Review of Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

Joseph M. Knippenberg

March 1, 2005

If I were to take my mother’s advice—”if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”—this review of Anne Norton’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire would be almost complete. Norton, the University of Pennsylvania Department of Political Science, and Yale University Press all ought to be embarrassed by this slight travesty, essentially a gossipy attack on some “Straussians,” at least in part on behalf of what one might call “the better angels of Strauss’s nature.”

Educated entirely at the University of Chicago, “the center of the Straussian world” (p. 23), she moved in the world in which Straussians moved, heard the stories that the cognoscenti shared, and even took courses from Joseph Cropsey and Ralph Lerner, two of the most renowned of the first generation of Leo Strauss’s students, whom she obviously likes and admires. In Chicago, she also encountered Allan Bloom, clearly one of the principal villains of her piece. Here I feel compelled to disclose that I studied with Bloom, while he taught at the University of Toronto, a period in his career that goes altogether unmentioned in Norton’s book. I wish I could say that I was upset by her oversight, but I am, rather, relieved that she claims no knowledge of the secret lives of Toronto Straussians. We have yet to find our Homer, our Jane Austen, or our Kitty Kelley.

For someone who pretends to as much inside knowledge as she does, her account is remarkably flat and superficial, reminding me of nothing more than graduate student gossip and caricatures. There is a lot of talk about “the Straussians do this” or “the Straussians think that,” that is, broad generalizations that are unsupported by any evidence and utterly without the kind of nuance one would expect from a reputable scholar.

The unscholarly sloppiness of Norton’s effort is evident in a wide variety of ways. A trivial example is her misapprehension of the “Straussian monolith” in her description of “a website Straussians keep for themselves” (p. 9), which is, so far as I understand it, a labor of love undertaken by one graduate student at Boston College. It is thus a far cry, even, from the parties at our house that Thomas Pangle partially bankrolled when I was in graduate school, which at least had the support of one tenured professor, if not of some mythical Straussian Central Committee or Politburo. I hasten to add that no one ever pulled out a copy of Plato’s Symposium or donned a toga at those parties (see p. 62); we did, however, drink too much good Canadian beer and dance (badly, at least in my case) to Motown, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello, among others.

A larger and more serious mistake comes in Norton’s critical discussion of Strauss’s Natural Right and History, a work whose purpose is to recover the meaning of classical natural right over against the modern doctrine of natural rights. Here is how Norton celebrates the modern view, which she finds in the Declaration of Independence:

The rights of the Declaration… are rights made to grow. People with these rights move outward. They move freely in the world, living longer, wider lives. They gather property, they pursue their happiness as they choose. They grow larger, ruling more, owning more, pursuing more, and their rights grow with them. (pp. 119 – 120)

We move from self-ownership, which has a Lockian provenance, to self-definition and self-aggrandizement, which owe more to Nietzsche than to any classical liberal. By contrast, Norton presents Strauss’s understanding as crabbed and almost sinister:

In Natural Right and History, natural rights are used differently. They are the means not for extending democracy but for limiting it. In this reading, natural rights present an alternative to the consent of the governed. They limit what people can do, not only in their relations with others but for themselves.… Natural right is necessary, Strauss tells us, to furnish “a standard with reference to which we can distinguish between genuine needs and fancied needs.” (p. 120)

For Strauss, classical natural right is indeed a standard—something like the best regime or the best way of life—against which actual regimes and actual ways of life are to be judged. But it is a standard that encourages human striving, not to overcome natural limits in the name of some godlike human creative freedom, but to achieve human excellence. It is a limit, but in the way that a goal or perfection is a limit. Natural right thus rests upon a teleological view of nature, i.e., one that finds the natures of things in their perfections. Because she confuses natural right with natural rights—a rookie mistake I would expect of a college sophomore, and something that should have been flagged by her editors or manuscript referees—she attributes to Strauss something other than a scholarly agenda. By her account, he is twisting words to undermine a naturally expansive and generous democracy, not sketching a serious theoretical alternative to modern doctrine. Norton characteristically oversimplifies here, eliding the distinction between Strauss’s careful discussions of natural right and natural rights to advance what seems to be an ultimately illiberal—postmodern or Nietzschean—conception of democracy. If there is a political agenda here, it belongs to Norton.

Another example of her sloppiness comes in an attempt to catch “Straussians” (again the gross generalization) in what she takes to be a contradiction. Taking up the debate over the justice of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she says:

Straussians may prefer Ancients to Moderns, but the Ancients will not give them justifications for the wars they wage. The Ancients required an enemy, a clear threat, and an authority empowered to make war. (pp. 143 – 144) 1

The “Ancients” to whom she here refers are Augustine, Aquinas, and al Farabi. One certainly does not find just war theory in Plato and Aristotle, let alone Thucydides. For Plato, at least, it is difficult to discuss justice outside the context of a city; his misgivings about foreign adventures have more to do with their effects on the souls of those who are enthusiastic about them. In other words, it is not as easy to use classical political thinkers to criticize Straussians or catch them in a contradiction. It would make more sense to tie the primacy of justice in the classical account with a concern for the health of domestic politics, as some serious opponents of the Bush Administration’s wide-ranging war on terror have done. There would at least be room for a reasonable argument, rather than an attempt to score cheap debating points.

The same goes for Thucydides, whom Norton presents largely as a critic of “imperial overstretch” in a chapter entitled “The Sicilian Expedition” and devoted to the war in Iraq. For her, Thucydides’ lesson is clear: Athens’ (America’s) ruin comes from its pursuit of empire, which is the story “Straussians once told” (p. 200). Now, the line, which she attributes to “Donald Kagan, father of Robert Kagan and a colleague of Allan Bloom’s at Cornell,” is that “the Athenians failed only in not quite being imperial enough” (p. 200). Aside from the fact that she does not once go to the text, which makes Thucydides’ own nuanced judgment of the Sicilian expedition clear enough , she simply assumes that interpretations change to serve political purposes (at least now, if not in the past). In addition, she makes the convoluted conspiratorial connection of Bloom to the Kagans (who may be friends and colleagues but are certainly not “Straussians”) without once mentioning any of the many distinguished “Straussian” works of scholarship on Thucydides—books by Steven Forde, Clifford Orwin, and Michael Palmer, as well as articles by Christopher Bruell.

It is noteworthy as well that she focuses almost all her attention on the “Straussian” approach to international affairs on the work of Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan, and Bill Kristol, who are prominent, to be sure, but hardly the only appropriate subjects of study. Other “Straussian” commentators like Francis Fukuyama (who has been very critical of the Iraq war) and Charles Fairbanks, a prominent “Straussian” scholar of Russian and Central Asian affairs (and articulate defender of the war in Afghanistan), receive barely a mention. Thomas Pangle’s magisterial Justice Among the Nations is overlooked altogether. Facts and details are not permitted to confuse the clarity of the storyline.

Her complaints about the Straussian habit of not citing scholarship and ultimately of making political use of texts can certainly be applied to the work at hand. There is not a single footnote in the entire text. There are stories she has heard, usually not attributed to a named source. There are sly and unworthy attempts at character assassination:

These acts [of sexual harassment] had… been eclipsed by the persistent rumors of homosexual rites and rituals among Straussians: of orgiastic toga parties and gay little reenactments of the Symposium. These rumors were enhanced by Bellow’s Ravelstein. Despite the recurrent rumors…I don’t believe the toga parties. (p. 62; see also p. 96)

Were any conservative to make such insinuations about a prominent liberal or leftist academic, he would face a chorus of accusations of “gay-bashing.”

Similarly, Norton accuses Bloom and his fellows of being so status conscious that their entire critique of higher education amounts to an effort on the part of hitherto “unclubbable” Jews to lock the gates of the prestigious university behind them, so that their successor minorities (“African Americans and South Asians, Muslims and Hindus” [p. 73]) 2 cannot follow in their footsteps. But when she is criticizing recent appointments to the President’s Council on Bioethics, she cannot resist remarking that Diana Schaub and Peter Lawler are “from minor academic institutions” (p. 90). Despite her awareness of the vagaries of the academic job market, which at high-prestige institutions has been unfriendly to political theorists in general and Straussians in particular, she falls back on a knee-jerk status judgment to dismiss the work of scholars with whom she is essentially unfamiliar, but whose résumés are quite impressive.

I cannot resist pointing to one final example of the nastiness of Norton’s insinuations. After linking one of Bill Kristol’s arguments to Carl Schmitt, who is notorious as a legal apologist for Nazism, she offers the following observation:

Europeans may indeed be skeptical of American neoconservatism, but their skepticism comes not because they have seen nothing like it but because they know its progenitors too well. Neoconservatives want a strong state, and a state that will put its strength to use, a situation all too familiar in Europe. Neoconservatives would have the state ally itself with—and empower—corporations, with tax cuts targeted to stimulate the economy. Neoconservatives reject the vulgarity of mass culture. They deplore the decadence of artists and intellectuals. They, though not always religious themselves, ally themselves with religion and religious crusades. They encourage family values and the praise of older forms of family life, where women cupy themselves with children, cooking, and the church [Kinder, Küche, und Kirche, an old German trilogy], and men take on the burdens of manliness. They see in war and in the preparation for war the restoration of private virtue and public spirit. They delight in flags.… (pp. 178 – 179)

The “Straussian” neoconservatives are, Norton implies, Jewish Nazis. Or they are the American equivalent of al Qaeda (see pp. 110 – 115), rallying the West to jihad (p. 212). When I read this, I thought I was reading a post in the Democratic Underground, not a book published by a university press.

To be sure, there are a few occasions in the book when Norton makes something approaching a coherent argument. Thus, for example, she offers an extended and apparently sympathetic sketch of Anglo-American conservative traditionalism, largely in the service of showing how much of a departure neoconservatism is from that strand of thought:

Appeals to history and memory, the fear of losing old virtues, of failing to keep faith with principles of an honored ancestry, came to seem curiously antiquated. In their place were the very appeals to universal, abstract principles, the very utopian projects that conservatives once disdained. Conservatives had once called for limits and restraint; now there were calls to daring and adventurism. Conservatives had once stood steadfastly for the Constitution and community, for loyalties born of experience and strengthened in a common life. Now there were global projects and crusades. (p. 174)

Her exposition of traditionalist conservatism is as unexceptionable as it is disingenuous, coming as it does in the wake of her expansive celebration of a progressive vision of the rights allegedly articulated in the Declaration of Independence, one that licenses ever more use of governmental power, exercised, supposedly, in order to empower individuals and to promote equality. There is no respect for natural limits, nor for nature, which is merely the contemptible beginning, to be overcome as quickly as possible (see p. 121). To look back to the past for guidance is to believe in a myth (p. 165).

All that she really has in common with some conservatives is opposition to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy—its “utopian crusade” to “rid the world of evil-doers” (p, 176)—which she rejects root and branch. Our fears, she insinuates, are largely illusory, certainly not worthy of putting the nation on a wartime footing (see p. 159). The wars we have undertaken are “irrational and unjust” (p. 216), justified—both in Afghanistan (!) and Iraq—by a doctrine of preemption (p. 190). 3 Other wars are “wait[ing] in the wings” (p. 172). Her explanations for why the Bush Administration, supposedly led by Straussian neoconservatives, would undertake this course of action are varied. The only constant is that there is no complex of facts “on the ground” that would justify it. At one point, she suggests that the policymakers are so enamored of manly civic virtue that they would be willing to initiate wars to cultivate that virtue (see p. 153). On another occasion, she argues that the wars result from some devotion to abstract and universal principles (see p. 176). At yet another, it is the ambition of a few to establish a new pax Americana, rivaling and indeed surpassing the pax Romana (see pp. 189 – 191). And finally, it is the product of their desire, above all else, to protect Israel (pp. 209 – 210). Which is it?

I wrote at the outset of this review that in some respect Norton’s diatribe presents itself as an attack on Straussians—especially those associated with Allan Bloom—on behalf of Strauss. The Strauss Norton wishes to vindicate against his disciples—or use as a bludgeon on his alleged disciples—is the Strauss for whom patriotism is “a suspect virtue” (p. 139), for whom “the patriotism of the prophets is at bottom nothing but universalism” (p. 217), and for whom Islam and the West are reconciled in America, “the evening land, the place where the world is to be made again, healed and made whole” (p. 224). Norton’s Strauss sounds suspiciously like a German Jewish Jimmy Carter.

To say the least, I am dubious. Norton is too quick to give rein to her own democratic sentiments and sensibilities and apply them to Strauss and to philosophy. “We democrats,” she says, “go willingly into the evening land, not knowing who will rule after the next election, never certain of what the future will bring us. So it is with philosophy. Faith brings certainty, reason a question.… Democracy and philosophy find common ground in the quest and the question” (p. 228). But it seems to me that philosophy questions the very egalitarian and democratic commitments she evinces. Yes, for Strauss, philosophers are cosmopolitan, not patriotic, maintaining an ironic distance from any regime and any country. This does not make them advocates of the United Nations or the brotherhood of humankind. For Strauss, philosophers may find a home in democracy because in tolerating diversity, it tolerates them. This does not make them democracy’s blind partisans, unwilling to face its weaknesses, but rather its critical friends, acutely aware of its shortcomings in order to defend it against totalitarian and intolerant alternatives.

Norton, however, is a partisan of democracy. Her partisanship is revealed in the way in which she subordinates everything to her commitments. One example shall have to suffice. When she discusses Strauss’s understanding of the role of esoteric writing, she presents it “democratically,” as a “weapon of the weak” (p. 103), intended to preserve the truth against the power of the persecuting state. What she overlooks, or rather disdains as a perversion of Straussian epigones, is the pedagogical purpose of esoteric writing, which Strauss acknowledged and indeed practiced himself. Joseph Cropsey, one of Norton’s favorite teachers, explains this point quite eloquently:

Many truths are appropriated by many men, who do not possess them as knowledge but make free with them as mere opinions. The condition of the existence of philosophy is that knowledge in the full sense survive—that the truths be possessed by men who grasp them in their principles and not in their mere appearances. Men to whom truths are merely presented remain in twilight. Men who are led or compelled to repeat in themselves the generation of truth possess it as others cannot. Not only with an eye to the preservation of philosophers and states, therefore, but for the sake of philosophy itself, the considerate writers have led their readers to knowledge by difficult paths.4

This is a possibility Norton is unwilling squarely to face. Instead, she must truncate her presentation of Strauss’s understanding of esoteric writing, assimilate democracy to philosophy, and accuse Strauss’s students (including, unwittingly, her own favorite teacher) of ideological and unphilosophic hostility to democracy.

If I could still be charitable after being exposed to over 200 pages of Norton’s meanness, I would defend her by calling attention to this paragraph, which makes it possible that she knows what she is doing:

Democracies are made of ordinary people who will take on the burdens of greatness at need, and of the great and the wise willing to set greatness aside.… The brilliant are asked to set greatness aside in the voting booth and the grocery line, to live quietly. They are able to do this because they see the potential for greatness in those they join. Democracy has taught them that honor is greater than glory. (p. 125)

I can assent to, and I can imagine Strauss assenting to, everything but the last line, which embodies two questionable propositions. The first is that, left to their own devices, the wise seek glory above all else, that they wish to be recognized as wise, to rule, in effect, as philosopher-kings or at least as grey eminences behind the throne. The wise, or rather the philosophic, may rather wish to be left alone so as to be able to pursue wisdom. Those who admire them—that includes most of us who study or teach political philosophy—may indeed have other motives, such as loyalty to our country and our friends, as well as love of our families, that lead us to engage in various sorts of political activity, from writing books to serving in government, for a time or as a career. Our positions on the major political questions of the day may well be remotely informed by our “philosophical learning,” but our judgments depend perhaps more on our prudence, experience, and knowledge, such as it is, of history. On these dimensions, there is likely to be as much, if not more, variation among people who studied with Leo Strauss or with students of Leo Strauss than in any other academic community. (Indeed, I am tempted to argue that there is more diversity here than elsewhere in the learned classes, given the virtual leftish orthodoxy of most of higher education.)

The second questionable proposition is that experience in democracy teaches that the satisfactions of egalitarian honor are superior to those of inegalitarian glory. I am more inclined to say that it is philosophers who taught democracy that honor—or human dignity—is the only possible egalitarian substitute for the aristocratic love of glory, which still demands competitive, albeit now for the most part non-political, outlets. In other words, a philosophic appreciation of the charms of inequality—one which partisan democrats might not either understand or countenance—shows us how we can buttress a decent liberal democratic regime, winning the allegiance of those who might otherwise be its enemies. Here is an example of philosophy’s “critical” support of democracy, about which I learned, by the way, from both Allan Bloom and Ralph Lerner, the one in person, the other in print.

Leo Strauss has in recent years become an object of increasing scholarly interest. Some good books and articles have been written about his thought and his influence. Norton’s book—likely rushed into print to take advantage of the run-up to the 2004 election and the notoriety of Paul Wolfowitz as an advocate of the war in Iraq—cannot be numbered among them. I can do no better than to borrow the words she unfairly applied to Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

The book was meretricious, not merely speaking but pandering to the vulgar. Cavalier polemic had taken the place of scholarship. Philosophy deferred to convention. (p. 58)

Physician, heal thyself.

1. It is perhaps unremarkable that Norton, in rejecting the universalism of “natural right,” argues for “different standards for justice, conduct, virtue, and politics” in different contexts (see pp. 121 – 122). While it is certainly still possible to defend some sort of adherence to just war theory within the pluralistic context she sketches, most just war theories are more readily defended in terms of some conception of universal morality, which she seems to reject (see, e. g., pp. 176, 197). Norton seems to be undiscriminating in her willingness to avail herself of any argument that will make Straussians look bad. Return to text.

2. See Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II.65Return to text.

3. I cannot resist noting that I am personally acquainted with at least two students of Middle Eastern or South Asian extraction who studied with Bloom at the Committee on Social Thought, as well as one Filipino. There are, of course, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American Straussians as well. But facts interfere with sweeping generalizations.Return to text.

4. The “Bush Doctrine” of preemption was announced in a commencement address at West Point more than six months after the invasion of Afghanistan, which was self-evidently retaliatory, rather than preemptive.Return to text.

5. Joseph Cropsey, “Preface,” in Cropsey, ed., Ancients and Moderns. Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (New York: Basic Books, 1964), p. ix. I am grateful to Mary Nichols for reminding me of this passage.Return to text.

6. Bloom’s reading of Rousseau’s Emile helped me think through these issues.Return to text.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.