In response to:
Sphinx Without a Secret from the May 30, 1985 issue
Sphinx Without a Secret from the May 30, 1985 issue
To the Editors:
M.F. Burnyeat’s review of Leo Strauss’s Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy [NYR, May 30] bears the same relation to Mr. Strauss’s thought that the accompanying caricature bears to Strauss’s person. Whoever knows or knew the original must be offended by a travesty generated apparently between levity and a gift for deforming the normal. By his deed Mr. Burnyeat vindicates what in words he denounces, namely, Strauss’s view that a serious thought needs to be veiled against ill-natured levity, and Strauss’s insistence that the student (a fortiori the critic) take the trouble to grasp the author’s meaning, i.e. to understand him as he understood himself, before undertaking to discuss that author’s work. By the method of parading elaborated reflections as adages jejune and assertoric, Mr. Burnyeat holds them up to ridicule, as he does Mr. Strauss’s references to gentlemen and philosophers, unworthily lampooning those words by putting them in quotation marks as if they cannot be used without the apology implicit in that tendentious punctuation.
The advice that a reader of a worthy (indeed of any) writing start by clearing his mind of resistance to the author’s purpose is generally reasonable and fair, is obviously repugnant to the principles that guide Mr. Burnyeat’s critical activity, and certainly has nothing to do with the abandoning of self into which Mr. Burnyeat translates it. That objection can safely be left to collapse by itself.
Mr. Burnyeat deduces Mr. Strauss’s influence from the physical presence of the latter before his students in the classroom—a tacit appeal to the hypothesis of charisma voiced some time ago. One knows that Strauss’s books have little influence because “Strauss has no discernible influence in Britain at all.” But books and articles by Strauss have appeared in Polish, Serbo-Croat, Italian, French, Spanish and of course German, both before and since his death. Report used to be made of the British headline: “Storm in Channel: Continent Isolated.” Mr. Burnyeat does nothing to dispel a presumption that the report is apocryphal. In any case, however correct he may be in assessing Strauss’s influence in Britain, nothing may be concluded about Strauss or Britain in the absence of another premise for the syllogism.
Mr. Burnyeat weakens his depreciation of Strauss by providing a quite remarkable demonstration, albeit offered as a mockery, of what Burnyeat might be capable of were he to restrain his ill-will from hindering his judgment. In the last half dozen paragraphs of his section 3, he affects to expose the mechanical simplicity of the Straussian hermeneutic: “You start, always, by taking note of the arrangement of the work.” Mr. Burnyeat is out to show what a simple thing it is to anatomize the organization of a book, and incidentally how useless is the product. Instead, he shows how difficult it is, how well he was himself compelled to think about the contents in their relation to the author’s intention, and how helpful to his—and our—understanding of Strauss’s purpose is the fruit of his derisive effort. Without having been exposed to Mr. Strauss’s charisma, Mr. Burnyeat has been induced to afford his own evidence of the plausibility of a Straussian advice—try to understand a book as the author meant it. (Would Mr. Burnyeat’s intended satire have been amusing, to say nothing of useful, if someone hadn’t let him know that the order of chapters originated with Strauss and not with some editor?)
This would be a thoughtless and in one more respect an incomplete response to Burnyeat’s regrettable article if it failed to try to understand Burnyeat as he might understand himself. Without a great deal to go on—and I know how much that confession subtracts—I surmise that he is uncritically devoted to the intellectually received and the academically authenticated, perhaps because there must indeed be something valid in what has earned the cachet of professionals, and perhaps because there is safety in numbers. His objections to Strauss are not new, as he admits, and in fact are the tediously familiar budget of recriminations coming from a conventional establishment, which is as precisian in scrutinizing the orthodoxy of “rebarbatives” as any coven of philistines sniffing out a bohemian.
It can never do Straussians any harm to look within under the stimulation of such a rebuke as Mr. Burnyeat’s. One could wish that the critics would treat themselves occasionally to the same purification.
University of Chicago
To the Editors:
I would like, if I may, to comment on M.F. Burnyeat’s review of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, by Leo Strauss. Burnyeat’s opinion of Strauss was sufficiently indicated by the cartoonist, who gave Strauss two right hands—neither of which, one presumes, knew what the other was doing.
Burnyeat declares that “There is no doubt that Strauss was an inspiring teacher.” But Burnyeat can find nothing in Strauss’s writings—which he calls “remote and rebarbative”—to explain Strauss’s extraordinary influence on nearly everyone who came into contact with him. What went on in Strauss’s classes was remarkable and powerful, but as far as Burnyeat is concerned, it remains utterly mysterious.
This is neither the time nor the place for me to offer my own critique of Strauss’s work. It is a subject on which I have written with increasing frequency since Strauss’s death. (See for example “The Legacy of Leo Strauss,” Claremont Review of Books, Fall 1984, and “The Legacy of Leo Strauss’ Defended,” Ibid., Spring 1985.) I would like, however, to offer a few words of personal testimony as to how Strauss differed in my experience from other teachers, and why so many sat so spellbound in his classes.
I might mention that I took my first course with Strauss in the fall of 1944. For the next seven years, in both New York and Chicago, I attended virtually every class he taught, including those in summer sessions. During this period I believe I spent nearly as much time alone with him as in class. But whether in class or alone, every minute was a vital learning experience. Today, I return again and again to his writings. Contrary to Burnyeat, Strauss was a great writer, and his works abound with passages of eloquence and beauty. But he always warned us, when writing, not to sacrifice precision of meaning for mere effect.
My own books, particularly my writings on Lincoln, are often outgrowths of conversations I originally had with Strauss. In the Preface to the 1982 reprinting (by the University of Chicago Press) of Crisis of the House Divided, my book on the Lincoln–Douglas debates (first published in 1959), I wrote that the work had been born in my mind
When I discovered—at a time when I was studying the Republic with Leo Strauss—that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was in substance, and very nearly in form, identical with the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus. Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty” meant no more than that: in a democracy justice is the interest of the majority, which is “the stronger.” Lincoln, however, insisted that the case for popular government depended upon a standard of right and wrong independent of mere opinion and one which was not justified merely by the counting of heads.
Lincoln once described the central proposition of the Declaration of Independence—to which, at Gettysburg, he said the nation at its birth had been dedicated—as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” This is a perfect example of what Leo Strauss meant by natural right. And Strauss believed—as did Lincoln—that it was possible to have sufficient knowledge of natural right to guide our lives, in the decisive respects, both individually and politically.
Lincoln once declared that he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” For Lincoln, the Declaration was a timeless source of political wisdom. It was a source of such wisdom for the American people as much as were the tablets of the law brought down by Moses from Sinai for the children of Israel. If we however turn to Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence, a book perfectly characteristic of non-Straussian scholarship in political philosophy, we find the following:
To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.
What Becker meant—and he spoke for nearly every historian and social scientist of our time—was that to ask what is just or unjust, right or wrong, is a “value judgment,” and as such “subjective” and not susceptible to rational analysis, which can deal only with “facts.”
Before I met Strauss this is what I had been taught, and had never been given any reason to question. I had spent five years at Yale in the 1930s, as undergraduate and graduate student, where no one, so far as I knew, had ever doubted this orthodoxy. To study the Declaration of Independence—or Plato’s Republic—meant to study the “climate of opinion,” “the spirit of the times,” the “weltanschauung” out of which the work came. Strauss however declared that we must understand the great works of the human mind as their authors understood them, before we try to understand them differently or better (although—contrary to Burnyeat—Strauss never hesitated to make such judgments when he believed he had sufficient grounds for doing so). None of the great writers of the past had believed, either in the fact-value distinction, or in the historicist fallacy that the genesis of an idea was the key to the truth about it.
Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration—as embodying an eternal, and eternally applicable truth—was precisely the kind of reading that I had learned from Strauss. Thus Strauss taught me to read with ever growing wonder and gratitude, both Lincoln and the tradition of political philosophy within which Lincoln had his life and being.
It is difficult to convey to anyone who has not shared such an experience the excitement I felt—now nearly forty years ago—when I realized that I had been emancipated from the dungeon of historicism, from that dark place of the soul in which the great questions, the only questions that make life ultimately worth living, are treated as “essentially meaningless.” That excitement has however never left me, and I can have only pity for those—like Professor Burnyeat—who seem likely never to know it.
Harry V. Jaffa
Claremont McKenna College and
Claremont Graduate School
To the Editors:
M.F. Burnyeat’s attempt to wake a sleeping America to the political threat posed to it by the late Leo Strauss is McCarthyite in the precise sense of the term. His calumny culminates in disgraceful innuendo about Carnes Lord, whose service on the National Security Council staff he takes as evidence of lack of scholarly integrity. With standard paranoid logic, Burnyeat concludes that this corrupt “pupil of a pupil” is proof that Strauss intentionally distorted classical texts as part of a political conspiracy. Contempt is the only appropriate response to such an ugly project of arousing political passion against the legacy of a serious thinker.
It is worthy of note that Burnyeat’s attack on Strauss follows hard on the heels of a similarly malicious one from the other extreme of the political spectrum (“Is Conservatism Un-American?” National Review, March 22, 1985). Its title indicates the kind of suspicion it casts on “Straussians.” This union of Far Right and Far Left in enmity to Strauss and his influence should encourage those who incline to think that truth and democracy reside somewhere near the center to have another look at the writings of Leo Strauss.
University of Chicago
To the Editors:
In his polemic against Leo Strauss, Professor Myles Burnyeat inadvertently confirms the interpretive standpoint which he labors to discredit.
Strauss’ reading of Plato probed beyond the surface impression to a deeper meaning—an exercise which Burnyeat paradoxically dismisses as an “insult to the critical intelligence.” For instance, early in the Republic Socrates attacks the equation of justice with the helping of one’s friends and the harming of one’s enemies, and Burnyeat ridicules Strauss’ suggestion that the dialogue thereafter preserves this apparently refuted definition. Similarly, Strauss’ perplexity about the absence of any philosophic reason for the philosophers to rule draws from Burnyeat the response that they will wish to requite the debt they owe the ideal city for providing them with their education.
But under what definition of justice is public education to be repaid through public service? Surely this reciprocation of benefit for benefit falls under the principle of helping one’s friends, which thus remains decisive despite Socrates’ earlier criticism. What Burnyeat ridicules in one paragraph he requires in another.
Burnyeat’s observation that “Strauss turns upside down the meaning of the Republic” incorporates an innocently dogmatic assumption about “the meaning” of a Platonic text. The Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter indicate that Plato himself did not share this assumption. Of course, Burnyeat can point to what is explicit in Plato’s text. But the significance of the explicit is precisely what Strauss has put at issue.
A thoughtful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Strauss’ work by a scholar of Burnyeat’s stature and acumen is an urgent desideratum. Evidently, the unpalatable conservative implications of Strauss’ position elicited Burnyeat’s disappointing effort. He especially seems to resent—again paradoxically given his account of the motivation of Plato’s philosophers—the willingness of Strauss’ pupils to serve their country under the present administration. Burnyeat’s dogmatic vilification, however, does liberalism no credit. He should have given readers the benefit of his thinking and left the vicious caricaturing to David Levine.
Ernest J. Weinrib
Yale Law School
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editors:
Although one of us is the author of the introduction to the book by the late Leo Strauss which M.S. Burnyeat recently discussed in your pages, we do not wish to attempt in a brief letter a comprehensive reply to the review. In particular, we will refrain from responding to the various suggestions or innuendos concerning the character of Strauss’ appeal and its supposed political implications. We restrict ourselves to addressing what Burnyeat says about the substance of Strauss’ thought.
Mr. Burnyeat is to be commended for having read a number of Strauss’ writings, but in our judgment he has missed or misunderstood the fundamental theme of Strauss’ life-work: the painstaking analysis of the dialogue or debate between Reason and Revelation. Although Burnyeat alludes casually to this central issue, he never tries to explain what Strauss means by calling it “the theological–political problem” much less attempts to deal with Strauss’ treatment of the issue, expressed and understood in this unconventional or highly original way.
Instead, Burnyeat contends that it is on the interpretation of a single major text, Plato’s Republic, that everything Strauss taught stands or falls. But the purported refutation of Strauss’ interpretation, a refutation which Burnyeat hinges on the elucidation of a single crucial passage (Republic 520), is not only manifestly inadequate, it depends upon a logical blunder.
The question at issue between Strauss and Burnyeat is whether, as conventional interpreters like Burnyeat claim, Socrates seriously teaches the possibility of philosopher-kings coming into being. Against the conventional view, Strauss points out that the philosophers, who would have to persuade or compel the non-philosophers to let them take over a city and rule, are themselves described by Socrates as being so far from wishing to rule that they would have to be compelled to do so.
Burnyeat does not deny that according to Socrates philosophers are deeply unwilling to rule for of course Socrates emphasizes that it is just this disinclination that would assure their reliability as rulers. Burnyeat argues, however, that philosophers would agree to begin to rule in obedience to “the requirements of impartial justice” expressed by “the force of reasoned argument.” What argument?
“The argument is” (Burnyeat claims) “that the philosophers owe a debt to the ideal city for providing the liberal education in mathematics and philosophy that teaches them to know and love justice.” This is Burnyeat’s extraordinarily loose paraphrase of the argument Socrates says he would use for the following purpose: to try to reconcile philosophers nurtured in a city already ruled by philosophers to their having to take their turn at ruling rather than pursue philosophy. Socrates indicates emphatically that this argument, from indebtedness, can be made only to philosphers who are indebted—i.e., who have been nurtured by a city already dedicated to philosophy. What is more, Socrates explicitly declares that a philosopher in any other city (e.g., himself, in Athens) would rightly, according to impartial justice, refuse to participate in ruling:
…when such men come to be in the other cities they quite reasonably do not participate in the labors in those cities. For they grow up spontaneously against the will of the regime in each city; and a nature that grows by itself and doesn’t owe its rearing to anyone has justice on its side when it is not eager to pay off the price of rearing to anyone.
This declaration accords perfectly with the whole of Socrates’ own life as depicted by Plato. Socrates consistently fled involvement in political life (Apology 31c–33b) and never made the slightest effort to erect in deed the city explored in speech in the Republic. According to the Republic, the philosopher is under no obligation to rule, in the sense of founding the best city; and he would have no inclination to do so, preferring to devote all his time to philosophy—as may be possible in certain defective cities like Athens. For the philosopher, giving up time spent in philosophy and entering politics—even in the best city—is like descending from the sunlight into a caveprison, or like descending from the Isles of the Blessed into Hades. The Socrates whom we encounter in the drama of the Republic is not someone who aspires to rule, but a philosophic teacher, using the themes of politics to introduce his young companions to philosophy. As he explicitly says near the end of the work, with regard to the city that has been under discussion, “it makes no difference whether it exists or will ever exist somewhere” (Republic 592b).
Burnyeat’s position is logically absurd, because if it is true, as he concedes, that the rule of philosophers depends upon their agreement and if they would agree to rule only out of indebtedness for their philosophic education to a city already ruled by philosophers (in Burnyeat’s words, “they will rule for justice’s sake and that alone, to requite a debt”), then such a city, or the rule of philosopher-kings, could never come into being for the first time. On the basis of this passage selected by Burnyeat, for Plato’s Socrates the coming into being of the philosopher-king is, as Strauss maintained, a kind of ironic impossibility.
Thomas L. Pangle
University of Toronto
To the Editors:
In his review-essay, “Sphinx Without a Secret.” M.F. Burnyeat has written a penetrating analysis of the sources and the techniques employed by Leo Strauss. He points out that the Chicago political thinker believed that the great “ancient books” are the repositories of “the truth,” and that their authors consciously obfuscated their meaning, primarily to avoid persecution, and wrote the opposite of what they really believed.
In the course of his skillful dissection of Leo Strauss, Professor Burnyeat has, inadvertently, I believe, done a grave injustice to Maimonides. Relying on Strauss’s reading of Maimonides, Burnyeat writes: “It was Maimonides who started it. It was from him that Strauss drew his idea of ‘esoteric literature.’ In the introduction to the first part of The Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides states. ‘It is not the purpose of this Treatise to make its totality understandable to the vulgar,’ and he goes on to instruct the learned reader how to gather his meaning from hints, indications, and deliberate contradictions.”
Burnyeat has truncated the passage in Maimonides and in the process, his meaning. Maimonides is outstanding for his clarity and does not indulge in “double-talk.” He is writing for “the perplexed” of his day, who were deeply committed to traditional religion and who found it in conflict with the ideas derived from their study of science and philosophy.
The passage is too lengthy to quote here, but Maimonides makes it clear that he is writing neither for simple-minded believers nor for those who have surrendered their religious faith. He believes there is no necessary conflict between faith and reason and seeks to prove their compatibility in his philosophical masterpiece.
Maimonides’s solution is to demonstrate that the classical texts of biblical and rabbinical Judaism seem to contradict philosophy and science only because they make use of the limited vocabulary available to human beings for the expression of transcendent truths. Hence, these sacred sources use metaphors and other concrete idioms that untutored and simple-minded believers take literally. Maimonides devotes the bulk of The Guide to expounding the true, deeper meaning behind such biblical metaphors as God’s face, eyes or hands, or such locutions as God’s speaking, repenting or being angry.
Though Maimonides believes that the Bible properly understood, is in harmony with philosophic truth as exemplified for him primarily by Aristotle, he is not over-awed by the great Stagirite. Thus, in one crucial instance he maintains the biblical view of creation in time as philosophically more tenable than the Greek conception of pre-existent, eternal matter.
To understand Maimonides aright, it must be kept in mind that The Guide of the Perplexed was one of his two great masterpieces; the other, far greater in extent, was his massive Code of Jewish Law, his Mishneh Torah, a magisterial presentation and reorganization of fourteen books of the vast expanse of rabbinic law.
There have been some medieval pietists who believed that Maimonides was really a heretic masquerading as a pious and observant Jew and denounced his writings to the Dominican Fathers, who obligingly burned The Guide at the stake in Paris with other Jewish classics. In more recent times, some have ventured to suggest that The Guide was the “real” Maimonides, and the Mishneh Torah is either an aberration or a cover to shield him against the fanatics, a position apparently close to that of Strauss. In view of the sheer size of the Mishneh Torah, the complexity of the material, the brilliance of the presentation, the encyclopedic knowledge, and above all, the independence of views he manifested throughout the work, the latter view can hardly commend itself to anyone who examines his great Code.
The final proof of the view that the “real” Maimonides speaks to us, not either in The Guide or in the Code, but in both, is to be found in “The Book of Knowledge,” the first of the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah. Here he presents his philosophical and theological system as the indispensable introduction to the detailed presentation of Jewish law in the following thirteen books.
As Burnyeat notes, Strauss undoubtedly experienced a conflict between reason and religion himself. Failing to find a solution, Strauss evidently projected his frustration upon Maimonides by “discovering that Maimonides said that they—philosophy and the Jewish religion—were compatible, but meant that they were not.” (Italics mine.) Strauss may have thought them irreconcilable; Maimonides did not.
New York City
Glad as I am to have helped Professor Cropsey understand the book he edited, I beg to remind him that not everything written in code deserves the effort, be it large or small, of deciphering the author’s meaning. The intention of being profound is not the same as a profound intention.
Likewise, while the effort which has been devoted to translating Strauss into various languages is evident from the (incomplete) listing in the bibliography to Studies in Platonic Philosophy, this effort has not been rewarded by the emergence of a following, let alone a cult like that which Strauss and Straussian teachers have managed to create in the US. For example, Strauss in Italian has been received with sustained and often hostile criticism, which is documented by P. Taboni in Studi Urbinati 48 (1974), pp. 191–220, and G. Giorgini in Il Mulino 33 (1984), pp. 396–416. In fact, the hypothesis of “Mr. Strauss’s charisma” (a phrase to be appreciated by initiates who have read Strauss on Weber) seems to be amply confirmed by Professor Jaffa’s letter.
Let me then assure Professor Jaffa that, whatever the historical genesis of his belief in the meaningfulness of the great questions, there are lots of non-Straussians who dispute the fact-value dichotomy and who have never even been tempted by the historicist fallacy as he describes it. What has Jaffa been reading for the past forty years? He illustrates non-Straussian political philosophy by quoting one statement from a book published in 1922 and inventing for it a positivistic meaning which, in its context (p. 277), it does not have. He surely has had time to catch up with the 1942 reprint of Becker’s book, whose preface states that the brutalities of Nazism have enabled men once more to believe that “liberty, equality, fraternity” and “inalienable rights of men” are phrases that denote realities.
Becker was interested in the conditions which make certain beliefs possible (a worthwhile and important inquiry, which need not lead to relativism). He meant that in 1942 it had become possible to return to a faith that the nineteenth century had lost. In his humane, gentlemanly way he would perhaps have wondered at the intellectual environment and educational influences which enabled Jaffa in 1959 to write that the differences between Lincoln and Aristotle on the justice of slavery are more apparent than real, on this basis commending to his twentieth-century readers the proposition that in circumstances of economic scarcity it could be just to sanction the ownership of slaves (Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, Doubleday, 1959, pp. 342–346). So much for Jaffa on natural right as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”
The manner in which Jaffa commends his proposition about slavery can be compared to the manner in which Strauss commends to his readers the proposition that the just citizen is one who helps his friends and harms his enemies: by exegetical pleading rather than by independent argument. We are not given reasons why we should believe these propositions true, only reasons why Lincoln/Aristotle/Xenophon’s Socrates should be thought to have believed them true. Disturbing recommendations with far-reaching political consequences are to be accepted on the strength of nothing more than a systematic misreading of “old books” (Jaffa’s understanding of Aristotle is abysmal). No wonder Jaffa appeals to the tablets of law brought down by Moses from Sinai. But no wonder also that my review, when considering the enormous influence of Strauss and his ideas in the US, should call attention to the presence of a Straussian on the National Security Council, which directs the work of the CIA and advises the President on his dealings with “enemies.”
The point, as I expressed it, was that “something more than an academic quarrel is taking place” when Strauss defends his eccentric views. His misreadings of old books are not merely influential. They could have consequences in the real world of politics. If I had been writing a critique of monetarism, showing it to be an ill-conceived theory derived by special pleading from data inadequately grasped, it would not, I submit, be McCarthyite to note the presence of a leading monetarist among the President’s economic advisers.
We need not debate “the precise sense” of the term McCarthyite (that rhetorical flourish merely reveals the imprecision of the writer’s sense). For Professor Bloom’s letter is itself a prime example of Straussian hermeneutics. The idea of a Straussian political conspiracy was hatched in Bloom’s mind; it appears nowhere in the text of my review. Nor did I argue, “Carnes Lord served in the National Security Council, therefore he lacks scholarly integrity.” (For the record, Lord’s published work shows him to be a better scholar in the field of ancient political philosophy than either Strauss or Bloom.) Would it be McCarthyite to add that Bloom’s systematic misreading of my text is designed to have practical consequences?
The saddest feature of Bloom’s response is his apparent inability to distinguish between criticism and persecution, irony and malice. Rather than give a reasoned reply either to my essay or to Charles R. Kesler’s calmly argued critique in the National Review, he immediately divides the world into friends and enemies of the Straussian truth. The same “paranoid logic” (to borrow Bloom’s precise phrase) is evident in Professor Cropsey’s letter. Never mind that my review was gentleness itself compared to the scorn and derision with which Strauss reviewed Collingwood, for example, or Eric Havelock. The Master must be sacrosanct; he is too serious a thinker for reasoned discussion, not to mention David Levine’s cartoon.
It is all so unlike Strauss’s hero (and mine) Plato, who believed that the essence of philosophy is to be found in argument and discussion infused with irony and playful levity, and who surrounded himself, in the Academy he created, with men who disagreed with his ideas and did their best to refute them. That is why I put quotation marks round the word “philosopher” as it occurs in Straussian writings. Cropsey may be indignant but Strauss’s conception of what a philosopher is stands so far from Plato’s that it would be misleading to appear to accept that they are talking about the same thing. For the same reason I am happy to acknowledge that I belong to the “conventional establishment” consisting of readers of Plato since the fourth century BC who have found in the expressed meanings of Plato’s dialogues the paradigm of great philosophy.
This brings me to the arguments of Professors Weinrib, Pangle, and Orwin—and all honor to them for replying with arguments, at least on questions of interpretation—about the role of the philosopher in Plato’s Republic.
Weinrib’s argument supposes that one can derive or discern a general principle or definition of justice from a single example of just action. This is a mistake; a mistake, moreover, of a type which Plato’s Socrates is constantly correcting (e.g., at the beginning of the Euthyphro). The philosophers’ undertaking to rule the ideal city does fall under the principle of helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies, but it also falls under thirty-one other principles, including Thrasymachus’s definition of justice as serving the interests of the stronger. Thus the nonphilosophical majority is the largest and so the strongest group in the city, and Socrates has already shown how their interests will be best looked after if they are governed by philosophers. By parity of reasoning Weinrib should conclude that Thrasymachus’s definition “remains decisive” despite being the main target of Socrates’ criticism both in Book I and in the remainder of the Republic.
The truth is that to discover what principle of justice motivates the philosophers to rule it is necessary to read Plato rather than Strauss. In the context we are considering Socrates does not simply say that it is just for the philosophers to undertake the tasks of government. He explains why it is just, as follows:
It’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the entire city, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit which each person is able to bring to the community. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in binding the city together.
(Republic, 519e–520a; Bloom’s translation, with corrections)
This implies that the claim on the philosophers arises from the impartial justice of a set of social arrangements which requires everyone, without exception, to contribute what they are able to contribute to the good of everyone else. (If the philosophers are able to contribute more than other people; so be it: they will be the first to recognize that it is only just that they do so.) This principle of everyone doing what they are best suited to do to the benefit of everyone else is the principle established in Book IV of the Republic as constitutive of the justice of the ideal city. We have no alternative but to accept it as Plato’s answer to Weinrib’s question “Under what principle of justice is it just for the philosophers to rule?”
Besides, from Plato’s point of view Weinrib’s answer has the priorities the wrong way round. The citizens of the ideal city do not benefit each other because they are friends; rather, they are friends because they benefit each other (Republic 462a ff.)
So much for the question whether the philosophers can be induced to rule in the ideal city itself. Professors Pangle and Orwin are quite right that the passage under discussion presupposes the ideally just city already in existence. In a state which is not run for the benefit of all but only for the mutual advantage of some group of “friends,” there is no social justice to make claims on the philosopher to participate. Accordingly, I did not argue, as Pangle and Orwin imagine, that the passage shows that the ideal city can come into existence. I argued that, when correctly understood, the passage does not show, as Strauss imagined (The City and Man, p.124), that the ideal city cannot come into existence. I was rebutting Strauss’s contention that the ideal city is intrinsically impossible, because the philosophers could not be induced to rule. Pangle and Orwin appear to agree with me, against Strauss, that they could be induced to rule if the ideal city is already in existence. In which case we have to look elsewhere in the Republic to decide whether Plato means us to think that the ideal city could not come into being.
Socrates says emphatically at 499d that it is not impossible that somewhere, sometime, a divine inspiration should give those in power a passion for philosophy or that some necessity should constrain one or more philosophers to take charge of a city; perhaps it has already happened far away or in the distant past. As in the passage discussed above, Socrates insists that a philosopher will take part in politics only with reluctance and from necessity, i.e., because he sees compelling reasons to do so. The compelling argument will be different from the argument from social justice which constrains the philosophers who have been educated within the ideal city, but that difference provides no basis for impugning Socrates’ sincerity when he asserts here, as elsewhere, that it is possible for Utopia to get started. The ideal city will get started by one argument and continued by another: there is no logical absurdity in that, merely the difference between an argument about preserving justice and an argument about bringing it into being.
If Pangle and Orwin reply that the passage they quote implies that it would actually be unjust for philosophers who have not been educated in the ideal city to take part in the launching of Utopia, the answer is that the original Greek implies no such thing. There is a difference between the philosophers’ not having a duty to take part in politics and their having a duty not to take part. Bloom’s translation, used by Pangle and Orwin for the second sentence of their quotation, may suggest the latter, but the former would be more adequate to Plato’s Greek. This is not the place to discuss the nuances of a translation (where Bloom writes “has justice on its side,” Plato is not using his normal word for justice but a more archaic one, appropriate to the situation he is describing in which social justice does not yet exist), but the substance of the point I am making is confirmed at 496d, where Socrates gives as the reason why a philosopher will keep out of the present-day politics of actual cities the lack of “an ally with whose aid one could safely champion the cause of justice.” The consideration is conditional. It would lapse if an ally was found with enough power to help make justice real. (I wonder whether Weinrib believes that a Platonic philosopher would find many such allies in the present administration of the US.)
Weinrib, however, has a more general argument for supposing that Plato does not mean what Socrates explicitly says in the various passages we have now examined. He appeals to Plato’s Phaedrus and to the Seventh Letter as favoring Strauss’s approach to “the meaning” of a Platonic text rather than mine. Strauss had the same thought (The City and Man, pp. 52–54), though he wisely refrained from mentioning the Seventh Letter, which may be a forgery. But Strauss had to use Straussian hermeneutics on the Phaedrus to get that dialogue to justify using Straussian hermeneutics on other Platonic texts. An appeal to the Phaedrus does nothing to extricate the Straussian approach from the vicious circularity with which I charged it.
Platonic scholarship urgently needs a decent understanding of what the Phaedrus means to say about writing. But that understanding will require literary methods more sophisticated than any that Strauss purveyed. Nor can it be assumed in advance that the Phaedrus aims to tell us how to read the Republic. One of the many objectionable features of the Straussian approach is the blunderbuss way it treats all dialogues alike. In place of the scintillating variety which Plato’s artistry created, Strauss puts “the Platonic dialogue” and a uniform Maimonidean recipe for decoding its hidden meaning. And yet, if Professor Gordis is right, this whole saga of misreading began with a misreading of Maimonides.
In considering this, the last but certainly not the least important letter, we should distinguish two Straussian claims:
(1)The Guide of the Perplexed is an example of “esoteric literature,” whose message is “written between the lines.”
(2) The message between its lines is that philosophy and religion cannot be reconciled.
I did not endorse claim (2), but wrote of Strauss “having, as he thought, discovered” that Maimonides meant the opposite of what he said; Gordis truncates the relevant passage in my review, omitting “as he thought.” Nevertheless, Gordis’s confirmation of my skepticism about claim (2) is a sufficient answer to Pangle and Orwin’s complaint that I neglected Strauss’s treatment of “the theological-political problem.” There is a limit to the number of confusions one can tackle in a single review.
As regards claim (1), however, I plead guilty. I was impressed with the fact that Maimonides does—Gordis seems not to deny this—instruct the learned reader how to gather his meaning from hints, indications, and deliberate contradictions. For example, the seventh cause of contradiction is the following:
In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.
(p. 18 in the Pines translation)
Two pages later Maimonides tells us that contradictions from this seventh cause are to be found in The Guide of the Perplexed. Strauss certainly has more to go on here than he has with Plato. But I should be only too happy to have a critic like Gordis take me through the Guide explaining in detail how and where Strauss has got it wrong.
Meanwhile, readers who have found much of this polemic distasteful can recover their good humor by reading a short story by Oscar Wilde entitled “The Sphinx Without a Secret.”