The “conservative movement” is a political movement. Yet “conservatism” is also the name of an intellectual tradition. At a time when the self-avowed adherents of the movement are busy quarreling with one another over its identity, all concerned would be well served to visit, or revisit, its intellectual underpinnings.
With an eye toward this end, there is no one better suited to lead the way on this score than Paul Gottfried.
Gottfried is both a veteran of the movement as well as one of its most articulate and incisive students. A prolific writer and scholar, the name of this son of German-Jewish immigrants is no less deserving a place on the roster of American conservative intellectuals than those of Russell Kirk, say, and William F. Buckley (both of whom had befriended Gottfried).
There are at least three reasons why it is imperative that self-avowed conservatives familiarize themselves with Gottfried’s work.
First, that this retired professor of political science and history possesses a virtually exhaustive knowledge of the life and character, the fortunes and misfortunes, of American conservatism is true enough. Yet his knowledge of the political philosophical landscape generally, both here and in Europe, is no less exhaustive. This, in turn, has only heightened his understanding of American conservatism, for it is a truism worth repeating that, as the late conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once said, to know only one’s own tradition is to know not even that.
Second, throughout his numerous books and articles, and regardless of whether his prose is academic, Gottfried succeeds in establishing for both scholar and lay reader alike the inseparable link between political theory and practice. This is no mean feat. Most contemporary works in political philosophy have such an air of unreality about them that the chasm between theory and practice appears unbridgeable. Gottfried’s writings mercifully deliver us from this fantasyland.
Finally, the civility and urbanity with which Gottfried engages his critics—including and especially self-identified conservative critics—contrasts sharply with the loutishness on display in current quarrels among those on the right.
His most recent book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, is a particularly instructive example of this lost art of conversation.
During George W. Bush’s tenure as president, the Jewish philosopher and University of Chicago professor, Leo Strauss, first became known to the public. And it was with “the neoconservative persuasion,” as Irving Kristol called his brand of conservatism, that Strauss became associated.
There remains controversy over the nature of neoconservatism and Strauss’s role in all of this. Thankfully, Gottfried’s book sheds much needed light on these issues. In so doing, it goes a great distance in bringing the movement’s quest for a reawakening full circle.
Strauss does indeed have a relationship with the conservative movement, Gottfried argues—even if this relationship has been misconceived by both his critics and defenders. As Irving Kristol himself admitted time and time again, neoconservatism is a fundamentally different breed than traditional conservatism. Gottfried agrees with this assessment. Yet he also notes that Strauss never pretended to be any sort of conservative. Inaccurate too is the image of Strauss the cunning Machiavellian that his opponents have labored to impress upon the popular imagination.
Rather, Strauss was a thinker and scholar of the first order, an accomplished student of several ancient and modern philosophers, among them Plato and Thomas Hobbes. Gottfried is highly respectful of the subject of his study, and admits to admiring much of Strauss’s work—even though he rejects his overall philosophical orientation.
Strauss’s affirmation of universal “natural rights” and his dismissal as “relativistic” of Edmund Burke’s conservative–tradition-centered—approach to life marks him off from traditional conservatism. Moreover, Gottfried claims that “journalists,” second-hand dealers of ideas, have enlisted these central features of Strauss’s thought in the service of their own political ends. These two facts account for Strauss’s connection with neoconservatism.
Though academic in nature, Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America is written in plain English. What a blessing this is, for it is mandatory reading for all self-described conservatives interested in knowing about the history and the ideas that have influenced their movement.
It is as well a blessing for movement types of different stripes who are interested in learning how to agreeably disagree with one another over the nature and future of the conservative movement in America.
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