Leo Strauss’s 1949 Walgreen Lectures and Natural Right and History

Svetozar Minkov and J. A. Colen

An online addendum to Toward “Natural Right and History”: Lectures and Essays by Leo Strauss

Read the transcript of the six Walgreen Lectures (PDF format)

A Note on Some Differences between the Walgreen Lectures and Natural Right and History

The transcript of Leo Strauss’s oral delivery of his Walgreen Lectures in 1949 has some interesting differences from the 1953 book (finished by October 1952).

As one might expect, the lectures have a more accessible and somewhat more colloquial style and lack the copious, elaborate, and extremely instructive footnotes of the book. In the lectures, Strauss allows himself to engage in quasi-conversations: “Does political life then know natural right as a matter of course? Not necessarily.” Or: “… when Aristotle is so anxious to prove the natural character of the polis, he is not concerned with disproving the notion that civil society is made, or a work of art, and not growth, or in proving that it is an historical product, for he holds that the city is both growth and a work of art. No, he wants to prove that civil society is fundamentally just.”

This informality also allows Strauss to speak more explicitly of himself: of his department, his division, his task in the lectures, his account, and of what he can or cannot do in individual lectures. There is also a reference to Jerome Kerwin who would write the preface to the first edition of Natural Right and History.

The main parts of the 1953 book—historicism; Max Weber; the pre-Socratics; the classics (Plato and Aristotle, above all); a brief but significant discourse on Machiavelli; Hobbes; and Rousseau—are given their due and their arguments articulated perhaps more forcefully. But it is substantial difference from Natural Right and History that the lectures lack a treatment of Locke and of Burke. The latter appears to be omitted merely because Strauss runs out of time in the lectures; one can already tell Strauss will not be able to cover everything the six chapters of Natural Right and History since in this third of the six-lecture series, Strauss is still discussing Max Weber (the subject of chapter II of the book). The case of Locke, however, may be more complicated since Strauss begins both lecture V and lecture VI pointedly with Locke and then immediately drops him.  On the other hand, the lecture contain a bonus: a discussion of Aristophanes, as a supplement to the discussion of Lucretius, in the origin of natural right lecture.

Some light on the differences between the lectures and the book may be shed by examining which sections of the book were published in the years between the lectures’ delivery and the publication of the book. The sections on historicism and Hobbes (chapter I and sub-chapter V.A respectively) were both published in journals in October 1950, making it plausible that Strauss had them in a nearly finished state during the delivery of the lecture. The Locke sub-chapter (V.B) was not published as an article until October 1952, which may, perhaps, provide an explanation for Locke’s near absence from the lectures. The Rousseau and Burke sections (sub-chapters VI.A and VI.B), as well as the chapter on classic natural right (chapter IV) were not published as articles. The sections on Max Weber (Chapter II) and on the origin of natural right (chapter III) are intermediate cases as they were published as articles in the spring of 1951 and the spring of 1952 respectively.

Beyond the main differences mentioned above, the remaining ones are a matter of locution or choice of example. The examples in the lectures are  somewhat more colorful: “Saul or Samuel, Caesar Borgia or Savonarola, Lenin or Albert Schweitzer” as examples of the heroic life in the discussion of Weber; Sancho Panza and Don Quixote to illustrate the relation between vulgarized Calvinism and Calvinism; Lord Monmouth’s comment to his grandson in Disraeli’s Coningsby to illustrate the classic philosopher’s relation to family; Kemal, Salazar, and Tito as examples Strauss offers provocatively to the facile deniers of universal principles.

In 1953, the book closes with Burke: “Burke himself was still too deeply imbued with the spirit of ‘sound antiquity’ to allow the concern with individuality to overpower the concern with virtue.” In 1949, Strauss merely points out that “no choice is left but to return to classic natural right. Such a return was attempted at the last minute by Edmund Burke. I do not have the time to discuss the basic idea of Burke’s theory in this lecture.”

The lecture series itself concludes with a “personal remark” about the possibility that Strauss has hurt someone’s feelings or said something in conflict with cherished convictions, sacrificing to the “inflexible demands” of truth. In this, Strauss claims to follow “the model of the master of those who know,” pointing to Aristotle: “It has been well said of Aristotle, Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam, ‘Aristotle has a habit of seeking a fight.’ He is seeking a fight not because he loves fights and enmity but because he loves peace and friendship; but true peace and friendship can only be found in the truth.” He also seems more sanguine about the tension within the American Constitution between its truth claims about natural right and “individuality”: “From this sacred obligation, all freedom of inquiry, all academic freedom is derived. There is no other support for this most precious natural right—which most happily is recognized by the fundamental law of this country.”