aims – it might grant that individuals pursue different projects – but it will have
some common aims. The commonly expressed desire to ‘make the world a better
place’ would imply an enterprise attitude, even if people disagree over the best means
of achieving it. A civil association, on the other hand, is a situation of mutual
freedom under the rule of law. It is more than a Hobbesian state, for it implies
mutual respect, and as such is a moral conception, but it is less than an enterprise.
The best way to think about a civil association is as a set of rules that command
respect not simply because they serve each person’s self-interest, but because they
allow human beings to choose how to live their lives. Although Oakeshott appears
reactionary with regard to democratic politics, his argument in On Human Conduct
comes close to being a liberal one.
Leo Strauss and American neo-conservatism
An émigré from Nazi Germany to the United States, Leo Strauss (1899–1973) is
regarded as an important influence on what is called neo-conservatism. Given the
prominence of neo-conservative ideas in contemporary US political debate this
makes Strauss a controversial figure and, as his ideas have become popularised, also
a misunderstood one.
To understand Strauss’s conservatism it is necessary to start with his approach
to the history of ideas and the interpretation of texts. As we will see Strauss’s
conservatism is very different to that of Hume, Burke and Oakeshott, and it reflects
the culture of both his adopted home of the United States and the history of his
country of origin, Germany. After a brief discussion of Strauss’s work we consider
its influence on contemporary neo-conservative thought in the United States.
Strauss sought to revive both the reading of texts in the history of political
thought, and the natural right tradition. The relationship between readingand
natural rightmay not, at first sight, be obvious, and even less their relationship to
conservatism, but the three are closely entwined. Natural right stands opposed to
cultural relativism. Modern thought, according to Strauss, is characterised by a
rejection of objective validity in favour of relativism (Strauss, 1953: 9). The starting
point for a defence of natural right is the claim that radical historicism – that is,
the view that morality is the product of immediate historical circumstances – must
hold at least one thing as given by nature, and that is experience. There are many
definitions of nature, but Strauss identifies two relevant ones: nature as the beginning
of all things and nature as the character of something. For human beings, recognition
of the first must depend on authority. For example, in Judaism and Christianity,
the book of Genesis provides an account of humankind’s origins. A refusal to accept
the authority of the Bible undermines the force of that account, and leads to
disagreement about human origins. Recognition of the second – nature as the
character of something – depends upon human experience. Hume exemplifies this
approach: there must be a sensation in order to have confidence that a thing exists.
Since moral ideas – right and wrong – cannot be observed, modern political thinkers
deny their existence.
Natural right teaching, which can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, holds
that the good life is that which perfects human nature – we become what, by nature,
Chapter 9 Conservatism 205