Leo Strauss AND THE Politics OF American Empire
By Anne Norton
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2004 Anne Norton
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-300-10436-7
Chapter One Who Is Leo Strauss? What Is a Straussian?
Leo Strauss was a political philosopher. He was born a Jew in Germany in 1899 and came to the United States as a refugee in 1938. Strauss found a place in what was called the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research. He later taught, for many years, at the University of Chicago. Before he came to the United States he had written on Spinoza, on Maimonides, and on Carl Schmitt's book The Concept of the Political. He later wrote on Xenophon, Plato, al Farabi, Machiavelli, and Aristophanes. He was said to be a timid man, wary of physical harm, who was not very good at managing the practical matters of daily life. On his office wall he had a copy of Dürer's etching of a young rabbit. He told a student that the rabbit, knowing that harm surrounds him, sleeps with his eyes open.
Strauss read and taught as political theorists have done from time immemorial. He would read a passage in a text and ask: "What does it mean?" "Why is this said?" "Why is this said in this way, with these words?" "Why is this said here, in this passage, rather than earlier or later?" He would also ask: "What is not said here?" In the shul and the madrasa, in seminaries and Bible study groups, sacred texts are still studied in this way. Political theorists read with the same passion and care, and often in the same way. When Strauss came to the United States, this way of reading had fallen out of favor in the universities.
Strauss had many students. Some studied with him formally, others outside the classroom. Those I have met feel deeply indebted to him. They talk with remembered pleasure of the first time they heard him teach. Often they say of him, "He taught me to read." Some of them read texts with the same care and skill and grace they say Strauss brought to them: Joseph Cropsey and Ralph Lerner at the University of Chicago, Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, Stanley Rosen at Boston University, Stephen Salkever at Swarthmore. They have taught many people. Some of those they taught have gone into politics.
Strauss also has disciples. These are the people who call themselves Straussians. There is sometimes an element of discipleship in a student, so there is some overlap between these categories. There is very little overlap between the two conditions. Throughout this book, I will distinguish between the students of Strauss, political theorists interested in Strauss's work (some of whom were and others were not students of Strauss), and these disciples. I am sorry for the name "Straussian" because it implicates Strauss in views that were not always his own, but it is best to call people what they call themselves. Straussian is the name these disciples have taken. The Straussians have made a conscious and deliberate effort to shape politics and learning in the United States and abroad.
There are Straussian genealogies and Straussian geographies. Straussian geography divides the country between East and West Coast Straussians. This places Chicago at the center. One Straussian wrote of his move from New York to Chicago that he had been sent from "the provinces" to "the big leagues." Chicago is also sometimes (and more modestly) placed in the East. The East Coast Straussians are said to be more philosophical and less concerned with politics. The dominant intellectual figures among the East Coast Straussians are Joseph Cropsey of Chicago and Harvey Mansfield of Harvard. Both are respected political philosophers. Both are conservative. Harvey Mansfield taught Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Joseph Cropsey taught Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, both prominent members of the defense establishment. Mansfield is the more political of the two, considering himself-rightly-a conservative activist. Cropsey rarely mentions politics in class. Mansfield baits and battles leftists and liberals, and writes on manners and manliness. My colleague Rogers Smith tells me that if you wish to study with Mansfield you are expected to be a conservative as well. If you are not, you are sent to study with someone else. He has, however, acted generously to scholars who are not conservative.
The West Coast Straussians are prone to zealous partisanship in politics and the academy. The dominant figure among the West Coast Straussians is Harry Jaffa. Jaffa taught for many years at Claremont Graduate School and remains affiliated with the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. They are regarded as vehement and ideological, even by fellow conservatives, and they are unabashedly partisan. Jaffa writes: "The salvation of the West must come, if it is to come, from the United States. The salvation of the United States, if it is to come, must come from the Republican Party. The salvation of the Republican Party, if it is to come, must come from the conservative party within it." West Coast Straussians regard themselves as combative-"combative as hell," Thomas West, one of their number, writes. They not only dislike liberals, leftists, and Democrats, they have fights to pick with the followers of other conservative figures: Frederick Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Willmoore Kendall. For these men-they are, as far as I know, all men-politics comes before philosophy.
There is another intellectual school that will be important to this account. One might think of it as a Straussian cadet line. This is the school of thought associated with Albert Wohlstetter. Wohlstetter was a political scientist and a colleague of Strauss's at Chicago. He was a scholar of international relations who developed a particular expertise in nuclear strategy. Like Nathan Leites, a scholar of international relations in the grand tradition and another colleague of Strauss's at Chicago, Wohlstetter worked at the Rand Corporation and served as a government consultant on matters of defense strategy.
During the Vietnam war, I am told, Strauss became closer to Leites and Wohlstetter. They had students in common, most notably Paul Wolfowitz. Contact with Leites and Wohlstetter turned the minds of Straussian scholars to patterns and issues in international relations. They found common ground in questions of sovereignty, power, and the characteristic conditions of modernity.
You can find the East and West Coast Straussians, and other variants and subspecies, on a website the Straussians keep for themselves: Straussian.net. Elaborate, well-maintained, and regularly revised, the site provides lists of teachers "in the Straussian tradition" and accounts of Straussians in the news. There is a biography and a bibliography of Leo Strauss, with a list of references to the secondary literature. There is an audio clip from one of Strauss's lectures. There is a discussion site, and a place to contribute to reviews of Straussian classes and Straussian teachers. There are links to other Straussian sites. Perhaps the most charming aspect of the site is the decision to adorn it with modern paintings of classical scenes: a gesture that captures the forms the ancients take in the modern imagination.
For a newcomer, the site is puzzling in several respects. One of these is political. The site is unabashedly conservative, with links to right-wing sites, favorable reviews of right-wing websites and articles, and some unattributed political graphics of its own. The New York Times caricature of Paul Wolfowitz in full classical fig is displayed with the photograph of an elderly Leo Strauss. Yet the uninitiated person who comes to the site with simple curiosity, hoping to learn why conservatives find Leo Strauss especially congenial, or hoping to discover the conservative elements in Strauss's thought, will go away unsatisfied. You can learn that Allan Bloom appeared on Oprah, you can read Straussian reviews of Hollywood movies, but you will look in vain for an explanation of the determined conservatism of the Straussians.
Political conservatism is, however, a critical element of the way in which Straussians present themselves. The list of "teachers in the Straussian tradition" contains a number of people who have little or no apparent connection to the work or intellectual lineage of Leo Strauss but who have notably conservative political preferences. Others trained by Strauss or in the Straussian lineage, or who teach in the Straussian style but whose politics are liberal or left rather than conservative, are unmentioned.
There are-as one could learn from Straussian.net-some schools that form the background for the story of the Straussians. These schools have professors who studied with Strauss or his students, and who read texts and teach in the Straussian manner. Often they have a great books program or a "core curriculum" in which students are required to study works in the canon of political philosophy. Chicago, Claremont, and St. John's have the added distinction (shared by the New School, emphatically not a Straussian school) of being places Strauss taught.
Academics think of the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the University of Toronto simply as places where one might learn political theory. Straussians think of them as Straussian schools. No one would be surprised to learn that many prominent Straussians now in government posts got their degrees at Harvard. Harvard prides itself on what the generous call a tradition of public service. Those less generous would say that Harvard is a way station on the road from privilege to power. Several prominent conservatives (especially in the administration of the younger Bush) got their Ph.D.s at the University of Chicago as well. This is more surprising. The University of Chicago is a place deliberately distant from privilege and power, conscious of itself as committed solely to the life of the mind. At Chicago power is suspect, privilege in bad taste. How Chicago became a center for the export of conservative scholars is, in part, a story of the prejudices of the academy, left and right, American and German.
There are Straussian foundations, or, more precisely, foundations which have a particular regard for Strauss and the students of Strauss: Earhart, Olin, Scaife, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. They fund fellowships and internships for graduate students, postdoctoral fellowships, and fellowships for senior scholars. There are book subsidies, honoraria, fellowships designed to give young conservative scholars time to write, fellowships reserved for conservative scholarship and the advancement of conservative ideas, and subsidies offered to presses-and student newspapers-to represent "the conservative point of view." They provide research funds, book subsidies, and money for conferences. Some-perhaps all-or these foundations have given money to nonconservatives. Some have given money to me. They prefer, however-as they make clear in their mission statements, application materials, and programs-to give money to conservatives, and they give generously.
Despite this largess, conservatives complain that the academy is hostile territory: that few academics are conservative and that conservatives are less likely to be hired. I think they are right, though the patterns of discrimination are more complex-and less pervasive-than they suggest. Louis Hartz, the great theorist of American political development, famously argued that America was the nation of Lockean liberals, and that the political spectrum did not extend very far to the right or left. I have never heard a colleague say, "That candidate shouldn't be hired; he is a conservative." There are prominent conservative scholars throughout the academy, though they are (like leftists) far rarer than liberals. I have, however, heard colleagues say, "We can't hire him, he is a Straussian."
This is more surprising than it might sound. The American academy holds strongly to the view that politics ought not to interfere with intellectual judgments, that the academy is richer when contending political views are present. People have their prejudices, of course. If they act on them, they usually do so discreetly. More often they try to overcome them. They rarely own them publicly. To do so, even when the prejudice is shared, is regarded as a lapse of intellectual integrity.
Straussians are excluded, those who do the excluding will tell you, because they are a cult. Those who would reject them argue that Straussians have no respect for other academics, that they refuse to read the work of other scholars. They argue that a Straussian will hire no one but another Straussian. They will tell you that Straussians seek to convert students into disciples. They will tell you that they, are not persecuting Straussians, they are preventing Straussians from persecuting others.
The number of Straussians in the academy (see Straussian.net) suggests that this persecution has not been very successful. The sense of persecution is, however, a defining aspect of the Straussians. In late 2003, when I first visited it, Straussian.net introduced itself this way: "Leo Strauss was the twentieth century's greatest teacher of political philosophy and this site is dedicated to the Straussian tradition. Its specific intention is to serve as a guide to students caught up in this wonderful, overwhelming, and persecuted academic movement." The sense of persecution runs through the narrative of Strauss and the Straussians, providing a thread that links their history, their ways of teaching and writing, and their present politics. Strauss comes to America as a refugee, escaping the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. In America, Strauss comes to the aid of a persecuted field, rescuing political philosophy from the determined attempts of behaviorism to annihilate it. The sense of persecution links contemporary Straussians to this history. Though they have no need to fear the knock at the door, no need to go into exile, they speak of their own vulnerability, their persecution, far more often and with greater vehemence than Strauss ever spoke of his. The sense of persecution identifies them with Strauss's history, and with elements of wider currents in American culture. Through it, Straussians connect directly with the sense of vulnerability and persecution among fundamentalist Christians and post-Holocaust Jews. They express not only identification with Strauss but a sense of their place in history at the opening of the new millennium.
The phenomenon that has brought the Straussians to the attention of many Americans is, however, an account not of their persecution but of their power. As Straussians themselves note proudly, there have been many Straussians in Washington. One list was supplied by Straussians in a note to a 1999 book entitled Leo Strata's, the Straussians, and the American Regime.
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