“Wishing neither to be destroyed nor to bring destruction among the multitude, the considerate few have imperturbably conveyed to their readers an eloquence of articulate silences and pregnant indications.”1
This extraordinary sentence was written not by Leo Strauss but to introduce a book honoring him. It perfectly expresses the substance, and the style, of his teaching. Accordingly, it does not explain to outsiders what that teaching is, or by what powers the teaching has raised Strauss to his present eminence as a guru of American conservatism. For initiates of his ideas, on the other hand, those who are in touch with “the considerate few,” the sentence will be like poetry in the way it condenses into one pregnant utterance the entire thought-world of the master.
Leo Strauss was born in Germany in 1899 and died in Chicago in 1973. He studied philosophy at several German universities and worked as an assistant at the Academy of Jewish Research in Berlin, where he “concentrated on biblical criticism and the thought of Spinoza.” He came to New York in 1938 and taught political theory at the University of Chicago between 1948 and 1969, when he retired.2 By this time he was arguably one of the most influential thinkers in the US.
There are two ways to approach Strauss’s thinking. Some fourteen books and a multitude of learned papers are listed in the bibliography of Strauss’s writings appended to the volume under review. Alternatively, one may sign up for initiation with a Straussian teacher—at Harvard, at the University of Chicago, or the many other universities and colleges to which Strauss’s pupils and the pupils of his pupils have now penetrated.
It is the second method that produces the sense of belonging and believing. The books and papers are freely available on the side of the Atlantic from which I write, but Strauss has no discernible influence in Britain at all. No one writing in the London Review of Books would worry—as Stephen Toulmin worried recently in these pages about the State Department’s policy-planning staff—that Mrs. Thatcher’s civil servants know more about the ideas of Leo Strauss than about the realities of the day.3 Strauss has no following in the universities where her civil servants are educated. Somehow, the interchange between teacher and pupil gives his ideas a potency that they lack on the printed page.
There is no doubt that Strauss was an inspiring teacher. Lewis Coser’s recent study of refugee scholars in America singles him out: “He alone among eminent refugee intellectuals succeeded in attracting a brilliant galaxy of disciples who created an academic cult around his teaching.”4 And many stories testify that the disciples too are as impressive in their teaching as in their scholarly productions. But for an outsider this only doubles the enigma. How do Strauss’s ideas attract such devotion? And why do they need it? Why do they rely for their persuasiveness on the mediation of an inspiring teacher?
It is true that Strauss’s writings are remote and rebarbative. They deal, largely, with what Strauss liked to call “old books.” He studies, and would have us study with him, Plato and Xenophon, Aristotle and Cicero, Farabi and Maimonides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke—these are “the considerate few.” The range of his learning is indeed formidable; his command of ancient and medieval languages cannot fail to impress; his minute scrutiny of each text establishes an aura of reverence for its author. According to Strauss, these old books “owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn.”5 And one can understand that today’s puppies need assistance if they are to respond with love to Strauss’s manner of commenting on these classic texts; for he deliberately makes the hard ones harder and the easier ones (e.g., Plato and Xenophon) the most difficult of all. Even more do the young need assistance if they are to be inspired to found their understanding of the contemporary world on Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political thought.
But the Straussian teacher is not just the honey that sweetens the taste of wormwood.6 Here is an account of the first meeting of Strauss’s seminar on Hobbes at the University of Chicago in the fall term of 1956:
He exposed our opinions as mere opinions; he caused us to realize that we were the prisoners of our opinions by showing us the larger horizons behind and beyond them. Thus we all believed in watered-down teachings derived from Marx, Freud, and others; but buttressing our views was modern thought as such, and one of its towering giants was Hobbes. To understand the true nature of our beliefs, it was necessary to undertake an arduous journey back in time, a journey that would not even end with Hobbes, for modern thought at its best was a rebellion by giants like Hobbes against men perhaps even more gigantic—Plato and Aristotle.
But the conversion, the turning to light he tried to effect in us, did not necessarily terminate in Platonism. Not the least remarkable of a number of remarkable suggestions—or commands—which Leo Strauss produced that day was that we simply must begin with the assumption that Hobbes’s teaching was true—not relatively true, not true for Hobbes, not true for its time, but simply true. That was why we had to read him with all the care we could muster, and that was why (I was to hear him say this again and again) one ought not even to begin to criticize an author before one had done all one could do to understand him correctly, to understand him as he understood himself. 7
When other teachers invite their students to explore the origins of modern thought, they encourage criticism as the road to active understanding. Understanding grows through a dialectical interaction between the students and the author they are studying. Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.” It is all too clear that this illusory goal will not be achieved by the end of the term. Abandon self all ye who enter here. The question is, to whom is the surrender made: to the text or to the teacher?
The injunction to understand one’s author “as he understood himself” is fundamental to Straussian interpretation, but he never explains what that means—only that it is directed against his chief bugbear, “historicism,” or the belief that old books should be understood according to their historical context. Thus “I have not tried to relate his [Xenophon’s] thought to his ‘historical situation’ because this is not the natural way of reading the work of a wise man and, in addition, Xenophon never indicated that he wanted to be understood that way.”8 Evidently it would be presumptuous for students to criticize “a wise man” on the basis of their own watered-down twentieth-century thoughts. Let them first acquire the wise man’s own understanding of his wisdom.
I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas. As to why, in recent decades, increasingly many puppies should have opted for the joys of surrender, and how the muting of one’s own power of judgment fits into the psychology of conservatism—these are questions for the social scientists whom Strauss despised and abused.9 My task here is to tell readers who are interested in the past, but who do not wish simply to retreat from the present, what happens in the thought-world that Strauss’s writings fashion from his favorite old books.
“One must be swayed by a sincere longing for the past.”10
“…today the truth may be accessible only through certain old books.”11
The leading characters in Strauss’s writing are “the gentlemen” and “the philosopher.” “The gentlemen” come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it: they are not the wealthy as such, then, but those who have “had an opportunity to be brought up in the proper manner.”12 Strauss is scornful of mass education.13 “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”14 Such “gentlemen” are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy.15 They are thus ready to be taken in hand by “the philosopher,” who will teach them the great lesson they need to learn before they join the governing elite.
The name of this lesson is “the limits of politics.” Its content is that a just society is so improbable that one can do nothing to bring it about. In the 1960s this became: a just society is impossible.16 In either case the moral is that “the gentlemen” should rule conservatively, knowing that “the apparently just alternative to aristocracy open or disguised will be permanent revolution, i.e., permanent chaos in which life will be not only poor and short but brutish as well.”17
So who is “the philosopher,” and how does he know that this is the right lesson for “the gentlemen”? He is a wise man, who does not want to rule because his sights are set on higher things.18 His interests, being lofty, are essentially at variance with the interests of society—in both senses of the word “interests.”19 Teaching “the gentlemen” their lesson is the one service to society by which he can justify his remaining aloof from political affairs and protect himself from destruction by the multitude.20 We are assured, however, that “the philosopher” is not likely to be found in a university philosophy department.21
He is not likely to be found in a political science department either. A follower may speak of Strauss as a philosopher, meaning one of those who “bring back reports from regions most of us are not privileged to enter,”22 but Strauss surely included himself when he wrote, “We cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize.” He continues: “This philosophizing consists at any rate primarily and in a way chiefly in listening to the conversation between the great philosophers. . . and therefore in studying the great books.”23 Certainly, neither Strauss nor Straussians engage in the active discussion of central questions of philosophy which is characteristic of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and modern philosophy departments. They confine themselves to the exposition of texts, mainly texts of political philosophy—not, for example, Aristotle’s Physics or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (It would be difficult to start from the assumption that the Aristotelian cosmology is “simply true.”)
When Strauss comes near an abstract argument—for example, the twenty-six-premise demonstration of the existence, incorporeality, and unity of God in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed—he passes by without stopping to examine its logic.24 When he confronts Plato’s most famous metaphysical doctrine, the Theory of Forms, he rapidly pronounces it “utterly incredible,”25 refusing to accept that it must be the basis for any adequate interpretation of the Republic. (So much for starting from the assumption that what one’s author says is true—or could Strauss be so extravagant as to wish to imply that Plato disbelieved his own Theory?)26 There is much talk in Straussian writings about the nature of “the philosopher” but no sign of any knowledge, from the inside, of what it is to be actively involved in philosophy.27 “The philosopher,” in fact, is a construct out of old books: he wrote some of them or, like Socrates, he appears as a character in them.
Thus the answer to the question “How does ‘the philosopher’ know what to teach ‘the gentlemen’?” is very simple. Either he wrote or he has read Plato’s Republic, and Plato’s Republic shows Socrates teaching two “gentlemen,” Glaucon and Adeimantus, to moderate their idealistic ambition to achieve justice on earth. “Certain it is that the Republic supplies the most magnificent cure ever devised for every form of political ambition.”28
It would be a misunderstanding at this point to ask for reasons why we should believe that Plato’s teaching is true. Strauss could not give reasons without appealing to our modern opinions. Instead of giving reasons, he would have us transpose ourselves right back into the ancient world in order to appreciate that we are “the prisoners of our opinions.” First we obey the command to assume that Plato’s teaching is “the truth” and then, from that standpoint, we see the degeneracy of today’s world.29 We look at modern thought through Plato’s eyes and, not surprisingly, we are dismayed. If this is what it means to understand Plato “as he understood himself,” it follows inevitably that the only reasons Strauss can give for believing that Plato’s teaching is true are Plato’s reasons—as Strauss construes them. Exegesis is Strauss’s substitute for argument.
What Strauss can do, and does, is give reasons why we should believe that Plato taught what Strauss says he taught. He undertakes the difficult task of showing that the Republic means the opposite of what it says; that Aristotle read it as Strauss does, and agreed; and finally that the Platonic view of “the political things”30 was maintained, in essentials, by the entire tradition of classical political philosophy (not excluding Aristophanes and Xenophon) through the Stoics and beyond. The rot first sets in with Machiavelli, followed by Hobbes. They rebel against “the classical natural right doctrine” of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Christian thinkers,31 and they start setting the debased goals that modern society has accepted: universal education and the use of science for the relief of man’s estate.32 “We shall have to consider whether that Enlightenment deserves its name or whether its true name is Obfuscation.”33
This picture of the history of political thought explains why so many of the texts that Strauss examines turn out to contain the same story: what “the philosopher” told “the gentlemen.” Straussian history is written to record the unanimous antiegalitarian conservatism of “the classics” and, when he expounds more recent texts, to bemoan the story’s unhappy ending. Not that Strauss ever gives the whole story in one place; much labor is required to disentangle its several elements from his denunciations of modernity and the exegesis of dozens of texts.34 But by the principles of Straussian pedagogy this is as it should be. “The wisdom of the ancients reveals itself only to those who have the proper dispositions.”35
If we now ask whether Strauss’s exegesis achieves the historical exactness at which it avowedly aims,36 we meet a problem. Straussians know that the considered judgment of the scholarly nonStraussian world is that, while Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political thought contains some valuable insights, much of it is a tale full of sound and fury and extraordinary inaccuracies. 37 But Strauss and his followers disdain the canons of ordinary historical scholarship.38 “For even the philology which we use as a tool for the interpretation of ancient thought is based on modern philosophy.”39 Let us therefore ask a different question. What does one have to believe in order to believe that Strauss’s account of “the wisdom of the ancients” is correct?
What one has to believe is that “the considerate few have imperturbably conveyed to their readers an eloquence of articulate silences and pregnant indications.”
“From an outsider’s perspective, a Straussian. . . is someone who reads secular books religiously, Talmudically, cabalistically, but above all perversely.”40
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. Outsiders need not be incredulous when Strauss asserts that there has existed in the past “a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines,” for fear of the intolerance of revealed religion. 41 Save your disbelief for the next claim, that all “the considerate few” practiced the art of writing through hints, indications, and deliberate contradictions. Strauss’s fantastical supposition is that, whether we are dealing with the allusiveness of Machiavelli and other Renaissance writers, or with such literary precautions as we may find in Descartes, Hobbes, or Locke, or with the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, in each case Maimonides’ instructions to his twelfth-century readers will unlock a secret teaching.
Strauss came to Maimonides in search of a solution to the conflict between reason and religion. As a Jewish thinker in the modern world he experienced the conflict within himself. He had worked on Spinoza and his higher (i.e., historical) criticism of the Bible.42 Could Maimonides show him that philosophy and the Jewish tradition were after all compatible? Having, as he thought, discovered that Maimonides said they were but meant they were not, Strauss wrote an introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed which spoke of its secret teaching without fully revealing what it was.43 For he agreed with what he supposed to be Maimonides’ unobvious meaning, that no philosopher can believe in religion but it is most necessary that nonphilosophers do so. Strauss then proceeded, under Maimonides’ guidance, to project the medieval tension between reason and revelation back into antiquity so as to make Plato and Xenophon suffer a “persecution” that no ordinary historian has ever heard of. He went on to find all and sundry “writing between the lines,” so as to convey a secret teaching. He developed for himself a style of writing about the secret teaching of others which would conceal “all crucial things” from any but the most dedicated disciple. The ultimate perfection of this style of writing, the climax of the genre, is the volume under review: Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.
The outsider will think it a nonbook, a mere miscellany of previously published pieces. Despite the title, only two chapters discuss Plato. Thucydides, Xenophon, and Nietzsche are discussed in three others. There are three short notes on Maimonides, two brief reviews, encyclopedia articles on “Natural Law” and “Machiavelli,” and an introduction by Thomas L. Pangle which opens with the statement, “I am certain that I do not have a completely clear understanding of the fundamental intention which guided Strauss in this and all his mature works.”
Initiates will know, of course, that, as Strauss himself put it, “the superficial understanding is not simply wrong, since it grasps the obvious meaning which is as much intended by the author as is the deeper meaning.”44 Initiates should also know how Maimonides would direct them to discover the unobvious meaning.
You start, always, by taking note of the arrangement of the work. (The editor tells us that Strauss gave the book its title and devised the order of pieces a year or two before he died.)45 You count the chapters:46 there are sixteen, if you include the essay on Plato’s Gorgias which Strauss did not live to write. At the halfway point you find Chapter 8, significantly entitled “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil” and containing its own count of Nietzsche’s chapters. You know that Strauss regards Nietzsche as the source of radical historicism.47 For this and other reasons Nietzsche is Respected Enemy Number One. Further clues to the plan of Strauss’s book are waiting in the first and last chapters, which I have not yet mentioned.
The title of Chapter 15, “Introductory Essay for Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism,” contains another title within itself, and one that indicates Respected Enemy Number Two. For initiates know that religion and reason can never marry, that “Jerusalem and Athens” (Strauss’s title for Chapter 7) is the name of a tension that can never be resolved.48 Chapter 1, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Political Philosophy,” contains observations on Husserl and Heidegger, with whom Strauss studied during a postdoctoral year at the University of Freiburg. They stand, in Strauss’s eyes, for modern philosophy: Respected Enemy Number Three. Strauss’s respect for Heidegger is particularly magnanimous, given the intimate connection he discerns between Heidegger’s historicism and his welcoming Hitler’s revolution in 1933.49 It is here, on the second page of Chapter 1 and with reference to Heidegger, that Strauss says, foreshadowing Pangle’s words about himself, that no “outstanding” thinker is adequately understood by his followers or by his critics.
It is now obvious why Chapter 2 is entitled “On Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito.” Socrates is the “outstanding” thinker whom both Nietzsche and Heidegger attacked, and whose trial and execution would be unnecessary in a world where, as Hermann Cohen dreamed, religion and philosophy were reconciled. The book is to be Strauss’s apology for the Platonic Socrates against “modern thought as such.”
The one true philosopher, as uncompromising in his death as in his thought, will serve as the exemplar by which to condemn the many aspects of modern thought that Strauss dislikes. It is by deliberate plan that thirteen chapters of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy do not deal with works by Plato. Initiates know that the history of political thought is the history of Platonic political philosophy. They will perceive the exact place in the master’s plan of Chapter 4, “Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work,” and of the résumé of Strauss’s teaching on natural law in Chapter 6. They will relish the juxtaposition in Chapters 12–13 of the article “Niccolo Machiavelli” with a two-page review of C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Even the two-page “Note on Maimonides’ Treatise on the Art of Logic” (Chapter 11) is pregnant in its silence about, for instance, logic.
This should be enough to indicate, without fully revealing, the unobvious meaning of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. As Pangle says, “Surely it is not unreasonable to expect that in this, the book he likely knew would be his last, he meant to help us discern more sharply the guiding themes that had come to seem most significant to him.” We could read it as Strauss’s epitaph to his life work. The title, the style, the arrangement combine to whisper, to “those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear,” of the “outstanding” contemporary thinker who recovered Plato’s secret teaching and vanquished modern thought.
“Professor Strauss has singlehandedly revived the serious study of ancient political thought and shown that it is not merely an object for historical curiosity but is relevant to our most vital present interests.”50
“We admire the ease with which Farabi invented Platonic speeches.”51
Let us be clear that if Strauss’s interpretation of Plato is wrong, the entire edifice falls to dust. If Plato is the radical Utopian that ordinary scholarship believes him to be,52 there is no such thing as the unanimous conservatism of “the classics”; no such disaster as the loss of ancient wisdom through Machiavelli and Hobbes; no such person as “the philosopher” to tell “the gentlemen” to observe “the limits of politics.” Instead, the “larger horizons behind and beyond” modern thought open onto a debate about the nature and practicability of a just society. Those of us who take philosophy seriously will think that this clash of reasoned views among the ancient philosophers is more relevant to our present interests than the anti-Utopian “teaching” that Strauss has single-handedly invented. So let me try to show that Strauss’s interpretation of Plato is wrong from beginning to end.
His beginning is an inference from literary form. Plato wrote dialogues, dramas in prose. Therefore, the utterances of Socrates or any other character in a Platonic dialogue are like the utterances of Macbeth: they do not necessarily express the thought of the author. Like Shakespeare, “Plato conceals his opinions.”53
The comparison is, of course, woefully inadequate. There are dramas and dramas, and Plato’s distancing of himself from his characters is quite different from Shakespeare’s. It is not through literary insensitivity that readers of the Platonic dialogues, from Aristotle onward, have taken Socrates to be Plato’s spokesman; nor is it, as Strauss imagines, through failure to appreciate that a drama comprises the “deeds” as well as the “speeches” of the characters.
The dramatic action of the Republic, for example, is a sustained exhibition of the power of persuasion. Socrates persuades Glaucon and Adeimantus that justice is essential for the happiness of both city and man. He persuades them that justice can be realized in human society provided three great changes are made in the life of the ruling class. First, the family and private property must be abolished; second, women must be brought out of seclusion and educated to take part in government alongside the men; third, both men and women must have a lengthy training in advanced mathematics and active philosophical discussion (not the reading of old books). He persuades them, moreover, that these changes can be brought about without violence, by the kind of persuasive argument he is using with them.
The proof of the power of persuasion is that in the course of the discussion—this is one of the “deeds” that Plato leaves the observant reader to notice for himself—Glaucon and Adeimantus undertake to participate in the task of persuasion themselves, should the day of Utopia come.54 A significant event, this undertaking, for Glaucon and Adeimantus belong to the aristocratic elite. In Straussian language, they are “gentlemen”: the very people Socrates’ persuasion must be able to win over if he means what he so often says, that a just society is both desirable and practicable.
Thus the “deeds” of the Republic, so far from undercutting Socrates’ utopian speeches, reinforce them. Plato uses the distance between himself and the character of Socrates not to conceal his opinions, but to show their efficacy in action. Any “gentlemen” who read the Republic and identify with Glaucon or Adeimantus should find themselves fired with the ambition to help achieve justice on earth, and convinced that it can be done.
Strauss, of course, wants his “gentlemen” readers to form the opposite conviction, about the Republic and about politics in general. What persuasions can he muster? There is the frail comparison with Shakespeare. There is the consideration that Socrates is a master of irony and “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or of untruthfulness.”55 But to show in detail that Plato means the opposite of what Socrates says, Strauss resorts to a peculiar mode of paraphrase which he evidently learned from the tenth-century Islamic philosopher, Farabi.56
The technique is as follows. You paraphrase the text in tedious detail—or so it appears to the uninitiated reader. Occasionally you remark that a certain statement is not clear; you note that the text is silent about a certain matter; you wonder whether such and such can really be the case. With a series of scarcely perceptible nudges you gradually insinuate that the text is insinuating something quite different from what the words say. Strauss’s description of Farabi describes himself: “There is a great divergence between what Farabi explicitly says and what Plato explicitly says; it is frequently impossible to say where Farabi’s alleged report of Plato’s views ends and his own exposition begins.”57
The drawback with this mode of commenting on a Platonic dialogue is that it presupposes what it seeks to prove, that the dialogue form is designed to convey different meanings to different kinds of readers. 58 If there is a secret meaning, one might concede that Maimonides’ instructions show us how to find it and that Farabi’s mode of commentary is the properly cautious way to pass it on to a new generation of initiates. But Strauss has not yet shown that Plato does conceal his opinions, let alone that they are the opposite of what Socrates explicitly says. Hence his use of techniques adapted from Maimonides and Farabi is a vicious circularity.
It would be tedious to follow up all the perversities, both literary and philosophical, of Strauss’s reading of the Republic. I shall pick on one central statement Strauss makes about the Republic: “The philosophers cannot be persuaded, they can only be compelled to rule the cities.”59
The first half of this sentence is sheer invention on Strauss’s part, as is the word “only” in the second half. The passages that Strauss is paraphrasing speak of compelling the philosophers to rule—by persuasive argument. They do not contrast persuasion with compulsion. Nor do they contain Strauss’s next point, that the philosophers will only be compelled if the nonphilosophers are persuaded—by the philosophers—to compel them. So they lend no support to Strauss’s concluding insinuation that “the just city is not possible because of the philosophers’ unwillingness to rule.”
Such is the manner in which Strauss turns upside down the meaning of the Republic. Socrates is in fact arguing that the just city is possible because of the philosophers’ unwillingness to rule. Willing rulers want to rule because of something they will get out of it, for themselves or for their country. Not so the philosophers of the ideal city: their complete dedication to the higher world of mathematics and active philosophical discussion guarantees that ruling can give them nothing that they value. In place of the partialities that corrupt the rulers we are familiar with, they will put the requirements of impartial justice. Just so, it is the requirements of impartial justice that persuade them to govern in the first place. Nobody else could be so compelled, but these devotees of pure reason are compelled to rule by the force of the reasoned argument which is put to them—not by the nonphilosophers but by the founding fathers of the city, Socrates and his interlocutors. This 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. They will rule for justice’s sake and that alone, to requite a debt rather than because they think it a great good to be in charge of the city.60
All of this, and much more, Strauss paraphrases away in the manner I have illustrated. The crowning insult to the critical intellect is the insinuation that Plato teaches that “the just city is against nature because the equality of the sexes and absolute communism are against nature.”61 This is of course completely opposed to what Plato wrote and Aristotle criticized.62 It is also the point at which Strauss sums up the relevance of the Republic to the politics of today: “The Republic conveys the broadest and deepest analysis of political idealism ever made.”
“Carnes Lord has taught political science at the University of Virginia and has served in the United States government, most recently on the senior staff of the National Security Council. He is the author of Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle.”63
This profile of a pupil of a pupil brings us back to the political dimension of Strauss’s dealings with old books. Strauss believed that civil society must, of necessity, foster warlike habits and make its citizens apply different rules of conduct to one another and to foreigners. The impossibility of international justice was a considerable part of what persuaded him that “the justice which is possible within the city, can only be imperfect or cannot be unquestionably good.”64 But Strauss spent his life extolling what he believed to be “the truth” on the grounds that it is the unanimous “wisdom of the ancients.” Hence something more than an academic quarrel is taking place when Strauss defends his eccentric view that Plato’s Socrates agrees with Xenophon’s in teaching that the just citizen is one who helps his friends and harms his enemies.
Plato’s Socrates attacks this very notion early in the Republic. No matter: Strauss will demonstrate that it is the only definition of justice from Book I which is “entirely preserved” in the remainder of the Republic.65 Plato’s Socrates argues passionately in the Gorgias for a revolutionary morality founded on the thesis that one should not return wrong for wrong. Strauss’s unwritten essay on Plato’s Gorgias would have summoned all his Maimonidean skills to show that Socrates does not mean what he says. Much more is at stake here than the correctness or otherwise of the common scholarly opinion that Xenophon, a military man, was incompetent at philosophy and did not understand Socrates. The real issue is Strauss’s ruthless determination to use these old books to “moderate” that idealistic longing for justice, at home and abroad, which grew in the puppies of America during the years when Strauss was teaching and writing.
May 30, 1985
Joseph Cropsey, ed., Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (Basic Books, 1964), editor’s preface, p. viii. ↩
Lewis A. Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experiences (Yale University Press, 1984), p. 202. ↩
See Toulmin’s article in The New York Review (December 6, 1984), p. 4. ↩
Coser, Refugee Scholars in America: Their Impact and Their Experience, p. 202. ↩
Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Free Press, 1952), p. 36. ↩
For the sweetness, see Allan Bloom’s stunningly seductive appreciation “Leo Strauss September 20, 1899–October 18, 1973,” Political Theory 2 (1974), pp. 372–392, which also gives a very helpful account of the successive phases of Strauss’s thinking and writing. ↩
Werner J. Dannhauser, “Leo Strauss: Becoming Naive Again,” The American Scholar 44 (1974–1975), p. 638. ↩
On Tyranny (Agora Paperback Edition, Cornell University Press, 1963), p. 24. Cf., Persecution, p. 159; Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 33; What is Political Philosophy? (The Free Press, 1959), pp. 66, 101. ↩
Especially in Natural Right and History. Cf., What is Political Philosophy? chapters 1–2; The City and Man (University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 8–12; Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Basic Books, 1968), chapter 8. Strauss’s denunciations of modern social science should be read in the light of the fact that he taught in a department of political science, as do most of his followers. What is at issue in the polemic with his professional colleagues is how such departments are to be conducted. ↩
Leo Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” Review of Metaphysics 5 (1951–1952), p. 576. ↩
Persecution, p. 154. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 113; cf. Liberalism, p. 11. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 38; Liberalism, pp. 63–64. ↩
Liberalism, p. 4. ↩
Natural Right, p. 143; City and Man, pp. 27–28, 37. ↩
City and Man, p. 127; cf. Socrates and Aristophanes (Basic Books, 1966), pp. 279–280, 312. For the earlier version, cf. On Tyranny (first published in 1948), pp. 77–79; Natural Right, pp. 138–139, 151, 199–200, 307; Thoughts on Machiavelli (The Free Press, 1958), pp. 172–173, 296. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 113, where Strauss indicates that when this argument is applied to the present day, it yields his defense of liberal or constitutional democracy—i.e., modern democracy is justified, according to him, if and because it is aristocracy in disguise. Cf. Liberalism, p. 24. ↩
Natural Right, p. 151; What is Political Philosophy? p. 113. ↩
On Tyranny, p. 63; What is Political Philosophy? pp. 221–222; Liberalism, p. 14. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 92–94, 120, 125–126. ↩
Liberalism, p. 7. ↩
Dannhauser, p. 641. ↩
Liberalism, p. 7. ↩
See “How To Begin To Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” introductory essay to Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by S. Pines (University of Chicago Press, 1963). The essay is reprinted in Liberalism, chapter 6. ↩
City and Man, p. 119. ↩
See Strauss’s article “Plato,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy (Rand McNally, second edition, 1972), pp. 43–44. ↩
Strauss’s most extended attempt to construct a philosophical argument of his own is “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History.” ↩
City and Man, p. 65. ↩
“On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” pp. 576, 583. ↩
Straussians always talk this way, of “the political things,” “the human things,” “just things,” and the like. The practice may strike the uninitiated reader as an irritating coyness, but it is in fact modeled on a common idiom of ancient Greek. Since “the classical philosophers see the political things with a freshness and directness which has never been equalled,” and since “they hardly use a single term which is not familiar in the market place” (What is Political Philosophy? pp. 27–28), we should make English speak ancient Greek. This is the Straussian “counterpoison” to the jargon of modern social science. (cf. Liberalism, pp. 5, 206–207, 217–218). ↩
Natural Right, p. 120. ↩
Natural Right, chapter 5; Machiavelli, pp. 296–299; cf, Liberalism, pp. 19–23, 201, 225, 240; Richard Kennington, “René Descartes,” in the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy, pp. 395–414. ↩
Machiavelli, p. 173. ↩
Hence the plethora of references I have had to cite in order to present the story in its naked simplicity. ↩
Allan Bloom, foreword to On Tyranny, p. v. ↩
On Tyranny, pp. 24–27; Persecution, pp. 29–30; What is Political Philosophy? p. 66 ff.; Liberalism, pp. 233–234. ↩
For scathing judgments on parts of Strauss’s work that I have not had occasion to mention, in each case by a scholar much respected in the field, it is worth looking up Terence Irwin’s review of Xenophon’s Socrates (Cornell University Press, 1972) in The Philosophical Review 83 (1974), pp. 409–413; Trevor Saunders’s review of The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws (University of Chicago Press, 1975) in Political Theory 4 (1976), pp. 239–242; and the assessment of Straussian readings of Locke in John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge University Press, 1969), chapter 12. The frustrations that outsiders experience when they try to engage in scholarly discussion with initiates are well illustrated by J. G. A. Pocock’s attempt to debate Strauss’s Machiavelli with Harvey Mansfield in Political Theory 3 (1975), pp. 372–405. ↩
A small but revealing example: “Distrustful of all conventions, however trivial, which are likely to do harm to matters of importance, I went so far as to omit the angular brackets with which modern scholars are in the habit of adorning their citation of certain ancient writings” (On Tyranny, p. 25). What this means is that Strauss simply refuses, without argument, to think it can be legitimate to doubt the authenticity of some of the works which have come down to us under the name of an ancient author (cf. City and Man, p. 55). The more important example, to which this is the prelude, is his refusal (again, no weaker word is adequate) to see the differences between Plato’s and Xenophon’s portrayal of the thought of Socrates. ↩
Bloom, “Leo Strauss,” p. 379. ↩
Dannhauser, pp. 636–637. ↩
Persecution, p. 25. ↩
Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (Schocken, 1965) was first published in German in 1930. ↩
“How To Begin To Study The Guide of the Perplexed“—a very different interpretation of Maimonides from that in Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, chapter 6. ↩
On Tyranny, p. 48. ↩
See the foreword by Joseph Cropsey. p. vii. ↩
Compare Machiavelli, pp. 48–53, “How To Begin To Study The Guide of the Perplexed” in Liberalism, pp. 153, 158–159, 172–173. ↩
Natural Right, pp. 26–28; Studies, pp. 30–33, 148–149. ↩
In the rather less respectful account of Cohen contained in the preface which Strauss wrote for the English translation of Spinoza’s Critique of Religion and reprinted in Liberalism, chapter 9, Cohen earns bad marks for (a) criticizing Spinoza, (b) liberal Judaism, (c) liberal politics. ↩
Studies, p. 30. The hapless Colling wood, by contrast, is dismembered with scorn and derision. Apparently it is unforgivable to have read Croce instead of Nietzsche (“On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History,” pp. 562–563). ↩
Bloom, foreword to On Tyranny, p. v. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 154. ↩
And Strauss himself once believed him to be: The Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis (first published 1936; reissued with a new preface, University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 147–148, 161–164. This book, written and published in England after Strauss left Germany and before he settled in the US, is by common consent his most sensible work. It is also very interesting, and makes useful comparisons between ancient and modern political thought. ↩
City and Man, p. 59. ↩
See Republic 480a, 489a-b, 499e-501e: not noticed by Strauss, nor by Allan Bloom in The Republic of Plato, Translated with Notes and an Interpretive Essay (Basic Books, 1968). Bloom’s Essay is a longer, more explicit, and therefore more vulnerable statement of the Straussian reading of the Republic than chapter 2 of The City and Man, to which it stands (according to Bloom’s acknowledgement in Political Theory 5 , p. 315) as the lower and derivative to the higher. ↩
City and Man, p. 51. Initiates familiar with Strauss’s habit of making English speak ancient Greek will not be astonished by this explanation of irony, which repeats Aristotle’s explanation of the Greek word eironeia. Liberalism Ancient and Modern is founded on the same treatment of the word “liberal” (cf. pp. vii-viii, 28). Never mind that both words have acquired different and richer meanings over time. Swayed by a sincere longing for the past, Strauss would roll back history in speech even if he cannot do it in deed. ↩
See “How Farabi read Plato’s Laws,” chapter 5 of What is Political Philosophy? and Persecution, chapter 1. ↩
What is Political Philosophy? p. 143. ↩
City and Man, pp. 51–53; cf. On Tyranny, p. 26; Persecution, p. 36; What is Political Philosophy? p. 222. ↩
City and Man, p. 124, referring to Republic 499bc, 500d 4–5, 520ad, 521b 7, 539e 2–3. ↩
Republic 520ae. ↩
City and Man, p. 127. ↩
If Strauss’s interpretation were correct, the critique of Plato’s political proposals in Aristotle, Politics II 1–3, would be misconceived from start to finish. ↩
From the dust jacket of Carnes Lord, Aristotle: the Politics, translated and with an introduction, notes, and glossary (University of Chicago Press, 1984). A pupil of Allan Bloom, Lord contributed the translation of Xenophon printed by Strauss in Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the Oeconomicus (Cornell University Press, 1970). ↩
Natural Right, p. 151; cf. Machiavelli, pp. 13–14, 298–299; Liberalism, p. 223. ↩
Natural Right, p. 150 n. 24; City and Man, p. 73. Strauss knew better in The Philosophy of Hobbes, pp. 161–162. ↩