Vol. 14 No.12 (December 2004), pp.987-992

LEO STRAUSS AND THE POLITICS OF AMERICAN EMPIRE, by Anne Norton.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.  256pp. Cloth $25.  ISBN 0-300-10436-7.

Reviewed by Leslie Friedman Goldstein, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware.  Email: LESL@UDEL.EDU

The first thing I remember learning about Leo Strauss preceded a lecture he delivered at Hillel in the mid-60s and came in the introduction of Strauss by Ralph Lerner (himself a former student of Strauss, and I suppose at the time an assistant professor). Lerner concluded his introduction with this: “And so I present to you, Leo Strauss, the man who taught us that Maimonides was an atheist.”   (For the non-cognoscenti, Maimonides is perhaps the most revered rabbi of Jewish history, and is known, among other things, for having propounded the Thirteen Articles of Faith, which all good Jews are supposed to believe.)  So the remark came across as shocking, and, to an intellectually hungry undergraduate, delightful.  My curiosity about Leo Strauss was aroused.

The next thing I remember about Leo Strauss came a couple of years later.  He taught no undergrad course in those days, so it was not until grad school that I was able to take his course on Socrates’s APOLOGY.  He made the remark in the second or third class of the course, “So political philosophy is inherently subversive.”  I was hooked.

Not until some years later did I start to hear remarks about Straussians being political conservatives.  I asked one of my Straussian professors at the time (Werner Dannhauser), “Was it true, were all Straussians conservative?”  He said, “No, Howard White, at the New School, for instance, was on the left.”  For a time, I thought no more about it.  All-told, I took courses from Leo Strauss and from many of his former students, Joe Cropsey, Herbert Storing, Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Robert Goldwin, Richard Kennington (and sat in on one by Muhsin Mahdi), but I played the field; I also took theory courses from Richard Flathman, Hannah Arendt, David Easton, David Greenstone (and, in recent years, sat in on some lectures by Derrida).  I did not think of myself as being a Straussian until I was out there in the world reading other people’s scholarship.  Then I realized that the work I found most impressive within the field of political philosophy was usually written by people who had studied with Strauss or with one or more of his students or been evidently strongly influenced by Strauss’s writings, all of which were on political philosophy or on its political importance.  Because by this point I knew that people associated “Straussian” with “politically conservative,” I took to calling myself a “left-wing Straussian.”  Much later I learned that I was not alone.

The left-wing of people called Straussian appears to include all who are not identified with the Republican party, and there are in fact lots of us out here, but one would not know this from Anne Norton’s book, because she eventually excludes such people by definition from the term “Straussian.”  At one point, she appears to oppose this practice, for she points to a site on the web, “Straussian.net,” and its list (one I could not find there) of “teachers in the Straussian [*988] tradition,” which, she says, includes “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.” And she adds, in apparent criticism, “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” (p.10).  Her inclusive approach to the label Straussian fits the book’s introduction of the term: Norton distinguishes two kinds of “Straussians”: those who carried on a philosophic lineage that came from Leo Strauss, and those “latter and lesser Straussians” bound together by “distinctly and distinctively conservative politics” (p.2). In a sense, these are her good guys and bad guys.  By five pages later, however, she has abandoned the label “Straussian” for the good-guy group and limited it, for the rest of the book to those attempting to shape U.S. politics in a conservative or neo-conservative direction.

She writes, “Strauss also has disciples.  These are the people who call themselves Straussians. I will distinguish between [sic] 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” (pp.6-7).  Of the “Straussians,” she says, they “have made a conscious and deliberate effort to shape politics and learning in the U.S. and abroad” (p.7).

Unfortunately, the rest of this book maintains the approach of treating the term Straussian as meaning exclusively politically conservative.  This focus leads Norton sometimes into mistakes.  She says for instance of Bill Galston, a student of Allan Bloom, Joseph Cropsey, and Leo Strauss, who now teaches at the University of Maryland, and who served in the Clinton White House, where he helped to develop Americorps, that he “was on the periphery of Straussian orthodoxy . . . a short distance to the left but farther than a good Straussian was permitted to go, a position that granted entry into a Democratic Party that had moved considerably to the right” (p.18).  Apart from the untenable, to my mind, suggestion that there exists a Straussian political orthodoxy, this presents a clear impression that only with the rise of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, would Galston have deigned to be active in the Democratic Party.  But in fact he was the chief speech writer of the 1984 Walter Mondale presidential campaign.  This is not an obscure fact.  He was written up as such in a major story in a NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE. 

So the book has some errors: It misspells Michael Malbin’s name (p.15). It claims Michael Zuckert “took to the streets to protest the War in Iraq” (pp.51-52), when in fact he merely protested against it vocally.  It blames Clinton Rossiter’s suicide on an alleged snub by an un-named Straussian (p.51), when in fact Rossiter faced numerous, more powerful demons.  He was said to be in low spirits at the time on account of his final book-length work’s having been turned down by publishers.  He had intensely conflictual relations with his two teen-age sons, one of whom had joined Castro’s Vinceremos brigades; the other was proclaiming himself around Ithaca a philosophical anarchist.  The book claims that Wohlstetter, Paul Wolfowitz’s Ph.D. adviser, was close to Leo Strauss (pp.8-9), while I heard they barely knew each other.  Norton asserts that Straussians write only [*989] about the “great books” and do not write about popular culture (pp.29-31),but Mary Nichols, a student of Cropsey’s who teaches at Baylor, wrote a book about the films of Woody Allen (1998); Paul Cantor, a Harvey Mansfield student, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a book about “Gilligan’s Island,” the “Simpsons,” and “Star Trek”(2001); and Herbert Storing, student and then colleague of Strauss at the University of Chicago, put together two wonderful collections of neglected speeches and writings by thoughtful Americans who had not made it into the “canon” as of the time of his publishing effort on their behalf – one on the Anti-federalists and one on influential black Americans (1981; 1970).  Finally, Norton asserts that Strauss’s students, “initially . . . tended to dismiss arguments about politics in art, aesthetics, popular culture and ordinary life” (p.41).  I do not know what she means by “initially,” but as early as 1964, Allan Bloom, with the collaboration of Harry Jaffa had published the book, SHAKESPEARE’S POLITICS.

Despite its occasional errors, I loved this book, although I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  I loved it for the beauty and trenchancy of its style, for the fact that it revealed Anne Norton to be in several ways a Straussian despite herself (or perhaps just when she wants to be), for her honesty in acknowledging that departments do openly and without shame discriminate against Straussians in hiring, and, especially, for its richness in depicting the atmosphere of the classes I loved at the University of Chicago.  She writes, for instance, of studying with her Strauss-trained professors, Joseph Cropsey and Ralph Lerner:

To listen to them read a text was to go into a garden, into a wilderness, into an ocean and breathe.  They were scandalous, they were daring, they took your breath away with their honesty.  They were precise, disciplined, ascetic, reverent, heretical, blasphemous, and fearless.  Nothing stopped them, nothing at all.  Often it went entirely unnoticed.  There would be an unfinished quotation or a pun and in it the cleverest, wittiest heresy.  There would be a discreet allusion or a simple statement, and one would find oneself at the edge of the abyss.  Perhaps this is the origin of the idea of secret teachings.  If so, I can tell you, there were no secret teachings; it was all done in the open. (p.23)

There is more along these lines, but I urge those who want the flavor of classes with the best of the Strauss-trained professors, to read the book.  I also loved it for its obvious admiration of good and serious scholarship, and for its beautiful defense of the decency and integrity and courage of common people and the liberal democracy that empowers and protects them (pp.124-125).

So I loved the book, but I have to say that it failed in its appointed task.  Norton uses the term “Straussian” to mean people who understand themselves to be disciples of Strauss and then apologizes for the word “because it implicates Strauss in views that were not always his own” (p.7).  This book, she promises, “will tell you how the teachings of Leo Strauss made their way from the quiet corners of classrooms and dorms, bookstores and labs, into the precincts of power, and what became of them when they came there” (p.33).  At this it fails, precisely because, while she is happy to tell the reader how Strauss’ actual teachings differed from the statements and actions of the people who are called Straussian, she does not really explain what ideas these latter day “Straussians” do have in common with their teacher, or with the teacher of their teachers.  In other words, she never conveys to us what is the “Strauss” in the [*990] label “Straussian.”  She also, maddeningly, occasionally throws into the group “Straussian” people with no discernible link to Leo Strauss or to any Strauss-trained professor, such as Richard Perle (who graduated from the University of Southern California in 1964), Donald Kagan (of the Yale History Department, who has degrees from Brooklyn College, Brown, and Ohio State), and Eugene Genovese (Columbia-educated historian who was a communist and Marxist until converting to Catholicism in 1996, whence, according to a Calvin College website, he began billing himself a “conservative traditionalist”).                      

Before proceeding with more details about the book I need to say how I use the term “Straussian.”  As far as I can discern, there is simply no Straussian political orthodoxy; Strauss himself took only one political stand in his published work, and that was to oppose both Nazism and Stalinism as particularly virulent versions of tyranny.  This is not an especially controversial conclusion, nor was it so at the time.  Whether the best way to oppose the spread of Stalinism was by military build-up at home or by an alert, realpolitik diplomacy (let alone by pre-emptive warfare) was not a question on which Strauss took a public position.  A student of Cropsey’s, Michael Gillespie, who teaches at Duke, once wrote to a Leo Strauss electronic discussion list that Leo Strauss had voted for Adlai Stevenson. 

So what unifies “Straussians”?  They are unified by a belief about reading and a belief about the value of political philosophy.  They share the view that reading texts closely is a wise approach, that trying to discern the view of the author as the author understood him- or herself is the best starting point for understanding a text, and that authors may have more than one message intended for more than one level of anticipated reader.  Also, that if a pretty smart writer sets out a really obvious contradiction (or glaring omission), that contradiction may have been intentional, and warrants at least some thought about whether the contradiction itself may be saying something other than that the author goofed.  They also share the view that the belief that social science can and should be value-free is problematic at many levels.  A subspecies of this value-free social science was the approach dominant in the fifties and sixties in many philosophy departments that limited moral or political philosophy to language analysis: instead of asking, “What is justice?” (to which one’s answer was presumed to be decisively shaped by one’s non-scientific values or by the epoch in which one found oneself), scholars of this approach reduced the horizon of their questioning to, “What do people mean by ‘justice’ or by ‘rights’?  Leo Strauss (along with, Norton points out, his contemporaries, Sheldon Wolin and Hannah Arendt) urged students to attempt to recapture the power of the original question by reading with an open mind philosophers of the past from periods in which these questions were deemed, in principle, answerable.  Consequently, Straussians are at least willing to entertain seriously the possibility that there might be a human nature, and to ponder what that nature might entail. 

In this book Norton criticizes a number of Straussian authors for not measuring up to the master.  Tom Pangle (now at the University of Texas) is faulted for (subtly but pointedly) ignoring a relevant text by Derrida (pp.100-103).  Allan Bloom is [*991] faulted for anti-black sentiments that she claims to see in CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND (pp.72-73).  Harry Jaffa is faulted for calling the Palestinian Authority a gangster regime (p.211).  Leon Kass is faulted for conflating the conventions of our own time and place (concerning marriage and family life) with nature itself (pp.76-81).  She faults Cary (Carnes) Lord’s book, THE MODERN PRINCE, for its praise of Musharref’s leadership of Pakistan after 9/11 and for its praise of the dictatorial leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew (pp.131-134).  These authors’ works speak for themselves, so readers of them can decide whether her critiques are persuasive.  She also faults the aggressive foreign policy promoted by Paul Wolfowitz (many people of a variety of political and scholarly persuasions will be with her there).  But this is a foreign policy also promoted by Dick Cheney (Political Science ABD, U of Wisconsin, non-Straussian) and Donald Rumsfeld (non-Straussian). 

Two things bothered me about this book.  First, it condemned as peculiarly Straussian things that go on all over academics.  She complains of the disappointment of her teachers when she finally turned away from their approach to embrace the approach of Lacan, whose work they found unimpressive.  Was their disappointment any more marked, I wonder, than, say, Sheldon Wolin’s, when his student Wendy Brown turned away from his approach to that of Foucault?  Norton complains of “Straussian truth squads,” who allegedly disrupted the flow of classes at Chicago by spouting arguments they had learned from other professors, which arguments were hostile to the point of view of the course professor.  I can assure her that this obnoxious practice of UC grad students was not limited to those who admired Strauss.  It came from all sides, and for a time kept me from wanting ever to teach grad courses. 

The second thing that bothered me about the book is that it understated the real diversity among Strauss-influenced scholars.  A reader who learns that “Straussians most despise the poststructuralists”(p.144), would not know that Cathy Zuckert (Notre Dame University), for instance, has written a respectful, thoughtful and penetrating book on the subject, POSTMODERN PLATOS (1985).   

Nor would they know that in the field of public law are to be found a great many professors and scholars who can trace formative influences to one or another Strauss-trained professor.  Murray Dry, for instance of Middlebury (himself a student of Herbert Storing, Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey), was an important influence on Suzanna Sherry of Vanderbilt Law School.  Leo Weinstein of Smith College is cited as a formative influence by Catherine MacKinnon in both the first and the most recent of her books (1979, xi, and 2001,vii).  Walter Berns was an important teacher for me, but also for Gary Jacobsohn (University of Texas), for Tom Church (SUNY Albany), for Dean Alfange (emeritus, University of Massachusetts), and for F.L. (Ted) Morton (University of Calgary).  Herbert Storing was an important influence not just on Ralph Rossum, who did play a role in conservative politics (p.15) but also on [*992] G.Alan Tarr (Rutgers-Camden), and Judith Baer (Texas A & M).  And Morton Frisch and Gary Glenn at Northern Illinois were important professors for Susan Burgess (Ohio University).  Because Leo Strauss neither wrote nor taught on public law, it does not make sense to use the term “Straussian” for scholarship produced in this field.  And there is certainly no orthodoxy unifying the group I have listed.  Their approaches range from feminist theory (MacKinnon and Baer) to queer theory (Burgess), to pragmatism (Sherry), to comparative constitutionalism (Jacobsohn), to federalism and comparative state constitutions (Tarr), to judicial power and democratic theory (myself, Morton), to traditional doctrinal analysis (Alfange), to law and society (Church). But the influence of Strauss-trained professors warrants acknowledgment in our field, too, as does the diversity of this group.


Bloom, Allan (with the collaboration of Harry Jaffa). 1964. SHAKESPEARE’S POLITICS.  New York.  Basic Books. 

Bloom, Allan. 1987. CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND. New York : Simon and Schuster.                                                                                  

Cantor, Paul.  2001.  GILLIGAN UNBOUND: POP CULTURE IN THE AGE OF GLOBALIZATION. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Lord, Cary (Carnes). 2003. THE MODERN PRINCE. New Haven : Yale University Press. 

MacKinnon, Catharine.  1979. SEXUAL HARASSMENT OF WORKING WOMEN. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

MacKinnon, Catharine.  2001. SEX EQUALITY.  New York: Foundation Press. 

Nichols, Mary. 1998.  RECONSTRUCTING WOODY. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Storing, Herbert and Murray Dry. 1981. THE COMPLETE ANTI-FEDERALIST. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 


Zuckert, Catherine.  1985.  POSTMODERN PLATOS.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 


© Copyright 2004 by the author, Leslie Friedman Goldstein.