- Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers by Geoffrey M. Vaughan
VAUGHAN, Geoffrey M., editor. Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018. ix + 345 pp. Cloth, $75.00
The essays of this edited collection had their first life in a conference held at Assumption College in 2015. Their authors are professors of various ranks from various departments (political science, philosophy, theology) at a variety of colleges and universities, most but not all Catholic institutions. The essays were shepherded into their second life in this volume by the graceful editorial guidance of Geoffrey M. Vaughan. Vaughan's sure work is most evident in his introduction, where he deftly outlines the central lines of convergence and divergence between Leo Strauss and his Catholic readers. Lines of convergence include arguments against historicism and a recovery of classical natural right; lines of divergence include the possibility of an Athens–Jerusalem synthesis and whether the philosopher's life is the highest life. As Vaughan notes and the subsequent essays attest, these converging and diverging lines are porous.
In his introduction Vaughan also summarizes each essay with concision, clarity, and charity. For the reader who wishes to pick and choose, Vaughan's introduction is essential. Less helpful are the thematic partitions into which the essays are organized: "Encounters with Leo Strauss and Natural Right," "Leo Strauss and Catholic Concerns," and "Leo Strauss on Christianity, Politics, and Philosophy." The breadth of the central part suggests it serves as a catch-all, and indeed many essays from [End Page 156] the second category could sensibly have fit within the first or the third parts. A more relevant mode of organizing the essays is according to their purposes. There are two such purposes at work in this collection, though a few of the essays fall on the fault line between them; these purposes are either scholarly or strategic.
The essays in the former category analyze and reflect on the lines of convergences and divergence mentioned above in service of providing clarity to Strauss's central ideas and how they relate to a Catholic context. The better essays in this category attempt to understand rather than explain Strauss (to borrow a phrase from V. Bradley Lewis's essay) and unite that understanding with an equally careful understanding of Catholic (usually Thomistic) principles. The worse essays in this category are so for lack of relevance, as they often forego deep reflection on Strauss in favor of other concerns.
Altogether these scholarly essays present not only a subtle encounter with Strauss but also profitable reflection on his Catholic contemporaries, most notably Charles McCoy and Ernest Fortin. Along these lines, frequently populating the footnotes are such gems as Richard Kennington and Thomas Prufer. Among the scholarly essays are: "'Wine with Plato and Hemlock with Socrates': Charles McCoy's Dialogue with Leo Strauss in the Character of Thomistic Political Philosophy" by V. Bradley Lewis; "Wisdom and Folly: Reconsidering Leo Strauss on the Natural Law" by Geoffrey M. Vaughan; "The City and the Whole: Remarks on the Limits and the Seriousness of the Political in Strauss's Thought" by Giulio De Ligio; "Aristotelian Metaphysics and Modern Science: Leo Strauss on What Nature Is" by James R. Stoner Jr.; and "Strauss and Pascal: Is Discussion Possible?" by Philippe Bénéton.
The essays in the second category, the strategic essays, articulate Strauss's ideas in service of either gaining an ally against a common enemy (most commonly historicism, relativism, modern technological science, or even modernity itself) or in sharpening a difference between Strauss's position and a Catholic one. The better essays in this category hold themselves to reckon Strauss's positions faithfully and forthrightly even as they are used for a further end. The worse essays in this category tend to manufacture a straw-Strauss and deploy or dispatch it too quickly.
These strategic essays resonate with Strauss's own proclivity to a certain kind of polemic and, frequently with valor, take up the cause of...