Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?


      This essay appears in Constellations, March 2009 (these are proofs and misleadingly dated)  and is the companion piece to the introduction to Strauss's 1933 letter to Karl Loewith two posts ago.  Gandhi addressed Socrates as the first satyagrahi (he or she who grasps the truth by, if a Hindu, defending to the death a Muslim attacked by a Hindu mob).  In prison in Birmingham, as the essay relates, King recalled Socrates, confined to a cave on a hill near the Acropolis before execution, three times.  As my friend Sudarshan Kapur pointed out to me, this is the only time in King's writings that King adverts to Socrates.  His own experience conjured Socrates' example.  With a few recent exceptions, the resonant connection between civil disobedience or nonviolence and Socrates is elided in most political science discussions of Socrates who is treated, misleadingly, as identical with Plato (or with Straussians, Xenophon).

        Like Socrates's other students, Plato recoiled at Socrates's decision to go to his death, and more so, at the Athenian democracy.  He set up the Academy, a secret school, whose teachings are not for everyone.  It is this that Leo Strauss, a modern day fascist Platonist, and some of his political followers are alert to.  This essay reveals a central aspect of the hidden messages: that a philosopher-tyrant (or a tyrant counseled by a "wise man") rules wisely but without laws.  This idea has been central to the reactionary approach to "states of emergency."  The term neoconservative is innaccurate politically.  Conservatives believe in the rule of law, habeas corpus (that the doors of a court must be open to each arrestee), and the universal outlawing of torture.  Neoconservatives are in fact imperialists and authoritarians, with a strong whiff of fascism in their manipulation of right-wing Evangelicals.  It is time that they are identified by their right names, and that all of us understand why what is decent in the American Constitution has been so threatened, by the last administration and by  Democrats allied with or cowering before Republicans, in the Bush-Cheney era.  In showing journalists around a North Korean prison for two American prisoners, one of the guards said crushingly to a reporter: "We are not Guantanamo."  They speak for the world.  Even North Korea disdains what America has become.         

       Obama seeks to restore the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  But the Washington establishment is all over itself about the exceptionalism of our rulers (we can imprison two million ordinary people but no investigations and no trails must occur for international criminality of the elite).  It will take the effort of every ordinary person who is concerned about this issue to make or permit Obama to be Obama in preventing any future President from again contemplating a regime of torture.

                                                     Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?

     The theme of political philosophy is mankind’s great objectives, freedom and government or empire – objectives which are capable of lifting all men beyond their poor selves.

– Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”

In The Truth about Leo Strauss, Catherine and Michael Zuckert argue that Strauss discovered hidden writings in others – he is “The Man who Gave Away the Secrets” – but did not engage in “esoteric writing” himself.[i] In this essay, I will nominate a candidate esoteric message in Plato and Strauss – the idea that a tyrant becomes the ruler of the best regime and rules, although wisely, tyrannically.

In a May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith, Strauss defends, against Hitler’s anti-Semitism, “the politics of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial.”


Just because the Germany of the Right does not tolerate us [Jews], it does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected. On the contrary, only on the basis of the principles of the Right - fascist, authoritarian, imperial – is it possible in dignified manner, and without the pathetic and childish appeal to `the inalienable rights of man,’ to protest against the mean nonentity.[ii]


Strauss invokes Caesar’s Commentaries on Virgil: under Imperial rule, “spare the subjected and wear down the proud.” So much did “the ancients” mean Rome for Strauss that he passionately and bizarrely affirmed the Jewish ghetto against the “cross of liberalism”:


There is no reason to crawl to the cross, even to the cross of liberalism, as long as anywhere in the world, the spark glimmers of Roman thinking.


In despair, he added:


And moreover, better than any cross is the ghetto.[iii]


None of the four recent defenses of Strauss mention this letter.[iv] But my argument suggests that the sentiment in it inform and are informed by his interpretation of Plato.


The Hiero, the Seventh Letter, and the Statesman

At first glance, Strauss’s 1933 “principles of the Right” cohere with the belligerent, anti-rule-of-law policies visible today in the many Straussian neoconservative advisors to and publicists for the Bush-Cheney administration.[v] I distinguish the political Straussians from other followers of Strauss such as George Anastaplo who opposed the first Gulf War and Bill Galston, Nathan Tarcov, and Michael Zuckert who oppose the current one. The political Straussians appear to oppose Strauss’s best-known judgment. Discussing Plato’s Republic, Strauss seems to affirm Socrates’s question: what is justice? The question transcends local arrangements of power. It seeks the grand and elusive idea of human decency. In contrast, the political Straussians appear to espouse the vision of Socrates’s opponent, Thrasymachus: what we call “justice” is “nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

To unravel this apparent clash, we may turn to William Kristol and Stephen Lenzner’s 2003 essay in the National Interest: “What was Leo Strauss up to?” The authors praise Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero, his first published work in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Nazism. Xenophon was, like Plato, a student of Socrates and a mercenary general for the Persian emperor. In this dialogue, the poet Simonides urges the tyrant Hiero to rule decently but without laws. Strauss names this the tyrannical teaching:


Xenophon’s Socrates [sic – Strauss elides Simonides with Socrates] makes it clear that there is only one sufficient title to rule: only knowledge, and not force and fraud or election, or, we may add, inheritance makes a man a king or a ruler. If this is the case, `constitutional’ rule, derived from elections in particular, is not essentially more legitimate than tyrannical rule, rule derived from force or fraud. Tyrannical rule as well as `constitutional’ rule will be legitimate to the extent to which the tyrant or the `constitutional’ rulers will listen to the counsels of him who `speaks well’ because he `thinks well.’ At any rate, the rule of a tyrant who, after having come to power by means of force and fraud, or after having committed any number of crimes, listens to the suggestions of reasonable men, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to such suggestions, i.e. than the rule of elected magistrates as such.[vi]


Here, Strauss mocks “`constitutional rule’.”[vii] Unlike tyranny, he puts the term in quotes as if there is no such thing. Strauss deprecates democracy as “the rule of elected magistrates as such.” He lauds the tyrant who, “having committed any number of crimes,” listens to a “reasonable man,” that is, a philosopher.[viii] Strauss’s sneering at “constitutionalism” seemingly subverts Plato, with his hope for laws in Syracuse, that “garment of freedom.” [ix] In his 1958 Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss insists: “Xenophon’s Hiero is the classic defense of tyranny by a wise man.”[x]

            In the Seventh Letter, Plato and his student Dion advocate that the tyrant Dionysius the Second adopt a rule of laws. But perhaps Plato thought that such advice was valid only for Syracusan circumstances, or given widespread Athenian criticism of his voyage to counsel the young tyrant, as a misleading public, in Strauss’s idiom exoteric assertion. In fact, Plato asserts in the Seventh Letter that the best regime is the rule of the wise tyrant – a philosopher who rules without laws - but cannot be realized in Syracuse. More strikingly, Plato will not write down what he thinks about legislation, perhaps because his thoughts might be easily misused; a reader will have to figure it out esoterically. Yet Plato wrote The Republic and The Laws the hidden vision of the author refracted through “Socrates” and “the Athenian Stranger” among others. Thus, I will suggest, as one example, the philosopher-king is just an approximation for an unwritten but hinted at tyrant who is aided by a philosopher to rule “wisely,” but lawlessly:


I know indeed that certain others have written about these same subjects; but what manner of men they are not even themselves know. But thus much I can certainly declare concerning all these writers, or prospective writers, who claim to know the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or other teachers, or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my judgment at least, that these men should understand anything about this subject. There does not exist nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing with it. For it does not admit of verbal expression like other studies, but as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion with it, it is brought to birth in the soul of a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.[xi]


Through long studies, the idea arises in a flash, “suddenly.” This mystical account resembles the “sunlike” idea of the good in The Republic which illuminates the noetic universe as the sun brings into sight the physical.

             According to translator and Strauss’s student Allan Bloom, The Republic is a Platonic model for students. Bloom suggests anachronistically that the “city in speech” aims to dissuade students from radical political action:


What then was the use of spending so much time and effort on a city that is impossible? Precisely to show its impossibility. This was not just any city, but one constructed to meet all the demands of justice. Its impossibility demonstrates the impossibility of the actualization of a just regime and hence moderates the moral indignation a man [sic] might experience at the sight of less-than-perfect regimes… If the infinite longing for justice on earth is merely a dream or a prayer, the shedding of blood in its name turns from idealism into criminality. The revolutions of Communism or Fascism[xii] are made in the name of perfect regimes which are to be their consequence…Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we would call utopianism; as such it is the greatest critique of political idealism ever written.[xiii]


But contrary to Bloom, Plato created the Academy to train students secretly for transformative political activity. His acolytes could advise non-Athenian rulers, particularly tyrants. Plato himself sought to convert the young Dionysius to make his regime that of a philosopher-tyrant: “And chiefly I was urged by a sense of shame in my own eyes that I should not always seem to myself a kind of argument pure and simple, never willing to set my hand to anything that was an action.”[xiv] In contrast to German philosophers at the time of Nazism, Americans have been slow to see what any Athenian would have seen – that Plato’s activity, registered in the Seventh Letter provides a central clue for reading his other political works.[xv]

            For instance, in Statesman, the Eleatic Stranger avers the superiority of rule without laws. He suggests that only such a ruler could do justice to each individual:


Eleatic Stranger: There can be no doubt that legislation is in a manner the business of a king, and yet the best thing of all is not that the law should rule, but that a man should rule, supposing him to have wisdom and royal power. Do you see why this is?

Young Socrates: Why?

Stranger: Because the law does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all and therefore cannot enforce what is best. The differences of men and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule…but the law is always striving to make one – like an obstinate and ignorant tyrant.[xvi]


Deceptively, the Stranger indicates that the law is “like a tyrant” to advocate the rule of a philosopher-tyrant.[xvii] Such a king may force the people against their will to his “wise” concerns, including “driving out or murdering some”:


And whether with a view to the public good the [statesmen] purge the city by killing some, or exiling some; whether they reduce the size of the body by sending out from the hive swarms of citizens…while they act according to wisdom and justice…the city over which they rule may be described as the only true city.[xviii]


The political ruler is like a physician, who on the basis of special knowledge wounds in order to cure. But Plato’s analogy avoids the specifics of public life and the even greater importance of informed consent in democratic politics.[xix] As a Platonist, Strauss never acquired a respect for the rule of law. The easy slippage here between “wisdom” and the rule of one without laws is, unfortunately, obvious, even in Plato’s formulation.[xx]

            The Stranger warns of imitators, mere tyrants, who do great harm. Indicting such tyrants is a striking, Platonic cover for licensing a certain kind of tyranny.[xxi] The idea that the best authorities rule without laws – are philosopher-tyrants – and hence, a willingness to abandon the rule of law is a central feature of Strauss’s influence on his political acolytes.[xxii]


How to Do Hidden Readings

Strauss’s Persecution and The Art of Writing suggests that ancient and medieval writers used a “ductus obliquus,” an oblique way, to mislead superficial readers. He pits the hidden meaning of these works against an obvious or exoteric meaning. For Kristol and Lenzner,


An exoteric work is written with the utmost precision. It may come in a variety of forms – dialogue, commentary, and treatise, among others. Its author has at his disposal countless literary devices in order simultaneously to conceal and to reveal his true teaching. These `obtrusively enigmatic features,’ Strauss notes, include `obscurity of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions of earlier expressions, etc.’ To understand an exoteric writing properly, one must connect the literary details with the explicit arguments, a process that often yields unexpected turns to the argument as a whole.[xxiii]


            Straussians, like Nathan Tarcov and Steven Smith sometimes see Strauss as a cautious adherent to American democracy. But even on the surface, Strauss offers few positive remarks about democracy. In the first sentences of Natural Right and History, he seemingly praises the “weight and elevation” of the opening phrase of American Declaration of Independence affirming each person’s inalienable, natural rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These are equal, individual rights. The Declaration’s words, Strauss says, are “immune to the degrading effects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of the misuse which breeds disgust.”[xxiv] But the dazzlingness of the phrase is not equivalent to the truth of the idea.[xxv] Even here, such rights are good for Strauss only in so far as they are instrumental to “power and prosperity”: “The nation dedicated to this proposition has now become, no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth.”[xxvi] By the middle of the book, Strauss asserts his real view: ancient Greek or “classic natural right affirms inequality.”[xxvii] Perhaps his 1933 dismissal to Loewith of “the pathetic and childish inalienable rights of man” reveals the esoteric meaning of his seeming praise for the Declaration.[xxviii]

            To bewilder the superficial reader of Natural Right and History, Strauss writes in the negative. One should read the passage aloud to see how strange – stopping the “careful” reader – and empty, as argument, his writing is:


I shall limit myself to a sketch of that type which was rejected by the classics: egalitarian natural right.

      The doubt of the natural character of both slavery and the division of the human race into distinct political or ethnic groups finds its most simple expression in the thesis that all men are by nature free and equal [i.e. The Declaration of Independence]. Natural freedom and natural equality are inseparable from each other. If all men are by nature free, no one is by nature the superior of any other, and hence by nature all men are equal to each other. If all men are by nature free and equal, it is against nature to treat any man as unfree or unequal; the preservation or restoration of natural freedom or equality is required by natural right [note the repetitiveness of the argument in which Strauss does not believe]. Thus the city appears to be against natural right, for the city stands or falls by inequality or subordination and by the restriction of freedom... [xxix]


The last sentence is but the shadow of an argument. First, different jobs and some hierarchy characterize the “city.” But do such jobs, for example in Plato’s Republic to which Strauss “alludes” (414b-415e), require slavery or the subjection of women? Second, the Greek polis inaugurated public freedom – the equal right to participate in assemblies and juries. A stress on equal liberties also characterizes modern democratic theories, for instance, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Whatever differences exist among individuals, from the point of view of the rule of law and political equality, we are equals. Strauss’s claim - that a free political regime “restricts [natural] freedom” – disagrees, without taking in the argument, with ancient and modern democratic practice and theory.

            Strauss is hostile to the American regime. His On Tyranny sees technology leading “by slow and gentle processes” to “tyranny” here as in the Soviet Union:


We are now brought face to face with a tyranny which holds out the threat of becoming, thanks to `the conquest of nature’ and in particular of human nature what no other tyranny ever became: perpetual and universal. Confronted by the appalling alternative that man, or human thought, must be collectivized either by one stroke and without mercy or else by slow and gentle processes, we are forced to wonder how we could escape from this dilemma.[xxx]


Note that Soviet collectivization murdered large numbers of kulaks. Contra Strauss, no crime is involved in the “slow and gentle processes” which he asserts, without argument, will “lead to tyranny.” Strauss adopts the critique of technology of the “great philosopher” of our time, Martin Heidegger, to decry the American and Soviet regimes as a coming “night of the world.”[xxxi] In startling contrast to other academics who fled the Nazis, Strauss exhibits affection neither for the United States nor the ideal of democracy.


Plato’s Philosopher-Tyranny

One reason why Strauss names himself a “Platonic political philosopher” is that the esoteric activity of Plato’s Academy was to advise tyrants. For instance, according to Plato’s letters as well as Plutarch, Plato’s students Aristotle, Erastus, Coriscus and Xenocrates advised Hermeias, tyrant of Atarneus. Euphraeus counseled Perdicass, whose views Socrates identified in book 1 of The Republic with those of Simonides and Polemarcos (336a).[xxxii] His present and future acolytes could find diverse reasons for philosopher-tyranny spread across different works. Thus, the Seventh Letter and The Republic do not explicitly offer reasons for this conjunction, but The Laws and Statesman do.

            For instance, in Book 4 of The Laws, in the voice of the “Athenian Stranger,” Plato lays out his reasoning for literate strangers as well as present students: by setting an example of virtue, a tyrant can swiftly change the conduct of his subjects.


 Kleinias: Well, how can a man convince himself that he is talking sense in maintaining all this? What arguments are there for it?

 Athenian Stranger: It’s easy enough, surely, to see that the very facts of the case make the argument true…

 Kleinias: How? We don’t understand?...

 Athenian Stranger: …when a tyrant wants to change the morals of a city, he doesn’t need to exert himself very much or spend a lot of time on the job. He simply has to be the first to set out on the road along which he wishes to urge the citizens – whether to the practice of virtue or vice – and give them a complete moral blueprint by setting his own personal example; he must praise and commend some courses of action, and censure others, and in every field of conduct he must see that anyone who disobeys is disgraced.

 Kleinias: And why should we expect the citizens to obey, with such alacrity, a man who combines persuasion with compulsion like that?

 Athenian Stranger: My friends, there’s no quicker or easier way for a city to change its laws than to follow the leadership of those in positions of power; there is no other way now, nor will there be in the future, and we shouldn’t let anyone persuade us to the contrary.[xxxiii]


He suggests that such a possibility will arise only as a difficult contingency, one fostered, as it were, by “the God.”[xxxiv] “’Give me a tyrannized city,’ [the law-giver] will declare, `and let the tyrant be young, possessed of an able memory, a good, learner, courageous and magnificent by nature.’” This tyrant must somehow be “moderate”; since tyranny is an extreme condition, however, moderation is an even more unlikely accompaniment than the other characteristics.[xxxv] Contrary to Strauss’s comment on Xenophon’s Hiero, this tyrant must not have committed “any number of crimes.” Perhaps, however, Strauss openly affirms an idea which is, in Plato, esoteric.[xxxvi]

            As in The Statesman, the Athenian Stranger speaks of the “purges” necessary to sustain the good city. He praises a harsh tyrant who kills for the alleged crime committed by the poor and free of seeking to redistribute wealth:


if the same man were a tyrant as well as a lawgiver he could employ the purges that are basic and best…The best method is painful, like medications of this kind, since it involves punishing with justice and retribution, and completes the retribution with death and exile. This is how the greatest offenders, those who are incurable and who represent the greatest harm to the city, are usually gotten rid of.[xxxvii]


            But even the Stranger questions what he names “justice” here. Perhaps a more “gentle” tyrant could deal with threats from below by exiling the poor as a colony (the remaining citizens would still have slaves to live off). Given what we have now learned about slavery and perhaps exploitation as matters of justice, however, the claim of “justice” invoked by Plato would today be recognized as unjust.[xxxviii] The Stranger speaks more gently, but perhaps more exoterically:


But our method of purification is one of the gentler – something like this: those who, because they lack food, show themselves ready to follow men who lead the have-nots in an attack on the property of the haves will be looked upon as a disease growing within the city; they will be sent away in as gentle a manner as possible, in an expulsion that bears the euphemistic name ‘colonization.’[xxxix]


Note how closely the modern fascist attack on unions, socialists and communists mirrors Plato’s description. The primary conflict in Greek cities, as Aristole emphasized about Sparta, was between the free and helots “waiting in ambush for their masters”; the Stranger describes a secondary conflict between a comparatively small number of free (“the many”) and the wealthy. In a modern capitalist oligarchy, however, the conflict of the rich and a much larger majority of poor and working people takes center stage. As a European “authoritarian” and ignoring such differences, perhaps Strauss adopted these Platonic phrases. [xl] But Plato also calls for the wealthy moderating avarice and abandoning their genuine “poverty”:


The colony founded by the descendants of Heracles…avoided the terrible dangerous strife occasioned by redivision of land, canceling of debts, and redistribution….For this to happen, there must be a continual supply of reformers from among those who possess an abundance of land and many debtors. These reformers must be willing, out of a sense of fairness, to share in some way what they have with any of their debtors who are in distress, forgiving some of the debts and parceling out some of their land. Thus, they bring about a kind of measure and show that they believe poverty consists not in a lessening of one’s property but in an increase of one’s avarice. This is the most important source of a city’s preservation…[xli]


Similarly, Strauss’s May 1933 letter to Loewith invokes Virgil’s comment on the Roman empire: “to spare the subjected and wear down the proud.”

            Alternately, perhaps as an adherent of Schmitt and Heidegger, Strauss imposes an anachronistic fascist politics on Plato. Recognizing the truth in Thrasymachus’s position in book 1 of The Republic, the Athenian Stranger warns that most regimes embody “the interest of the stronger.” (714c) In contrast, however, a good regime involves laws “laid down for the sake of what is common to the whole city.” (715b) If a city survives and prospers, the Stranger applies to the rulers the term “servants of the laws”:


Where the law is itself ruled over and lacks sovereign authority, I see destruction at hand for such a place. But where it is despot over the rulers and the rulers are slaves of the law, there I foresee safety and all the good things which the gods have given to cities. (715d)


Yet Plato’s phrasing – that the law is “despot” over rulers, the rulers “slaves to law” - echoes the criticisms of a rule of law offered by the Eleatic Stranger in The Statesman. Still, Plato seems friendlier to a rule of law as a second-best regime than Strauss or his followers do. In Plato’s best regime, however, mirroring the “city in speech’ in The Republic, laws foster a bizarre uniformity:


That city and that regime are first, and the laws are best, where the old proverb holds as much as possible throughout the whole city: it is said that the things of friends really are common. If this situation exists somewhere now, or if it should ever exist someday – if women are common, and children are common, and every sort of property is common; if every device has been employed to exclude all of what is call the ‘private’ from all aspects of life; if, insofar as possible, a way has been devised to make common somehow the things that are by nature private, such as the eyes and the ears and the hands, so that they seem to see and hear and act in common; if, again, everyone praises and blames in unison, as much as possible delighting in the same things and feeling pain at the same things, if with all their might they delight in laws that aim at making the city come as close as possible to unity – then no one will ever set down a more correct or better definition than this of what constitutes the extreme as regards virtue (739c-d).


Plato makes a tyrannical error about politics that excludes individuality. In Philosophy of Right, Hegel beautifully names the attractions and weaknesses of this vision. Plato imagines a regime of merely substantive freedom, but without individual development, without “self-determination”:


In his Republic, Plato displays the substance of ethical life in its ideal beauty and truth, but he could only deal with the principle of self-subsistent particularity, which in his day had forced its way into Greek ethical life, by setting up in opposition to it his purely substantive state. He absolutely excluded it from his state, even in its very beginnings in private property and the family, as well as in its more mature form as the subjective will, the choice of a social position, and so forth.[xlii]


In his funeral oration to the Athenians, however, Pericles notes a far greater degree of individuality than often exists today:


And we live not only free in the administration of the state, but also one with another void of jealousy touching each other’s daily course of life, not offended at any man for following his own humour, nor casting on any man censorious looks, which though they be no punishment, yet they grieve.[xliii]


Strauss had, however, no sympathy for Pericles. Instead, recalling Strauss’s 1933 invocation of “the Roman spirit,” one might imagine the best regime [cut: of the laws] in modern times as a fascist rule where the masses all praise Il Duce.

            On the Athenian Stranger’s view, the best regime occurs when a tyrant listens to a law-giver or founder (710c-d). Here we see that the philosopher-king of The Republic comes from a tyrant, and remains, with a wise advisor, a certain kind of philosophical-tyrant. One might think here of Dionysius in the Seventh Letter, inheritor of a tyranny, a young man initially of some philosophical inclination. Yet as his experience with Plato proved, Dionysius’s concern for philosophy was show rather than substance.[xliv]

            In The Republic, however, Plato’s “Socrates” overtly depicts tyranny’s horrors even for the tyrant. He speaks metaphorically of a man who, in sacrifices, consumes a morsel of human flesh and becomes a wolf. (565e-566a) The tyrant needs the constant applause of others whom he terrifies, and can never be alone, in his own company (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 7). [IZ2]In a prescient phrase, Plato remarks, the tyrant uses fear and aggression: “The next step, so that the people will always be in need of a leader, is to undertake an ongoing search for pretexts to make war” (566e).[xlv] In despair, as the Myth of Er delineates, he commits the worst crimes:


The man who had drawn the first lot rushed to claim the greatest tyranny as his choice. In consequence, he failed to realize that it fated him to eat his own children and to do and suffer many other horrors as well. Once he realized his plight, he began to beat his breast and bewail the choice that failed to heed the prophet’s admonition. But he did not blame himself for his misfortune. He blamed fate and the gods and everything except himself (619c).[xlvi]


 In the decline of regimes in books 8 and 9, ostensibly driven by social psychology, from philosopher-king to tyranny, Plato implies that there must be a return. Though he offers no explicit argument, a tyrant of some kind must resemble a philosopher-king. As Plato puts it, “consider we know it to be true of every growing thing, whether seedling or flesh, that when it is deprived of the food, climate, or location suitable to its growth, it will suffer the greater damage, the greater its inherent vigor. For evil is a greater enemy of the good than of the ordinary” (491d-e,564a). He also suggests that a potential philosopher is most easily corrupted (488-489c, 492, 572e-573). “Great crimes and systematic wickedness are not the products of half-hearted natures but of the vigorous ones who have been corrupted by their upbringing. Mediocrity will never attain to any great thing, good or evil.” For the esoteric reader, Plato links the potential philosopher by implication to the tyrant: “then the qualities we assumed in the philosopher’s nature will necessarily thrive and mature in all excellence, provided he is properly taught. But if sowing, planting and germination take place in the wrong environment, the contrary outcome must be anticipated – unless some god comes to the rescue.[xlvii][IZ2]

            In Socrates’s case, only his “daimon,” his inner voice, saves him. Others become “great wingless, parasitic, stinged drones,” a potential philosopher a tyrant (564b-c). In addition, to form warrior-guardians, the “city in speech” is tyrannical, requiring the expulsion of all the adults over the age of 10. Echoing The Laws, here too, Plato refers to tyranny as “the fastest and easiest way to benefit [the remaining] citizens.”(541a) In book 5 of the Politics, Aristotle acknowledges the esoteric message:


Again as to tyranny he [Plato, Republic] does not say whether it will undergo revolution or not, nor, if it will, what will be the cause of it, and into what sort of constitution it will change; and the reason for this is that he would not have found it easy to say, for it is irregular; since according to him tyranny ought to change into the first and best constitution, for so the process would be continuous and a circle...[xlviii]


The Republic, however, unintentionally, illustrates the perils of esoteric argument. Plato’s surface argument – that a tyrant is, even to himself, loathsome, a Wildean “Portrait of Dorian Gray” – is vivid. Beneath the surface, Socrates persuades the hungry Glaucon – confronted by an austere city, Glaucon speaks of a “city of pigs” and asks belligerently, “where’s the relish?” (373d-e) – not to become a tyrant.[xlix] Plato answers the Athenian charge that Socrates corrupts the youth. In The Republic, these exoteric claims contradict mute, esoteric pointing. Technically, Plato’s esoteric argument is self-refuting.[l]

            But Strauss’s esotericism differs from Plato’s. Strauss’s commentaries hint at hidden meanings rather than provide arguments of his own. In contrast, Plato’s dialogues offer arguments, including ones which sometimes refute his esoterica. A shadow of Plato, Strauss is but the final, hidden character in his own commentaries. He is a cryptographer, not a philosopher.

            Plato’s experiment in Syracuse also gives the lie to his notion that a tyrant may become a philosopher-ruler. In the Seventh Letter, Plato speaks of Dion, his best student, summoning him to Syracuse to advise a seemingly sympathetic Dionysius. Initially, Plato’s doubts ran deep. Parallel to the voice of “the laws” in the Crito, he speaks movingly of the call of “philosophy” to advise the tyrant:


Suppose he [Dion] should be killed or banished by Dionysius and his other enemies and should come to me in his exile and say, `Here I am, Plato, a fugitive, not because I lacked hoplites or horsemen to ward off my enemies, but only for need of the persuasive words by which, as I well know, you are always able to turn young men towards goodness and justice and make them friends and comrades of one another. This weakness which you could have remedied is the cause of my being here in exile from Syracuse. But my own misfortune is a small part of your dishonor. You are always praising philosophy, and saying she is held in little esteem by the rest of mankind; but in betraying me now have you not, by neglecting this opportunity, also betrayed her? If we had happened to be living in Megara you would certainly have come as a helper in answer to my call, or you would consider yourself the most trifling of men. And now do you think you can escape the charge of cowardice by pleading the length of the journey, the greatness of the voyage and its fatigue? Far from it. (327c-328c)


But Plato could not convince Dionysius. Instead, the latter exiled Dion, and later married Dion’s wife to another. He treated Plato well, but held him a prisoner. Plato’s attempt to shape a philosopher-tyranny failed.

            Plato and Dion urged the rule of laws in Syracuse. Ironically, Dion twice conquered Dionysius, but was then assassinated. Without tyranny, he might have become Plato’s dream of a philosopher-king. Both The Republic’s exoteric argument and Plato’s misadventures in Syracuse contradict Plato’s esoteric thesis that a tyrant becomes a philosopher as well as the conspiracies of would be authoritarians in our time who operate, as Strauss puts it, “Platonically.”[li]


Strauss’ Pointing to the Philosopher-Tyrant

Strauss never speaks directly of the esoteric doctrine of The Republic. In What is Political Philosophy? and Other Essays, however, he “alludes” to it. The middle essay – significant on an esoteric view - is on the Arab Platonist Farabi. At its conclusion, with a unique royal “We,” Strauss expostulates: “We admire the ease with which Farabi invented Platonic speeches.” Farabi’s writing, as Strauss observes, at first seems dull, and then, if one knows Plato’s texts, far-fetched. In contrast, Plato never seems dull; his dialogues are, 2500 years later on, radiant. Strauss modeled his own style on Farabi’s whom he – I must say, amusingly - stretches to assimilate to Plato: “Farabi agreed with Plato certainly to the extent that he, too, presented what he regarded as the truth by means of ambiguous, allusive, misleading, and obscure speech.”[lii]

            For an Islamic audience, Farabi tells the story of a pious ascetic, threatened by a tyrant, who disguises himself as a drunken musician playing a cymbal. When the guard at the city gate asks, “who goes there?” the ascetic slurs: “that pious ascetic you are looking for.” The guard lets him pass. Through appraisal of seeming repetition, Farabi and Strauss suggest, a careful reader will discern the esoteric message.[liii]

            In the middle of the chapter and disguised for the ordinary reader in the midst of seemingly stylistic comments, Strauss offers the following thought:


In the fourth chapter [on book 4 of the Laws], he states what Plato said “when he undertook to explain the subject of tyranny,” while in the fifth chapter [on book 5 of the Laws] he states what Plato said when “he mentioned another useful subject” which he discussed with great terseness; in the first statement tyranny is declared to be good if used for rule over slaves and wicked people, and to be bad if used for rule over free and virtuous men; in the second statement tyranny is said to be indispensable as a prelude to divine laws for two reasons, the first being the need for purging the city of wicked people of a certain kind, and the second reason being the expectation that these wicked people will be a lesson and a warning to the good so that they will accept easily and gladly the laws of those who assimilate themselves to God or gods.[liv]


The first remark “alludes” to the passage cited above from book 4 of The Laws. The second remark is startling. Tyranny is not just possible beneficence, as Strauss understands Xenophon’s Hiero [AG- italics]; rather, it is “said to be indispensable as prelude to divine laws” on the part of a legislator: a philosopher king. That ruler is a tyrant who drives out “wicked people of a certain kind” (does Strauss imply here that a philosopher/tyrant is a wicked person of another kind?). Perhaps this is an esoteric meaning of the Strauss/Schmitt “theological-political problem.”[lv]

            In book 5, the Athenian Stranger speaks of purges. Strauss does not draw out this idea in the laws, but returns instead to the tyrannical purge – the driving out of those over 10 years of age - of the “city in speech” in The Republic. Strauss’s previous chapter “A Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” identifies the danger posed by “the wise” to “the unwise”:

The unwise are very unlikely to force the wise to rule over them. For the wise cannot rule as wise if they do not have absolute power or if they are in any way responsible to the unwise. No broil in which the unwise may find themselves could be great enough to induce them to surrender absolute control to the wise whose first measure would probably be to expel everyone above the age of ten from the city (Plato, Republic, 540d-541a).[lvi]


Note the abrogation of a common good – the centerpiece of Greek political thought – by Strauss: the so-called wise “cannot rule as wise…if they are in any way responsible to the unwise.” This is Strauss’s tyrannical “teaching” that the rest of us are tools of supposed philosophers. But perhaps Strauss misspoke himself here. In Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss suggests:


We are led to conclude that the primary distinction between public-spirited virtue and selfish ambition is irrelevant since selfish ambition on the broadest scale can be satisfied only by action from which many people profit.[lvii]


Even so, the philosopher-king drives away or kills many of the “unwise”. But the “unwise” are not “the wicked” or even criminal. This expulsion of innocents, Strauss suggests, will cow “the good” into accepting “the laws of those who assimilate themselves to God or gods.”

 Contrary to Strauss, Plato endorsed a common good. Otherwise, however, Strauss conjures a Platonic legislator, echoed in later political thought by Machiavelli and Rousseau. This legislator must, Strauss underlines, do blatant injustice, and invoke spurious religious appeals to put over his ostensibly “beneficial” – though “in no way responsible to the unwise”[lviii] - laws. The tyranny of The Republic’s “city in speech” even involves eugenic breeding of “heroes” and the putting to death of children “born out of season.” (460b-c) Idealizing Sparta, however, Plato was comparatively innocent. Strauss published these words in 1959, long after Nazi crimes of genocide, including breeding programs - Lebensborn - and the slaughter of Jewish, Polish, Roma and “defective” Aryan children had been revealed.[lix]

            Strauss refers the neophyte crytographer to Plato’s concealed message in The Republic as well as his overt message in The Laws.[lx] This is initiation into a sect, with different levels of meaning for different initiates, in which one speaks only to fellow sect members, self-reinforcing. One becomes a lover of tyranny or, in today’s idiom, extralegal “executive” or “commander-in-chief power,” not through argument but through persuasion that the authorities – the great Plato, the great “Mr. Strauss,” other Straussians – esoterically say so.[lxi] For instance, does William Kristol, who celebrated the Congressional “legalization” of torture as a Republican election strategy for 2006 – without moral comment and, thus, endorsing torture – have an argument for this attempt to destroy the Constitution?[lxii]

            In this context, one should read aloud several times Strauss’s definition of political philosophy from the opening chapter of What is Political Philosophy: “The theme of political philosophy is mankind’s great objectives, freedom and government or empire – objectives which are capable of lifting all men beyond their poor selves.”[lxiii]Or empire” – the “freedom of some” is consistent in Strauss only with the domination of large numbers of others. “Or empire” - this “freedom” is, as Thucydides suggests, likely to be eroded through empire (but then, Strauss does not mean democracy: the equal freedom of citizens which he neither understood nor liked).[lxiv] What does the term “freedom” here mean for Leo Strauss? [lxv]Or empire” – this phrase echoes the 1933 letter to Loewith: “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” [lxvi]

            Contra Strauss, “empire” is not the aim of Plato’s “city in speech,” a lean, quasi-Spartan city which preys, with the “big dogs,” on others. Perhaps “empire” is the second best city, on Strauss’s account. Or perhaps What is Political Philosophy? “alludes” to authors and regimes, but is not an argument.


Plato’s Divergence from Socrates

 Plato was horrified by Athens’s murder of Socrates. His politics conflict – sometimes markedly – with Socrates’s. For instance, in the Crito (54d), Socrates goes to his death with the voice of The laws of Athens murmuring overpoweringly in his ear as the Corybants – the followers of the mystery religions – “hear the pipes.”[lxvii] He would not give up philosophy. By a narrow vote, Athenians condemned him. He would honor the idea of democratic laws. In contrast, the satire of democracy as an overly free regime which engenders tyranny in book 8 of The Republic could not have accompanied Socrates to his death. In the tension between the two texts, Plato emerges against Socrates.

            In “The Apology of Socrates and the Crito,” however, Strauss argues that Plato’s “Socrates” is consistent across these dialogues. What Socrates likes in Athens according to Strauss is not its laws, but its freedom which permits him to practice philosophy:


the Laws conclude their reasoning about the justice of Socrates running away by emphasizing again that in doing so he would break his covenants with them – covenants into which he entered under no compulsion whatever and which therefore were just – they do not say that the Laws themselves are just – and that he was pleased with the Laws. The latter fact is all the more remarkable since, as they mention now, he was in the habit of saying of Sparta and Crete (what he apparently did not say of Athens) that they are well-governed and have good laws; although he had no desire to know other cities and other laws, he nevertheless knew at least some of them. His hardly ever leaving Athens proves that the city pleases him and hence the Laws: for whom could a city without laws please? That no city which has no laws can please obviously does not prove that the pleasing city must have pleasing laws; a city may have other attractions than its laws; this is what Socrates meant when he made the laws emphasize that no law prevented him from moving to another city. (One finds an extensive statement of Socrates’s view of Athens’ attractions and of her laws in his description of the democracy in the eighth book of The Republic.)[lxviii]


            But the democratic laws of Athens are precisely what permit each, in Pericles’ words, to pursue individual activities without casting “censorious looks” on one another so long as citizens also come together for the common good. The laws uphold equal freedom for each person. Concurring too easily with Plato, Strauss, once again, misses this central point in democratic theory. His error flows from his affection for the rule of a philosopher-tyrant without laws. In addition, Strauss makes a false inference: that “the pleasing city” does not have the best laws does not mean that it lacks good ones.[lxix] Further, a city that permits Socrates to practice philosophy might contribute to a good life in a more central way than “pleasure.” Thus, Strauss adopts the satire offered by Plato’s “Socrates” in The Republic so literally that he misses important possibilities.

            Moreover, Strauss notices that in The Laws, Plato conjures an Athenian Stranger usefully engaged with a Spartan and Cretan lawgiver. The Stranger was a possible Socrates who lived. Why does Strauss assume that the words of “Socrates” in Plato’s Republic, let alone the Stranger’s, must be consistent with the words of Socrates near his death? That they were all authored by Plato neglects the facts that Socrates’ death horrified Plato, that Plato founded the Academy and removed philosophy from the democracy whereas Socrates questioned people in the agora or by the temple, that Socrates avoided politics but Plato and his students advised tyrants, that Plato, as he aged, disagreed sometimes profoundly with Socrates, and that he might have imagined different - in this case, contradictory things – at different times. Socrates was a questioner and an Athenian citizen; in contrast, in the hope of nurturing philosopher-tyrants, Plato and his students conversed privately and advised tyrants in other cities.

 Let us place ourselves, in so far as we can, in Socrates’s situation; his cheerfulness about and wonder at dying are perhaps unique. Strauss rightly asserts that the speech of the laws which silences Crito appeals mainly and contingently – Socrates is, after all, 70 years old – to practical considerations.


Deeds are more trustworthy than speeches: Socrates did stay in prison, he chose to stay, he had a logos telling him to stay. But is this logos identical with the logos by which he persuades Kriton? We have indicated why this is not likely. There are then two different logoi leading to the same conclusion. The logos which convinces Socrates would not convince Kriton and vice-versa. Kriton is concerned above all with what the people of Athens will say if he has not helped Socrates to escape prison; what Socrates tells Kriton, Kriton can and will tell the people.[lxx]


But the esoteric reasons which convince Socrates are stated by neither Socrates nor, despite hints, by Strauss. Even that logos, murmuring in Socrates’ ears, as the Corybants hear the pipes, still needs to convince him that choosing an unjust death at that time is, for him, the right course.

            As a European Rightist, Strauss paid little attention to civil disobedience. He recognizes that Socrates refused to give up philosophy: “But precisely Socrates had touched on the question as to whether he would or could obey a law forbidding him, explicitly or implicitly to philosophize, i.e. to be truly concerned with virtue, and he said that he would not (Apology of Socrates 29c6-d5).” [lxxi] He ignores the thought, common to Socrates and Gandhi, that “it is better to suffer injustice than ever to do it.” Yet that idea excludes a politics which is “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” Further, that Socrates committed the “crime” of questioning and was willing to pay the legal price – even though that price was death – eludes Strauss.[lxxii] Instead, Strauss downplays the fact that Socrates continues to do what he thinks right – practice philosophy – and that he acts on his own decisions, whatever the physical threat.[lxxiii] Instead, Strauss depicts Socrates as almost merely obedient to the laws.


Hobbes committed a grave exaggeration which he accused Socrates and his followers of being anarchists. The truth underlying that exaggeration is the fact that Socrates did not think there could be an unqualified duty to obey the laws. But this did not prevent him from thinking, nay, it enabled him to think that the demand for such obedience is a wise rule of thumb as distinguished from an unqualifiedly valid law.[lxxiv]


 As a conclusion to an essay on the Crito, Strauss’s “rule of thumb” obscures Socrates’s decision to die, one which threw all of his students into despair and incomprehension. For Strauss, Socrates affirms a provisional allegiance to laws which permit him to practice philosophy. But obeying the laws in this case means dying and hence, no longer practicing philosophy unless “the stories about Hades are true.”[lxxv] Strauss offers his general – but in this instance obviously inappropriate nostrum– about the relation of the wise to laws: appear to obey the laws “provisionally” (and, esoterically, gradually move them in an authoritarian direction).[lxxvi] In contrast, Socrates is here, in a Heideggerian way, “authentically towards his own death.”[lxxvii] Here, Socrates hears a logos of the democratic laws speaking with overpowering, mystical force.

            Amusingly, Strauss is also too literal about the debilities of the democratic laws which he, oddly, does not understand as a Platonic idea. Claiming “the Laws” are “superhuman” – the latter is not Plato’s term – Strauss insists:


No Athenian, the Laws continue, made the agreement with the Laws in deed to such a singular degree as Socrates, for he hardly ever left Athens, he never even desired to know another city or other laws but the Laws and the city sufficed him; he showed by deed that the city pleased him. This reasoning of the Laws may explain why they are silent on Socrates’ ever having attempted to persuade the Laws to change their course although he knew that they were defective in at least one important respect (Apology of Socrates 37a7-b1), for he could not have done this without engaging in political activity and as the Laws doubtless knew, his daimonion prevented this (ibid, 31c4-c6); the laws are silent on this point because spelling out what persuading the Laws means would not be compatible with the hypothesis of their superhuman status.[lxxviii]


            One may agree with Strauss that Socrates hears the voice of the laws differently from Crito. He is much further along a path of arguments. Nonetheless, Socrates hears the murmur of the laws with such overpowering force that he says to Crito for the only time: ask and we will go further along the path, but you will not convince me. He is sure of the force of the logos. But no such force obtains from treating the Laws comically as “superhuman,” likening Crito accurately to Cephalos,[lxxix] or alluding to the satire of democratic laws in The Republic.

            A Platonist might still imagine that somehow Socrates’s allegiance to the laws in the Crito was ironic. After all, Socrates’s death – as Plato saw – would bring democracy into disrepute for centuries.[lxxx] But Socrates’s relationship to the laws was not instrumental. A man of 70 who had dwelt in Athens, Socrates followed his inner voice. He did the right thing in an inherent relation to the idea of democratic laws and acquiesced in the unjust sentence of men.

            Strauss avoids the shock at Socrates’s decision which stunned his acolytes. Instead, he prefers Plato. Against Socrates, Plato imagined reasons for surviving. Thus, The Laws invokes an “Athenian Stranger” – Socrates and not Socrates – to converse with lawgivers from Crete and Sparta. But The Republic`s and Laws’ admiration for a quasi-Spartan and tyrannical “city in speech” is that of Plato alone. It was not that of Chaerophon, a democrat who also studied with Socrates. Chaerophon asks the oracle at Delphi: what man is the wisest? The oracle replies: “Socrates.” But Socrates knew that his wisdom was “merely human.” He found the God’s response puzzling. He began to question those who think they are wise and are not.[lxxxi] In the civil wars which had riven Greece, Socrates sought to avoid the murderousness of public opinion. He did not avow opinions about justice. Instead, he averred that he did not know fully what justice is. He asked questions.[lxxxii] Contra, Plato, it is doubtful that he expounded a doctrine of philosopher-tyranny.


King versus Strauss

On charges of “blasphemy” and “corrupting the youth,” Athens, tragically, tried and murdered Socrates. Strauss adores Xenophon’s account of Socrates’s defense at his trial. According to Xenophon, Socrates sneered at the Athenian jurors and drove them to execute him. The old man committed a strange form of suicide. That presumably is the esoteric logos Strauss refers to in Crito. Serving as a mercenary to the Persian emperor, Xenophon was not present at the trial.[lxxxiii] He had listened to a report of Hermogenes. Xenophon was baffled by Socrates, and sought to explain him away. In contrast, in Plato’s Apology – Plato had listened at the trial - Socrates spoke out of who he was.

            In his opening paragraph, Xenophon uses the Greek term megalegoria – “big speech” or “loftiness” - three times. Others have recorded, he suggests,

the loftiness of [Socrates’] words – a fact which proves that his utterance really was of the character intimated – but they have not shown clearly that he had now come to the conclusion that for him death was more to be desired than life; and hence his lofty utterance appears rather ill-considered.[lxxxiv]


            In Plato’s Apology, Socrates offers a style of questioning. He refuses to “arm” leaders with opinions about justice with which they might rationalize slitting their opponents’ throats. On Plato’s account, Socrates twice stands out against the unjust demands of Athenians, as democrats and as servants of the Tyranny of the Thirty, to put people to death (31c-33a). Like a later civil disobedient, it is particular acts of justice, not “big opinions,” that Socrates offers. In defense of the rule of law, he violated unjust commands. Not Xenophon as a “man of action” but Martin Luther King and Gandhi – those of another kind of public action - understood Socrates.

            King’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail best captures this spirit: “we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community” (with Socrates, one might add, before humankind). In a few pages scrawled on a newspaper in a prison cell, King invokes Socrates three times. Perhaps for King, being in jail – and in a stage of bewilderment about what to do strategically except get arrested – called Socrates to mind intensely.[lxxxv]  Against complacent white ministers who denounced him as an “outside agitator,” King responds:


In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?[lxxxvi]


            King analogizes the nonviolence of the movement against segregation to Socrates’s image of a gadfly irritating a great horse:


Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men [and women] to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.[lxxxvii]


Finally, he speaks of resistance from below to great injustices:


Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience... It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. [lxxxviii]


            At the February 7, 2006 memorial service for Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, former President Jimmy Carter named King: “the greatest leader that my native state [Georgia] and perhaps my native country have ever produced.” King and Gandhi, I suspect, understood Socrates and human potentials for dissent, a decent regime and even human survival on this planet more deeply than Strauss and his political followers.


[i] citationCatherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[ii] Strauss to Loewith, May 19, 1933, Gesammelte Schriften ed. Heinrich Meier (Stuttgart : J.B. Metzler, 1996) 3:624-5; republished in this volume.



[iii] Strauss to Loewith, May 19, 1933 in Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:624-5.Ibid. In letters and lectures as opposed to public or “exoteric” writings, Strauss sometimes directly spoke his mind. With the Nazis just come to power, with the fresh betrayals of his heroes, Heidegger and Schmitt, Strauss spoke more clearly here than elsewhere.

[iv] citation

[v] Heinrich Meier, Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem, (Cambridge University Press, 2006),, p. xix, suggests that a temporary “odium” has fallen over Strauss’s views because of this connection.

[vi] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1963), 76

[vii] Exoterically, Lenzner and Kristol suggest that Strauss had affection for “constitutionalism.” Instead, Strauss refined Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996) – an “enemy” and not law is the heart of politics – and ironically, brought Schmitt’s [AG -replace his]his authoritarianism, minus his vehement anti-Ssemitism, to the United States. See, Alan Gilbert, “Enmity and Tyranny,” Nomos, 2008 forthcoming.

[viii] For the “esoteric” reader, Strauss strengthens through repetition the emphasis in this phrase from the previous page’s: “having committed a considerable number of crimes.” Strauss, On Tyranny, pp. 74-75.

[ix] Strauss emphasizes variation within repetition.   His Thoughts of Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 83, he invokes the same thought more openly: “This intimation [that Machiavelli is a founder/prince] will appear strange only to those who lack familiarity with Xenophon or Plato; he who knows the art of ruling is more truly a ruler than men who rule merely by virtue of inheritance or force or fraud or election by people who know nothing of the art of ruling.”

[x] Ibid., p. 291. Aristotle’s Politics, CITATION book, 5, 1314a-1315b, mirrors Xenophon’s Hiero. For instance, “For the result of these methods must be that not only the tyrant’s rule will be more honorable and more enviable because he will rule nobler subjects and not men that have been humiliated, and will not be continually hated and feared, but also that his rule will endure longer, and moreover that he himself in his personal character will be nobly disposed towards virtue…”

[xi] CITATION 341c-d. All subsequent Plato references appear in parentheses.

[xii] Bloom is unaware of Strauss’s hopes in fascism. Contra Bloom, the end does not justify the means simply; even “idealistic” shedding of blood, unless those killed committed crimes, tinges a movement with criminality. One might think carefully about nonviolence…

[xiii] Bloom’s translation of Plato, Republic transl. Allan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 408-10. In contrast, Stanley Rosen, aptly says: “In sum the RepublicThe Republic is on my view more an unsuccessful catharsis on the philosophical compulsion to rule than a satire on the excessive pursuit of justice…When philosophy seeks to bend the city to its will, it turns inevitably into ideology and tyranny.” Plato’s Republic. (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 9.

[xiv] Plato, Seventh Letter, 327c-328c. . Strauss does not directly comment on the Seventh Letter. CITATION

[xv] Rosen, 2006, p. 9 asks: “Who or what compelled Plato to make repeated efforts to establish a philosophical city in Sicily at the urging of Dion and Dionysius?” Rosen, Plato’s Republic, 9.

[xvi] CITATION (294a-b)

[xvii] The Stranger’s argument rightly prefigures the judicial distinction between trial for violation of general, impersonal laws and sentencing which takes into account particular circumstances. The dream that a wise leader might rule a large modern state without laws is hopeless.

[xviii] Ibid., (293c-d)

[xix] Even physicians rely on the consent, hopefully informed, of their clients. In  the Lawsthe Laws, Plato gestures at this point through his emphasis on proeemia – preludes – which provide reasons.

[xx] Exoterically and repeatedly, Thomas Pangle, Leo Strauss: an Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006),, p. 3, 43 refers to Strauss’s “self-definition as a Socratic” and advocate of a “classical republican tradition.” Socrates did not participate in politics or found a school. Strauss, however, named himself a “Platonic political philosopher”; Plato worked for the rule of a philosopher-king/tyrant and founded the Academy. Strauss did not invoke Pangle’s names.s…

[xxi] Jacob Klein, Strauss’s friend and equal defended the view against Strauss that philosophers must, in the end, be moral. “A Giving of Accounts,” St. Johns College, 1973. In Plato’s Trilogy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 183-95, however, Klein praises the idea of rule without laws, including unjust violence, at considerable length.   

[xxii] Steven Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 137 poses the right questions about On Tyranny: “The question left hanging by the end of the commentary is why Strauss devotes an entire book intended to lay bare the roots of modern tyranny to the examination of an ancient work that appears to conclude with the praise of `beneficent’ tyranny. This hardly seems like condemnation, much less identifying a political cancer for what it is…Is the proper role of the philosopher that of an adviser to tyrants – consider Seneca’s role in the court of Nero – rather than a rebel or social critic seeking to overthrow the conditions of tyranny? If the creation of a reformed tyranny is merely utopian or theoretical, what function is it intended to play in the dialogue?” Unfortunately, Smith fails to return to these questions.

[xxiii] Lenzner and Kristol, op. cit., pp.TITLE 31-32.


[xxv] In “What is Political Philosophy?” p. 38, he Strauss suggests that a Heideggerian observer from a star might see little difference between democracy and communism, except “the doubtless very important question of civil and political liberties.” This is his best point and almost – not read strongly esoterically – suggests a criticism of the relentless Bush-Cheney attack on habeas corpus. What is Political Philosophy and Other Essays (Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1959), 34.


[xxvii] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953), p. 118.

[xxviii] In his posthumously published “Thucydides: the Meaning of Political History,” Strauss speaks of “the life of politics as it actually is, i.e. not the principles of the Declaration of IndependenceDeclaration of Independence but the operation of the principles which were operative in the Louisiana Purchase – ‘power politics’ in its harsh grandeur.” Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989), p. 75.

[xxix] Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 118.

[xxx] Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 27.

[xxxi] Strauss, “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism,” p. 42. Here he fears also the absolute triumph of “urban life.”   Strauss looked to a national socialism – “Zionism” – realized as it were in a flowering desert. His 19576 critique of the anti-Ssemitism of the National Review– one which admirably shifted the American right on this issue, though, sadly, not away from other forms of racism notably “Orientalism” toward Arabs – even expresses an admiration for an independent judiciary.

[xxxii] “To help friends and injure enemies.” Or perhaps this Perdicass is a son of the tyrant Socrates invokes. Plutarch names other members of the Academy who legislated or counseled rulers, some of them tyrants.

[xxxiii] Plato, The Laws, 709e-712a.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 709a-c, 712a.

[xxxv] Ibid., 709e-710a.

[xxxvi] In Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 293, Strauss insists:

  In this point [that tyranny is essential to founding a good society] as in others of the same character, Machiavelli is closer to Plato than to Aristotle. Plato does not hesitate to make the founder of a good society, the wise legislator, demand that he be supported by a tyrant.”

[xxxvii] Plato, The Statesman, 735d-e.

[xxxviii] Gilbert, Democratic Individuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), ch. 1. In Meno, Socrates challenges the central justification of slavery; putatively, that among humans some are minds and others are bodies. Under questioning, a slave proves an advanced theorem of Euclidean geometry. Socrates maintains that he – and all of us equally – have these ideas from eternity and can reawaken them through questioning. Even Plato’s hierarchical “city in speech” lacks slavery. Modern abolitionism concurs with Socrates’s insight.

[xxxix] Plato, The Statesman, 735e-736a.

[xl] In conversation (8/31/07), Thomas Pangle rightly pointed out that Plato’s idea prefigures all revolutionary movements against oppression. But Strauss adopted it from the Right.

[xli] Ibid., 736c-e.

[xlii] Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945), paragraph para. 185, 279.

[xliii] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Thomas Hobbes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 2.38.1.

[xliv] Plutarch’s “Dion” describes Dionysius as initially entranced with the wise Plato.

[xlv] Bush’s aggression in Iraq and plans for Iran illustrate this point. Gilbert, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), introduction, chaps. 4-5.

[xlvi] Perhaps he thinks of Cephalos here. The phrase “the greatest tyranny” may suggest, to an esoteric reader, that lesser tyrants have other possibilities.

[xlvii] Among those in a “wrong environment,” one might think of Heidegger and Strauss.

[xlviii] Aristotle, Politics, 1316a27-32. In the Chicago transcript of his fall, 1967 course on the Politics, (lecture XII), Strauss comments on this passage:

   The last point is of course, especially interesting. Does it stop when it has reached the bottom? Tyranny. Or does it not by a kind of rejuvenation, almost miraculous rejuvenation, have a new kingship emerge out of the tyranny. The question is posed by Plato, but is not answered there.

The transcriber mishears “imposed.” The answer to the problem Plato “poses,” hinted at by Strauss’s comment, is that a tyrant becomes a “philosopher-king” – Strauss carefully says “king” for students and drops philosopher – who rules without laws.

[xlix] One might speak with Strauss of “The Action and Argument of Plato’s Republic.” STILL A REFERENCE TO THE TRANSCRIPT?

[l] Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch. 1. Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 4.

[li] Nathan Tarcov, Catherine Zuckert, and Timothy Fuler emphasize a realist element in Strauss’s previously unpublished World War II lectures. He did not think a “crusade” by outsiders to “reeducate Germany” would work. This thought might flow from his contrast of Plato who thought the rule of a philosopher-tyrant depended heavily on “chance” and Machiavelli, who thought a wise prince might “force” fortune. But in today’s circumstances, “Platonism” might still discourage affection for the rule of law.

[lii] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, and other Essays (Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1959), pp. 154, 145,

[liii] Ibid., pp. 135-36.

[liv] Ibid.,, pp. 141-42.

[lv] As Strauss and Meier exoterically present the issue, philosophy and revelation both begin from an unprovable starting point. But this is true of induction generally. That perspectives begin from what is unprovable does not mean that the arguments, explaining the visible, are equally plausible. In any case, why isn’t this the “theological-philosophical problem”?

[lvi] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, p. 112. For the cognoscenti, his fifth chapter on Farabi builds on the depiction of Xenophon from his 1948 On Tyranny.

[lvii] Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 44.

[lviii] Acting wisely, a statesman might benefit others – and thus act responsibly towards those who did not originally see the virtue in what he does. Strauss’s phrase – “in no way” - rules out this possibility. The distance from Rousseau could not be greater.

[lix]   Stephen L. Chorover, From Genesis to Genocide (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975), pp. 96-100. Nazi philosophers celebrated the “philosopher-king.” Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 160. Heidegger not only named himself “Rektor-Fuehrer” of Freiburg, but saw himself as the philosopher to the tyrant, and after 1934, as the proponent of a “true National-Socialism.”

[lx] Strauss, The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1973), pp. 56-57.

[lxi] As with Plato, Strauss’s esoteric meanings are to be elicited by the future from his writings. As Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theological- Political Problem, 2006, p. xix, Meier puts it, “The founding of the school will be successful only if the teacher adapts his oral teaching to his students’ ability to understand. It is very likely that he will entrust his farthest-reaching reflections, his most profound thoughts, and his most challenging considerations to his carefully written books. Members of a school, however, are inclined to value the oral tradition more highly. They tend to overestimate or to regard as absolutely indispensable what for them was of enormous significance.” Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theological- Political Problem, xix.

[lxii] Kristol, “The Trap,” The Weekly Standard, September 18, 2006.

[lxiii] Strauss, What is Political Philosophy, and other essays, p. 10. Strauss echoes the thought “mankind’s great objectives…freedom and empire are legitimate objects of admiration” in his posthumously published essay on “Thucydides” in Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, pp., 73-74.

[lxiv] Contrast Gilbert, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?. In The City and Man, p. 199, 199, CITATION Strauss misinterprets Thucydides’s History as recommending that if Alcibiades had commanded the Sicilian expedition, the Athenians would have won, and condemning the demos for driving him out.

[lxv] “Lifting men beyond their poor selves” – the more attractive insights of Jewish prophecy, which Strauss grew up on and could not quite believe, make a brief, if perverse appearance here.

[lxvi] On January 16, 1934, Strauss wrote to Kojeve: “The most important fact: I saw Downing Street, the seat of the greatest power of the world – much much smaller than the Wilhelmstrasse. I had a very strong impression.” On Tyranny, p. 223.

[lxvii] Plato, Crito, EDITION 54d.

[lxviii] Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, p. 64.

[lxix] Consider the Athenian Stranger’s discussion of drinking parties in book 1 of  the Lawsthe Laws.

[lxx] Studies, p. 66.

[lxxi] StudiesIbid., p. 62.

[lxxii] Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement made no impression on Strauss, nor did Thoreau. Playing a central role in the translation of Strauss into an American idiom, Herbert Storing admired the anti-racism of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. He dismissed King and civil disobedience as “unmanly.” Yet King dared death from the first bombings of his apartment in Montgomery until his assassination. Pangle, Leo Strauss, 2006, p. 110 praises King.

[lxxiii] This is the point of the opening of  the RepublicThe Republic.

[lxxiv] Studies, p. 66.

[lxxv] For Strauss, philosophers are atheists.

[lxxvi] Strauss invokes Farabi’s interpretation of Plato: “As an example of this, he mentioned the Athenians (his own people) and their ways of life. He described how to abolish their laws and how to turn them away from them. He described his view regarding the way in which they could be moved gradually, and he described the opinions and  the lawsthe laws toward which they should be moved after the abolition of their ways of life and laws.” Al-Farabi, The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, lines 22, 19- 23, 10.

[lxxvii] CITATION

[lxxviii]   Studies, p. 63. The lawsthe laws allow only one day for a trial. With more time, Socrates imagined, he could have persuaded a majority…

[lxxix] StudiesIbid., p. 62. Strauss’s following essay ”On the Euthydemus” has the single purpose of mocking Crito, of likening his thinking to that other father, Cephalos. But is Socrates’s old friend, who comes to him at the last and believes in logoi just the same as Cephalos?

[lxxx] Apology, 38c. Strauss, Xenophon’s Socrates,  p. 138.

[lxxxi] Interestingly, Plato offers dialogues entitled Critias and Charmides, his relatives who joined the Tyranny of the Thirty, but no Chaerophon. Strauss,p.  WHERE?p. 52, mocks Socrates’s idea of human wisdom in the Apology without offering reasons. “One could say of course that in dreamless sleep one does not believe that one knows what one does not know and is therefore in possession of that human wisdom that is little or nothing worth.”

[lxxxii] Alan Gilbert, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4.

[lxxxiii] See Strauss’s central essay in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (should it have been called more accurately: Studies in Xenophonian Political Philosophy?) on “Xenophon’s Anabasis” which elaborates on Xenophon’s wiliness as a general and “man of action.” Xenophon, he insists, had hoped to found a city. For elliptical comments on Xenophon and Socrates, see pp,. 112, 135, 136.

[lxxxiv] CITATION lines 1-2. At lines 16-18, “Socrates” is insufferable. Strauss uses the Greek word megalegoria 10 times in his eleven page essay on “Xenophon’s Defense of Socrates at his Trial.”

[lxxxv]  King does not emphasize Socrates so much elsewhere.  I am grateful to Sudarshan Kapur for this point.

[lxxxvi] CITATION

[lxxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxxviii] James Washington, ed., The Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1986), pp. 291, 294-95.




Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor of International Studies at the University of Colorado, Denver. He is the author of Democratic Individuality (1990) and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (1999).

No comments:

Post a Comment