Ivory Tower vs. Seat of Power: Leo Strauss and the Straussians

Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton. Yale University Press, 235 pages, $25.

A refugee from Nazi Germany, Leo Strauss came to the United States in 1938 and taught at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago until shortly before his death in 1973. Appalled at the nihilistic tendencies of modernity and mass culture and the moral relativism of “value-free” social science, Strauss preached a gospel of “natural rights.” Through close readings of authoritative, sacred texts, he believed, Americans could rediscover unambiguous, abiding truths—right and wrong, good and evil—and become, once again, restrained, virtuous, law-abiding citizens. A brilliant teacher, Strauss attracted brilliant students. From their endowed chairs in the nation’s most prestigious universities, they have made him an icon of modern conservatism.

According to Anne Norton, a political theorist at the University of Pennsylvania who escaped the clutches of the Straussians who trained her, disciples of the master have migrated from academic hothouses, where they are an embattled minority, to George Bush’s White House, where they occupy seats of power. On her long list of Straussian bureaucrats are Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the war on Iraq. Convinced that “the influence of the Straussians matters,” Ms. Norton is determined to undercut it.

Straussians, she argues, often misinterpret Strauss. In most of his writings, she insists, Strauss viewed nature as a place to ask questions and speculate. For his followers, but not for him, nature assumed one form, “simple and certain, stable and secure.” Strauss was committed to disseminating knowledge to others, but Straussians believe that some ideas are too dangerous for the masses. Ms. Norton’s teachers, in fact, discouraged her from reading the work of postmodernists. Straussians are superpatriots; whereas “patriotism was a suspect virtue for Strauss,” who had watched Adolph Hitler exploit it. Strauss did not idealize the state of Israel, nor did he admire its less than democratic qualities. And, perhaps most surprisingly, while Straussians betray a contempt for Islam and an affinity for talk of a clash of civilizations, Strauss had profound respect for medieval Muslim political thought and often chastised intellectuals in the West for their ignorance of it.

Ms. Norton loathes the men—and they are men, virtually without exception—who call themselves Straussians. She lambastes Allan Bloom, the godfather of many Straussians, as a raucous, self-indulgent polemicist. Jolted and revolted by the upheavals on university campuses in the 1960’s, Bloom began to endorse censorship, truth squads to monitor the lectures of liberals and radicals, and the intimidation of faculty colleagues—one of whom, Cornell professor Clinton Rossiter, committed suicide. Ms. Norton dismisses as “meretricious” Bloom’s 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, and claims he pandered to the vulgar, committing “half the sins in the philosophic canon.” A pretender to the intellectual aristocracy, Bloom asserted the right to exclude anyone he deemed unfit for it. He longed for a world of hierarchy, without women or blacks, who are “manifestly unqualified and unprepared … [and] indigestible.”

Ms. Norton condemns Mr. Kass’ Council on Bioethics for distorting science in the service of a policy agenda on marriage, health and nuclear weaponry. But that’s just a warm-up for her deconstruction of Straussian imperialists. Fearing that modern civilization invites lives of small pleasures and small ambition, Straussians, according to Ms. Norton, look to war to restore the manly virtues, using nature to “authorize totalitarianism.” They have fallen in love with Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who join Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln as model leaders, admired for their willingness to set aside constitutional safeguards in meeting a crisis and for deploying Machiavellian tools of “duplicity and autocratic rule.” Abandoning traditional conservative calls for limits and restraint, her Straussian jihadists embrace big government, global crusades and abstract principles of right and wrong. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, Ms. Norton writes, care little about protecting American citizens from terrorists. Sept. 11, they hope, has enabled Americans to see evil for what it is. They feel utterly justified in using preemptive force and violence to rewrite the map of the Middle East. Paul Wolfowitz, Ms. Norton suggests, is willing to take the next step, arguing “that the Pax Americana is to be best secured by the use of a particular type of arms: tactical nuclear weapons.”

She leaves no Straussian behind unpaddled. But the lineage of her adversaries’ ideas and policies remains murky. Leo Strauss is an enigmatic figure in this book. Rarely allowed to speak for himself, he appears in fits, starts, snippets, sound bites and summaries, invariably to show that Straussians have misread him. And the Leo Strauss Ms. Norton gives us is not a particularly original or important thinker.

Accepting her assertions about Strauss’ philosophy, however, requires a faith-based initiative from readers. In her brief discussion of “natural rights,” a fundamental Straussian concept, for example, she acknowledges that Strauss may have argued for a standard of truth common to all and grounded in nature, but then insists that “Strauss is careful to present nature not as the realm of certainty,” but as unexplored, uncharted territory. A detailed analysis of Strauss’ essays and books, with extensive quotations, ought to follow. It doesn’t.

The same approach mars her treatment of the Straussians. Where and when did Mr. Wolfowitz claim that Pax Americana was “best secured” by the use of tactical nuclear weapons? Who recommended “duplicity and autocratic rule” to modern leaders? Did David Frum and Richard Perle actually say that “Islam is a religion of terror” and that “No Muslim can be trusted”? Is anti-Semitism against Arabs “tolerated and occasionally encouraged” by Straussians?

One may ask, as well, whether it’s useful to treat the nonacademic, public-policy “Straussians” as a discrete group. Having driven a wedge between Strauss and his disciples, Ms. Norton nonetheless brands as “a little disingenuous” Mr. Wolfowitz’s claim that the influence on him of Strauss and Allan Bloom has been exaggerated. Maybe so, but there are many other sources for the new world order envisioned by Mr. Wolfowitz and his colleagues in the Rumsfeld ring and the Cheney gang. Their imperialist rhetoric draws on Theodore Roosevelt’s xenophobic celebration of the “strenuous life,” an understanding of “evildoers” congenial to evangelical Christians, and a post 9/11 version of the anti-communist critique of containment and peaceful co-existence. They don’t have to know Leo Strauss from Johann Strauss to say the things attributed to them in this book.

But though these characters may not be members of a Straussian cabal, they certainly are, as Ms. Norton writes, smart, self-assured and scary—”ready to launch death and destruction, ready to tear the world apart.” Whatever the source of their ideas, their actions will have profound consequences for generations of Americans. Given four more years, who knows what they’ll do?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.