more informed.
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
914 reviews302 followers
March 23, 2012
Strauss takes a strong position against modern views that deny anything that could be called a natural right. The reason for his concern is itself problematic. The clue is his introductory statement about "the need for natural right" because its rejection can lead to "disasterous consequences." This is relativism and nihilism where there's no standard to judge right and wrong. Stated this way, theorists such as Strauss almost seem to be arguing that there has to be a natural right because, without it, how else do we address a societal free-for-all where there's no right and wrong. This "we need it or else" approach is not particularly convincing as it leads to suspect assertions about its foundations -- God gave us natural right; it's part of the rational order of the universe or our human nature (in spite of our obviously self-oriented nature).

After two excellent chapters describing the decline of natural right (history demonstrates variable right and wrong and therefore relativism; oughts/values cannot be derived from facts), Strauss moves to classical theorists (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, early Christian thinkers) who were teleological in their approach. "Man's" end is to perfect his nature which is to be rational in a life scheme where some are more rational than others. Classical theory is not egalitarian. Everyone has a place in the proper order of things, but in a hierarchical way.

Strauss contrasts this with the modern natural right theory of Hobbes and Locke who focused on "man's" need for survival and the pursuit of happiness, and where each had an equal right to such pursuits. From Strauss's point of view, that leads to disorder, for each right conlficts with the rights of others, and relativism, because there is no standard to arbitrate among conflicting pursuits. Here natural law was based on self preservation and passion, the beginning of behavior, and not on the End (perfection of rationality).

Strauss's distinction between the beginning and end of "man" is artificial. If we start with self-preservation and happiness, why is that not also our end? Fulfllment of our nature means minimally, survival, and more than that, happiness. Why are these not natural rights? Since this leads to disorder if not regulated, reason dictates that each must respect the freedom of others (do no harm) if the interest of each and all is to be obtained. With many, that self-interested calculation of justice can be even enhanced by the various social sympathies that lead a good part of humanity toward doing good and working for the good of the whole. There is no reason, in other words, that self-interested behavior is inherently nihlistic or destructive.

There are problems that must be addressed by institutions and law to preserve order and justice. That of course is the contemporary and even universal challenge that we face as a species. But an argument can be made that this is a "lesser evil" than going back to the classical time and depending on a rationality among leadership classes that, history shows, may be nothing more than at the service of self-interested values and biases.
31 reviews
August 9, 2021
I had high hopes for this book – my understanding of Leo Strauss was that he was “one of the good ones” as far as neoconservatism goes. In actual reality, he is a charlatan, pure and simple. Even in the first few pages, Strauss constructs absurd and easily disassembled analogies with the explicit conclusion that so-called “cultural relativism” – an idea which historicizes the rights of individuals in their respective societies – could lead to cannibalism. Ultimately, Strauss’ political project is to legitimize certain social structures, specifically capitalism and conservatism, by crafting poor analogies and worse strawmen to confuse his readers into rejecting fundamental tools of social critique – namely, historicism and relativism.

A central part of this book is a rejection of historicism – the discussion of values in their historical context – for example, discussing about the philosophy of the Founding Fathers keeping in mind that their democratic values did not extend beyond propertied men. Let’s look at Strauss’ “critique” of historicism: namely, that it is dogmatic (see quote 1 below). In case this isn’t already self-evidently a preposterous argument, let me explain: what Strauss is arguing here is that having a consistent basis on which to judge views is dogmatic simply because it is applied in all cases. How his system of judgement (natural rights) is any less dogmatic by this definition is beyond me – unless he recognizes that the values of his system of judgment must change depending on historical circumstances, in which case he contradicts himself. If it is dogmatic to judge values by the only universal metric we have – history – then it is something far worse to judge values using Strauss’ supposedly “impartial analysis” (see quote 2): it is arbitrary in the most glaring sense. Not only are the values he uses not inherently universal, but they are also, and this is the kicker – relative to Strauss’ own historical moment and conditions, which he himself would later implicitly admit by discussing the changing meaning of natural right throughout philosophical history. In attempting to challenge cultural relativism by seizing upon “natural rights”, Strauss commits this very sin which he wishes to eviscerate.

The culmination of Strauss’ attempt to eviscerate relativism and historicism is to make the argument that humans should not build society by judging the past, or by dreaming up a utopian future, but to arbitrarily construct a beginning time before the unfortunate perversions of modernity, with its political philosophizing, its technology, and its relativism, all of which Strauss admittedly reviles. What this forgets is that what is “natural” to man in any sense is relative to the material and social conditions of society in that moment – therefore, what is truly important (though not discussed by Strauss) is to apply what society decides is “right” evenly across all individuals. This question, how to evenly apply rights, is no longer a question of which rights to have, but a question of power. Strauss’ entire project abstracts away from the fundamental question of who in society controls power, and instead asks what rights we ought to have in an arbitrary “natural” setting. Of course, in a society where power is generally evenly distributed, the question of which rights is irrelevant because a majoritarian democracy would be able to decide – making the important question in our society not ‘which rights’, but ‘whose rights.’

What happens when Strauss ignores power dynamics and instead focuses on the origin of natural rights? Well, let’s return to Strauss’ cannibalism. Strauss says cannibalism is wrong because it simply is so – humans have “simple experiences of right and wrong” (see quote 4). On the face of it, this would seem correct to the average person. But dig deeper: what makes cannibalism wrong in itself is that the question of who is eaten cannot be evenly applied across all individuals – one person or group of people must decide that question for the victim. Obfuscating the power dynamic at hand allows Strauss to discuss the peculiarities of “rights” rather than concrete power dynamics that make real decisions and build society.

But, since Strauss believes all political philosophy since the 15th century has been crafted as a weapon, let’s also historicize his philosophy: why was it useful as a political project in its time (published 1953)? Because, in a time when capitalism itself was being challenged at its roots (by strong unions, many politicians, and even entire nations) capitalist society needed a justification for its philosophical existence. A Straussian rejection of relativism and historicism in favor of so-called “natural rights” perfectly obfuscates the power dynamics at play in the economic autocracy so dearly under threat – forget about historical critiques of capitalism’s development, forget about the power dynamics at hand behind capitalism, in the workplace, and American democracy itself, just look for arbitrary natural rights to hang on to from our distant past.

Reading Leo Strauss left me frustrated, and not because the ideas themselves angered me: disassembling Strauss’ philosophy was, on the contrary, a rewarding mental exercise. What makes reading him so profoundly annoying is to realize that this man, supposedly a great conservative intellect, is so completely empty of good, or even logically consistent ideas. Conservatism is built on hundreds of years of some of the wealthiest individuals in history polluting academia with their self-serving ideology, and this dreck is the best they could come up with. And yet, this book is among the most powerful in its influence on contemporary political thought. So perhaps what in it is most convincing to the reader is not its ideas, but the boredom brought on by its tediousness. That mental exhaustion allows the reader to fall asleep at the wheel and then convince himself after the fact that what he just aimlessly tumbled through was at all profound or groundbreaking. This, above all the political sophistry, lazy strawmen, and uninspired summarizing, is Straus’ greatest weapon.

1. “We ought therefore to welcome historicism as an ally in our fight against dogmatism. But dogmatism—or the inclination "to identify the goal of our thinking with the point at which we have become tired of thinking" —is so natural to man that it is not likely to be a preserve of the past. We are forced to suspect that historicism is the guise in which dogmatism likes to appear in our age.” (22)
2. “Only an impartial analysis of the view in question – an analysis that is not dazzled by the victory or stunned by the defeat of the adherents of the view concerned – could teach us anything regarding the worth of the view and hence regarding the meaning of the historical change.” (19)
3. “There always have been and there always will be surprising, wholly unexpected, changes of outlook which radically modify the meaning of all previously acquired knowledge. No view of the whole, and in particular no view of the whole of human life, can claim to be final or universally valid. Every doctrine, how- ever seemingly final, will be superseded sooner or later by another doctrine.” (21)
4. “The ‘experience of history’ and the less ambiguous experience of the complexity of human affairs may blur, but they cannot extinguish, the evidence of those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bot¬ tom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right. Historicism either ignores or else distorts these experiences.” (31)
Profile Image for John Schneider.
178 reviews31 followers
December 13, 2014
My brother recommended that I read this book a while ago, and I am very glad that he did. Like MacIntyre's "After Virtue," "Natural Right and History" is Strauss's attempt to articulate how modernity has warped a way of thought almost beyond recognition. After establishing that natural right can indeed exist by countering the critiques of historicism and Weber's fact value distinction, Strauss gives an overview of how the ancients understood natural rights and justice. Strauss then goes over how Hobbes and Locke reformulated natural rights according to the pleasant and the particular. Lastly, Strauss examines how Rosseau and Burke problematize modern natural rights such that historicism follows in their wake.

Whereas the ancients grounded natural rights in man's natural and knowable obligations, the moderns either ground natural rights in the individual's own feelings or deny that it can be theoretically expressed well. As long as governments follow the poor theories of Locke and Hobbes, their citizens will be denied the most basic of rights: knowing what civil life is meant to be and what it cannot be.
Profile Image for Grégoire.
12 reviews
March 13, 2015
Reading Natural Right and History, one cannot help but feel the effects of Strauss's admiration for the Lockian concept of prudence in political philosophy, admirably explained in the book itself; despite offering from the outset to rehabilitate the existence of a natural right against the perceived historical and geographical relativism of the modern social sciences, it quickly evolves (devolves?) into an admittedly brilliant elucidation and critique of several political thinkers, ending rather abruptly on an analysis of Edmund Burke's writings. Ultimately, one is led to believe that Strauss's allegiances lie with whomever he least disagrees with--all of which draws the composite portrait of a man unable to prove the rational roots of natural right, but so convinced of its efficacy as a founding myth to render human beings acceptably social and moral that he is willing to deceive his less enlightened readers with philosophical smoke and mirrors.
Profile Image for James Violand.
1,238 reviews62 followers
December 5, 2015
I love this book. It should be read by those empiricists who deny the existence of anything you cannot detect by your senses. There is a natural law and Strauss proves it in easily understandable language.
Author 0 books1 follower
July 30, 2011
Unbelievable. I am not smart enough to read books like this. :)
1 review
February 25, 2023
I remember reading that most people go into Leo Strauss wanting to dislike his work, only to be surprised by just how much they like it. It's fair to say I am very much in that boat.

Leo Strauss's work has some unique stylistic choices. The most famous being that he hides the true meaning of his books between the lines and in his large footnotes. It was my attempt to delve deeper than his surface-level meaning that made me read all of them as I went through, something that did badly affect the flow of the book. It was that and his habit of writing very long paragraphs that could easily have been split up to help readability, that overall made the actual experience of reading less than pleasurable. Not that it's badly written, far from it, but I wouldn't call it an excellent work of prose.

Despite this, the book is definitely an incredible piece of political theory and well worth the read. Like many political theorists at the time, Leo Strauss wanted to defend an obscure objective morality in the face of relativism and historicism, something that remains an important debate.

Obscure objective morality is a view of morality where there are objective rights and wrongs that can be rationally "discovered" through reason or science, but it is impossible to be 100% sure about them. In other words, there are objective standards that can be used to rate morality, letting us say one system of ethics is more moral than another or see when a society morally improves or degrades, but we can never be sure if we've found the most moral society or most objective ranking system.

It reminds me of "The open society and its enemies" by Karl Hopper, which also attacks relativism and historicism, defending the scientific method as objective and piecemeal social engineering as an objective method of improving society. Leo Strauss here, instead, defends the principles of Natural rights theory as objective, using both Hobbes and Locke's natural rights theories to make his point.

It's impressive in just how convincing it is. Using Hobbes as a base, he shows how a simple, uncontroversial statement can be used to build up a system of rights using rational arguments. Hobbes's basis is that everyone has the inherent right to defend themselves, viewing the urge for self-preservation as natural, and therefore fundamental. Therefore, in order to argue against natural rights theory, you have to argue that people do not have a natural urge or right for self-preservation, else you then have to start extrapolating from it.

Strauss goes into the mistakes that Hobbes made when using this basis, the often misunderstood leviathan, with Hobbes's argument against the separation of powers. This is where Locke came in, arguably using Hobbes's basis for a much more thought-through political theory that avoids the extremism that Hobbes ran into from his experience in civil war and his urge to make a system that was equally valid in peace and catastrophe.

Even if you are unconvinced by his argument, the book is still a very good overview of the origins of natural rights theory, an interesting comparison between modern and classical natural rights, and an interesting analysis of Hobbes and Locke. Strauss's insights are excellent and well worth the read.

While I'm not sure if I managed to look behind the curtain and see what Strauss was really trying to say, for anyone interested in political ethics or natural rights, this is a must-read regardless.
Profile Image for Anderson Paz.
Author 3 books14 followers
October 5, 2021
Essa obra é resultante de seis conferências de Strauss a Universidade de Chicago, em 1949. A sugestão do autor é que o direito natural é necessário para julgar a ordem social. É preciso, para tanto, rejeitar a cisão entre fatos e valores.
O livro tem seis capítulos. No primeiro, Strauss apresenta a gênese e críticas ao historicismo moderno. No capítulo dois, o autor trata da concepção weberiana que separa fatos e valores sugerindo uma suposta neutralidade das ciências sociais. Weber considera que os valores tem o mesmo peso que os fatos, logo não há direito natural.
No capítulo três, Strauss trata da origem da ideia de direito natural e diz que surgiu do questionamento das autoridades dogmáticas - tradição ou metafísica - e se constituiu historicamente como uma busca pelos fundamentos sociais na natureza. A filosofia deveria descobrir o padrão na natureza a partir do qual surgiria a lei.
No capítulo quatro, o autor volta aos gregos que fundaram o direito natural clássico. Sócrates fundou a doutrina, mas foram Platão, Aristóteles, os estoicos e parte da tradição cristã, com destaque a Tomás, que a desenvolveu. No capítulo cinco, Strauss trata do direito natural moderno a partir do século XVII. Hobbes entendeu que o estado natural em que o homem é lobo do homem dá base para o direito à autopreservação e que, por meio de contrato social, o poder e o soberano surgem. Em Locke, o direito natural é direito à liberdade e à autopreservação. O contrato social funda o governo civil para proteger o direito natural por meio de um governo limitado.
No último capítulo, Strauss trata da crise do direito natural moderno em Rousseau e Burke. Em Rousseau, o homem é originalmente bom, mas com o contrato social surge uma sociedade civil com base na vontade geral que protege a propriedade privada. Ser livre é voltar ao estado natural do "bom selvagem". Em Burke, o contrato social funda a sociedade civil. Esta deve ser restringida pela moral e razão. A experiência limita e orienta a sociedade civil em busca de suas necessidades. A crise do direito natural em Burke se deve à rejeição à teoria do direito natural e à ênfase ou priorização da filosofia prática na formação da ordem social (aquilo que Hayek chama de "ordem espontânea").
83 reviews3 followers
June 25, 2020
I read this after Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind since I wanted a better understanding of the Straussians. The book starts of strong, with a great discussion of whether natural right can exist and how historicism is a self-undermining ideology. It got less interesting as Strauss focused on individual thinkers and the evolution of natural right over time. This discussion seemed very ivory tower influenced to me, and divorced from practical reality. However, if you've ever wondered what it means to be a Straussian, this part is a good into. Here Strauss shows how he gets at the true meaning of these thinkers---a meaning that is often in apparent contradiction to what the thinker's wrote. I'm sure this part of the book would've been more interesting if I were more familiar with the writings Strauss was discussing. For the most part I hadn't read them before. Overall a challenging, interesting work with some moments of brilliance, but unlikely to have a substantial influence on me.
Profile Image for N Perrin.
141 reviews41 followers
January 24, 2018
Strauss is a deeply influential scholar whose readings of various philosophers and thinkers remain the "traditional" reading across curricula. While he is dated, Strauss was an important figure in the history of the history of ideas, and for this is rich analysis (though perhaps cliched today) should leave us grateful for his work.

What remains most interesting about this particular lecture series is Strauss' critique of Weberian methodology, arguing that Weber's absolute fact/value distinction can only lead to nihilism. Strauss' reflections on scholarly methods and epistemologies is an important voice especially for a philosophy of the social sciences, even if he does reek a little of objectivism.
3 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2020
I’m currently reading out for the fourth time, and I think I’m starting to understand it. But I’m sure I’ll realize that I didn’t understand any of it next time I read it. It’s the most difficult book I’ve ever read. And no book has changed my life like this one, with the possible exception of Nichomachean Ethics. Strauss makes his case for the natural right theory by rejecting the alternatives, and then he examines different theories of natural right and regimes. Anybody with an interest in civic life would read this book once a year.
33 reviews2 followers
April 15, 2022
Thoroughly self-indulgent book for Strauss to write at this time (1965). Quite enjoyable. There's a great screed against vulgar Weberians in this book, as well as a polemic against scientism and positivism. I think people would be surprised to find how mild this arch-conservative figure is when given room to critique at-length. SPOILER: he doesn't find any good grounds for modern natural right. Ends mildly in suggestion that we reject modernity and embrace tradition. Not my favourite virtue ethics.
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