The late nineteenth and early twentieth century discipline of philosophy demanded a second-nature familiarity with the classic works of Western antiquity. Leo Strauss was a scholar in the discipline of political philosophy during the tail end of the era, and he tends to signal a crescendo before the decline of this tradition in Western philosophy. In his essay ‘The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy’ Strauss demonstrates his expansive knowledge of the Western canon, and is skeptical of any rock-solid continuity between ancient and modern liberalism.
“Positivism rejects classical political philosophy with a view to its mode as unscientific and with a view to its substance as undemocratic. There is a tension between these grounds, for, according to positivism, science is incapable of validating any value judgment, and therefore science can never reject a doctrine because it is undemocratic. But ‘the heart has its reasons which reason does not know,’ and not indeed positivism but many positivists possess a heart.
“The characteristic assertion of liberalism seems to be that man and hence also morality is not ‘a fixed quantity’; that man’s nature and therewith morality are essentially changing; that this change constitutes History; and that through History man has developed from most imperfect beginnings into a civilized or human being.
“When Plato adopted Hesiod’s scheme in the Republic, he gave a reason why or intimated in what respect the fourth race, or rather the fourth regime, is almost equal to the first regime: the first regime is the rule of the philosophers, and the fourth regime is democracy, that is, the only regime apart from the first in which philosophers can live or live freely.
“In other words, man fashions ‘a state within a state’: the manmade ‘worlds’ have a fundamentally different status from ‘the world’ and its parts. The liberal view originally emerged through the combination of determinism with the assumption that the laws always correspond to genuine, not merely imagined, needs or that in principle all laws are sensible.
“True liberals today have no more pressing duty than to counteract the perverted liberalism which contends ‘that just to live, securely and happily, and protected but otherwise unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal’ and which forgets quality, excellence, or virtue.
*All excerpts have been taken from Liberalism Ancient & Modern, The University of Chicago Press.
The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy – Leo Strauss
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