the rousseau option


Leo Strauss’s Rousseau chapter in Natural Right and History is perhaps the most neglected aspect of the book.1 This is surprising because Strauss himself paid Rousseau the considerable compliment of taking him seriously. At a time when Rousseau was dismissed as either a crank outside the philosophical canon or as a dangerous obscurantist responsible for the radical politics of the French Revolution, Strauss helped to revive a serious interest in his philosophical thought.2 The Rousseau chapter is titled “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right” and begins: “The first crisis of modernity occurred in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” (252). The crisis initiated by Rousseau, ironically, took the form of a return to antiquity. Rousseau, Strauss tells us, attacked modernity in the name of two classical ideas: virtue and the city, on the one hand, and nature, on the other. Rousseau appealed to the polis and the ancient conception of the citizen (as opposed to the modern state and its characteristic inhabitant, the bourgeois) and at the same time he appealed to the classical conception of natural right, however attenuated, as the standard by which society should be judged. Strauss notes that later thinkers – Kant, Fichte, Hegel – may have “clarified” Rousseau’s vision, but “one must wonder whether they preserved [its] breadth” (252).

more from at Steven B. Smith at The Art of Theory here.