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Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

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by Anne Norton

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The teachings of political theorist Leo Strauss (1899–1973) have recently received new attention, as political observers have become aware of the influence Strauss’s students have had in shaping conservative agendas of the Bush administration—including the war on Iraq. This provocative book examines Strauss’s ideas and the ways in which they


The teachings of political theorist Leo Strauss (1899–1973) have recently received new attention, as political observers have become aware of the influence Strauss’s students have had in shaping conservative agendas of the Bush administration—including the war on Iraq. This provocative book examines Strauss’s ideas and the ways in which they have been appropriated, or misappropriated, by senior policymakers.

Anne Norton, a political theorist trained by some of Strauss’s most famous students, is well equipped to write on Strauss and Straussians. She tells three interwoven narratives: the story of Leo Strauss, a Jewish German-born émigré, who carried European philosophy into a new world; the story of the philosophic lineage that came from Leo Strauss; and the story of how America has been made a moral battleground by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Leon Kass, Carnes Lord, and Irving Kristol—Straussian conservatives committed to an American imperialism they believe will usher in a new world order.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

[alternative shortcopy for use after the 2004 election and post-Iraq War]

This enlightening book examines the thinking of political theorist Leo Strauss and how his ideas have been appropriated—or misappropriated—for various conservative agendas. Anne Norton tells the story of the Jewish German-born émigré, his philosophic heirs, and why they are advocates of an American imperialism.

Toronto Globe & Mail - Michael Bell

"To understand the current Bush administration, Anne Norton's Leo Strauss, a readable and well-informed expose of neo-conservatism, is essential."—Michael Bell, Toronto Globe & Mail
The New Yorker
Many neoconservative intellectuals and Bush Administration officials claim Leo Strauss, the philosopher who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in the nineteen-thirties, as their political forebear. Norton studied at Chicago, the center of the Straussian academic universe, and the book has the flavor of an amusing tell-all. (When she moves to Brown and discovers Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, one horrified Straussian says, “You have gone over to the dark side of the Force.”) Norton’s account is a sort of critical field guide to Straussians, taxonomizing their “variants and subspecies” and assessing the ways in which some of them have affected U.S. foreign policy. She points out that, whereas neoconservatives talk of clashes between Islam and the West, Strauss was a close reader of medieval Muslim political theory and decried Western intellectuals for their ignorance of the non-Western world: “The Straussians have set themselves to guard the gates Strauss opened.”
Foreign Affairs
The subject of the German-born philosopher Leo Strauss (and the influence he had on his disciples, many of whom became either conservative political theorists or neoconservative policymakers and writers) is an intriguing one. So far, it has been treated rather superficially. Norton, a political theorist who studied with Straussians, has written a disorderly book, studded with anecdotes, narrative leaps, and a mix of gossip and erudite analysis, that left this reader exhausted, irritated, and more than a bit saddened by the opportunity lost. Norton knows how to hit a target-her critique of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which "takes the language of anti-Semitism ... and turns it from the Jews to the Blacks," is excellent-but the first half of the book will interest only those titillated by academic chitchat. Her brief discussion of the criticisms of modernity offered by Strauss and his disciples, Hannah Arendt, and the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb is provocative, as is her detour into the Straussian cult of Winston Churchill. In her chapters on the war on terrorism, she is right to stress that neoconservatism is "a radical departure from traditional conservatism," but she subsequently returns to digressions and thumbnail sketches. Intelligent asides do not amount to a satisfactory book.

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Yale University Press
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New Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Leo Strauss AND THE Politics OF American Empire

By Anne Norton


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.


Excerpted from Leo Strauss AND THE Politics OF American Empire by Anne Norton Copyright © 2004 by Anne Norton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Anne Norton is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anne Norton¿s book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire is an interesting and well written commentary on a school of political theory (philosophy) that greatly influenced conservative political thinkers and public officials in each of the administrations since Ronald Reagan,especially Republicans. Unfortunately, it is the most intellectually dishonest book I have ever read! For starters, there is not a single footnote in the entire text. The reason this is such a serious flaw is that it makes quoting out of context easy to do and difficult to challenge. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a student of Leo Strauss,or his students, nor am I a Straussian. But I am a friend of one of the authors that Norton quotes and misrepresents, Carnes Lord. On page 137 she says, ¿There are, Lord tells us, no small number of leftists, `lunatic and sinister¿ professors, and not all of them are visible.¿ She then uses the phrase, ¿lunatic and sinister¿ again (on the same page), implying that Lord advocates monitoring professorial opinion for political purposes. What Carnes Lord actually says in a discussion of American university education on page 139 of his book, The Modern Prince, is, ¿The alternately lunatic and sinister pursuit of the agenda of political correctness that pervades contemporary university life in America raises fundamental issues, including ones of legal due process.¿ One does not have to agree with Lord to recognize Norton¿s dishonest attempt to use Lord¿s words taken out of context to vilify a position with which she disagrees but which he did not espouse. If one of my undergraduate students were to do what Norton has done, that student would fail the assignment. If it were done by one of my graduate students, I would argue for that individual¿s termination as a student in the program. What, then, are we to say about such behavior by a tenured Associate Professor in one of the nation¿s premier universities? Read the book (but get it from the library) to see the sad, polemical, and academically dishonest state of some modern American political theory.
hgabrahamson More than 1 year ago
Ms. Norton's effort is baised, dishonest and saddest of all..trivial. If you wnat to understand Strauss and his impact on curent conservative thought, look elsewhere.