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Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton

reviewed by
Robin Melville


Dear Anne Norton,



 found your book an engaging read for the memories it evoked and for the information it provided on the mindset of people whom we need to examine seriously. You brings to life the milieu from which Straussianism emerged, stirring vivid memories of the University of Chicago's Political Science department some 30 years ago. Not only the familiar names and stories, but your descriptions of student attitudes, of the style and method of the classes in political thought (in my case, those on Hegel's Phenomenology and on Plato’s Parmenides) in that awful room in Pick Hall, made it all seem like it happened only yesterday. I close my eyes and almost hear the stilted-style voices.

But I was less impressed than you by that formality or by their close reading of a single text. As to secrecy and the "secret teachings," your encounter with "The Lion and the Ass" reminded me of just how silly I took all that to be. But I was never one of those worshipful "little men in the front who would scurry into action with tape recorders" as another lecture began (p. 23). I appreciate that assertions of male superiority are galling but I do wish you had found a less sweeping way to express justified contempt. After all, even little men with soft hands may conceivably prove useful allies in the struggle against American empire.

The great strength of your book is that throughout you show how the practice of Straussians in power is utterly at odds with their philosophical pretensions, and how their practice gives cause for deep concern. You also point out how an interest in natural right has become an attempt to impose a singular view of nature upon science and society, how those whose theory and self-understanding centers on their own sense of persecution have become the persecutors of others, how, in order to justify their own invasions of far away places, supposedly close students of Thucydides now, rather than reading the Sicilian expedition as a warning of the awful consequences of a policy rooted in arrogance and bad judgment, urge that Thucydides got it wrong.

I further appreciate your disclosure of their prejudices and hypocrisies: their opposition to the further opening up of the educational system to African Americans, despite the fact that in their younger days they themselves benefited from a similar opening; their sexual behavior at odds with their pronouncements on family values; their posturing as advocates of the rights of women in distant parts of the world, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to be set beside their intellectualized fear of and hostility to women's equality at home; their disparagement of the very media they themselves have corrupted with their ignoble lies and with their skill in esoteric and manipulative writing. In all these matters and more, their reprehensible mode of thinking bear a very troubling resemblance to contemporary American domestic and foreign policy. More parallels will spring to the minds of your readers. It is all a bit frightening, to say the least.

But are we falling under the domination of the Straussians? Are they so powerful throughout the US government and in important places in American culture? Or are they merely influential in a limited number of places in political and cultural systems? Are they, perhaps, little more than useful idiots used by those who are truly powerful, only to be discarded when they are no longer useful? The major problems I have with your book relate to these nagging questions.

You say you tell us ‘how the teachings of Leo Strauss made their way from the quiet corners of classrooms and dorms, bookstores and labs,
into the precincts of power, and what became of them when they came there” (p. 33). But I don't believe you do depict the movement of people and ideas. While you don't show how Straussians managed to get their jobs in government, you do point to people who are the bearers of Strauss's teachings and now occupy positions of great power. We regularly encounter the claim in newspapers, in BBC documentaries, on web sites, that Strauss's students are the driving force in American politics.

Such a claim has been made before. Notoriously, in Britain from the mid-Nineteenth Century forward, all top jobs in government, culture and, eventually, even industry went to people who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge with degrees in the classics-a consequence of Benjamin Jowett's success in having the reform of the British Civil Service linked to jobs for his boys. But even then, there was power and there was Power. So I raise the possibility that we may be giving the Straussians far more credit than they deserve. Why might we be doing that?

For us, and for many we have known, the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago was extraordinarily special. What was thought and said there was-strange though this seemed to outsiders-taken to be of crucial significance. Yet it's but a short step to imagining that any group of people with roots in that Department must also be of great consequence should they become entrenched elsewhere. So, while many espouse a conspiracy theory of Strauss's role, is there a possibility that we tend to fall into a sort of ancestral institution worship? Is it perhaps there is a touch of guilt by association lurking here: “I write this book because I have debts to pay and ghosts to lay, and because I was made, somewhat against my will, the carrier of an oral history” (p.ix).

Despite your stories of their 'take no prisoners' approach to trying to take control of one small academic department, remember that even with their master on hand they did not succeed. Some of those you name in your Preface helped stop them cold. Moreover, as you say, it was only the coming together of two quite different concerns and teachings that gave the Straussian movement political 'legs.' I'm referring to the intersection of some students orbiting about Strauss with those orbiting about Wohlstetter, the nuclear strategist (pp. 8-9, 17-18, 182-186). This surely suggests that the bearers of the Straussian myth have risen to prominence in the Washington firmament through the fashioning of alliances with the bearers of yet other myths. But do they necessarily dominate these alliances? From being arrivistes in academia, where they always felt insecure-this is part of your description of Allan Bloom, Donald Kagan, and Werner Dannhauser (pp. 50, 67-70)-surely they have now become arrivistes in the Washington corridors of power, not confident masters of all they survey? (I find myself recalling Wolfowitz slyly sleeking his hair with spit in Michael Moore's "9/11.")

This is not to deny that they have some influence, some even a great deal. But you may be crediting them with being more consequential that they are. How connected and coordinated are they and their policies? Their common educational experience surely would not in itself constitute an effective ideology bringing coordination and cohesion to their actions? You emphasize the sometimes bitter tensions among the several Straussian sub-schools (pp. 8-9). If I may interject a short Straussian story: One of my friends reported back from his job interview at a California institution how shocked he had been to be summoned into a distinguished professor's office and subjected to a diatribe against the "traitors" on the faculty at Chicago. And my friend wasn't even a theorist! Can we really believe that such people could maintain any long-term association with each other, especially when their personal careers are at stake? I'm willing to concede that they play a part in the present system of domination. But we shouldn't too readily credit them with playing an extraordinary part, not least because that would hamper us from arriving at a useful understanding of how that system of domination is organized and how it functions.

Another concern I have is that Straussians allying themselves with others, such as Wohlstetter, seems to be something you almost regret. You seem to be venturing a 'pump don't work 'cause the vandal stole the handle' defense of some genuine sort of Straussianism. I take you to be saying Straussianism is a valuable contribution to political thought; too bad that some fraudulently claim that Strauss is guiding their exploitation of power. Is your book is an attempt to distinguish the good, to whom you are indebted, from the bad?

You assert such a distinction: “The conception of philosophy, the breadth of learning found in Strauss and among his students stands in sharp contrast to the stubborn ignorance of the Straussians. . . The Straussians have set themselves to guard the gates Strauss opened. . . They have not kept faith with learning (p. 226).” You regret the stand against Islam of the Bush administration the faithless Straussians are a well-recognized part of. (Previously, you explored how Straussians look remarkably like their global foes, the romanticizing devotees of Sayyid Qutb, like Strauss a critic of modernity (pp. 110-115).) This brings me to my final problem with your book.

Let me get at it by referring to your criticism of Thomas Pangle for seeming to ignore a work of Derrida of crucial relevance to the argument he
is making: this pointed non-citation is, you say, a classic Straussian mode of argument (pp.100-101). What, then, should we make of the fact that you
ignore the works of Shadia Drury, much cited in recent years? Her two books, Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997) and The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), cover much the same ground, while her purpose at least partly overlaps with yours. She, for example, thinks Straussianism is "the dominant ideology of the Republican party [which] threatens to remake America in its own image" (1997: p. 178). Had she been writing now rather than 7 years ago she might assert that their aims were even more grandiose than that.

You, as your title emphasizes, think the Straussians aim to create an American empire, to carry out a project of universal dominion. Drury's style is, however, less conversational than the one you employ. But the fact that you will likely thereby reach a larger audience makes your passing her over in silence even more problematical. Since you are seeking to use Strauss to criticize the Straussians and since you would seem to be seeking to rescue 'genuine' Straussianism from Strauss's misguided and unworthy followers, then you must disagree with Drury, who views Strauss, the philosophical Straussians and the political Straussians wielding (some) power in Washington as all facets of the one highly questionable enterprise. She notes, for example, that Strauss "taught some of his students to be statesmen and gentlemen while teaching others to be philosophers,’ and that this dual approach is integral to his political thought. The former is "the incarnation of the overwhelming success of traditional religion into being fit for civilized life," while the latter must find a way to live and rule without disturbing such "pious illusions" (1988: pp. 189-190). This is Drury’s analysis of Strauss's concern with "Athens and Jerusalem.’ And she concludes, in opposition to the position you take,

[N]eoconservatism is the legacy of Leo Strauss. It echoes all the dominant features of his philosophy-the political importance of religion, the necessity of nationalism, the language of nihilism, the sense of crisis, the friend/foe mentality, the hostility towards women, the rejection of modernity, the nostalgia for the past, and the abhorrence of liberalism
(1997: p. 178).

This reads almost like a list of your chapter topics. Yet for her this is what Strauss is all about, while for you it is only a description of bad Straussians. If the differences I've sketched were simply scholarly ones, they might nevertheless be interesting to explore in order to assess whose version was the more accurate one-though this would not be the place to attempt it. And like Pangle's silence with respect to Derrida, your silence with respect to Drury-why give space to the arguments of your opposition?- would be explicable, even if
regrettable. But since your project is, as is Drury's, the larger political one of saving the United States and the world from the Straussians, it seems to me you should want to explore in debate with her the true scope and depth of the threat, to make sure that we actually do address the disease as well as its symptoms. From that point of view, your silence is even more regrettable.

I am not forgetting that I expressed doubt as to whether the Straussian role is as crucial in American politics as you-and in her different way,
Drury-take it to be. That is another exploration that needs to be undertaken if the project to dominate is to be properly understood. Given the electoral disaster of 2004, which is likely to lead to more hideous brutalities in the effort to impose universal dominion, such explorations as these have become even more urgent. I take your book to contribute to these necessary explorations. But so much more remains to be done.

Sincerely, Robin Melville


Logos 4.1 - winter 2005
© Logosonline 2005