Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers, by Geoffrey M. Vaughan (Catholic University of America Press, 360 pp., $75)
Over 50 years ago, Leo Strauss took stock of contemporary liberal democracy and concluded that “present-day . . . social science, as far as it is not Roman Catholic social science,” had rejected the idea of natural right. Only “Roman Catholic social science” still adhered to a standard that transcended historical context and allowed men in all ages and places to differentiate between noble and base, beautiful and ugly, good and evil.
As quick as Strauss was to make this distinction, however, he was just as quick to differentiate between what he called natural right and natural law as understood in the Catholic tradition. For Strauss, natural law was a strict code of behavior, applicable to all men, always. Strauss rejected this position in part because, he implies, it is impossible for reason to prove the existence of a God who would administer such a law. Instead, Strauss followed Plato and Aristotle in defining natural right as a standard, something prudent statesmen could refer to in order to build the most just regime achievable in their time.
The possibility that this distinction is less pronounced than Strauss contends is a key theme of Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers, edited by Geoffrey M. Vaughan. The essays in this volume, first presented in 2015 at a conference of the same name held at Assumption College, range in subject from law to politics to theology. Taken together, they ask the question (to borrow one of their titles), “What might a Catholic reader learn from Strauss about Catholicism?”
The contributors argue convincingly that Catholics can and should engage with Strauss, largely by dissolving many of the traditional Straussian “distinctions” one encounters—above all, the divide between reason and revelation (“Athens and Jerusalem,” in Straussian shorthand) and the distinction between natural law and natural right. Broadly speaking, the authors argue that Strauss exaggerated certain differences and sublimated other similarities in order to elevate philosophy as a way of life.
Carson Holloway contends that “traditional Catholicism can provide . . . a middle ground” between reason and revelation, as well as a position that allows modern man to “return” to a premodern way of life that Strauss explicitly denies. The denial of the Straussian position is ultimately less a logical rejection per se than an acceptance of Catholicism, based on propositions that Strauss could never accept. As Marc Guerra notes in his excellent chapter on Strauss and Pope Benedict XVI, “By claiming that the world was created through God’s eternal Logos who became flesh, the Catholic faith proposes something new, something unknown—and unknowable—prior to the incarnation.”
This volume seems to suggest that it is impossible to be a “Catholic Straussian” in the truest sense—that is, fully to accept the orthodoxies of both Catholicism and Straussianism. As Gary D. Glenn puts it, “While they may be allies against the regnant relativism, a Catholic has to explain at least to himself why the Catholic understanding” stands above Strauss.
Embracing this tension is, in my view, precisely what will lead to the most fruitful Catholic reading of Strauss. Jeffrey Bernstein has argued that Strauss was a “citizen of Athens on the border of Jerusalem,” meaning that, while Strauss fully embraced the life of the philosopher over that of the believer, he always had the other way of life in his line of sight, and used it to orient and strengthen his position. Similarly, I believe there is much to be said for being a citizen of Rome on the border of Athens, or, as it were, Chicago.
As thinkers of all stripes are beginning to consider what might come after liberalism, Catholics have continued to grapple with the proper place of the Church in liberal modernity, a question first posed by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. In the past, Catholics tended to answer this question by accepting the separation of church and state (or church and society). Increasingly, however, Catholics are moving to the other end of the spectrum, choosing to dissolve rather than accept these traditional borders.
New energy has been injected into a self-consciously Marxist Catholic Left as well as an “integralist” movement in traditionalist Catholicism, which seeks to revive elements of Catholic monarchy. In this moment, at which so much seems up for grabs, the urge to synthesize the temporal and the eternal is almost irresistible. At another such moment, when statesmen and philosophers alike believed that all of human life was governed by an immutable law of progress both empirical and supernatural, Leo Strauss insisted on clarity and rigor in the way we use terms like “philosophy,” “religion,” and “politics.”
As the Church struggles to decide how it should respond to modernity, Catholics must search for a moderate position, one that gives politics its due without denying the importance of the contemplative life. Whether we agree with his substantive conclusions or not, Strauss’s emphasis on maintaining the phenomena as they appear to us might lead Catholics to recover their own distinction between the Earthly City and the City of God.
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