Randall E. Auxier*
The Historicist Renewal
A review of Leo Strauss e la destra americana, by Germana Paraboschi.
Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1993. 162 pp. L.25,000.
[From HUMANITAS, Volume
IX, No. 2, 1996. ©
Germana Paraboschi’s book serves three basic purposes. First, the book
is an introduction to and explanation of the bewildering "panorama" of
positions and threads of influence in American conservative thought. It
is designed for Italian-speaking intellectuals who are unlikely to be familiar
with more than the basics of American political thought.1
To accomplish this first aim, Paraboschi traces lines of historical descent
in order to explain (or at least intelligibly describe) the changes in
American conservative thought in the twentieth century. Second, Paraboschi
seeks to organize and classify several contemporary trends in American
conservative thought, as distinct from conservative politics, and to show
how the view of "historical consciousness" held by a given thinker will
influence his or her stance toward the current political divisions among
American conservatives. This argument is ade by closely analyzing the effects
of Leo Strauss’s war on historicism in American political thought, and
the varied criticisms of it. Finally, Paraboschi dedicates a considerable
amount of energy to summarizing the work of Claes Ryn, whose "value-centered
historicism" she sees as an alternative to Strauss’s reactionary aversion
In chapter one, Paraboschi argues that the American Old Right had "two
souls"—the "traditionalist" and the "libertarian." Many of the traditionalists
(Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk are the cited examples) traced their origins
to the thought of Burke on one side, and the Federalist Papers on
the other. The "conservative libertarians" (and here she mentions no one
by name, but distinguishes between conservative libertarians and the followers
of Ayn Rand, whom she considers a classical liberal at heart) trace their
roots through Locke, Jefferson and Mill. The "libertarian conservatives"
have in common with the traditionalists a general aversion to government
economic interventionism and the welfare state, and an admiration for the
institution of private property and free enterprise, among other things.
The basic difference between the "two souls" of the Old Right becomes apparent
in the libertarian emphasis on a categorical individualism and in holding
that freedom simply is individual freedom, whereas the traditionalists
showed their communitarian (Burkean) leanings in their willingness to accept
government intervention in the social arena, e.g., against victimless crimes.
Frank S. Meyer has argued that eventually these two American conservatisms
came to be fused together, partly as a result of their mutual opposition
to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Meyer suggests that fusionists reclaim from liberalism
the priority of political liberty, but without secularism, relativism and
utilitarianism. The traditionalists, according to Meyer, fail to understand
that Burke’s conservatism, along with its counterpart in European liberalism,
does not apply to the development of American conservatism because of the
way in which the "American experience" has transformed the European schools
of thought. Paraboschi seems somewhat skeptical of Meyer’s thesis, citing
his detractors who say that fusionism is at best a "mere political hypothesis."
Regardless of the aptness of Meyer’s thesis, what is clear is that American
conservatism became more complicated with the emergence of neoconservatism
and then the New Right.
In spite of the obvious complications, Paraboschi traces many of the
internal tensions in contemporary American conservative thought to the
two souls of the Old Right. She identifies several basic lines of descent
in the break-up of the Old Right. First, there is neoconservatism. Her
line on the origins and viewpoint of neoconservatism follows Irving Kristol’s.
Its continuity with the Old Right lies mostly in its affinities with the
traditionalist strands, but without significant Burkean influence, and
in retaining some sense of the importance of historical consciousness.
She rightly points out that the main influence of neoconservatism has been
exerted in intellectual circles, and its power has greatly diminished in
the last few years. The second major thread is the emergence of the New
Right, which, according to Paraboschi, is "in fact more populist than conservative,"
its similarities with the Old Right being fairly superficial. Thus, the
New Right is not to be taken seriously as a form of American conservative
thought. The third major strand comprises the second and third generation
Straussians, the anti-historicist camp. In spite of their internal differences,
the Straussian "schools," as Paraboschi calls them, constitute a formidable
edifice of American conservative thought which is still very much alive.
Finally, there are theorists whom Paraboschi characterizes as traditionalist
apologists of the Old Right. Here Paraboschi has in mind particularly Paul
Gottfried and Claes Ryn, although Gottfried and Ryn go about this in slightly
different ways, the former by appropriating Hegel, the latter by synthesizing
Croce and Babbitt. I willlater take exception to Paraboschi’s association
of these thinkers with Old Right traditionalists, particularly with regard
to the thought of Ryn.
Chapter two is an account of the rise in influence of Hegel in American
conservative thought through the Ohio and St. Louis Hegelians of the nineteenth
century and from the 1930s to the present. Paraboschi summarizes the work
of Paul Gottfried in order to outline a Hegelian version of American conservatism.
She points out that, in opposition to the Straussian strand of American
conservative thought, Gottfried’s appreciation for historical dialectics
allows for an interplay of emergent traditions in which the story of the
meaning of "natural right" does not begin and end with Plato. She reads
Gottfried’s Hegelian centrism as successfully avoiding Marxism at one extreme
and reactionary conservatism at the other. Gottfried’s reinterpretation
of "Aufheben" as "mediation" has a profound effect upon what is
meant by historical consciousness and "Recht"
in Hegel’s sense.
This enables Gottfried to side-step many of the Straussian criticisms of
historicism while maintaining an important role for historical consciousness
in his overall political philosophy.
Paraboschi contextualizes Gottfried’s centrism by appealing to the work
of other authors regarding the origins and growth of American Hegelianism,
particularly by employing Denton Snider’s account of the St. Louis Hegelians.
Snider interprets the St. Louis movement not as a "reaction to other movements,
but more as a systematic expression of the practical preoccupations of
human beings acting in their communities, to the inspiration for a social
philosophy specific to American history supplied by the Hegelian dialectic
and philosophy of right." Thus, the way to understand conservative Hegelians
in America is to look closely at the way in which Hegelianism has been
applied to American history by American Hegelians (e.g., the role of Lincoln
as a world historical individual), and not to import the nineteenth century
European categories of Left and Right Hegelianism. The relative absence
of the standard European divisions in the Hegelian school explains the
comparative weakness of communism and socialism in America on the one hand
and the absence of Hegelian statism on the other. Paraboschi also follows
Gottfried’s account of the wider influence of twentieth century Hegelian
thinkers, such as Eric Voegelin and Will Herberg, and a number of others
who were communists in the 1930s, but who moved toward the center and right
in the years following the second world war. Throughout American Hegelianism,
the various thinkers considered by Gottfried took up a version of historicism
which "notwithstanding their differences, believed in the importance of
'historical consciousness' at every turn in American conservative thought."
This appreciation of the role of historical consciousness in the self-liberation
of humanity is precisely what Strauss and his disciples repudiated.
Chapter three, entitled "A Conservative Farewell to History," treats
Strauss and his school directly as a distinct movement in American conservative
thought, and this constitutes the main thrust of the book. Its aim is to
explain to readers unfamiliar with Strauss and his disciples the influence
exercised by that school in American conservative thought. Since these
developments are well-known in the English speaking world, there is little
to be said here except to summarize the manner in which Paraboschi accomplishes
the task, and to assess its accuracy.
Paraboschi begins with a section summarizing Strauss’s political philosophy,
particularly as stated in Natural Right and History. The author
accomplishes this with great clarity and concision, and, in the reviewer’s
opinion, she has Strauss right. The second section deals particularly with
Strauss’s position on historical consciousness, which Strauss sees as the
peculiar invention of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European thought,
and as propagated in contemporary America’s attachment to the social sciences’
account of (and assumptions about) human nature. In paticular, Paraboschi
highlights Strauss’s attack on radical historicism as embodied in the thought
of Nietzsche and its ever growing influence in American political thought
and popular consciousness. Section three, entitled "Writing and Persecution:
The Hermeneutics of Reticence," first applies Strauss’s critique of historicism
to the case of Heidegger. Heidegger came to represent, in Strauss’s view,
the logical end of radical historicism and nihilism, his philosophy of
history having "the same structure as Marx’s and Nietzsche’s."2
Heidegger’s association with the Nazis was by no means an accident on this
view (Strauss’s "reductio ad Hitlerum"). The philosophical basis
for such an interpretation lies in Strauss’s much maligned distinction
between the exoteric (for the people) and esoteric (for the wise) levels
of meaning in a philosophical work—which is what is meant by "the hermeneutics
of reticence"—and Paraboschi spends the remainder of the section summarizing
Strauss’s case for the distinction in Persecution and the Art of Writing.
Section four treats Strauss’s American disciples: in order, Jaffa, Berns,
Pangle, and Bloom. She summarizes the characteristic theories of each,
and their major books, which are well-known to American students of political
theory. While the differences among these disciples are often striking,
what can clearly be said is that each in his own way contributed to bringing
Strauss’s anti-historicist polemic into prominence in American conservative
thought as they applied his view to the various general areas of political
and legal thought. Of particular influence were Strauss’s explicit statements
in Natural Right and History
regarding the theory of natural right
in the Declaration of Independence, which provided an American context
within which Strauss’s disciples could apply his thought to the specific
problems of American political philosophy.
The fourth chapter of the book employs the thought of Claes Ryn as a
critique of and alternative to the Straussian version of American conservative
thought. Section one contains a brief summary of Ryn’s theory of the two-fold
will (higher and lower) as lying between reason and imagination from Ryn’s
book Will, Imagination and Reason.3
By means of his particular conceptions of imagination, will, and reason,
Ryn attempts to negotiate the problem of the individual and the community
by making these faculties the most characteristic human endowment, on the
one hand, while insisting, on the other, that they operate and have meaning
only within the context of real situations in which human beings act—and
these are always constituted by a concrete, historically situated community.
Paraboschi’s second section is a brief summary of Ryn’s theory of ethical
consciousness and his conception of democracy, which distinguishes between
constitutional democracy (in which the constitution itself places checks
upon the lower will and thus increases the likelihood that ethical consciousness
will influence leaders), and plebiscitary or majoritarian democracy, the
mere rule of the majority, which Ryn, like Plato, does not see as true
democracy. Paraboschi then recounts what Ryn means by "value-centered historicism."
Any assessment of these two sections must include a comment on the fact
that Paraboschi depicts Ryn as relying more heavily upon Croce’s thought
than he really does. Paraboschi downplays Ryn’s reliance upon Babbitt,
and the reader unfamiliar with Ryn’s thought would be left with the impression
that he is a modern Crocean in his epistemology, which is not accurate
in every respect. Ryn is not so much an idealist as a historico-dialectical
Section three recounts Ryn’s criticisms of the Straussian camp as working
with an oversimplified understanding of what historicism is, and failing
to realize that human moral reasoning is impossible without history, particularly
when one considers the obvious evolutionary fact that human beings have
not always been able to reason philosophically, nor to reason philosophically
as they now do; the development of human reason has always been diaectical,
and thus tied to historical circumstances. Section four recounts Burke’s
influence in American conservative thought over the past half-century,
and has little to do with Ryn’s thought directly.
By way of providing a general assessment of the final chapter on Ryn,
it should be noted that Paraboschi is correct in suggesting that Ryn shares
Gottfried’s concerns regarding the problem of historical consciousness,
but she too quickly and easily associates Ryn with the traditionalist side
of the Old Right. Ryn’s synthesis of Croce and Babbitt has a number of
characteristics one cannot find in Old Right traditionalism—perhaps largely
because of the fact that Croce played no discernible role, and Babbitt
only a limited role, in forming the views of the Old Right traditionalists.
Ryn does take from Croce a dialectical approach to questions of history
and historical consciousness (ergo, his proximity to the Hegelian
camp), but contrary to the Hegelians, Ryn is anti-romantic (or at least
very critical of major tendencies within romanticism), a moral realist
indebted to Babbitt. This is neglected in Paraboschi’s account.
Further, since Paraboschi identifies the traditionalists as deriving
their position from Burke on one side and the Federalist Papers
on the other, she should recognize that Ryn is no doctrinaire Federalist,
particularly in that he does not accept, at least in unrevised form, the
idea of an unchanging human nature—an assumption of the Federalists that
is hard to ignore. Ryn believes instead that constitutional democracies
are set up (ideally) so as to bring forward an aristocracy of morally virtuous
persons. A constitution, properly formulated, serves the community in a
fashion analogous to the operation of the higher will in the individual.
This recasts the entire character of the debate into a question not of
human nature as such (or as God made it), but of the basic nature of morality
and its dialectical development. Ryn sees elements of continuity and sameness
in human existence and finds at its core a transcendent ethical imperative,
but even this last dimension is for him inseparable from concrete historical
experience. In his view, ethical and moral values are at the bottom of
what human beings are and what they become. One has no special need for
a timeless view of human nature if only one can clearly understand some
of the central, historically enduring values held by human beings, and
their epistemological bases. Thus, for Ryn, moral knowledge is more basic
than natural knowledge, and, in fact, the former shapes the latter. One
finds but a trace of this in the Federalist position, and one has to do
some violence to the text in order to historicize Burke thoroughly enough
to interpret him this way.
Indeed, the Federalist attachment to the idea of a fixed human nature
is in some ways closer to Strauss’s interpretation of natural right in
American political theory than to Ryn’s historicism. This is a point that
Paraboschi almost makes in section three of this chapter, but fails in
the end to see clearly. Hence, the central point of epistemological disagreement
between Ryn and the Straussians revolves around whether we can have knowledge
of values which are not culturally situated—the Straussians say we can,
while Ryn says we cannot. For Ryn, universality is always embodied in particularity—hence,
his "value-centered historicism." This leads to a profound difference in
political viewpoint between Ryn and the Straussians. Ryn makes the point
that "government is indistinguishable from moral, intellectual and cultural
conditions that give it shape and direction, that it manifests the preferences
of an entire civilization."4
Here is the basic point of contention between Ryn and the Straussians,
then, and at stake is what natural right is. There would be little
in the Federalist to support Ryn’s claim, although one can find
a nascent dialectical historicism in the thought of some of the framers
(particularly Madison), but Ryn is more interested in what a constitutional
democracy is than in wht the framers of a particular constitution understand
themselves to be doing. Therefore, the esoterism of the Straussians is
rendered useless, since we need not attribute to the framers (or any other
political thinkers) a level of hermeneutic awareness which we cannot satisfactorily
show they possessed. The question is more general than that—it is the question
of where moral knowledge comes from, how it is actualized in human communities,
and on this question depends one’s entire view of what the natural aristocracy
is, and whence it derives. Here Ryn’s answer is original, and not to be
reduced to influences from the Old Right.
On the other side, Ryn is certainly friendly to the values endorsed
by Burke, and there is a strong tinge of commonsense philosophy in Ryn’s
theory, but it would hardly be accurate to say that he owes his conservatism
(if such it is) or moral realism to Burke in any fundamental way. Paraboschi
is correct to see Ryn as an alternative to Strauss and his disciples, but
incorrect, in my view, to associate him too quickly with Old Right traditionalists.
In large part, Ryn’s roots lie elsewhere, in a view which has never before
been a prevalent part of American conservatism.
The book as a whole is well-written, sophisticated, thoroughly researched,
amazingly concise, and extremely clear. One might have wished that Paraboschi
had put more of her own views and criticisms in the book, for it is difficult
at times to discern what her attitude is toward the various movements she
describes. But in assessing whether this is a serious weakness, it must
be remembered that the most obvious goal of the book is to explain American
conservative thought to persons unlikely to know, for instance, whether
Hegelianism has ever had an effect upon it, or whether Croce’s influence
has ever been felt in the United States. In that regard, the book is an
*Randall E. Auxier is Chairman of the Department
of Philosophy and Director of the
Master of Liberal Arts Degree Program at Oklahoma City University.
He is the editor of the Personalist Forum. [back]
1 All translations are the reviewer's. [back]
2 See Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 33. [back]
3 Claes Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason (Chicago:
Regnery Books, 1986). Paraboschi chooses to translate Ryn’s term "imagination"
with the Italian word"intuizione," although she does make the reader aware
of what the English word is. This could be questioned, since "fantasia"
seems the more obvious choice and captures more clearly Ryn’s meaning.
The basis for her choice seems to lie in Croce’s use of the term "intuizione
creativa," which Ryn relies upon in making out his case for imagination
(a point Paraboschi is concerned to communicate to her Italian audience).
To Paraboschi’s credit, in any case, she clearly explains the operation
of "intuizione" in Ryn’s thought, which will help in avoiding confusion.
4 Ryn, The New Jacobinism (Washington D.C.:
National Humanities Institute, 1991), 36. [back]
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Updated 29 July 2010