Mark Lilla is a writer whose work is always interesting and yet increasingly frustrating. The topics he chooses to engage are unerringly the right ones, but his writing now seems hasty. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction follows upon his The Reckless Mind and, one can presume from this effort, will be followed by The Scuttled Mind or some such. He has hit on a formula and is working it as best he can. This is a great shame, given how original and insightful he can be when honest with his readers and himself.
No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, a significant advance in scholarly knowledge is upon us, as well as an advance in evaluating Kirk as a political thinker.
A year ago, Donald Devine offered readers of Law and Liberty an expert summary and a warm endorsement of the political philosopher Larry Siedentop’s latest book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Siedentop traces the modern, “secular,” and liberal ideas of moral equality and equal liberty to the Christian overturning of “the aristocratic assumption upon which all ancient thinking was based, that of natural inequality,” and he finds in this intellectual genealogy an argument for a contemporary alliance of secular liberals and Christians in affirmation of individual rights.
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
Harry V. Jaffa, who died January 10, at 96, may well be American conservatism’s most consequential thinker, for having attempted to re-found conservatism on the basis of its most philosophic principles and most revered figures. He was also one of the most dismissed, berated, and scorned of scholars, earning derision from former friends and those who knew him only from his writing, much of which had become acerbic.
Scores of textbooks attest that John Locke is the most important intellectual influence on America’s Founding. No other first-tier philosopher can provide a moral and theoretical justification for the United States, its traditional culture, and its form of government. Even the skeptics who question Locke being the only influence concede he was the most significant. The practical problem is that modern experts are confused about what Locke actually thought.
This next episode of Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with author and professor Grant Havers on his conservative critique of Leo Strauss. Many conservatives hold Strauss in high regard as a thinker who shaped their intellectual commitments. Havers discusses the question: what's so conservative about Strauss' philosophy? Havers' recent book Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique contends that Strauss was a liberal Cold War warrior who most wanted to defend the foundational principles of British and American democracy. Going to the heart of Strauss' philosophical principles and his grounding of modern constitutional liberty in classical Greek political thought,…