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Leo Strauss and the Conservatives

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

John Alvis and John Murley, editors.
Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives.
Lexington Books. 278 pages. $24.95

In an act of piety towards a teacher worthy of it, John Alvis and John Murley have edited a collection of essays that honor Willmoore Kendall by taking his teaching seriously. The contention of the volume, amply borne out by the contributors’ fine essays on Kendall’s thought and by his own writings, is that Kendall is an unjustly neglected figure in the pantheon of American conservatism. The editors describe their book as an attempt “to understand Kendall’s work and to place him in context both as a Founding Father of American conservatism and as a leading post-World War ii political theorist.”

In the same breath that one pronounces the attempt a success, one must note that in a peculiar way Kendall himself undermines its effort to evaluate his achievement. For in addition to the essays and the preface by Kendall’s most famous student, William F. Buckley Jr., the volume contains the fascinating correspondence between Kendall and the political philosopher Leo Strauss. The reverent manner in which Kendall treats Strauss cannot but direct the reader away from his own work to that of Strauss. Given that Kendall at times displayed a considerable aptitude for self-destructive behavior, it is fitting that he should posthumously frustrate the attempt to do his thought justice.

Or perhaps not, for the correspondence — in which Kendall time and again expresses his profound indebtedness to and admiration of Strauss — suggests that Kendall would rather be remembered as a facilitator of Strauss’s enterprise than as a champion of American conservatism. And its publication should contribute to that end, as it shows the considerable pains to which Kendall — a man with his own academic battles aplenty — went to further what he regarded as Strauss’s counterrevolution to Machiavelli. Kendall’s conservatism is far better known than his connection to Strauss, so the most significant contribution of Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives is the story of Kendall’s truly remarkable conversion to, for lack of a better word, “Straussianism.”


Strauss is well known for being “in the odor of conservatism,” as he once put it, but his relation to the right is much misunderstood. Since Kendall was the only member of the American “conservative movement” with whom Strauss was closely associated (his students excepted), the publication of their correspondence affords a convenient opportunity to address Strauss’s ambivalent alliance with the American right. In fact, the Strauss-Kendall correspondence is the immediate source of the first of the two thematic statements Strauss published concerning the meaning of conservatism. Strauss provided the statement in a very formal 1956 letter to Kendall, a National Review senior associate, objecting to the journal’s antipathy towards Israel. (Strauss subsequently acceded to Kendall’s request that it be published as a letter to the editor.) Strauss there takes National Review to task for failing to live up to the principles of conservatism insofar as its “authors who touch upon the subject are so unqualifiedly opposed to Israel.”

In the words of the volume’s editors, the Strauss-Kendall correspondence documents “the record of a tutelage made unique because it was undertaken so late.” Anyone who has spent time with academics knows that they characteristically defend their opinions with a ferocity that would rival the attachment of a she-bear to her cubs. For them, openness is honored loudly but almost exclusively in the breach. Kendall was a rare exception. He was as prominent a critic of “the open society” as one could find in academia as well as the most renowned exponent of what he termed “egghead McCarthyism.” Partly as a result, his colleagues loathed him — so much so that in 1961 Yale agreed to buy out Kendall’s tenure for the then-lordly sum of $42,500. Yet, among American scholars of his generation Kendall alone was open-minded enough to appreciate Strauss’s greatness.

Though Kendall pays many tributes to Strauss both in public and private (“I never let a day pass without spending an hour with you, and that never fails to be the most profitable hour of the day”), perhaps nothing reveals his rare open-mindedness better than this avowal, made in 1960: “How I wish I might have come to you as a pupil just, say, after my Locke book, when I gave up on the sort of thing I had attempted in it because it seemed to me, looking out over the land, that it was an irrelevancy!” To appreciate this remark properly one must take into account that it was John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule — which Kendall published in 1941 at age 32 — alone that established Kendall’s reputation as a scholar; moreover, it was perhaps the finest thing he ever wrote. How many Ivy League professors in their fifties could imagine, let alone admit, experiencing remorse over the chance they missed to begin their graduate studies anew upon the publication of their widely celebrated first book?

Kendall did more than correspond a good game. He devoted considerable resources to forwarding what he understood to be Strauss’s project. He used his dual character as Yale professor and conservative leading light to promote the work of Strauss’s students. He published three articles treating Strauss’s work: a review of What Is Political Philosophy?, a review essay of Thoughts on Machiavelli, and an examination of Natural Right and History’s sub-chapter on John Locke in “John Locke Revisited,” Kendall’s quasi-autobiographical survey of 26 years of Locke scholarship. These writings show a grasp of Strauss’s teaching and of the scope of his achievement that far exceeds that typically possessed by Strauss scholars today. Inspired by, as he wrote to Strauss, “your own work and that of your pupils,” Kendall co-founded the University of Dallas’s Ph.D. program in politics and literature, a program that remains a stronghold of what may be described as Catholic Straussianism. To name one last point, upon resigning from Yale and contemplating permanent settlement in Spain, Kendall conceived the plan to have all of Strauss’s works translated into Spanish. This venture was never completed, though the translation of the work most dear to Kendall and most important simply was accomplished: Thoughts on Machiavelli (Meditacion sobre Maquiavelo).


In order to understand Kendall’s relation to Strauss it is almost sufficient to turn to Thoughts and Kendall’s reaction to that work. Indeed, the manner in which Kendall treated Thoughts suggests that he may have viewed his relation to Strauss — “I regard myself as an errant pupil of yours” — through it. Kendall, to his great credit, was the first to see that Thoughts was the great work of Strauss; it is the work, above all, in which Strauss the teacher comes to the fore. In the correspondence Kendall even referred to Thoughts as “Strauss’s Discourses,” thereby equating it with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, a work Strauss regarded as an unsurpassed model of “perfect speech.” To this day, I do not know of a single scholar, Harvey C. Mansfield excepted, who has as clearly as Kendall recognized or expressed the reasons why Thoughts on Machiavelli deserves pride of place among Strauss’s works.

Kendall concluded his first publication on Strauss, a 1960 review of What Is Political Philosophy?, with a brief discussion of Thoughts that culminates in the gifted judgment that Strauss is “the great teacher of political philosophy, not of our time alone, but of any time since Machiavelli.” Having recognized the affinity between the teacher Machiavelli and the teacher Strauss, Kendall could not have failed to reflect upon the exceptional quality of his own adherence to Strauss when reading in Thoughts that, “Owing to ‘the envious nature of men,’ [Machiavelli] cannot expect to find his first adherents among the men of his generation. He can come into his own only after the natural death of his generation, the generation of the desert, as it were. He must appeal to the elite among the coming generations.” It is worth noting that in both the correspondence and subsequently published works, Strauss described his own educational endeavor in virtually identical terms; for example, Strauss wrote to Kendall in 1959: “But as you rightly state we cannot give up the fight and we must be happy if we can save that tiny minority which is the cream of the younger generation.”

Kendall’s fascination with Thoughts is a constant presence in the correspondence from his first mention of it in February 1959 (“I have the honor of reviewing your Machiavelli for the Philosophical Review. I am quite drunk on it”) until Strauss received Kendall’s draft review in November 1964. Though timeliness may not have been Kendall’s forte, he cannot in this instance be accused of neglect. Presumably from his moment of initial inebriation, Kendall recognized that Thoughts on Machiavelli was an achievement that could not be appreciated on the quick. His own behavior is sufficient proof that his celebrated remark, “the reader who open-mindedly sets down to check it all may give six months of his life a goodbye kiss,” was a deliberate understatement.

Kendall’s review rightly stressed that Strauss had proved Machiavelli’s writings to be “elaborate ventures in ‘hidden writing.’ ” And Kendall recognized that in order to understand Strauss one must be willing to read him in the manner in which he read Machiavelli. (In this light, it is worth drawing attention to Strauss’s comment to Kendall in 1960: “ ‘once a hillbilly always a hillbilly,’ once a man writes in the forgotten manner he is likely to do it always.” This statement’s implications for the study of Strauss’s writings can hardly be overstated, especially as there now exists persuasive scholarship showing that Strauss employed the “forgotten kind of writing” in publications at least as early as 1941.)

Kendall also claimed, less persuasively, that Strauss held that Machiavelli and his “modern” co-conspirators had set out “to destroy” and succeeded in destroying “the influence of The Great Tradition (that is, the classical-biblical tradition) in the world of the intellect” and that the chief intention of Strauss’s own enterprise was to undo the damage done by the Machiavellian revolution. Kendall is insufficiently attentive to the manner in which Strauss’s Machiavelli learns and adopts from “The Great Tradition” — most obviously, though by no means exclusively, from Xenophon: Machiavelli’s break from the classics is neither complete nor unproblematic, according to Strauss.

Likewise, Kendall is insufficiently aware of the fact that Strauss’s practical opposition to Machiavellianism — his being “inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil” — was of less importance to Strauss than his understanding of, and appreciation for, the greatness of the teacher and philosopher Machiavelli: “We are in sympathy with the simple opinion about Machiavelli, not only because it is wholesome, but above all because a failure to take that opinion seriously prevents one from doing justice to what is truly admirable in Machiavelli: the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision, and the graceful subtlety of his speech.” It is not accidental that Strauss’s letter thanking Kendall for his review includes a gentle but telling criticism that undercuts the extremely high praise it offers: “It goes without saying that you have understood . . . its essence perfectly. I can see you reading Machiavelli’s clevernesses when you became aware of them exactly as I did: ‘I’ll be darned.’ ” Strauss’s criticism concerns Kendall’s insufficient appreciation of the role argumentation — and hence cleverness — plays for the teacher Machiavelli. For despite its remarkable merits and Strauss’s polite exaggeration to the contrary, Kendall’s review does not — at least in regard to Machiavelli’s work — resonate with the continuous joy of discovery that, above all, characterizes the whole of Strauss’s Thoughts.


Strauss’s 1956 letter on Israel and conservatism is his first included in the volume; it apparently gave rise to the more or less regular correspondence the two men enjoyed until Kendall’s death in 1967. As noted, that initial letter criticized National Review for its hostility to Israel from what Strauss “took” to be the point of view of a conservative: Strauss wrote not as one conservative addressing another, but as an outsider. Though not originally intended for publication, as something Strauss “felt it was my duty” to write, the letter is composed with more than ordinary care. Employing three times the same formulation, Strauss identified the characteristic features of the conservative mind. “A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that ‘everything good is heritage’ . . . who despises vulgarity . . . who knows that the same arrangement may have very different meanings in different circumstances.”

To understand why Strauss is not a conservative one need only consider the belief that “everything good is heritage.” Sympathetic as Strauss may have been to that belief, he did not share it; as he wrote in Natural Right and History, classical “philosophy appeals from the ancestral to the good, to that which is good intrinsically, to that which is good by nature.” Philosophy employs reason to seek the good; conservatism identifies the good with the inherited or the traditional. Philosophy thus calls into question what conservatism holds to be good, even when practically they stand together. Conservatism accordingly has a tendency to distrust philosophy or the claims of reason. This attitude was particularly pronounced among the conservatives of Strauss’s era.

Why those conservatives found Strauss’s teaching attractive is not difficult to understand. One can quickly list the most obvious sources of his appeal: Strauss’s rehabilitation of the concept of tyranny provided an intellectual ground upon which to oppose communism; Strauss powerfully critiqued the reigning moral relativism and helped reintroduce into polite (and political) conversation questions of virtue and character; he and his students took seriously the principles and the thought informing the American regime and their studies showed why that thought deserved to be taken seriously; and, last but not least, Strauss’s questioning of the new, the modern, and the fashionable and his revitalization of the “ancient” or pre-modern and classic — that is, of the Great Tradition — could not help but appeal to conservative sensibilities.

Yet for all that, Strauss never identified himself as a conservative nor did his writings frequently address the subject of conservatism. Other than the National Review letter on Israel and his brief preface to Liberalism Ancient and Modern, one can find only occasional remarks that speak explicitly of conservatism. That is not to deny, of course, that other of Strauss’s writings — most notably, his sub-chapter on Edmund Burke in Natural Right and History — are of critical importance for understanding Strauss’s view of, and relation to, contemporary conservatism.

If one takes a glance at Liberalism’s preface, one even discovers in Strauss a preference for liberalism, properly understood, to conservatism. Strauss there suggests that the common opposition between conservatism and liberalism could usefully be replaced by that between conservatism and progressivism: “For if conservatism is, as its name suggests, aversion to change or distrust of change, its opposite should be identified with the opposite posture towards change, and not with something substantive like liberty or liberality.” Strauss in this way points to an essential limitation of conservatism: Conservatism lacks a substantive identity.

Liberalism’s substantive identity is ambiguous. Strauss underscores this ambiguity by observing that “Liberal education is not the opposite of conservative education, but of illiberal education. To be liberal in the original sense means to practice the virtue of liberality.” To the extent that liberalism can be successfully defined with reference to liberality, it holds out greater promise as a basis of healthy and successful politics than does conservatism, without being opposed to conservatism: “Being liberal in the original sense is so little incompatible with being conservative that generally speaking it goes together with a conservative posture.”

But there is all the difference in the world between being of “a conservative posture,” as Strauss decidedly was, and “thinking” in a conservative manner. In Natural Right and History, Strauss wrote: “Socrates, in particular, was a very conservative man as far as the ultimate practical conclusions of his political philosophy were concerned. Yet Aristophanes pointed to the truth by suggesting that Socrates’ fundamental premise could induce a son to beat up his own father, i.e., to repudiate in practice the most natural authority.” Similarly, Strauss’s general respect for sound conservative policy and decent traditions never blinded him to the defects inherent in conservatism. In his “Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,” Strauss even identified “the typical mistake of the conservative.” It “consists in concealing the fact that the continuous and changing tradition which he cherishes so greatly would never have come into being through conservatism without discontinuities, revolutions, and sacrileges committed at the beginning of the cherished tradition and at least silently repeated in its course.”

Though the publication of Strauss’s correspondence with Kendall naturally raises the question of his relation to American conservatism, it is striking how few of the letters touch upon the question of conservatism and contemporary politics. In September 1963, Strauss was moved in large measure by the pending ratification of the test ban treaty to express his deep distaste for the Kennedy administration:

My private formula for Kennedy and what he stands for is “image.” Buckley with his great power of invective should write an article confronting the concept of “image” with that of “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind” and making clear that “image” is even lower than “an indecent respect for the opinion of mankind,” for such an indecent respect might come from sheer fear which is a much more decent motivation than the disgraceful delusionism now rampant in Washington.

However unusual it is to witness Strauss speaking of contemporary political controversies, the purpose that induced him to make the suggestion to Kendall was perfectly characteristic: “One little point has occurred to me, which cannot have wide popular appeal but might have some usefulness regarding the younger people, say the college population.”

In another letter Strauss addresses the question of what constitutes a healthy American conservatism. Are American conservatives better advised to seek guidance chiefly from the Declaration of Independence or from the Constitution? Strauss writes to Kendall in 1964 of

the tactical disadvantage of a man who wishes to base conservatism on the Declaration of Independence and hence on Locke. . . . From this point of view The Federalist Papers, based as they are on Montesquieu, are preferable, especially if one considers that they give the interpretation of the Constitution, and the d of i is not strictly speaking a constitutional document. (By this I do not wish to deny, of course, that the d of i carefully and soberly read is quite conservative.)

Strauss’s comment is sure to cause debate, not least of all amongst his students. Yet Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives leaves no room for doubt as to the rare quality of Kendall’s soul. It is a moving account of the limitations and virtues of conservatism.