2004-10-30 16:03:08 UTC
Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq
Are the ideas of the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss a
shaping influence on the Bush administration's world outlook? Danny
Postel interviews Shadia Drury a leading scholarly critic of Strauss
and asks her about the connection between Plato's dialogues, secrets and
lies, and the United States-led war in Iraq.
What was initially an anti-war argument is now a matter of public
record. It is widely recognised that the Bush administration was not
honest about the reasons it gave for invading Iraq.
Paul Wolfowitz, the influential United States deputy secretary of
defense, has acknowledged that the evidence used to justify the war was
"murky" and now says that weapons of mass destruction weren't the
crucial issue anyway (see the book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber,
Weapons of Mass Deception: the uses of propaganda in Bush's war on Iraq
For a short biography of Leo Strauss, and a guide to recent commentary
on his influence on US neo-conservatism, see the end of this article.
By contrast, Shadia Drury, professor of political theory at the
University of Regina in Saskatchewan, argues that the use of deception
and manipulation in current US policy flow directly from the doctrines
of the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973). His disciples
include Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives who have driven much
of the political agenda of the Bush administration.
If Shadia Drury is right, then American policy-makers exercise deception
with greater coherence than their British allies in Tony Blair's 10
Downing Street. In the UK, a public inquiry is currently underway into
the death of the biological weapons expert David Kelly. A central theme
is also whether the government deceived the public, as a BBC reporter
The inquiry has documented at least some of the ways the prime
minister's entourage sexed up' the presentation of intelligence on the
Iraqi threat. But few doubt that in terms of their philosophy, if they
have one, members of Blair's staff believe they must be trusted as
honest. Any apparent deceptions they may be involved in are for them
matters of presentation or spin': attempts to project an honest gloss
when surrounded by a dishonest media.
The deep influence of Leo Strauss's ideas on the current architects of
US foreign policy has been referred to, if sporadically, in the press
(hence an insider witticism about the influence of "Leo-cons").
Christopher Hitchens, an ardent advocate of the war, wrote unashamedly
in November 2002 (in an article felicitously titled Machiavelli in
"[p]art of the charm of the regime-change argument (from the point of
view of its supporters) is that it depends on premises and objectives
that cannot, at least by the administration, be publicly avowed. Since
Paul Wolfowitz is from the intellectual school of Leo Strauss and
appears in fictional guise as such in Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein
one may even suppose that he enjoys this arcane and occluded aspect of
Perhaps no scholar has done as much to illuminate the Strauss phenomenon
as Shadia Drury. For fifteen years she has been shining a heat lamp on
the Straussians with such books as The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss
(1988) and Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997). She is also the
author of Alexandre Kojève: the Roots of Postmodern Politics (1994) and
Terror and Civilization (forthcoming).
She argues that the central claims of Straussian thought wield a crucial
influence on men of power in the contemporary United States. She
elaborates her argument in this interview.
A natural order of inequality
Danny Postel: You've argued that there is an important connection
between the teachings of Leo Strauss and the Bush administration's
selling of the Iraq war. What is that connection?
Shadia Drury: Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and
usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested
on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States the
business about weapons of mass destruction and a fictitious alliance
between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime. Now that the lies have been
exposed, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the war party are denying that
these were the real reasons for the war.
So what were the real reasons? Reorganising the balance of power in the
Middle East in favour of Israel? Expanding American hegemony in the Arab
world? Possibly. But these reasons would not have been sufficient in
themselves to mobilise American support for the war. And the Straussian
cabal in the administration realised that.
Danny Postel: The neo-conservative vision is commonly taken to be about
spreading democracy and liberal values globally. And when Strauss is
mentioned in the press, he is typically described as a great defender of
liberal democracy against totalitarian tyranny. You've written, however,
that Strauss had a "profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy."
Shadia Drury: The idea that Strauss was a great defender of liberal
democracy is laughable. I suppose that Strauss's disciples consider it a
noble lie. Yet many in the media have been gullible enough to believe it.
How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat? The
ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the
unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that
giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before
swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied
that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born
neither free nor equal. The natural human condition, they held, is not
one of freedom, but of subordination and in Strauss's estimation they
were right in thinking so.
Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the
moderns was the whole point of Strauss's most famous book, Natural Right
and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of
Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature not the natural
rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe)
but the natural order of domination and subordination.
The necessity of lies
Danny Postel: What is the relevance of Strauss's interpretation of
Plato's notion of the noble lie?
Shadia Drury: Strauss rarely spoke in his own name. He wrote as a
commentator on the classical texts of political theory. But he was an
extremely opinionated and dualistic commentator. The fundamental
distinction that pervades and informs all of his work is that between
the ancients and the moderns. Strauss divided the history of political
thought into two camps: the ancients (like Plato) are wise and wily,
whereas the moderns (like Locke and other liberals) are vulgar and
foolish. Now, it seems to me eminently fair and reasonable to attribute
to Strauss the ideas he attributes to his beloved ancients.
In Plato's dialogues, everyone assumes that Socrates is Plato's
mouthpiece. But Strauss argues in his book The City and Man (pp. 74-5,
77, 83-4, 97, 100, 111) that Thrasymachus is Plato's real mouthpiece (on
this point, see also M.F. Burnyeat, "Sphinx without a Secret", New York
Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]). So, we must surmise that
Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato (alias Thrasymachus) that
justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make
the rules in their own interests and call it justice.
Leo Strauss repeatedly defends the political realism of Thrasymachus and
Machiavelli (see, for example, his Natural Right and History, p. 106).
This view of the world is clearly manifest in the foreign policy of the
current administration in the United States.
A second fundamental belief of Strauss's ancients has to do with their
insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his
book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is
necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two
reasons to spare the people's feelings and to protect the elite from
The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural
right the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master
over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the
vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the
"tyrannical teaching" of his beloved ancients. It is tyrannical in the
classic sense of rule above rule or in the absence of law (p. 70).
Now, the ancients were determined to keep this tyrannical teaching
secret because the people are not likely to tolerate the fact that they
are intended for subordination; indeed, they may very well turn their
resentment against the superior few. Lies are thus necessary to protect
the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.
The effect of Strauss's teaching is to convince his acolytes that they
are the natural ruling elite and the persecuted few. And it does not
take much intelligence for them to surmise that they are in a situation
of great danger, especially in a world devoted to the modern ideas of
equal rights and freedoms. Now more than ever, the wise few must proceed
cautiously and with circumspection. So, they come to the conclusion that
they have a moral justification to lie in order to avoid persecution.
Strauss goes so far as to say that dissembling and deception in
effect, a culture of lies is the peculiar justice of the wise.
Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato's concept of the
noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of
Plato's noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose
details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.
In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls
meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of
power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit
to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that
not all human beings are morally equal.
In contrast to this reading of Plato, Strauss thinks that the
superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority
and not a moral one (Natural Right and History, p. 151). For many
commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian,
the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted
with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him.
Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato,
and then celebrates him.
The dialectic of fear and tyranny
Danny Postel: In the Straussian scheme of things, there are the wise few
and the vulgar many. But there is also a third group the gentlemen.
Would you explain how they figure?
Shadia Drury: There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the
gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh,
unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without
fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives.
They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the "higher"
pleasures, which amount to consorting with their "puppies" or young
The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are
the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that
is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour,
and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of
great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment's notice.
The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They
are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above
their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.
Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the
rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real
world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this,
and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this
solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato's real solution
Strauss pointed to the "nocturnal council" in Plato's Laws to illustrate
The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule
of the wise (see Strauss's The Argument and the Action of Plato's
Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of
the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier
it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon
makes that clear to us.
For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative
values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The
rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is
the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which
they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire
wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what
they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.
Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the
global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn
it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as
it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.
This is made clear in Strauss's exchange with Kojève (reprinted in
Strauss's On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt's The Concept of
the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo
Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man
and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them
were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment
and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict
between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the
death. In short, they all thought that man's humanity depended on his
willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only
perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on
self-preservation and "creature comforts." Life can be politicised once
more, and man's humanity can be restored.
This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour
and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very
well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of
religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way
to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists
willing to fight and die for their God and country.
I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the
unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to
political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever
come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation
like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.
Danny Postel: You've described Strauss as a nihilist.
Shadia Drury: Strauss is a nihilist in the sense that he believes that
there is no rational foundation for morality. He is an atheist, and he
believes that in the absence of God, morality has no grounding. It's all
about benefiting others and oneself; there is no objective reason for
doing so, only rewards and punishments in this life.
But Strauss is not a nihilist if we mean by the term a denial that there
is any truth, a belief that everything is interpretation. He does not
deny that there is an independent reality. On the contrary, he thinks
that independent reality consists in nature and its "order of rank"
the high and the low, the superior and the inferior. Like Nietzsche, he
believes that the history of western civilisation has led to the triumph
of the inferior, the rabble something they both lamented profoundly.
Danny Postel: This connection is curious, since Strauss is bedevilled by
Nietzsche; and one of Strauss's most famous students, Allan Bloom,
fulminates profusely in his book The Closing of the American Mind
against the influence of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.
Shadia Drury: Strauss's criticism of the existentialists, especially
Heidegger, is that they tried to elicit an ethic out of the abyss. This
was the ethic of resoluteness choose whatever you like and be loyal to
it to the death; its content does not matter. But Strauss's reaction to
moral nihilism was different. Nihilistic philosophers, he believes,
should reinvent the Judæo-Christian God, but live like pagan gods
themselves taking pleasure in the games they play with each other as
well as the games they play on ordinary mortals.
The question of nihilism is complicated, but there is no doubt that
Strauss's reading of Plato entails that the philosophers should return
to the cave and manipulate the images (in the form of media, magazines,
newspapers). They know full well that the line they espouse is
mendacious, but they are convinced that theirs are noble lies.
The intoxication of perpetual war
Danny Postel: You characterise the outlook of the Bush administration as
a kind of realism, in the spirit of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli. But
isn't the real divide within the administration (and on the American
right more generally) more complex: between foreign policy realists, who
are pragmatists, and neo-conservatives, who see themselves as idealists
even moralists on a mission to topple tyrants, and therefore in a
struggle against realism?
Shadia Drury: I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part
genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal
democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best
thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a
tension between these "idealists" and the more hard-headed realists
within the administration.
I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current
administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching,
which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the nocturnal' or covert
teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely
for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.
The issue of nationalism is an example of this. The philosophers,
wanting to secure the nation against its external enemies as well as its
internal decadence, sloth, pleasure, and consumption, encourage a strong
patriotic fervour among the honour-loving gentlemen who wield the reins
of power. That strong nationalistic spirit consists in the belief that
their nation and its values are the best in the world, and that all
other cultures and their values are inferior in comparison.
Irving Kristol, the father of neo-conservatism and a Strauss disciple,
denounced nationalism in a 1973 essay; but in another essay written in
1983, he declared that the foreign policy of neo-conservatism must
reflect its nationalist proclivities. A decade on, in a 1993 essay, he
claimed that "religion, nationalism, and economic growth are the pillars
of neoconservatism." (See "The Coming Conservative Century'", in
Neoconservatism: the autobiography of an idea, p. 365.)
In Reflections of a Neoconservative (p. xiii), Kristol wrote that:
"patriotism springs from love of the nation's past; nationalism arises
out of hope for the nation's future, distinctive greatness .
Neoconservatives believe that the goals of American foreign policy must
go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of national security'.
It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a
sense of national destiny not a myopic national security".
The same sentiment was echoed by the doyen of contemporary
Straussianism, Harry Jaffa, when he said that America is the "Zion that
will light up all the world."
It is easy to see how this sort of thinking can get out of hand, and why
hard-headed realists tend to find it naïve if not dangerous.
But Strauss's worries about America's global aspirations are entirely
different. Like Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojève, Strauss would be more
concerned that America would succeed in this enterprise than that it
would fail. In that case, the "last man" would extinguish all hope for
humanity (Nietzsche); the "night of the world" would be at hand
(Heidegger); the animalisation of man would be complete (Kojève); and
the trivialisation of life would be accomplished (Schmitt). That is what
the success of America's global aspirations meant to them.
Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man is a
popularisation of this viewpoint. It sees the coming catastrophe of
American global power as inevitable, and seeks to make the best of a bad
situation. It is far from a celebration of American dominance.
On this perverse view of the world, if America fails to achieve her
"national destiny", and is mired in perpetual war, then all is well.
Man's humanity, defined in terms of struggle to the death, is rescued
from extinction. But men like Heidegger, Schmitt, Kojève, and Strauss
expect the worst. They expect that the universal spread of the spirit of
commerce would soften manners and emasculate man. To my mind, this
fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound
inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.
To be clear, Strauss was not as hostile to democracy as he was to
liberalism. This is because he recognises that the vulgar masses have
numbers on their side, and the sheer power of numbers cannot be
completely ignored. Whatever can be done to bring the masses along is
legitimate. If you can use democracy to turn the masses against their
own liberty, this is a great triumph. It is the sort of tactic that
neo-conservatives use consistently, and in some cases very successfully.
Among the Straussians
Danny Postel: Finally, I'd like to ask about your interesting reception
among the Straussians. Many of them dismiss your interpretation of
Strauss and denounce your work in the most adamant terms ("bizarre
splenetic"). Yet one scholar, Laurence Lampert, has reprehended his
fellow Straussians for this, writing in his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche
that your book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss "contains many fine
skeptical readings of Strauss's texts and acute insights into Strauss's
real intentions." Harry Jaffa has even made the provocative suggestion
that you might be a "closet Straussian" yourself!
Shadia Drury: I have been publicly denounced and privately adored.
Following the publication of my book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss
in 1988, letters and gifts poured in from Straussian graduate students
and professors all over North America books, dissertations, tapes of
Strauss's Hillel House lectures in Chicago, transcripts of every course
he ever taught at the university, and even a personally crafted Owl of
Minerva with a letter declaring me a goddess of wisdom! They were amazed
that an outsider could have penetrated the secret teaching. They sent me
unpublished material marked with clear instructions not to distribute to
I received letters from graduate students in Toronto, Chicago, Duke,
Boston College, Claremont, Fordham, and other Straussian centres of
"learning." One of the students compared his experience in reading my
work with "a person lost in the wilderness who suddenly happens on a
map." Some were led to abandon their schools in favour of fresher air;
but others were delighted to discover what it was they were supposed to
believe in order to belong to the charmed circle of future philosophers
After my first book on Strauss came out, some of the Straussians in
Canada dubbed me the "bitch from Calgary." Of all the titles I hold,
that is the one I cherish most. The hostility toward me was
understandable. Nothing is more threatening to Strauss and his acolytes
than the truth in general and the truth about Strauss in particular. His
admirers are determined to conceal the truth about his ideas.
My intention in writing the book was to express Strauss's ideas clearly
and without obfuscation so that his views could become the subject of
philosophical debate and criticism, and not the stuff of feverish
conviction. I wanted to smoke the Straussians out of their caves and
into the philosophical light of day. But instead of engaging me in
philosophical debate, they denied that Strauss stood for any of the
ideas I attributed to him.
Laurence Lampert is the only Straussian to declare valiantly that it is
time to stop playing games and to admit that Strauss was indeed a
Nietzschean thinker that it is time to stop the denial and start
defending Strauss's ideas.
I suspect that Lampert's honesty is threatening to those among the
Straussians who are interested in philosophy but who seek power. There
is no doubt that open and candid debate about Strauss is likely to
undermine their prospects in Washington
You made it to the end.. scary huh?