Claremont Institute research fellow Glenn Ellmers has written an insider book delving into the hidden messages of the great philosopher Leo Strauss and his West Coast Straussian students, led by the late irascible debater and theorist Harry Jaffa. Ellmers challenges what most twentieth-century theorists thought they knew about Strauss, especially his most famous claim that knowledge comes either from Athens or Jerusalem—reason or revelation—but not both.

Ellmers argues in The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy that the true Strauss was the one who revealed himself privately in his classroom teaching to build a cadre of truly informed Straussian acolytes. This seems to imply that Strauss’s written legacy may contain his famous “noble lies,” but not his teaching.

This argument is personal for me even now. When I was a young political activist and graduate student in 1960s New York City, I found myself in between two philosophical legends as they argued (and often came nearly to fisticuffs) before National Review forums trying to win conservative minds. One side was led by the then purely Straussian Jaffa, the other by the NR literary editor and fusionist conservative Frank Meyer. Jaffa traced the source of America’s political greatness to Abraham Lincoln, the Union, and the end of slavery. Meyer traced it back to the constitutional Founding and even earlier. I was won over by Meyer.

Jaffa had published his Crisis of the House Divided in 1959, arguing that Lincoln was the first to propound America’s true natural-right values and represented the real founding of the great American project with his Emancipation Proclamation. Meyer claimed America’s greatness began with the Constitution and harkened back to the whole of Western civilization before it. The debate was about whether Lincoln was the first to promulgate the essential founding or whether he was really the first step away from constitutional limited government and federalism. Meyer died believing that his fellow combatant held to the latter presupposition, and this view lingered long afterward among his many conservative fusionist acolytes, who assumed that the schism between the two attitudes was permanent.

What most Meyer supporters missed was that Jaffa had clearly shifted his position by 2000 with his book A New Birth of Freedom, in which he held that the American Founding actually reached back from Lincoln to the constitutional era and especially to Thomas Jefferson, with Lincoln finishing the transition to natural rights as the best possible basis for a good society. Jaffa argued this solution retained continuity with Strauss, but this claim was rejected by the “East Coast” Straussians, whom Jaffa considered unreasonably dogmatic. Jaffa had long since moved to California (where four of his students would found the Claremont Institute) to propound his “West Coast” version of Straussianism, far from New York and the eastern debates. 

Yet in his final publication, Crisis of the Strauss Divided, Jaffa distances himself somewhat even from Strauss. As David Tucker, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center, put it in an essay for Law & Liberty:

Jaffa claimed America was the best regime because for the first time in western civilization a political order did equal justice to the “two irrefutable and irreducible principles of human life,” reason and revelation. Another way to put this is to say that America is the best regime because it was the first to give freedom to human reason. Jaffa emphasized that the separation of church and state was possible because of an underlying agreement on moral principles grounded in the equality and natural rights or law of the Declaration of Independence, which mentions both self-evident (i.e., unrevealed) truths and Providence. This agreement made civic friendship possible despite religious differences. In turn, this friendship made majority rule (self-government) compatible with minority rights.

Well before Crisis of the Strauss Divided was published in 2012, the West Coasters had clearly undermined the supposedly essential Straussian claim that one must choose either Athens’ philosophy or Jerusalem’s revelation. But this fundamental break remained mostly hidden outside the now-divided Straussian community. Meyer’s fusionists could have cheered the move of Jaffa and the West Coasters back to the Founding, and even to revelation, but they were out of the loop. 

Jaffa’s last book still ignored the importance of the Middle Ages, something that F.A. Hayek had taught Meyer to see as the critical turn. Jaffa habitually considered the rationale of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and the later ideal of divine right as pretty much the same, and he selected his examples exclusively from instances of divine right. His last book did not even mention Magna Carta.

It really wasn’t until I read Ellmers’s fascinating account that everything became clearer to me, a longtime fusionist and epistemological Hayekian. Hayek’s fundamental distinction was between what he labeled “constructionist” and “critical” rationalism. Upon reading Ellmers, it becomes apparent that West Coast Straussianism explicitly rejected constructionist monism in favor of critical pluralism. Ellmers does not use that terminology, but he does provide an argument for it.

He opens his argument by recognizing two different versions of modern philosophy:

On the one hand, the scientific and bureaucratic experts in the corporate world and government are enlightened cosmopolitans, who rely on empirical disciplines such as engineering, sociology, epidemiology, criminology, and economic modeling to justify their rational administration of society. Because this specialized wisdom is purported to be objectively rational, the rule of expert administrators is thought to transcend the old-fashioned need for the consent of the governed [supported by the other strand of modern philosophy]. This question of knowledge and freedom will be a recurring theme of the book.

Ellmers traces today’s political left to Hegel and Nietzsche: the left is characterized by a dialectic between scientific rationalists and postmodernist ideology that leads to confusion and reliance on force. The right half of the ideological spectrum is united by another dialectic between a “nostalgia for traditional morality and the founders’ constitutionalism”—which is also confused, Ellmers says. To develop a possible solution to their inner conflicts, both sides require a serious trip into philosophy. 

Ellmers considers Leo Strauss the only real philosopher in modern times. He looks searchingly into work by two of Strauss’s later acolytes, Harry Jaffa and Harry Neumann (a “profound but relatively obscure” student of Strauss) to illustrate the two opposing philosophical positions of Strauss’s disciples:

Neumann and Jaffa represent what might be regarded as the farthest poles of possible interpretations of Leo Strauss’s thought: Neumann revealed with a pitiless candor the inescapable consequences of modern nihilism; Jaffa displayed an unembarrassed patriotism and moral probity in defense of America. Both departed radically, though in different ways, from the conventional Straussians that Neumann cites. For this reason they might plausibly be considered Strauss’s best, or worst, students. Perhaps neither of them represents the true understanding of Strauss’s scholarship; yet to appreciate the full range of that scholarship I suggest we must take seriously the implications of what Neumann and Jaffa contend.

Ellmers informs us that “both of these heterodox Strauss students were colleagues and taught for many years in the Claremont consortium of colleges in southern California” and “led a popular joint seminar, ‘Socrates or Nihilism,’” where Jaffa defended “classical rationalism” and Neumann defended Nietzsche. Both claimed that Strauss’s overt concern with “the need to recover political philosophy” was “driven by what Strauss many times referred to as ‘the crisis of the West.’” Ellmers continues:

In his “Three Waves of Modernity” essay, Strauss explains that for the ancient and medieval thinkers, “Nature supplies the standard, a standard wholly independent of man’s will. . . . Man has his place in an order which he did not originate.” But in the first wave of what is often called “the modern project,” Machiavelli, Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes rejected this view in the name of science. The classical philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, were anti-utopian because they recognized the limits of reason in civic life. Passion, self-interest, and superstition will always stand in the way of perfect justice.

But with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, justice and politics became a mere “technical problem” to be solved. In a second wave arising with Rousseau and culminating in Hegel, modern thought turned from science to “History”—capital “H”—“as the solution to human imperfection.” And this ends in a third wave of “terror and anguish” with Nietzsche, once History has failed to deliver the promised utopia. That disillusionment forced moderns to abandon “the now baseless belief in the rationality or progressive character of the historical process,” so that, as Ellmers puts it, “today’s intellectual class can offer no rational alternative to postmodern relativism and nihilism.” 

This is the crisis confronted by Strauss: that modern Western man “no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.” Ellmers says Jaffa taught that “Strauss alone, so far as I know, has challenged modernity . . . from a point of view absolutely detached from its [radical] roots and its branches.” Neumann, however, simply found modern nihilism overwhelming. 

Ellmers starts his own interpretation of the modern mind’s plight with Strauss’s supposedly favorite philosopher, Plato, and his presumed view of Plato as “the ultimate champion of freedom of thought, unfettered by any sacred or traditional taboos.” But Ellmers claims that both right and left today are fooled by Strauss’s view of Plato because they are blinded by their own modern optimistic rationalism. Ellmers’s proof is that in his 1963 Xenophon course at the University of Chicago, Strauss actually called Plato’s rhetoric “crude” and “obvious,” suggesting that Plato is responsible for today’s pure rationalist philosophy “becoming too successful, a point he makes explicitly in his ‘Restatement’” on the Hiero.

Ellmers believes that “undiluted natural right” was, for both Jaffa and Strauss, “explosive not because it masks cosmic emptiness, but because perfect justice is too potent, too demanding, for man’s imperfect nature.” Philosophers must guard that “terrible truth” because “the pure justice discerned by reason” leaves no place for “the moral virtue and practical wisdom of the statesman’s prudence.” Many Straussians assume Strauss’s teaching is “a strictly apolitical focus on theoretical and eternal questions,” but in this they assume what is “very much in doubt.”

For Ellmers, the modern philosopher who best understands today’s predicament is Michel Foucault. Foucault recognized that in the modern state the “regime’s rational structures pervade everything” and that the distinction between public and private breaks down. What Foucault called “biopower” replaces the governing of participating citizens with the regulating of inert populations. 

Martin Heidegger, whom Ellmers calls “Foucault’s main teacher,” “argued in the mid-20th century that modernity can go no further—that metaphysics as well as philosophy had come to an end” and that mankind can only “await new gods.” Ellmers argues that

Virtually no intellectual today would dispute this, or could even conceive of a coherent objection. Leo Strauss, however, seemed to think otherwise. What made him so different from other 20th-century thinkers? Strauss argued that classical, as opposed to modern, political philosophy begins with our prescientific experience of the common-sense world. “Classical political philosophy,” he explained, “attempted to reach its goal by accepting the basic distinctions made in political life exactly in the sense and with the orientation in which they are made in political life, and by thinking them through, by understanding them as perfectly as possible.”

Strauss is said to support “the immoderate skepticism of Socratic eros” as the “most moderate and promising alternative to our twin political dangers of rational tyranny and tribal passions, because in its original form as the awareness of ignorance that quest offers perhaps the most powerful and humanizing antidote to dogmatic certainty: wonder.” In other words, he supports tradition! 

Yet it is not to Strauss’s presumed favorite, Plato, that Ellmers turns to close his case. He goes to Aristotle, who, he says, “makes two emphatic statements about human nature that pull together the themes of this [Ellmers’s] book.” In the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle “says that man is by nature a political being (zoon politikon). At the beginning of the Metaphysics and in De Anima he asserts that all men desire to know.” So, both tradition and reason are necessary: a non-Hegelian open rather than deterministic synthesis?

The problem today, Ellmers concludes, following Jaffa, is that “the modern project to conquer nature is ultimately impossible,” and the current return to tribalism is a reaction to the attempted suppression of man’s political nature. But to become “properly political” in the Aristotelian sense, “to establish the conditions of a virtuous life, those instincts must be elevated by rational thought.” While critical of Western religion, Ellmers brings in Heidegger to concede that “it would perhaps be premature to say farewell to the Bible.” Jaffa, in Ellmers’s telling, goes further, to argue that despair “is not only a sin (because it presumes we have been abandoned by God), but also an intellectual error.” Ellmers seems to accept Jaffa’s endorsement of “the productive tension between reason and revelation” as long as it can recover its “pre-scientific form.” 

Things have certainly changed since the old Meyer–Jaffa debates in New York. Meyer’s followers can take some comfort in the fact that fusionism’s emphasis on tension and synthesis in Western civilization’s sources of freedom and order seems to have done rather well with at least some Straussians over the following years. My own most direct confrontation in those days was over Strauss’s (and even more so his acolytes’) interpretation of John Locke—first in a 1978 article of mine in Modern Age. So I was pleased to read Ellmers’s footnote quoting from a transcript of one of Strauss’s courses, as edited by Catherine Zuckert in the volume Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy

On Jaffa’s argument about the compatibility of Aristotle and Locke . . . consider this statement by Strauss: “The standards for judging political things are inherent in political things . . . and it suffices to think of the difference between Aristotle and Locke regarding the purpose of civil society or of the Commonwealth. But that on which Aristotle and Locke agree is very frequently sufficient for political judgment. We do not always have to raise the most fundamental questions; [w]e can remain sometimes in a more limited horizon. Judgments in this sphere are solid enough.”

And consider Michael Anton, a West Coast–taught Straussian who, as the author of the “Flight 93 Election” essay, which made the case for Donald Trump in 2016, and other provocative works, is supposed to be a leader in the revolt against the fusionist old right of William F. Buckley, Jr., and Frank Meyer. It was actually he who first made this Meyer acolyte aware of the Jaffa turnaround. It was not until Anton reported on his debate with the self-described paleoconservative Paul Gottfried (over the place of natural rights in the American tradition) that I realized there was relatively little on Anton’s side of the philosophical (as opposed to political) argument to disagree with. Strauss himself clearly says in Natural Right and History that his view of Locke there was only “partial.”

The absolute anti-Strauss position taken by mainline fusionist conservatives should by now have run its course. West Coast Straussianism at least is today more complex. There is fusionist common ground among conservatives who make tension rather than a single deductive rationalist answer the center of their approach, as apparently do Ellmers, Jaffa, and perhaps even Strauss. And here is Anton on rationalism: 

The Enlightenment asserts that man can understand everything. Even if he hasn’t yet figured everything out, everything is at least in principle within his mind’s reach. The classics by contrast conclude (at least tentatively) that there are things the human mind simply cannot and will never be able to grasp. (Needless to say, this is one of the conclusions that classical philosophy shares with Biblical revelation.) Second, one may say that the whole premise of the Enlightenment is that it is possible and even desirable to place society on a rational basis, to debunk all alleged myths and replace them with allegedly reasoned explanations. The classics deny that this is possible or desirable. They do not deny that there is a rational basis for a sound political order; they deny rather that the people at large are capable of acting well solely on a rational basis.

Anton further explains his views by quoting Strauss, from Natural Right and History, concerning what the fusionist Meyer called the “freedom criterion” and how prudential acts relate to it:

[W]hen deciding what ought to be done, i.e., when deciding what ought to be done by this individual (or this individual group) here and now, one has to consider not only which of the various competing objectives is higher in rank but also which is most urgent in the circumstances. . . . But one cannot make a universal rule that urgency is a higher consideration than rank. For it is our duty to make the highest activity, as much as we can, the most urgent or the most needful thing. And the maximum of effort which can be expected necessarily varies from individual to individual. The only universally valid standard is the hierarchy of ends. This standard is sufficient for passing judgment on the level of nobility of individuals and groups and of actions and institutions. But it is insufficient for guiding our actions.

Anton considers the recovery of natural law necessary for survival, but the ancient gods are gone forever. “A return to faith” is possible, but even if that revival should materialize, it “does not dispense with the requirement at least for natural law. . . . New gods might do the trick, but their introduction would seem to require a cataclysm.” 

“I do worry, however,” concludes Anton, “that the inherent contradiction” between reason and tradition “has introduced an unsustainable tension into Western intellectual, theological, and political life, which has finally reached the breaking point.” Here some Straussians may merely add Jaffa’s comments about despair. 

Fusionists also worry but recall Meyer on tension’s resilience. Yet it seems to this old fusionist that Ellmers, Anton, and at least some West Coast Straussians are more a part of the solution than part of the problem.