Is Leo Strauss really all about moderation?

The way some people talk, you’d think that Leo Strauss’s political thought is all but equivalent to a praise of moderation.

And of course there’s an element of truth in this. I always have a sense that if a large number of people, especially a large number of relatively intelligent people, are all convinced of a thing, there must be some truth behind it, even if in the last analysis it obscures more than it reveals.

At the same time, it’s possible to read hundreds of pages of Strauss’s most important books without moderation ever appearing as an important theme. There are numerous other themes that would come up, which with greater or lesser difficulty could be boiled down to a word or a short phrase, and moderation as some kind of binding principle might hardly get a glance.

Truly, moderation is something he praises, and it shows up at key moments in some important discussions. So I’m not trying to deny that. There’s certainly a place for it in Strauss’s thought.

But when I think back on all the Strauss I’ve read over the last couple years, I just have a very strong impression that the people who are always trumpeting Straussian moderation are, whether knowingly or unknowingly, at least seriously distorting Strauss’s thought.

One question frequently lurking in the background of Strauss’s thought and the thought of his students is, what is the difference between the legitimate political regime and a gang of robbers? After the way we are accustomed to hearing people speak about Strauss, we might expect moderation to appear as a leading contender for the answer to that question, or at least a major part of it. Offhand, I can’t think of anyplace in Strauss’s writing where this is the case; but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about that.

This is just a vague impression, thinking back over my reading of Strauss, not backed up by any sort of thorough textual argumentation, clearly. But when the question occurred to me just now, the answer that I gave was surprisingly full of conviction. There is a real discrepancy between what many Straussians say about the place of moderation in Strauss’s account of the political, and what Strauss actually says about the political.

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