In his recent book on Strauss, Steven B. Smith has called attention to “a curiously neglected passage from the very center of Natural Right and History,” a passage in which Strauss “acknowledges the way political decisions grow out of concrete situations and cannot be deduced from a priori rules.” The passage reads:
Let us call an extreme situation a situation in which the very existence or independence of a society is at stake. In extreme situations there may be conflicts between what the self-preservation of society requires and the requirements of commutative and distributive justice. In such situations, and only in such situations, it can justly be said that the public safety is the highest law. A decent society will not go to war except for a just cause. But what it will do during a war will depend to a certain extent on what the enemy—possibly an absolutely unscrupulous and savage enemy—forces it to do. There are no limits which can be defined in advance, there are no assignable limits to what might become just reprisals.
William Clare Roberts is Assistant Professor of Political Science at McGill University.