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Further Lessons of Leo Strauss: An Exchange

To the Editors:

From the outpouring of Straussian venom [NYR, October 10, 1985] on Burnyeat’s review of the guru’s book [NYR, May 30, 1985] readers who are not abreast of the relevant scholarship might get a decidedly unjust idea of the review’s merit. May I then submit another opinion. In my judgment, that of a lifelong student of Plato, it was not merely a good review, but a superb one. It would do honor to any journal in the world. Its Platonic scholarship is impeccable. Its critique of Straussian vagaries is penetrating and just. Its diagnosis of the attractiveness of the Straussian line to a coterie is most illuminating. The review is on a par with that marvelous essay Burnyeat wrote for you in 1982 (review of Charles Kahn [NYR, May 13, 1982], The Art and Thought of Heraclitus).

Another journal had sent me the Strauss book for review in 1984. I read it, saw it was inferior work—not up to Strauss’s best or even to his second best—and declined. Diverting effort to produce a dismissive review would not be cost-effective when one is at work, late in life, on a major project that demands every ounce of energy one has, and then some. Reading now Burnyeat’s review I am relieved to see that the job has been done after all, and so much better. His reading takes him far beyond that single book. He alludes to ten other books by Strauss, to several essays of his as well, and to work by Straussians. He seems to have read even those incredibly tedious products of Strass’s declining years—tendentious rehashes of Xenophon’s Socratic writings and of Plato’s Laws in muddy English. And he confronts directly that bizarre, uniquely American, phenomenon, the Straussian personality cult. I do not think Strauss’s influence is as great in this country as some of Burnyeat’s remarks might suggest. It is no more “discernible” in our mainstream scholarship than in that of Britain. (Three good books on Socrates’ political thought have appeared during the last six years, one of them in the UK, two in the US; all three ignore Strauss completely: his name does not appear in their index.) And my critique of Strauss’s exegesis of Plato would not duplicate Burnyeat’s. But all of his main points I would endorse with conviction, including his explanation of the cult’s appeal to neoconservative yuppies.

Not least of the merits of his review is that he keeps his cool. This enables him to give credit to the Strauss to whom high credit is due. An early work of his published in 1936 (English translation from the German: The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Oxford University Press) ranks with the finest work on Hobbes produced in my lifetime. Its scholarship is solid from beginning to end, daring and provocative, but never eccentric. There is no sign here of the delusion that the classics of political philosophy were meant to be read as palimpsests—strange aberration in a noble mind. I trust that Burnyeat’s mention of this first, powerful and eminently sane contribution to the history of ideas, not yet distracted by the search for concealed meanings, may win for it many readers both in and outside the ranks of true believers.

Gregory Vlastos

University of California

Berkeley, California

To the Editors:

On May 30, 1985, NYR readers were introduced to the work of the late Leo Strauss, “arguably one of the most influential thinkers in the US” (p. 30), by a dismissive and hostile reviewer, M.F. Burnyeat. “I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas” (p. 31). The charge Burnyeat’s review seeks to prove is as damaging a one as could be made against a serious thinker. Certainly then it is only fair that his case against Strauss be carefully scrutinized in these pages. After an exchange of letters (October 10, 1985), Burnyeat has added to his attack. But the fundamental question remains clear: has he provided readers with sufficient evidence to dismiss Strauss? Now that Werner Dannhauser has cleared the record of the slander against Strauss as a teacher (October 24, 1985), it remains to clear it concerning Strauss’s scholarship. As Burnyeat says in his review, “my task here is to tell readers…what happens in the thought-world that Strauss’s writings fashion from his favorite old books” (p. 31).

Strauss’s corpus consists principally of textual studies of the major political and social philosophers of the past. Even Burnyeat acknowledges that Strauss’s “minute scrutiny of each text establishes an aura of reverence for its author” (p. 30). Yet Burnyeat claims Strauss’s purpose was not to understand the wisdom of the past, but to warn about the dangers of contemporary political idealism. As his review concludes, “the real issue is Strauss’s ruthless determination to use these old books to ‘moderate’ [the] idealistic longing for justice” (p. 36). Even if, however, this determination motivated everything Strauss wrote, that would hardly mean surrender of the critical intellect is required to appreciate his thought. Like many philosophers across the political spectrum, for example, Marx and Nietzsche, Strauss developed his own world view, and, having done so, argued for it with exceptional focus and determination. Content, not motivation, is the issue here. And the content of Strauss’s warning as described by Burnyeat is hardly unreasonable. It is obviously appropriate for a scholar to teach about the problems of the present through the study of old books. In light of the events of this century alone, it makes sense for someone to devote himself to moderating political idealism, fearing its future and perhaps unintended effects. It is especially sensible in the light of the principle Burnyeat himself defends: that even the greatest philosophers who are not politically inclined have major political obligations.

It may be then that Burnyeat’s attack on Strauss is based on a disagreement with Strauss’s politics, in which case Burnyeat might have better concentrated on substantive contemporary political questions.

In his endeavor to discredit Strauss’s scholarship, Burnyeat reduces the corpus to a single interpretation of a single author: “Let us be clear that if Strauss’s interpretation of Plato is wrong, the entire edifice falls to dust” (p. 35). (Strauss wrote fourteen books only two of which are explicitly about Plato.) Burnyeat then bases his case against Strauss’s reading of Plato on the discussion of a single, arbitrarily selected statement: “I shall pick on one central statement Strauss makes about the Republic” (p. 36) (a paraphrase of, among other passages, Republic 520a). This is the only time Burnyeat confronts Strauss on a specific textual point. Strauss’s reading of this passage, Burnyeat alleges, is an “insult to the critical intellect” (p. 36). As one letter points out, Burnyeat’s case “hinges on the elucidation of a single critical passage (Republic 520a)” (p. 42), and in his reply Burnyeat does not deny this.

Instead, he sticks to his guns in his reply to two letters (October 10, p. 42) showing that Burnyeat’s discussion of this statement actually confirmed Strauss’s reading. And, remarkably, Burnyeat actually cites the disputed passage which at face value again confirms Strauss’s reading!

Here is the statement Burnyeat originally “picks on” in his review: “The philosophers cannot be persuaded, they can only be compelled to rule the cities.” Burnyeat goes on to say that “the passages that Strauss is paraphrasing…do not contrast persuasion and compulsion…. [The] argument is 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,” and Burnyeat cites Republic 520a (p. 36).

Then, in his subsequent reply to the letters (October 10), Burnyeat writes: “The truth is that to discover what principle of justice motivates the philosophers to rule it is necessary to read Plato rather than Strauss” (p. 44). He next cites the controversial Platonic passage:

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]

The principle of justice at issue here resides in the “concern of law” for what benefits the society as a whole, and not, for example, that “any one class,” like philosophers, “fare exceptionally well.” To this end, law employs “persuasion and compulsion” to “make” individuals, such as philosophers, contribute to the community. And this is no accident. Law “produces” men not so they may live as they want, but “in order that it may use them” for the community. The principle of justice alluded to here then justifies “compelling” philosophers to rule precisely as Strauss suggested. It certainly does not—by any straight-forward reading—make Burnyeat’s case that philosophers rule because they owe a debt to society for the education it gave them. Once again the argument which Burnyeat relies on actually confirms Strauss’s interpretation.

One might summarize the overarching theme of Strauss’s work as the inadequacy of modernity—that modernity has a built-in tendency toward self-destruction because it rests on shaky foundations. This thesis does not stand or fall on an interpretation of Plato. It rests on an assessment of modern thought and modern history. Strauss devoted much of his work to the Greeks because he believed that they are the greatest educators of mankind and that their fundamental lessons are in danger of being forgotten. One lesson is that for the health of philosophy and politics alike philosophers should make it clear that wisdom is a greater good than justice. In his scholarship Strauss shows that philosophers are distinguished by their knowledge about the big questions of life, as well as by their attention to detail.

Paul Sunstein

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To the Editors:

While Professor Burnyeat in his reply to my letter [NYR, October 10, 1985] accepts my observation on the reconciliation of religion and science in Maimonides, he “pleads guilty” to maintaining the view that the Guide to the Perplexed is an example of ” ‘esoteric literature’…whose message is written ‘between the lines’ ” in spite of the considerations I advanced in my letter rebutting Strauss’s position. He cites a passage from Maimonides’ Introduction to the Guide which he suggests offers a measure of support for this view.

This passage must be put into perspective if its true meaning is to become clear.

In his Introduction Maimonides is engaged in a pedagogical enterprise—he is instructing his disciple Joseph ibn Aknin with regard to pitfalls to be found in “any book or compilation” (Pines translation, p. 17). Maimonides then proceeds to list seven possible sources of misunderstanding and adds that causes five and seven may be found in his own treatise, as well as in other works.

These two causes are intimately related and arise out of the writer’s concern to be intelligible and convincing to an inexperienced reader. In the fifth cause, Maimonides points out, the writer will use a simpler but logically less complete mode of reasoning and leave for a later point the more exact and convincing presentation of the issue involved.

In the seventh cause, the same immaturity of the reader makes it necessary to “conceal…from the vulgar” the fact that an inference at one point may rest on a premise which is in contradiction to another premise at another point. To call attention to the apparent contradiction would serve only to confuse the reader.

Obviously Maimonides does not believe that he is really contradicting himself, but expects to resolve the difficulty at another opportunity. In calling attention to this practice he is using a pedagogical device, not a political tactic.

Strauss’s theory on esoteric writing is persuasive if we assume that there is an implicit meaning lurking behind the explicit statement of the medieval writer who thus seeks to avoid persecution or ostracism.

But when, as Professor Burnyeat contends, Strauss builds upon alleged contradictions between two explicit statements in Maimonides, and argues that the less frequent position represents the author’s true intention, Strauss’s theory seems to me highly questionable.

There is no inherent reason why an opinion expressed x times, as against another expressed x + y times, should be regarded as a) more truly representative of the author’s standpoint, and b) calculated not to attract the attention and to arouse the hostility of his opponents.

Besides, the difference in frequency may be due to accidental factors, such as the presence of a lesser opportunity to express one view as against the other in the author’s work.

Moreover, Maimonides’ readers could hardly be expected to have the entire corpus of his writings before them, especially before the invention of printing, and to engage in a statistical survey of the number of times each position is expressed in order to determine the author’s true meaning.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Maimonides’ entire personality and career need to be taken into account. He was not a closet philosopher for whom self-expression was the ultimate goal. Maimonides was an active leader of the Jewish community, deeply involved in their problems and concerns. He was strongly committed to propagating the truth as he saw it, even among the broad sectors of the people. Thus he did not hesitate to declare as a heretic with no share in the world to come anyone who believes that God has a physical form and image (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:7), a judgment which Maimonides’ redoubtable critic, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières, vigorously challenged in the name of the people’s right to be wrong.

For Maimonides, the uncompromising rationalist, wrong thinking was only slightly less grievous than wrong doing. For Maimonides, the teacher and communal leader, communicating the truth was as important as expressing it. For this goal, the mode of composition Strauss ascribes to Maimonides would be totally self-defeating.

Maimonides was painfully aware that it was difficult to transmit to the generality of his readers his rarefied, spiritual concept of the good life. Indeed he treats the traditional doctrine of reward and punishment, as spelled out in the Bible and the Talmud, as an example of Divine pedagogy, with only a minority of the “pupils” attaining to “graduation.” See his famous Introduction to the Tenth Chapter of Sanhedrin in his Commentary on the Mishnah. David Hartman gives a perceptive and moving description of Maimonides’ sense of frustration at his lack of success in his lifelong enterprise (see Hartman’s discussion of the Essay on Resurrection in Halkin–Hartman, Crisis and Leadership, Philadelphia, 1985, pp. 246–281).

At all times Maimonides was aware that he had opponents, but he was conscious of his own power and influence, convinced of the truth of his ideas and not afraid to express them with clarity and vigor.

In view of the difficulties that Maimonides’ outlook encountered during his lifetime and even more afterwards, had he resorted to “esoteric language” it would not have been reprehensible. The fact is that he did not.

Robert Gordis

New York City

M.F Burnyeat replies:

From his study of the writings of Leo Strauss Mr. Sunstein has gathered the thesis that “modernity has a built-in tendency toward self-destruction because it rests on shaky foundations.” He has not, it seems, gathered the sense that bombast should be questioned before it is recommended to the readers of this or any other journal. What is “modernity”? Is it one thing? In what sense does it have foundations? Where do they wobble?

From the same source Sunstein has learned the lesson—supposedly one of the fundamental lessons of the Greeks which we are in danger of forgetting—that wisdom is a greater good than justice. Although he speaks of “attention to detail,” he does not tell us where Plato makes this statement. In the context of Sunstein’s peroration the statement implies that justice may be sacrificed, being the lesser good, to the pursuit of wisdom. Such a conclusion would be anathema to Plato, whose account of the four cardinal virtues of city and man, in Book IV of the Republic, treats wisdom and justice as interdependent with each other and with courage and moderation. On this account you cannot be wise unless you are just and you cannot be just unless you are wise, and the same holds for the city or community you belong to. So even if Plato were to single out wisdom as the most important element in the interlocking network of virtues, there could be no question for him of “moderating political idealism” by suggesting that justice may be sacrificed for wisdom.

I emphasize Plato, and the Republic in particular, because Sunstein is under the misapprehension that Strauss’s “assessment of modern thought and modern history” is independent of his interpretation of Plato. Like Werner Dannhauser before him (see his letter in the October 24 issue), Sunstein defends Strauss without understanding him.

In book after book Strauss assesses “modernity” from the standpoint of antiquity, not the other way around. In doing so he is practicing what he preached:

One must abandon the attempt to understand the past from the point of view of the present. [“On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” Review of Metaphysics 5 (1952), pp. 575–576]

The fact that the historian is necessarily a critic does not mean, of course, that his criticism necessarily culminates in partial or total rejection; it may very well culminate in total acceptance of the criticized view. Still less does it mean that the historian necessarily criticizes the thought of the past from the point of view of present day thought. By the very fact that he seriously attempts to understand the thought of the past, he leaves the present. He embarks on a journey whose end is hidden from him. He is not likely to return to the shores of his time as exactly the same man who departed from them. His criticism may very well amount to a criticism of present day thought from the point of view of the thought of the past. [Ibid., pp. 582–583, where initiates familiar with Strauss’s style will recognize that “may very well” insinuates “should” and “will.”]

Strauss needs to be right about the thought of the past, or he loses the standpoint from which he would criticize the present. And to be right about the thought of the past, he must be right about Plato. For his story of a falling away from the wisdom of the ancients requires that the ancients are indeed unanimous in warning against the idealistic pursuit of justice. If the Republic is in fact dedicated to the idealistic pursuit of justice, Strauss’s whole picture of the thought of the past is erroneous and he has no basis for his condemnations of “modernity.”

I trust that this makes clear to Sunstein why the argument has come to rest on a single passage of Plato’s Republic (520ad). It is not I, nor Plato, but Strauss who makes the passage central. It is central to his attempt to demonstrate that Plato means the opposite of what he makes Socrates say, so that the Republic is actually a warning proof of the impossibility of realizing justice on earth. But Sunstein, like Pangle and Orwin before him (October 10), defends Strauss’s interpretation of the Republic without understanding it.

Sunstein claims that the passage shows that the philosophers can be compelled to rule. Strauss argued that it shows they cannot. Sunstein speaks of the laws using persuasion as well as compulsion to make the philosophers accept the burden of government. Strauss argued that the philosophers could not be persuaded. Sunstein reads the passage “at face value.” So do I. But here is Strauss’s account of it:

Strange as it may sound, in this part of the conversation it appears easier to persuade the multitude to accept the rule of the philosophers than to persuade the philosophers to rule the multitude: the philosophers cannot be persuaded, they can only be compelled to rule the cities (499 bc, 500d 4–5, 520 ad, 521b 7, 539e 2–3). Only the non-philosophers could compel the philosophers to take care of the city. But, given the prejudice against the philosophers, this compulsion will not be forthcoming if the philosophers do not in the first place persuade the non-philosophers to compel the philosophers to rule over them, and this persuasion will not be forthcoming, given the philosophers’ unwillingness to rule. We arrive then at the conclusion that the just city is not possible because of the philosophers’ unwillingness to rule. (The City and Man, p. 124)

Convoluted though it is, this interpretation is so different from the one that Sunstein defends on Strauss’s behalf that it is no wonder Sunstein fails to see the force of the objections I made in my review and the subsequent correspondence.

It would be tedious to rehearse those objections yet again, or to explain in yet more detail why the compulsion of which Socrates speaks must be understood as identical with the persuasion, since both refer to the persuasive force of a compelling argument from the principle of justice on which the ideal city is founded. I shall confine myself to a more general moral.

Strauss insisted that in order to understand an “outstanding” thinker you must begin with the assumption that his teaching is “simply true.” His followers, applying this rule to the Master himself, have shown in the pages of this journal how little it has enabled them to understand him. Whether that is an indictment of Strauss’s methodology or of his and his pupils’ teaching, there is an ironic justice in the fact that it comes from his most vociferous admirers.

I turn now to Mr. Gordis’s second letter on Maimonides. He accepts that in my review I did not defend Strauss’s claim that the message between the lines of The Guide of the Perplexed is that philosophy and religion cannot be reconciled. I hope that he will also accept that in my reply to his first letter I did not defend what he now questions, Strauss’s recipe for decoding the unobvious meaning of Maimonides’ text. The sole issue between us is whether in his introduction Maimonides leads the reader to expect some message between some of the lines. The question of how to do better than Strauss at discovering the message does not arise unless there is an unobvious message to be found.

Maimonides lists seven causes “for the contradictory or contrary statements to be found in any book or compilation.” It is Gordis, not Maimonides, who describes them as seven “pitfalls” or “possible sources of misunderstanding,” and it is this description which enables Gordis to play down the contradictions in the Guide as being merely apparent, the result of pedagogical necessity. The description does fit the first five items on Maimonides’ list, but the sixth is the case of an author who has indeed contradicted himself, through inadvertence or failure to follow through his reasoning. In such a case the contradiction is real, and Maimonides makes it clear that to understand the author requires us to understand that and why he has contradicted himself.

The seventh cause is twin to the sixth. The contradiction is again real (there is no textual basis for Gordis’s description of it as apparent), but this time it is deliberate, not inadvertent. Gordis’s statement “Obviously Maimonides does not believe that he is really contradicting himself” is just wishful thinking. So is his further statement that Maimonides “expects to resolve the difficulty at another opportunity.” What the text says is that the contradiction is to be concealed from the vulgar by some device so that they remain unaware of the difficulty. The text is equally frank about the esotericist premises: “In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose others.”

Gordis need not fear that to accept that Maimonides means what he says is to give in to the Straussian interpretation. It is one thing to acknowledge that we are led to expect an esoteric message, another to identify the contradictions which may help to show us what it is and how far it subverts the stated meanings of the text. Maimonides indicates at the end of the introduction that it is only some of his chapters which will perplex us if we are insensitive to contradictions from the fifth and seventh cause. Scholars have in fact found it difficult to identify in the Guide any contradictions due to the fifth cause (pedagogical necessity), but for a sober and rigorous non-Straussian attempt to identify contradictions due to the seventh cause I can refer to Herbert Davidson, “Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History, Isadore Twersky, ed. (Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 16–40.

Davidson finds the esoteric message to be both limited in scope and different in content from the systematic antireligious philosophy that Strauss read between Maimonides’ lines. It amounts to a disguised preference for a Platonic over a scriptural account of creation and prophecy, the preference being that God should make the world not from nothing at all but from preexisting unformed matter, and that He should make prophets only of those whose intellects have achieved by themselves an adequate level of development. On this picture, Maimonides did not oppose philosophy to religion, rejecting creation and divinely inspired prophecy altogether, but he thought that religion should discard sheer miracles.

Perhaps Gordis is unwilling to believe that Maimonides could have believed any such thing. But I submit that an interpretation like Davidson’s, with its detailed and careful assessment of the esoteric side to Maimonides, is a more effective refutation of Strauss’s undisciplined imaginings than Gordis’s suggestion that Maimonides disguised nothing from anyone. For, as I hope to have made clear, one of the things the Guide does not disguise is that it includes an esoteric design.

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