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.
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.