"Timeless Mind," review of Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile and Daniel Tanguay’s Leo Strauss, Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2007/08.
These two books on Leo Strauss—two more!—cover the development of Strauss’s thought. They differ in two obvious ways. Daniel Tanguay is sympathetic to Strauss and might reasonably be called a Straussian, a particularly supple and elegant one. He works from within Strauss’s thought, neither taking him for granted nor rejecting his premises. Eugene Sheppard is an intellectual historian who as such rejects the possibility of the “timeless mind” that Strauss accepts, and who therefore writes from a perspective outside Strauss. But he is not unfriendly to him, and thanks him for having “widened my own horizons.”
The other difference is over Strauss’s conservatism. Tanguay thinks it to be merely “circumstantial,” and to hold otherwise he regards as a “fundamental error.” Sheppard, however, believes that conservatism is the key to Strauss and says so repeatedly. Strauss came to America “an obscure conservative immigrant,” and there acquired his “American persona” as a conservative. It so happens I can assure Professor Sheppard that these phrases, true or not, would have greatly amused Strauss for the struggle they reveal between honesty and good will. Since Tanguay’s book was originally published in French in 2003 (and is now ably translated by Christopher Nadon), Sheppard was in a position to take note of it in his book—which he did, but without commenting on the opposition between his thesis and Tanguay’s.
What were Strauss’s politics? To answer, one must consider the status of his politics in his thought. By denying the possibility of timelessness, or of permanent questions in human life, Sheppard installs the impermanent, the trendy, as sovereign over us. To do so raises the status of politics. For when well examined, the trends in human life prove to be political in character. Trends may begin as ways of thinking and behaving, but they become trends when they become dominant by taking over the politics of a society. In accepting the historicist view Sheppard is impelled toward exaggeration of the meaning of politics in Strauss’s life. Now, Sheppard is aware that Strauss thought himself to be in a sense above politics, that he had (as he said) sworn an oath to the flag of moriatur anima mea mortem philosophorum (“may my soul die the death of philosophers”). But to Sheppard this means that Strauss’s devotion to timeless truth compels him to place such truths “beyond question and examination” politically, hence to be a conservative. He assumes that the philosopher’s search for truth leads him to fix on truths, as if the search were always successful, and then to want to defend them. But why are fixed truths only conservative? Do not liberals have fixed truths?