Athens on the Midway: Defending Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss is often depicted as a sinister neocon guru whose ideas led directly to endless wars in the Middle East. Robert Howse’s worthy, academic Leo Strauss: Man of Peace correctly argues that this is bunk.

January-February 2015

Robert Howse, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 188 pp., $29.99.

 

IN RAVELSTEIN, his last novel, Saul Bellow paid tribute to his friend and longtime University of Chicago colleague Allan Bloom, the political theorist whose Closing of the American Mind remains one of the great polemical tracts of the Reagan-era culture wars. A roman à clef executed with Bellow’s usual delight in the gritty particulars of place and person, the novel traces the final days of Abe Ravelstein (the Bloom character) and describes his peculiar relationship with the intense, brilliant circle of his followers. Ravelstein, we are told,

knew the value of a set. He had a set of his own. Its members were students he had trained in political philosophy and longtime friends. Most of them were trained as Ravelstein himself had been trained, under Professor Davarr and used his esoteric vocabulary. Some of Ravelstein’s older pupils now held positions of importance on national newspapers. Quite a number served in the State Department. Some lectured in the War College or worked on the staff of the National Security Adviser.

The action of the novel, it should be noted, takes place around the time of the first Gulf War, in the years leading up to Bloom’s death in 1992. The mysterious “Professor Davarr” is, of course, a stand-in for Leo Strauss, the great German Jewish political theorist who was Bloom’s teacher at the University of Chicago and whose writings and influence even now generate angry critiques and impassioned defenses. (Davarr is a bit of wordplay—in Hebrew, it means word, speech or argument, like the Greek logos.)

For the Bloom character in Ravelstein, the teachings of the Great Books—Thucydides, Plato, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche—are inseparable from the drama of Great Politics, stretching from the Athens of Pericles to the Cold War and beyond, very much including the headline-grabbing events of his own time:

What [Ravelstein] loved was to have the men he had trained appointed to important positions; real life confirming his judgments. He’d go aside with his portable phone and then he’d return to tell us, “Colin Powell and Baker have advised the President not to send the troops all the way to Baghdad. Bush will announce it tomorrow.”

In Bellow’s telling, the source of this “inside dope” about the Gulf War is a highly placed Pentagon official whose biographical details make clear that he is modeled on Paul Wolfowitz. “It’s only a matter of time before [the Wolfowitz character] has cabinet rank,” Ravelstein/Bloom declares, “and a damn good thing for the country.”

Bellow’s Ravelstein is a useful prologue for approaching Robert Howse’s worthy but painfully academic Leo Strauss: Man of Peace. Howse’s volume is the most recent addition to a growing bibliography devoted to assessing Strauss’s difficult ideas, not only in relation to the defining ideological controversies of the past century but also as they have (or have not) affected the foreign policy of the United States.

The debate over Strauss has acquired special intensity in the years since the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as the passages from Ravelstein make clear, interest in the public influence of Straussian ideas predates our own preoccupation with Islamic extremism and turmoil in the Middle East. Bloom—at once charming and mordant, ribald and haughty—was best known for his broadsides against the moral and intellectual disarray of elite higher education, but some measure of the ferocious response to his ideas also had to do with the prominence and influence of his disciples and those of other Straussians, especially in the ranks of Republican staffers in Washington.

 

WHAT RECENT critics purport to show is that the most controversial foreign-policy ideas promoted by the American Right since 9/11—preemptive war, the aggressive promotion of democracy, an American imperium—can be traced to the baneful, authoritarian influence of Strauss and the Straussians. The tenor of their criticisms is evident in the titles of their books: Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, by Anne Norton; The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, by Shadia Drury; Cloaked in Virtue: Unveiling Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of American Foreign Policy, by Nicholas Xenos; and The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism, by William H. F. Altman.

The title of Howse’s book also neatly communicates its intention. By calling Leo Strauss a “man of peace,” Howse announces that he is spoiling for a smackdown in the faculty lounge. The U.S. Supreme Court would call these “fighting words.” Among those who have bothered to flap their way into the more abstract reaches of the American foreign-policy debate in recent years, no term is more certain than “Straussian” to evoke a contemptuous snarl. The only rival for this distinction might be the term “neocon,” and the two are often conjoined, with the implication that the workaday scheming of the neocons is just the outward expression of the more esoteric truths of their late, lamented Dark Lord.

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