Strauss, father of the Right? Er, wrong

November 2, 2006

Why is a dead professor who wrote about political philosophy blamed for the Iraq War? ask Catherine and Michael Zuckert.

A spectre has been haunting the US. And, strange to say, that spectre is an academic. For in recent years a German-American political philosopher called Leo Strauss has been posthumously blamed for the Iraq War, the triumph of the Republican Party and the emergence of the neoconservatives. He will soon probably be blamed for the North Korean nuclear programme.

For those, like us, who studied with Strauss, such accusations seem rather improbable. Except within a small circle of academic political philosophers, he was little known before his death in 1973. But even for those who do not know his work, surely the claims that have appeared in the world's press in the past several years strain credulity. In the media, and even in an off-Broadway play, Strauss is said to be a Wilsonian-Machiavellian: an improbable combination of idealist (a would-be spreader of liberal democracy, by force of arms if need be) and cynical realist (a manipulative, moral nihilist and an advocate of lying in politics). He is also portrayed as the man who trained a philosophical elite that now allegedly claims a right to rule.

The bases of these accusations are slight. Media reports have featured McCarthy-like lists of "card-carrying Straussians" said to be running the US Government. But few of these supposed disciples are in fact "fellow travellers", much less his students. Paul Wolfowitz, notorious advocate of the war in Iraq, is usually the chief item on display and, by his own testimony, took two courses from Strauss. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard , is another prominent name, having studied with one of Strauss's students and indeed having read some of his books. But both deny that the academic had any significant impact on foreign policy. They may have looked to Strauss for guidance on how to read Plato, but they looked elsewhere when they thought about global politics.

Strauss indeed had much to say of significance about Plato. He wrote many books and essays on the history of political philosophy, but not one that was policy-oriented. To the frustration of students and admirers, it was almost impossible to tease out the political implications of his thinking.

Why then did his thought come to be so distorted for semipopular consumption? The evolution of the media story is something we have tried hard to trace. The stars had to be aligned just so. First, there were some in Washington, Wolfowitz chief among them, who had some contact with Strauss. Second, the press, doubting the intellectual fire power of the President, is predisposed to believe that there must be some "brains"

behind the operation. Third, an odd assortment of writers identified Strauss as a master of the Right well before the Iraq War, one being the perennial presidential candidate ex-convict Lyndon LaRouche, who fancies himself a Plato scholar and violently disagrees with Strauss's reading of him.

Before the mainstream media picked up the story, the LaRouchites were making assertions about Strauss and his nefarious ties to the Bush Administration. But behind most of their claims were the writings of Canadian academic Shadia Drury. Her first book on Strauss was a combination of solid insight and near-total looniness, like her identification of Machiavelli as her subject's spokesman despite his strong public critique of the Florentine as a teacher of evil. Having concluded that he was a nihilist, elitist and other things she did not like, Drury's next book connected Strauss to the American Right, which she also did not like. (It is the old mathematical axiom: two things equal to a third must be equal to each other.) The LaRouchites and the mainstream media picked up their odd picture of Strauss from her writings, which are admittedly easier to read than his texts.

Finally, there were aspects of Strauss's writings that lent themselves to misappropriation, such as his claims about the esoteric writing used by philosophers in the past. With the fate of Socrates before their eyes, Strauss argued that many philosophers littered their texts with obeisance to widely held opinions and presented their true views subtly, "between the lines". They thus protected themselves against persecution while acting responsibly by not heedlessly challenging views that played an important part in the lives of their fellow citizens and offering the proper kind of philosophic education for those with the intellect and passion for it.

Somehow this thesis was transformed into the idea that he justified lying by politicians. Although dead for 30 years, Strauss was said to be behind the Administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More amazing than the house of mirrors treatment of his idea is the implication that before his revelations about the practices of long-dead philosophers, politicians did not know how to lie. Were it only so.

Catherine and Michael Zuckert are both professors of political science at the University of Notre Dame in the US and authors of The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy , published by University of Chicago Press, £20.50.

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