Michael and Catherine Zuckert have pointed to the tension in Leo Strauss's position on American liberal democracy as shown in three propositions:
1. America is modern.
2. Modernity is bad.
3. America is good.
To resolve the obvious contraditions between these three propositions, each of the three schools of Straussian thought has had to deny, or at least downplay, one of the three propositions. The Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) deny or at least express doubts about the second proposition, because they are impressed by the apparent improvements in the human condition brought by modernity that seem to show clear progress beyond ancient thought. In this way, the Midwest Straussians cast doubt on what the Zuckerts identify as Strauss's "signature idea"--his "return to the ancients."
I have identified myself as a Midwest Straussian--as someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Strauss) that one can embrace both ancient virtue and modern liberty. If I have anything special to contribute to this Midwest Straussianism, it's my argument that Aristotelian liberalism can be rooted in a biological naturalism that is supported by Darwinian science.
In a comment on one of my posts, Tom West denied that he was rightly identified as a Midwest Straussian. He observed: "The implication of my argument is that the American Founders do not have to be viewed as breaking with Locke (or as embracing some sort of incoherent 'amalgam' in their political theory) in their simultaneous concern with natural rights and with the moral and religious character of the people."
West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding--is an elaboration of this argument for his interpretation of the American founding as based on a coherent theory of natural rights--and not an "amalgam" of contradictory traditions of thought--that is concerned both with securing individual liberty and with forming the moral and religious character of the community.
But despite his denial of the label, this is exactly what I see as Midwest Straussianism, which argues that Strauss was wrong to see the Lockean modernity of America as morally and intellectually degrading in promoting liberty for selfish individualism, while failing to cultivate the higher virtues of human excellence, because in fact the Lockean liberalism of the American founding aims to secure both liberty and virtue as being mutually dependent.
That I am right about this is suggested by West's account of the three stages in his intellectual development as shaped by Strauss and Harry Jaffa (ix-x). First, as a graduate student, he reports, he accepted the idea from Jaffa, Diamond, and others influenced by Strauss that the American founding was based on a Lockean individualism that liberated the acquisitive materialism of human beings, while providing no support for moral or religious duties or for the classical virtues. At this point, I would say, West was an East Coast Straussian (like Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Allan Bloom), who accepted the American founding as "low but solid" in securing individual liberty, without any aspiration for cultivating the human excellences as was sought in the ancient regimes praised by Plato and Aristotle.
Later, Jaffa changed his mind and argued that Strauss's Locke of acquisitive individualism was the "esoteric" Locke, but that the Locke as read by the American founders was the "exoteric" Locke who linked himself to Richard Hooker's natural law teaching, who could be seen as an Aristotelian Locke. West says that he accepted this modified position. At this point, West was a West Coast Straussian, who believed that the American founders were not purely modern, because they interpreted Lockean modernity as compatible with the ancient Aristotelian tradition.
Finally, West reached the third stage of his thinking, when he began to disagree with the thought of Strauss and Jaffa that "there is something wrong with the unvarnished Locke," and he began to see that the American founders saw correctly that Lockean modernity promoted both liberty and virtue, and therefore there was nothing morally or intellectually dubious about it. At this point, West has become a Midwest Straussian, who affirms that the modernity of America is good. 1. America is modern. 2. Modernity is good. 3. America is good.
West claims, however, that he does not concern himself in his new book with the question of the European origins of the founders' political theory, and so he does not argue here for Locke as the primary source for the founders' political thought. He prefers to avoid that debate, so that he can concentrate on the founders' views considered on their own terms, without being distracted by the question of European influence. But while this is what West says, at the beginning of his book, the book has many references to Locke, indicating that West is reading the founders through the lens of his interpretation of Locke (see, for example, 21-22, 47, 56, 75, 90, 94, 103, 107-108, 172-75, 201, 226-27, 240-41, 311, 315-17, 406).
The Zuckerts originally pointed to Diamond's essay "Ethics and Politics: The American Way" (1992) as the first statement of Midwest Straussianism. West's book is in some ways a response to and modification of the argument in that essay.
In 1959, the American Political Science Review published Diamond's influential article "Democracy and The Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Founders' Intent," in which he argued that the founders thought that government should not be concerned with shaping the moral character of its citizens. In making this argument, West says, Diamond "reads the founding through a Straussian lens" that assumes that the Lockean modernity of the American founding rejects the ancient teaching that government must be concerned with the moral formation of its citizens (172).
West observes that in Diamond's "Ethics and Politics," originally published in 1977, he "substantially revises his earlier argument," and he "admits there that the founders did care about citizen virtue, although he continues to underrate the extent" (170, n. 13). So while West agrees with Diamond's position in this second essay, West thinks he didn't go far enough in recognizing the extent to which the founders were devoted to forming the character of the citizens.
West seems to disagree with Diamond in two ways. First, West criticizes Diamond for saying that the founders promoted only what Diamond called the "less lofty" and "modest excellences" of the "bourgeois" and "republican virtues" (181). In fact, West claims, the founders also saw the need for the "manly and assertive virtues," particularly in wartime, and for all the "higher virtues," including the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life (281-91, 296-306).
Actually, Diamond seems to agree here with West, because Diamond sketches an ascent of the virtues from the "bourgeois virtues" and the "republican virtues" up to the higher virtues of the "natural aristocracy of virtues and talents," as Jefferson called them, and then finally the intellectual virtues of the "love of learning" (Diamond 1992, 360-63). So here West is mistaken in seeing a disagreement with Diamond.
On another point, however, there does seem to be a fundamental disagreement. Diamond and West agree that the American founders wanted America to form a common character among American citizens. But for Diamond, the founders wanted "character formation, but not by use of the laws" (364), because they separated state or government from society, and while government would be limited to protecting individual rights, the social realm of private life would shape the character of people in their families, churches, schools, and other voluntary associations (345-46).
For Diamond, this separation of state and society is what sets modern liberalism apart from the ancient understanding of politics:
"In the old, broader view, government was inextricably linked with society. Since it was the task of the laws to create a way of life or to nurture among citizens certain qualities of character, then the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life; there could be no separation of state or government and society, and no limitation of the former with respect to the latter. But under the new liberal doctrine, with its substantive withdrawal of the character-forming function from the domain of the political, it became natural to think of state and society as separated, and of government as limited to the protection of individual life, liberty, property, and the private pursuit of happiness. It became both possible and reasonable to depoliticize political life as previously conceived, and that is precisely what happened wherever the new view came to prevail. Perhaps above all, religion was depoliticized; belief and practice regarding the gods, which classical political philosophy had held to be centrally within the purview of the political community, was largely relegated to private discretion. Similarly depoliticized were many other traditional political matters, such as education, poetry and the arts, family mores, and many of the activities we now lump under the term 'economics.' In the premodern understanding, these were precisely the matters that had to be regulated by 'laws with teeth in them,' because they were the essential means by which a regime could form human characters in its own particular mold" (345-46).
But while Diamond thus presented the founders as rejecting the ancient understanding that government must coercively enforce moral character by law, West argues that the founders agreed that the enforcement of moral law was the purpose of government (177-81). While Diamond thought that the founders separated government and society, and relied on society, rather than government, to enforce morality through family life, churches, and other private voluntary associations, West argues "that according to the founders, virtue is necessary for freedom, and that government cannot rely solely on private institutions such as families and churches to sustain it" (270). Moreover, according to West's interpretation of the founders' understanding of politics, this governmental enforcement of moral law includes the governmental promotion of religious belief and practice (201-14). Thus, West seems to present the founders as agreeing with the ancient understanding, as interpreted by Diamond, that in forming the moral and religious character of the citizens, "the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life."
But then, in some parts of his book, West pulls back from this position and moves closer to Diamond's position. "No founder," West observes, "wanted an extreme Spartan regimen that inculcates morality at the expense of liberty" (6). So, one might ask, if the founders did not want "an extreme Spartan regime," did they want a moderate Spartan regime?
West even endorses, in some parts of his book, Diamond's liberal separation of government and society. The founders rightly separated the public from the private sphere, West argues, and they saw that while the purpose of politics is securing life, liberty, and property, the purpose of life is pursuing happiness. Government can secure the conditions for pursuing happiness, but it cannot rightly define the content of happiness. Nor can government rightly define the one true religion. "The higher things were expected to be found not in public but in private life. . . . The true home of religion and philosophy and science, of revelation and reason, of the family and domestic happiness, is in private society" (301-306, 407-408). This separation of government and society and the securing of individual liberty in private life from coercive supervision by government makes modern America different from ancient Sparta, although much of colonial America prior to 1776 looked like a Christian Sparta (264, 268, 288).
Notice that West and Diamond seem to agree in seeing Sparta as the model of the ancient understanding of politics, in which the governmental enforcement of a communal moral and religious character makes impossible any individual liberty in a private sphere of life. Neither West nor Diamond say anything about Athens. Neither considers the possibility that Athens might have shown an ancient Greek form of liberalism that foreshadowed some of the features of the modern American liberal social order.
West and Diamond--like many Straussians--seem to agree with Fustel de Coulanges (in The Ancient City, book 3, chapter 17) that "the ancients knew nothing of individual liberty," because the state was omnipotent, and there was no private life free from state control. But as many scholars of the ancient world have noted, this ignores the evidence for some individual liberty in the ancient world, particularly in Athens.
West and Diamond do implicitly refer to Athens by appealing to Plato and Aristotle's understanding of politics. But West and Diamond are silent about those passages in the writings of Plato and Aristotle that recognize the claims of Athenian liberalism.
This is an important point for judging the modern liberal theory of natural rights. If it is true that all human beings are born free and equal by nature, if the state of nature is really natural in expressing human nature, then one would expect that the natural human propensity for claiming natural rights would manifest itself throughout human history--from the original hunter-gatherer ancestors in the primitive state of nature without government to ancient Athens to modern America. If for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings never claimed natural rights until the last few centuries, wouldn't that suggest that this idea of natural rights is not grounded in human nature, but is a purely artificial construction of recent liberal thought? (In some previous previous posts, I have argued that there is evidence supporting the Lockean evolutionary history of politics.)
We know that there were liberal political thinkers in ancient Athens who saw government as arising from a social compact limited to securing individual rights by protecting citizens from violence and enforcing contracts. We know this because Aristotle identifies Lycophron and Hippodamus as proposing this.
West quotes the passages from the Politics on this (362). But he emphasizes that Aristotle rejects these ideas, because the polis of Lycophron and Hippodamus is not concerned with making its citizens virtuous, and therefore it is not truly a polis. West claims that the American founders would agree with Aristotle's criticism, because they agreed that a good political community must legally enforce moral virtue.
If West is right in distinguishing liberty as the purpose of politics from virtue as the purpose of society, then why shouldn't he respond to Aristotle here by saying that while the purpose of the polis qua society is the virtuous and happy life, it does not follow that the purpose of the polis qua state is to use coercive force against its citizens to make them virtuous and happy?
West invokes Aristotle's argument that a genuine community requires the formation of character through the "associations" (koinonia) of "friendship" (philia). But West does not mention Aristotle's claim that the political friendship of citizens is only a friendship of utility, not a friendship of virtue, and that the friendships of virtue, including the friendships of philosophers, belong to the private life. Here we can see the elements of an Aristotelian liberalism, which has been the topic for various posts (here and here.).
West is silent about the evidence that ancient Athens was remarkably liberal in its openness to the free exchange of goods and ideas in a society organized largely through voluntary associations, including private associations of philosophers (like the Academy and the Lyceum). I have written about this in previous posts (here and here).
West is also silent about the argument for liberal democracy in book 8 of Plato's Republic. Democracies like Athens are the only cities in which one can freely choose to live the philosophic life, which is why Socrates lived in Athens and not Sparta. Plato's Socrates concludes: "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c).