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.

The caricature of Strauss as neocon impresario has even achieved a certain resonance in the wider culture. In Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel Freedom, written in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, an impressionable college student finds himself at a Thanksgiving table with “the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of American military supremacy to make the world freer and safer.” The creepy blowhard tells the young man that “we have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts. Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.”

The first thing to say about such fantasies is prophylactic: don’t believe a word of them. Not because there aren’t Straussian neocons (Wolfowitz and William Kristol are the most prominent) or because there isn’t some degree of overlap in the characteristic obsessions of the two groups (the sixties weren’t as groovy as everyone thinks, moral relativism is both dangerous and incoherent, the West has grown complacent, military virtue is neither a joke nor a scandal, and so on).

The real problem is that Straussianism and neoconservatism are distinct frames of mind, with idiosyncratic histories of their own. The Venn diagram of their relationship is interesting less for the area of intersection than for the obvious examples of non-Straussian neocons (Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, David Frum, Max Boot) and the considerable group of thinkers whose ideas have been shaped by Strauss but who reject the neoconservative credo (Francis Fukuyama, Mark Lilla, William Galston, Steven Smith, Nathan Tarcov) or seem largely indifferent to it (the vast majority of Straussian academics, busy going about their scholarly work).

For those intent on influence tracing, there is, too, the obvious problem of establishing some connection between Straussian thought and the actual development of major policies. In Howse’s book, whose focus is setting the record straight about Strauss himself rather than showing the real-world impact of his ideas, we find this typical summary of the indictment with respect to the George W. Bush administration’s “Iraq adventure”:

It got going with a New Yorker piece by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, who claimed that Strauss had taught the art of tyrannical rule, deception in politics, and the merits of a bellicose foreign policy to Paul Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of Defense and a leading advocate and planner of the Iraq intervention. James Atlas, writing in the New York Times, asserted that Strauss endorsed “the natural right of the stronger.” In a book published by Yale University Press . . . Anne Norton wrote that Strauss and his disciples were “proponents of war without limits.”

Here, at last, the fervent wish of Bellow’s Ravelstein has been realized! Wolfowitz has a cabinet post—or close enough. He has the ear of Donald Rumsfeld and the president and is thereby able to do . . . well, what exactly? Persuade them to invade Iraq in order to vindicate the demands of Straussian statecraft? Or consider the case of that other bête noire of the anti-Straussians, William Kristol, whose fervent advocacy of the Iraq War is well known. Did Kristol and the Weekly Standard—and thus the nefarious Strauss—lead us to endless war in the Middle East?

To ask such questions is to answer them. Whatever their influence (and whatever the influence of Strauss on them), Wolfowitz and Kristol were mid-level players in a debate that preoccupied most of the political and chattering class of the country for the better part of a year. Did they have an impact on the deliberations of the Bush administration? Did the president, vice president, secretary of defense, secretary of state and national-security adviser pay attention to them? Maybe, some.

Did this supposed Straussian connection somehow determine the course of events, or even shape it in any discernible way? There is scant evidence for it. But that has not stood in the way of journalists and academics eager to discover sinister theoretical underpinnings for conservative policies they find objectionable. Such ideological hyperventilating may provide an emotional charge and bolster solidarity among the like-minded, but it does not go very far to explain how the abstractions of philosophers find their way into the practical decisions of policy makers.


IN HIS own contribution to this discussion, Howse seeks to understand Strauss as Strauss understood himself (to borrow a venerable Straussian precept). He is thus preoccupied with Strauss’s writings, lectures and letters. Like previous authors plowing these fields, however, Howse is also interested to some extent in the phenomenon of the Strauss “cult”—that is, the fervent, often-cliquish group of Straussian teachers and students whose devotion to the Straussian “project” has now stretched over several generations.

About that peculiar, contradictory, edifying project, I can speak from personal experience, not from membership in the Ravelstein “set” so memorably evoked by Saul Bellow (I never knew Allan Bloom or attended the University of Chicago) but from the years in the early 1990s during which I got my PhD at Harvard studying with Harvey Mansfield, perhaps the best-known Straussian still active today (a teacher and scholar maligned by Howse as a “noisy right-wing public intellectual” for whom Strauss is “a kind of mascot or warhorse of conservative Kulturkampf”).

Howse is a professor of international law at New York University, and his chief concern is to describe Strauss’s views on three subjects related to his own field: the role of violence in statecraft and relations among states; the possibility and desirability of international governance or a world state; and the viability of international law, especially as a constraint on how and when states wage war. These may sound like narrow technical issues, but as Howse emphasizes, they require delving into Strauss’s relationship with the often-radical thinkers at the center of his thought—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, the existentialist and Nazi collaborator Martin Heidegger, and the Hegelian Marxist Alexandre Kojève.

Critics of Strauss find in his elusive, opaque writings about these figures a troubling readiness to provide, as Howse writes, “forceful articulations of extreme, antiliberal positions,” often accompanied by qualifications and critiques that seem muted or inadequate by comparison. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss showed that, as a historical practice and perhaps as an ongoing necessity, some philosophers have engaged at times in esoteric writing, concealing their true meanings amid reassuringly conventional “exoteric” views. For Strauss, the fate of Socrates was decisive in explaining the origins of esoteric writing: philosophy was potentially threatening to both the city and the philosopher himself; it had to be practiced with care. In reading Strauss, it is thus difficult to suppress the suspicion that his own deepest thoughts sometimes lurk beyond his stated views. Which are we to credit as more fundamental, Strauss’s avowal in an early letter that Nietzsche “so dominated and bewitched me between my 22nd and 30th year, that I literally believed everything I understood of him,” or his later insistence, consoling to liberal sensibilities, that “wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism”?

Howse tries to resolve such tensions by reminding us that Strauss was, in addition to everything else, a penetrating scholar of Jewish thought and a refugee from the world destroyed by the Nazi war against the Jews. As Howse sees it, the young Strauss shared to a degree the discontent with liberal principles among Weimar intellectuals on the right, many of whom belonged to what is known in Germany as the Konservative Revolution of the 1920s, a movement that prepared the way for a broader intellectual acceptance of Nazism. As Strauss wrote in an essay on the corrupting influence of Nietzsche, Schmitt and Heidegger, part of their appeal to high-minded young Germans (himself presumably included) lay in their “sense of responsibility for endangered morality”—morality robbed of its heroism and nobility by petty calculation and self-interest.

For Howse, Strauss’s mature thought involves certain concessions to the allure of these thinkers—to his younger self, as it were—while at the same time presenting an alternative in the chastened, worldly wisdom of classical political thought, most of all in Plato and Thucydides. Howse calls this an instance of t’shuvah—that is, of return or repentance as understood in traditional Judaism. It involves, he writes,

a pulling back from the extreme through critique, often internal, of the extreme—a deeper, more radical level of philosophical reflection that . . . has the result of reestablishing the case for moral-political limits and for legality, hence moderation in Strauss’s sense. T’shuvah . . . is accomplished not through pious shame or remorse but through an even greater philosophical Redlichkeit [honesty, probity].

This is an appealing interpretation of Strauss, though Howse has no direct evidence for it and does little more than assert it. Strauss certainly never endorses it. But it does capture the tone of the material that Howse cites at great length to show that Strauss’s later views, on the questions of most concern to Howse, were far from radical. Strauss did fear the “Universal and Homogenous State” envisioned by Kojève—not because Strauss prized struggle and conflict, however, but because he worried about freedom of thought and preserving the full variety of human types. And there can be no doubt of Strauss’s impatience with grand schemes for perpetual peace—not because he despised peace but because he saw no foundation for such utopian hopes. As Howse summarizes this balanced view, Strauss affirmed “the rightfulness of international law as a constraint on brutality or gratuitous violence while questioning international law as a narrative of human progress or a guarantee of such progress.”

Much of Howse’s evidence on these issues derives from transcripts and recordings of Strauss’s lectures and seminars that have become available in recent years through the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago. That these materials exist in such abundance—Howse cites just a few of the many recorded courses, including seminars taught between 1958 and 1967 on Xenophon, Thucydides, Grotius, Kant, Hegel and Marx—is a testament to the spell cast by Strauss’s teaching. For me, having read Strauss’s books many years ago and written a doctoral thesis on Straussian themes, the recordings on the Strauss Center’s website are an astonishing find. There you hear the man himself, holding forth in surprisingly quick, lyrical, German-inflected English—and demanding attention. The master’s voice, indeed!


WHAT, THEN, makes Strauss so compelling? What explains the allure of Straussian teachers and teaching? Many of the same things, I suspect, that have made Strauss and the Straussians so inviting a target for their critics inside and outside the academy. There is, among Straussians, the sense of initiation into an elite, an elect few whose distinction lies in seeing what others fail to see, in knowing truths that others lack the courage to confront. Among the graduate students in political theory in my own day, Straussian and non-Straussian alike, the imposing doorstop-size History of Political Philosophy that Strauss edited with Joseph Cropsey was popularly referred to by combining the color of its cover with the authority of its pretensions: it was, simply, the Purple Bible.

That all of this amounts to some flavor of cultural conservatism is obvious, but it is hard to detect in it a particular conservative politics. In my own experience of the “cult,” such as it is, dogmatism is considered gauche, intellectually and politically shallow. There are Straussians, but there is no telling, even at this late date, what Straussianism might be. The books of Strauss and of my own teacher, Harvey Mansfield, are tough going, so even from a straightforward careerist point of view, graduate students of a Straussian bent must struggle to figure out how to distill and reformulate the ideas of the teachers whom they wish to please and follow.

What was clear in my own training—and here the magnetic charm remains in all its force—was that the old books we read were not just of antiquarian or scholarly interest. They weren’t interchangeable “content” against which to test our “critical skills.” They were the great alternatives, the important human possibilities in all their variety. A student of Allan Bloom once insisted to me that a character in a Bellow novel was an American Alcibiades—an eye-opening thought, with more to come, I found, in the novelists whom Bloom loved and taught: Stendhal, Austen, Flaubert, Tolstoy. It was all very heady and liberating; it felt universal, cosmopolitan.

But it was provincial too. Straussians are certainly excluded and disdained in much of the academy, but the sentiments are mutual. Dismissing colleagues or thinkers as benighted or politically correct becomes a ready excuse not to engage with them, inducing a certain lazy complacency in thought. And there is, finally, something jarring, especially in today’s academy, about the insistent, sometimes intentionally provocative delight that Straussians take in holding out the possibility that Plato or Machiavelli or Nietzsche might be not just interesting but, in some way, right—while at the same time hesitating to acknowledge what modernity has achieved by “lowering its sights” (another Straussian term of art) from the noble to the merely humane. This is not a program calculated to make nice with today’s fashionable advocates of “inclusiveness” (a notion that Strauss would have treated with contempt).

For me, at any rate, what continues to fascinate about the Straussian “cult” is the combination of such pretentious, high-minded universalism with an appreciation for the real work of political life, for the accommodation of interests and prejudices without losing sight of grander aims and possibilities. As Strauss wrote, in a much-repeated line, “Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.” Howse cites this Straussian motto in his own admirable effort to save Strauss from his more intemperate critics. But he might have been more generous in recognizing the same impulse in analyses of the interplay of philosophy and statecraft by followers of Strauss, like Harry Jaffa’s pioneering study of Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Harvey Mansfield’s profound book on Edmund Burke and the birth of modern partisanship.

Strauss himself traveled a considerable distance from his youthful infatuation with the most enticing and dangerously revolutionary streams of modern thought. A token of the hard-won insights of his “turning” can be found in the tribute that he paid to Winston Churchill, in front of his students, the day after the British statesman’s death in 1965:

The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.

Here is the Strauss whose work continues to attract those who see in politics an activity with its own dignity but also a horizon that points, potentially, beyond politics. Strauss bows at once to the needs of the many, in political life, and to the aspirations of the few, in the life of the mind—and he leaves himself and his would-be students in the middle of it all, trying to discriminate among necessarily shadowy, indistinct things in the confusion of our mortal cave.

Thanks to his detractors, Leo Strauss is far more famous now than he ever was during his lifetime, with discussion of his ideas and influence showing no sign of abating. “I used to run into Davarr on the street,” Bellow’s narrator observes in Ravelstein, “and it was hard to imagine that this slight person, triply abstracted, mild goggles covering his fiery judgments, was the demon heretic hated by academics everywhere in the U.S. and even abroad.” It remains hard to imagine today.

Gary Rosen is the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section and the former managing editor of Commentary. He is the author of American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding (University Press of Kansas, 1999).

Image: Rebecca M. Miller, The National Interest