Strauss’s Three Burkes: The Problem of Edmund Burke in Natural Right and History

Steven J. Lenzer, "Strauss's Three Burkes: The Problem of Edmund Burke in Natural Right and History," Political Theory, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 364-390.


Although Leo Strauss’s critique of Edmund Burke’s political theory in Natural Right and History is not the most famous ever written (it suffices to mention Paine’s Rights of Man), it is doubtless the most challenging. In part, this is so because Strauss, unlike most other critics, focuses his attack not on Burke’s “conservatism” but on the grounds of that conservatism. To paraphrase Strauss himself on Alexandre Kojeve, he seems to hold that Burke is right politically for the wrong reasons. If Strauss is to be taken at his word, Burke’s principles ultimately were more harmful to the ends he sought politically than were the theories he opposed. “Whereas Burke’s ‘conservatism’ is in full agreement with classical thought, his interpretation of his ‘conservatism’ prepared an approach to human affairs which is even more foreign to classical thought than was the very ‘radicalism’ of the theorists of the French Revolution” (pp. 318-19). My argument is that Strauss is not to be simply taken at his word, because in his essay on Burke (in the chapter entitled “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”),’ there is not one Burke but three.

There is the radically modem Burke who “paves the way for ‘the historical school’ ” (p. 316) and whose thought is “a preparation for Hegel” (p. 319).  We find him in the third part of Strauss’s essay. There is also the almost classical Burke of the first part who “sided with Cicero and with Suarez against Hobbes and against Rousseau” (p. 295) and “may be said to have returned to Aristotle” (p. 303) in opposing the extreme doctrinairism of the French Revolutionary theorists. And between these two extremes we are presented with a Burke who is, more or less, in-between. With this Burke there is only a “limited correctness” to the claim that he started “a turn to History” (p. 304). Rather, he is best understood as having primarily returned “to the traditional view of the essential limitations of theory as distinguished from practice or prudence” (p. 304).