Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire by Anne Norton; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, 235pp., $25.00

Leo Strauss (1899—1973), the Jewish German-born émigré who taught political theory at the University of Chicago for over three decades, has been a topic of particular interest in recent years, ever since people began to discover the influence his disciples wielded within the present Bush administration, not to mention the administrations of Bush I and Reagan. The University of Pennsylvania’s Anne Norton, herself educated by disciples of Strauss at the University of Chicago, is in a particularly advantageous position to describe the Straussian phenomenon. What we discover in Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire is a tightly knit scholarly network, fascinated with power and its exercise and today committed to a foreign policy program that seems far more revolutionary than conservative.

In her chapter on Allan Bloom, for example, who "taught both the most powerful and the most vociferously ideological of the Straussians" (p. 58), Norton treats us to a revealing anecdote. Bloom, she tells us, "prided himself on his connections to power, and as his students acquired it, he boasted of the connection." After Bloom died, his friend Saul Bellow wrote the novel Ravelstein, whose title character was Bloom himself. At one point in the book, Ravelstein (Bloom) is telephoned by a government official (former Bloom student Paul Wolfowitz) and given advance notice of an imminent American military operation. "It says something about Bloom and about Wolfowitz that most Straussians believe the incident to be a fictional gift from Bellow to Bloom, a moment of posthumous wish fulfillment" (pp. 58—59).

On a number of occasions throughout the book, Norton is at pains to emphasize where Strauss’s disciples have diverged from the thought of the master; Strauss, we are in effect told, was not a Straussian. Norton uses the telling example of Machiavelli to considerable effect: while Strauss himself described the author of The Prince as "a teacher of evil," neoconservative Straussians today, in their defense of and even enthusiasm for acts of despotism in the alleged service of a higher good, appear to embrace the Machiavellian idea of the morally autonomous state. Indeed when Straussians refer to the concept of "statesmanship," they very often have in mind a politician’s willingness, in pursuit of his objectives, to break with received morality or his own country’s traditional legal order.

This point is arguable, however, and Strauss may have been philosophically closer to the ideological clique that today bears his name than Norton is prepared to admit. Strauss, who opposed the idea of individual rights, maintained that neither the ancient world nor the Christian envisioned strict, absolute limits on state power. The statesman thus enjoyed a relatively wide latitude for the exercise of his prudential judgment. Norton herself points out that the Straussians’ almost cult-like admiration for Abraham Lincoln derives from the sixteenth president’s willingness to act outside the law: e.g., suspending habeas corpus, jailing dissidents, and suppressing free speech. "Lincoln," Norton writes, is for Straussians "the model of prudential leadership" (p. 130) — a concept that, at least in its fundamentals, can be traced to Strauss himself.

Particularly satisfying, at least to this reader, is Norton’s discussion, quite contrary to the misleading conventional wisdom, of the lack of conservatism among today’s Straussians:

Appeals to history and memory, the fear of losing old virtues, of failing to keep faith with the principles of an honored ancestry, came to seem curious and antiquated. In their place were the very appeals to universal, abstract principles, the very utopian projects that conservatives once disdained. Conservatives had once called for limits and restraint; now there were calls to daring and adventurism. Conservatives had once stood steadfastly for the Constitution and community, for loyalties born of experience and strengthened in a common life. Now there were global projects, and crusades (p. 174).

Norton could have pursued this line of argument a bit more vigorously. She correctly notes that with the passage of time Straussian academics have been drifting further and further away from positions that have traditionally defined American conservatism, but she leaves unexplored the issue of just how conservative they really were in the first place. Norton speaks at great length about the fundamental conservatism of the Straussianism of the 1980s, but a substantial literature exists within the conservative movement that argues otherwise.

Most famous, perhaps, was the celebrated debate in Modern Age between Straussian Harry Jaffa and traditional conservative M.E. Bradford over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Bradford argued that Lincolnian rhetoric, particularly the Great Emancipator’s teleological language (e.g., his description of the United States as a nation "dedicated to a proposition") was a recipe for ongoing revolution that a genuine conservative could not embrace. The idea of the federal government as an engine of equality enforcement rather than as the modest, purely nomocratic agent of a confederation of sovereign states, endowed with strictly limited powers, amounted in Bradford’s judgment to a revolutionary overthrow of the original constitutional order.

In Lincoln’s day the principle of equality may have referred to equality before the law, but tomorrow it could be forced busing and the destruction of neighborhoods; and once the Pandora’s Box of ideological crusading by the federal government had been opened there would be no way to keep it under control. Jaffa, on the other hand, positively embraced the revolutionary implications of the Lincolnian idiom, thereby lending further support to Norton’s description of the Straussians as revolutionaries rather than conservatives (p. 177) but revealing that this tendency among Straussians extended much further into the past than Norton’s narrative allows.

It would be unfair to dwell at too much length on this issue; Norton’s book at least has the virtue of acknowledging that Straussian neoconservatism is not conservatism as it has ever been understood in America or anywhere else — which is more than can be said for most conservatives themselves, who have been either silent about or unaware of the contrast between the imperial foreign policy they have embraced on the one hand and principles that as conservatives they are supposed to cherish on the other.

Along these lines Norton makes quick work of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, two influential neoconservatives who, among other things, edited a book on foreign policy called Present Dangers. "Present Dangers is not a conservative work," Norton writes. "The regard for tradition, for the slow growth of custom that Burke commended, the respect for long-established practices are abandoned here. In their place is an enthusiasm for innovation, for intervention, for utopias. Nothing can wait, everything must be done now. No one need be consulted…."

With a title like Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, the book appears to promise more discussion of foreign affairs than it actually delivers — a shame, since it is on that topic that Norton is at her best and most incisive. Nevertheless, its manageable length and enjoyable style make the book an excellent place to start for anyone who, having heard of the Straussians, would like to know who on earth these people are and where they came from.