Nietzsche writes in the concluding section of Twilight of the Idols, “One does not learn from the Greeks—their way is too alien, and also too fluid, to have an imperative effect, a ‘classical’ effect.” The divide between Greek antiquity and modernity to which Nietzsche alludes has certainly not discouraged many attempts to bridge this gap.

The English classicist John Bloxham, in his book, Ancient Greece and American Conservatism: Classical Influence on the Modern Right (2018), demonstrates how many luminaries of the post-World War II conservative tradition interpreted the Hellenes, especially Plato and Aristotle, as kindred spirits in a common cause against the enemies of civilization. Bloxham extensively shows how major figures on the intellectual right during the Cold War era and beyond projected their own political biases onto various classical texts.

Bloxham’s study is particularly helpful in illuminating how the American right turned away from the traditionally conservative focus on historical truth. As Paul Gottfried demonstrated in The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (1986), major voices on the right rejected “historicism” on the grounds that it led to moral relativism. In brief, this understanding of historicism equated it with a denial of moral absolutes, because historicists allegedly confine each moral standard to its particular context in history. It would follow, then, that a moral judgment is invalid outside its historical context.

Gottfried admits that there is a connection between historicism and relativism: “Historicists, and among them Hegel, have sometimes treated moral and intellectual truths as being relative to particular epochs and cultures and thus fated to vanish in a changing world.” However, this tendency towards relativism, as Gottfried explains, does not express the essence of historicism. If anything, historicism is more closely related to empiricism, or the appreciation of historical experience as the best guide to understanding reality. Gottfried writes, “Many historicists, including Hegel, have stressed historical continuity more than change. They have also presented history as a vehicle for teaching and testing values without ascribing the origin of morality to a changing historical process.”

It is no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that conservatives reinvented the ancient Greeks as defenders of ahistorical truth. Bloxham shows repeatedly how members of the postwar right, in an attempt to align themselves with Aristotle and Plato, often wound up remolding the classics into the image of modern politics at the expense of understanding Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies. Bloxham targets the distinguished Southern conservative Richard Weaver, who embraced “Platonism” as a philosophy that upholds moral universals, or “forms,” in opposition to the relativist denial of such absolutes. Yet Weaver, argues Bloxham, ignored other elements of Plato’s philosophy that did not square with his anti-egalitarian politics:

Weaver’s attack on equality of condition was strange for an admirer of Plato, who had long been an object of suspicion among Southern thinkers because of his supposed egalitarianism. Plato’s


prescribed that “land and houses must be divided equally (so far as possible),” and the Guardians in his


were not permitted to own property because of its corrupting influence. Weaver, in contrast, described property ownership as “the last metaphysical right” which must be protected.

This selective reading, or misreading, of the Greeks intensified in the decades following the publication of Weaver’s most important works in the 1950s.

Although Bloxham admires Leo Strauss as a brilliant scholar who composed many admirable commentaries on classical authors, especially Xenophon, he suggests that Strauss at times also read into Plato certain ideas that were far from evident in his political philosophy:

First, he claimed that Plato was not as anti-democratic as he is often portrayed: for example, Strauss suggested that Plato believed that ‘since the principle of democracy is freedom, all human types can develop in a democracy, and hence in particular the best human type.’ Nonetheless, Strauss’s Plato did not view this strength of democracy as decisive, because ‘the aim of human life, and hence of social life, is not freedom but virtue.’ Virtue required education, which required leisure, which required wealth, whereas the majority of humankind would always be poor, so democracy must always be ‘government by the uneducated.’

Strauss’s reading of Plato as a philosopher who privileged virtue far above freedom is certainly a conventional one that is well supported in all of Plato’s dialogues. However, despite the aforementioned egalitarian elements in his work, it is quite a stretch to argue that Plato was favorably disposed to democracy, given his contempt for the democratic multitude that put his mentor Socrates to death. Strauss offered his own solution to the tension between the virtue of the few wise philosophers and the depravity among the democratic many—the wise few must somehow rule in a democracy. However, Plato never proposed that philosophers ought to rule, or even could rule, the teeming hordes within a democratic polis.

Strauss’s fears for the survival of liberal democracy in the Cold War era largely explain why he interprets Plato in this utterly modern vein. As I argue in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (2013), Strauss shared the view of many Cold War liberals that Western democracies could not survive the titanic struggle with Soviet communism unless their citizens were convinced that democracy was the superior regime. Loss of faith in democratic orthodoxy, which results in part from the relativistic denial of moral absolutes, threatened to erode this conviction. Thus, Strauss taught his students that American democracy was truly the best regime, or at least insisted that they teach this lesson to their fellow citizens. While Plato and his heirs accepted the typically fatalistic view of their age that regimes inevitably decay and die, Strauss, as a modern, was not resigned to the death of democratic regimes, even though he understood the grave threats to their survival.

The modern underpinnings of Strauss’s teaching are even more obvious in the texts of some of his best-known students. Bloxham discusses Gottfried’s critique of Straussians, particularly Allan Bloom, as defenders of American democracy that share more in common with the Enlightenment than with Platonic or Aristotelian metaphysics. “Straussians were extreme democrats who favored strong, democratic leaders and despised bourgeois liberalism,” Bloxham writes. “The classical elements were really a cover because their main focus was on protecting Enlightenment modernity against more radical thinkers from the third wave of modernity.”

In their transfiguration of ancient thinkers into Enlightenment rationalists, Strauss and his followers ignore, as Gottfried notes, “the ethnic and cultural preconditions for the creation of political orders.” Straussians are completely opposed to any suggestion that “successful constitutional orders are the expressions of already formed nations and cultures.”

As I argued in my own study of Strauss, he and his students downplay Christianity as a necessary “precondition” for political orders in the modern West precisely because a focus on this religious heritage undermines his teaching that liberal democracy is the best regime for all human beings, not just peoples who were raised within a biblical tradition. Any idea that emphasizes the historical and religious particularity of constitutional government leads to relativism and the undermining of democracy itself.

In reviewing Bloxham’s study and comparing it to Gottfried’s work, one lesson unmistakably emerges. The right’s preoccupation with fighting the political causes of the Cold War era often led to an avoidance of facts that might contradict their political biases. Considering the full breadth of evidence for each classical argument respects those traditions that have made constitutional government possible. The failure to value historical truth will only result in making the past more “alien” than it should be, maintaining the divide between antiquity and modernity.