Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mirrors: the cave, Heidegger's Platonic National Socialism, and Leo Strauss, part 1

         This post will break a story larger than that of Leo Strauss’s  May 19, 1933 letter to Loewith affirming “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial.”  It will show that Heidegger’s own national socialism comes surprisingly from philosophically brilliant meditations on Plato’s Republic and that Leo Strauss, once mesmerized by the "little magician from Messkirch,"[1a] retailed in America this previously hidden and ignored aspect of Heidegger.  As Strauss himself emphasized, he was original only in  naming, in Persecution and the Art of Writing, what  exoteric writing is.  In discussing Plato, Heidegger had practiced such writing, but Strauss explains, to a considerable extent, what it is.  All the other political points and the broad framework of interpretation come from Heidegger.

        In 1930 Martin Heidegger lectured for the first time on The Essence of Truth (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit) and in 1931-1932, on Plato’s Teaching concerning Truth (Platons Lehre von der Wahreit). In 1943, at the time of the battle of Stalingrad, he delivered an expanded version of these lectures as The Essence of Truth: Plato’s Cave-Metaphor and the Theaetetus (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: zu Platons Hoehlengleichneis und Theaetet).[i]   In the latter, he suggests in paragraph 13 that the guardians must be the philosophers who through their “freely thinking inquiry” shape every aspect of political and social life.  This was Heidegger’s blueprint for a “good” regime, the “inner truth and greatness of national socialism” he espoused even in his 1953 Introduction to Metaphysics. 

        Heidegger also saw national socialism as revisioning humans as being in the world (Dasein) and defeating the idea of man against nature, of technology as the transformer of nature, characteristic of liberal and Marxian thought   But this idea can also lead, attractively, to environmentalism or deep ecology (see Michael Zimmerman, Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art – Indiana, 1990). With Schmitt and Strauss, Heidegger was fierce about the conflict between man against man focused on the enemy.  Marx and deep ecology both strive to remedy these forms of conflict, Heidegger to subject the world, including most Aryans (in his idiom, Germans), to the domination of “philosophy.”   The mechanics of rule and the argument about the central role of philosophers – the delphic “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” - rest on a subtle reading of book 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic.

       In 1948, under ban from teaching in Germany because of his mesmerizing fascism (see Karl Jaspers’ letter to the allied commission that banned him), Heidegger offered a turning (Kehre): the Letter concerning Humanism.  In 1948,  he also published an expurgated, or in Leo Strauss’s Platonic language, exoteric, account of The Essence of Truth.  Plato’s cave, books 6 and 7 of the Republic and even the Thaetetus  had disappeared.[ii]   But what Heidegger then identified with as Nazism, what he in 1953 advocated as the “inner truth and greatness of  national socialism” is nothing but this authoritarian rule of a few philosophers. One must emphasize here both the mirroring of and precise analogy between Heidegger and Strauss.  Both were Platonic Nazis, Heidegger in these subtle 1930-32 lectures and in the 1943 lectures explicitly. 

           In 1930-32, Strauss looked to the one “great philosopher of our time," Heidegger.  In Germany, as a Heidegger student and follower, he would have heard about, if not attended these lectures.  His interest in Plato follows from, grows out of Heidegger’s thinking on Plato and truth, the full version of which appears in 1943.  Strauss in America is presented by some of his students as having departed dramatically from what some now acknowledge as his pre-World War II fascism (they have yet to acknowledge the Nazism, which is, of course,  shocking for a Jew – see Shadings: "they consider me a 'Nazi" here" - Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933 here.  I am grateful to William Altman and Michael Zank who have opened a path in these matters) .

       By peregrinating to the Greeks, Strauss “became Strauss” (Heinrich Meier, Catherine Zuckert).  But if Heidegger’s National Socialist politics center in Plato’s “cave-metaphor,”  Heidegger turns out, startlingly, to give a far clearer and earlier account of the Plato on whom Strauss dwelt in America.   Strauss can only be protected against this insight by citing his few references to constitutional democracy even though they are surrounded by long passages taking them back (see herehere and here) and by denial that Strauss himself practiced exoteric or hidden writing.  But “one writes as one reads” was one of Strauss’s formulas.  Precisely in his writings in America, I will suggest, Strauss continued the same, barely hidden reactionary politics.

       Strauss went on a fellowship to Paris in 1934.  Though pro-Nazi, he could not as a Jew return to Germany (consider again Hannah Arendt’s cutting remark, “he wanted to join a party which wouldn’t have him because he was a Jew.”  See The clashing visions of Strauss and Arendt here).   Strauss turned against Hitler’s cause  during World War II; as William Altman has noted, in Strauss’s  lecture on “German Nihilism,” he showed how a true nihilist, an Ernst Juenger, might have praised Churchill’s response to the British loss at Flanders. See Leo Strauss: the courage to destroy here.  In America, he would speak delphically of his early career and his admiration for Carl Schmitt.  He would hint at but not reveal even his fascism (lecturing at Chicago, he would speak of what a “conservative or reactionary” might say (h/t Michael Goldfield).  Only the publication in German in 2000 of his Gesammelte Schriften reveals his enthusiasms for fascism and Nazism (see here). 

      Faced with Nazi defeat and allied harassment after the Second World War, Heidegger, too, had to hide.  There is a surface and a more important  esoteric element even in the 1943 Essence of Truth, revealed in  Heidegger’s allusions to hidden meanings in Plato  In the one dazzlingly political paragraph, which transforms what goes before, Heidegger says:

     “We must now see if what has been said can be verified from Plato’s own presentation.  With this intention we turn to the final section of book VI of the Republic.  In regard to the ‘state’ (as we somewhat inappropriately translate polis)[iii] and its inner possibility, Plato maintains as his first principle that the authentic guardians of human association in the unity of the polis must be those who philosophize.  He does not mean that philosophy professors are to become chancellors of the state, but that philosophers are to become phylaches, guardians. Control and organization of the state is to be undertaken by philosophers, who set standards and rules in accordance with their widest and deepest, freely inquiring knowledge, thus determining the general course society should follow.(paragraph 13, p. 73 - h/t Tracy Strong)

      Heideggerian existentialism is often thought to be a novel 20th century view.  Few speak of Heidegger in relation to Plato, let alone as a Platonist.  But Plato’s Republic was  widely and unsurprisingly discussed by reactionary  philosophers as the Nazis approached power in Germany and became central, as in Heidegger, to a philosophical understanding of the National Revolution.  The French Heideggerians have barely caught up to Being and Time which was translated but a few years ago; American students of Heidegger, often shying away from Heidegger’s Nazism or burying it like Strauss himself – see his “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism” published by Thomas Pangle in The Restoration of Classical Political Rationalism only after Strauss had died – do not talk of any connection.  But the theme of The Essence of Truth is that Plato’s notion of aletheia is actually, in Heidegger’s particular philosophical translation revealedness or unconcealedness (Verborgenheit).  One starts out with the flickering variety of beings in the cave and ascends through five stages to a grasp of Being.  In the last stage, the philosopher, ominously, returns to “liberate” the cave. 

         Heidegger’s account is unique (the subtlest commentary on the cave metaphor and what Plato’s Socrates - against Heidegger, a Socrates drastically modified by Plato and supposedly envisioning a hierarchy ruled by the guardians - means about the idea of the good, to agathon,  that anyone has given).iiia Further, Heidegger continually speaks of Dasein, of Being there, thrown in history, as the situation of the cave.  The cave in 1931 – four years after the publication of Sein und Zeit, two years before Hitler’s Machtergreifung, was the name that Heidegger gave to what he had earlier called “falling into the one” (das Man).  This is the central metaphor of his decisive contribution about mortality.  Mortality, he says in Sein und Zeit, is everyone’s else’s, a statistic.  It is only when each of us recognizes her personal mortality – her being toward death – that an authentic life become possible. 

          In 1927, he identified ontological care and the call of historical destiny with this taking in of one’s own mortality.  One could then – and here is his already existing fascist activism, displayed in a demonstration he spoke at about Schlageter, a German soldier killed by the French occupiers of the Ruhr in 1923 – rise to this call, give one’s life for the Fatherland.  It is not far from this to his Rectoral Address at Freiburg in 1933, his suggestion that the authentic being of every German is realized in the command of Adolf Hitler (to withdraw from the League of Nations, for example). 

           In America, to be authentically one’s own person is often identified with Emersonian or Thoreauvian individuality.  I am a great admirer of Thoreau’s determination to say “No” to injustice, to bondage and the American seizing of Mexico (the war of 1846-48).[iv]  Nothing could be further from individuality  – including personal authenticity – than Heidegger’s peasant garb-rigged-up Nazism. Nonetheless, Heidegger offers a brilliant philosophical account of what he is doing – including speaking of striking (when non-nationalist) aspects of poetry.  Heidegger deserves to be studied seriously and the insights differentiated from a nonetheless consistent and continuing national socialist activism.

        For instance, in his metaphor of a way though the woods (when one is making one’s way, philosophically, out of the cave), one reaches a “clearing.”  That is a counterpart in Heidegger to Plato’s ascent to the light.  The structure of Being and Time is, surprisingly,  a precise parallel to or mirror of that of the Republic.

       My friend Tracy Strong sent me the passage on the guardians, suggesting that it would link up with my views of Strauss. He was right.   But The Essence of Truth does much more.  Against every reading of existentialism uninformed by Heidegger’s works on Plato, against seeing Heidegger (and the kind of postmodernisms which emerge in France from Heidegger) as the opposite of  Plato and “essentialism”, Heidegger is amusingly, unexpectedly and precisely a Platonist (Arguably, Socrates’s questioning – he refused to define what the idea of, say, justice is, is a more sophisticated "anti-essentialism."  But this applies to Plato’s hierarchical city in speech and philosopher-rule as well…). The structure of Being and Time is Platonic: falling or being thrown into the “one” as well as stories about others’ mortality and related shadows is the cave; the man who recognizes and appropriates his Sein zum Tode most fully (that most beingful of beings, as Heidegger likes to put it) is Socrates.

         “As liberator of the prisoners, the philosopher exposes himself to the fate of death in the cave.  Notice that this is death in the cave, at the hands of cave-dwellers who are not even masters of themselves. Plato obviously wants to remind us of the death of Socrates.  One will therefore say that this connection between the philosopher and death is only a singular occurrence, that this fate does not necessarily belong to philosophy.” (par 10, p. 61)

        As much as Plato, Heidegger’s innovation about Sein zum Tode, personal mortality, focuses on Socrates.  He seems to say (perhaps mockingly toward professional philosophers) that the legal murder of Socrates is a “unique occurrence,” though he quickly turns from this, wondering, in a Nietzschean vein, if current philosophers are really philosophers at all or mere scholars who pave the way for philosophy (note the analogy with what Strauss often said about himself; in “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism,” he says slavishly and slyly that Heidegger was the one “great” philosopher of our epoch).  He imitates Heidegger in an oddly similar kind of seeming self-deprecation:   

        “The same effect which Heidegger produced in the late twenties and early thirties in Germany, he produced very soon in continental Europe as a whole.  There is no long in existence a philosophic position, apart from neo-Thomism and Marxism crude or refined.  All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power.” (Strauss in Pangle, ed., The Restoration of Classical Political Rationalism, p. 29).

          One should repeat this last startling sentence to oneself until one takes it in fully.  He wrote this late in life (Pangle published it after his death).  There is no liberal philosophy, underpinning the “constitutional democracy” he occasionally alludes to of any  “significance and power.” 

          Strauss continues:

          “One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate.  I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger.”  (Pangle ed., p 29)

Strauss sounds like he is being sympathetic to liberalism.  But this is surface.  He promptly and darkly thunders at the deficiencies of democracy.

      "Passionate political action against the movements just referred to [Nazism] is absolutely in order, but it is not sufficient.  It is not even politically sufficient.  Are there no dangers threatening democracy, not only from without from within as well?  Is there no problem of democracy, of industrial mass democracy?  The official high priests of democracy with their aimiable reasonableness were not reasonable enough to prepare us for our present situation, the decline of Europe, the danger to the West, to the whole Western heritage which is at least as great and even greater than that which threatened Mediterranean civilization around 300 of the Christian era [the Catholic Church?].  Nietzsche once described the change which had been effected in the second half of the nineteenth century in continental Europe.  The reading of the morning prayer had been replaced by the reading of the morning paper: not every day the same thing, the same reminder of man's absolute duty and exalted destiny, but every day something new with no reminder of duty and exalted destiny; specialization, knowing more and more about less and less, the practical impossibility of concentration upon the very few essential things upon which man's wholeness entirely depends; the specialization compensated by sham universality, by the stimulation of all kinds of interests and curiosities without true passion; the danger of universal philistinism and creeping conformism." (Pangle, ed, p. 31)

        Strauss suggests that liberal arguments won’t do because really no one among us (except perhaps Mr. Strauss)  is “competent” to assess Heidegger’s greatness.  But it isn’t hard to find reasons why genocide is really bad and Nazism odious – see Democratic Individuality, ch. 1 on this point).  The notion of “truth” gets very shaky here for Strauss:

           “The only question of importance, of course, is the question whether Heidegger’s teaching is true or not.  But the very question is deceptive because it is silent about the question of competence – of who is competent to judge.  Perhaps only great thinkers are really competent to judge the thought of great thinkers.  Heidegger made a distinction between philosophers and those for whom philosophy is identical with the history of philosophy.  He made a distinction, in other words, between the thinker and the scholar.  I know that I am only a scholar.”

           There is a kind of naïve and obsequious awe-struckness here which is echoed in many of Strauss’s students toward Strauss; Bloom  or Dannhauser often repeated Strauss’s exact words (“there are no women philosophers”) because Strauss knows and they just orbit.[iva]  But this last point is also a kind of surface modesty (one that seems to testify that Strauss was an under-laborer for Heidegger) and of course means the opposite.  Strauss offers strong and unqualified judgments about Heidegger’s greatness and domination, his superiority to liberalism.  He says it is “respectable” to deny Heidegger because of his Nazism, but – he chooses his words carefully - he does not share that “respectability” or denial. (pp. 30-31)   In real terms of course, these are just assents to Heidegger, not arguments.  So his attempt at or allusions about philosophy are unphilosophical.

      “But I know also that most people who call themselves philosophers are mostly at best, scholars.  The scholar is radically dependent on the work of the great thinkers, of men who faced the problems without being overpowered by any authority.[v] The scholar is cautious, methodic, not bold.  He does not become lost to our sight in, to us, inaccessible heights and mists, as the great thinkers do. Yet, while the great thinkers are bold, they are also much more cautious than we are, they see pitfalls where we are sure of our ground.  We scholars [recall Nietzsche’s sarcasm in Beyond Good and Evil, chapter six of which this, too, is repetition] live in a charmed circle, light-living, like the Homeric gods – protected against the problems by the great thinkers…We may try to classify their doctrines and make a kind of herbarium and think we look over them from a vantage point.  But we cannot exclude the possibility that other great thinkers might arise in the future – in 2200 in Burma – the possibility of whose thought has in no way been provided for in our schemata.  But who are we to believe that we have found out the limits of human possibilities? In brief, we are occupied with reasoning about the little we understand about what the great thinkers have said."( Pangle, ed., p. 30)

          Strauss”s humility here – the deprecation of judgment, the fear of arguing rather than doing cryptography – is remarkable. It is in one aspect real - in effect, Strauss echoes Heidegger, in particular Heidegger’s estimate of Plato as a philosopher – and in another  misleading (Mr. Strauss is the dark oracle for his students, particularly the political ones, a satellite circled by smaller satellites). 

         Now Heidegger’s thought about Socrates as exemplifying Sein zum Tode is a deep one, worth taking in.   The aim of the philosopher is to trouble the cave; the fate of the philosopher (or prophet) may be hemlock, crucifixion or assassination. See here and here on King.

        “Otherwise and on the whole,” Heidegger says, “philosophers have fared very well, for they sit undisturbed in their homes and occupy themselves with beautiful things.  Today, philosophy (assuming there were such a thing) would be a perfectly safe occupation.  In any case people no longer get killed.  But from this, from the absence of any such danger, we may conclude only that no one any longer ventures so far, thus that there are no longer philosophers.” (par 10, p. 61).

      Heidegger played the dangerous game of power.  In his words, one can hear his vocation as a Nazi, his resoluteness as he saw it, his peasant-garbed or brown-shirted Hitler salutes.  One may also experience Heidegger's cowardice after the war, his hiding, his denial of what he had done (he was of course a true national socialist, and in that respect brave, but also a mere lackey of and apologist for or in denial about genocide).  As Bishop Tutu says, there is healing for those capable of acknowledging their crimes.  Heidegger's is a pathetic simulacrum of the daring of Socrates.    

      Heidegger then adds acerbically a far deeper critique of the public image of “philosophers,” how they appear in the cave of public opinion, than what will be distantly echoed in Strauss:

      “But let us leave this question of whether or not philosophers exist today.  The matter cannot in any case be decided by discussions in magazines and newspapers or on radio; it is quite outside any decision in the public realm.” (par 10, p. 61). 

       In The Essence of Truth,  Heidegger identifies entirely with questioning, though he attributes this mainly to Plato, and to Platonic authoritarianism as against Socratic civil disobedience (see my “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, March 2009 here).  The authenticity which comes from personal Sein zum Tode (or in a distorted Hegelian language, self-awareness as mortal and needing to find one’s true direction) is precisely the wrenching/turning toward the light, the freeing from shackles which Heidegger focuses on in these lectures.   Against current German historicism, Heidegger makes fun repeatedly and fiercely of its sleepiness.

       Strauss, in turn, is famous for his 1960s critiques of historicism and purported “value-freedom” in American political science.  The object is original, the critique is not.    Here he is, once again, a thin branch of a large tree, a planet to Heidegger’s star.  For Heidegger is absolutely, sharply in structure and outlook, a Platonist, and one who denies prevailing relativism or the idea that one is imprisoned, rather than destined, by one’s age.  Consider again: the point is to follow the path to the clearing, to turn toward the light.  Heidegger does not read Plato as an ostensible twentieth century figure, with anachronistic baggage.  He exemplifies and teaches careful reading of each word.  That is, on Klein’s and Strauss’s 1973 recollection in an evening at St. John’s, his “liberation” of each of them from the “cave” in order to “ascend,” as they both did and neither then acknowledged, to national socialism (that evening, Strauss suggested darkly that he was more political than Klein).   Heidegger initiated each of them into reading philosophy, into an aspect of “philosophizing” and more deeply, into National Socialism (see the exchange of letters between Klein who in 1934 finally realizes the heart of Nazism is anti-semitism and Strauss who still denies it in Shadings- “they call me a ‘Nazi’ here” – Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933” here).

          In Heidegger’s words,

          “There in the cave the only thing that matters (as Plato describes it) is who is the cleverest, who can work out most quickly where all the shadows among them philosophy belong, i.e. in which discipline and under what type of received philosophy.  Down there they don’t want you to know anything of philosophy, i.e. of the philosophy of Kant but at best they take an interest in the Kant Association.  The philosopher will not himself challenge this all too obligatory cave-chatter, but will leave it to itself instead seizing on one person or a few and pull him out, attempting to lead him on the long journey out of the cave.” (par 10, pp. 62-63) 

         In fact, Heidegger seeks to dissolve all false, merely academic readings; he makes the reading silent and personal, to be absorbed into oneself.  In this, he recalls Plato’s statement in the Seventh Letter that the truth about legislation is unsayable,[va] that  only through personal questioning and application will the spark light in one’s soul:

       “The task and goal of the interpretation must be to bring the questioning of this dialogue to you in the actual proximity of your ownmost Dasein so that finally you no longer have a foreign text and an accidental Reclam edition in front of you, but have in yourselves a question that has become awake and inwardly awakened. If you still find it unconditionally necessary to read current philosophical literature, this is a sure sign that you have not grasped anything of what we have been dealing with thus far.” (par. 17, p. 94)

        Knowing the cave metaphor and the Seventh Letter is thus vital to understanding the structure of Being and Time, and the aim of “liberation” in Heidegger: the awakening of kindred philosopher guardians/national socialists in the cave.

        In 1933, Heidegger was appointed Rektor at the University of Freiburg.  In emulation of Adolf Hitler, der Fuehrer, he renamed himself Rektor-Fuehrer and suggested other university leaders do the same.  There is something almost Chaplinesque about Heidegger in his artificial peasant garb naming himself "the little Fuehrer" of the University (could even Mel Brooks get Heidegger's farcical, malicious quality?).  As his 1931 Plato's Teaching concerning Truth reveals, Heidegger has an esoteric motive.  He sought to become the philosopher or "reasonable man" to Hitler's tyrant (see Strauss's On Tyranny about Xenophon's Hiero here and here).  He tried to shape Nazism and its subsequent genocide (about which he was in denial till he died, at 83 years old...). 

     What Heidegger did and had always done was to reword Nazi slogans in Platonic or philosophic-poetic lingo.  This is unfortunately not something different from or even a detriment to his philosophical argument.  Quite the contrary, the merits of his particular account of mortality and existentialism as an elucidation of Platonism is original.  It is not surprising that he is the great European philosopher of the early 20th century (perhaps the 20th century) and that Strauss or Sartre or Tillich or Arendt or many others name him as such, even though he drew pointedly sometimes brilliant (what is today called deep ecological) but sometimes creepy and even genocidal Nazi conclusions from his philosophy.  His interpretation of the cave is stunning as a way to what Plato means, what can be said about the idea of the good, and is strikingly and straightforwardly National Socialist (one has to break with errors or "false paths" in his interpretation to get somewhere else).

      In the Rectoral Address, he alludes to the passage in book 6 of the Republic where Plato's Socrates (in this case, I mean a Socrates hidden or partly reshaped by Plato) hides under a wall in a dust storm (politics, the cave).  But the whole theme of the Republic is the arrest, trial and death of Socrates.  It is Plato's celebration and defense of Socrates, the header off of a bad potential tyrant like Glaucon (at least as a surface matter).  In fact, Socrates stood out - stands out - in the storm.

       In the Rectoral Address, Heidegger says "Alles Grosse steht im Sturm" (All that is great stands in the storm).  That states the hidden or esoteric meaning of Plato's account of Socrates' death (including Plato's very different political conclusions from those of Socrates).  That Heidegger drew Nazi conclusions seamlessly from Being and Time and Plato's cave does not mean that those are the only conclusions one could draw. But one would have to find the originary Socrates or tear down some of the arguments of Being and Time to make it not lead relentlessly, as Heidegger illustrates, to national socialism.  "Im Sturm" - Heidegger refers here politically to the "Storm Troopers," Hitler's army that murdered Jews, communists, Roma and gays, the men of Kristallnacht in 1938 - this Heidegger considers "greatness."  Here I am afraid is something more sinister than Mel Brooks can deal with.

     Heidegger speaks of the liberated one, the one who goes to the light and comes back as the emancipator of the cave:

     "It is clear from this that liberation does not achieve its final goal merely by ascent to the sun.  Freedom is not just a matter of being unshackled, a matter of being free for the light. Rather genuine freedom means to be a liberator from the dark."

      For Heidegger, this notion of liberation is intensely political.

     "The descent back into the cave is not just some diversion on the part of those who have become free, perhaps undertaken from some curiosity about how cave life looks from above, but is the only manner through which freedom is genuinely realized." (par 11, p. 66)

       Now the story of the cave has several obvious, non-Heideggerian dimensions.  The return to the cave can be read, in a Buddhist vein, as the return of a Bodhisattva.  Siddhartha was teaching about 800 miles from Socrates; the interplay of the mysteries and other nonWestern religions were a force conjured by and conjuring a sun-like idea of the good.  Heidegger seems to have been tempted, late in his life, by Zen which he probably understood has this glimmering in Plato.  That is, as Michael Zimmerman's deep ecology is, another and anti-genocidal path.  Nonetheless, Heidegger's political reading is novel and close to at least one central sense in Plato.

      What Heidegger means is that philosophers return to the cave to find other philosophers, to rule the cave.  They make the cave anew, "liberate" it. This is, once again, the national revolution that Heidegger served as Rektor-Fuehrer until 1934 and hoped for through its defeat at the end of World War II.  It was "the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism" which he invoked in his 1953 Introduction to Metaphysics.

      The philosopher-guardians are to rule Platonically through a God invoked to serve a tyrant-legislator-ruler, as the Athenian Stranger details in book 4 of the Laws, lines 708-11 (consider Strauss's 1973 The Action and Argument of Plato's Laws, his last book, where philosophical authoritarianism is evident and his interpretation of Farabi in ch. 5 of Natural Right and History - see here).  Not everyone can be freed from the cave.  Most have to remain in the shadows of an authoritarian religiosity and mass murder, led by or at least urged on by philosophers (recall: Kristallnacht).  Heidegger could not later say he was against this or even acknowledge the genocide.  He wrote to Arendt that many of his friends  were Jews - he had been her lover - and that he was thus obviously not anti-semitic; she believed him but no one who is concerned with truth and the light should.  See the clashing visions of Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss here.

       In the Essence of Truth, Heidegger reveals the style in which Plato taught his students.  Plato wanted his students to read every dialogue questioningly, to see the connections between dialogues, to question different arguments within particular dialogues.  That questioning would reveal a) weak arguments and encourage the forging of better ones, b) the significance of the person, psychologically, who makes the argument and its bearing on the argument offered, c) the gap between surface and esoteric meaning. It is worth taking taking in Socrates' speech about this in Plato's Phaedrus, one alluded to by Strauss but never cited directly:

       “Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence , but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself." 

        "…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” (Phaedrus, 275d-277).

       Thus, hinting or subtle readings, as we will see about the Seventh Letter in discussing the Republic in The Essence of Truth, is overlooked as part of a superficial reading by ordinary, sleepy readers (scholars), is studied in a different reading by a few cryptographers or "philosophers."  For instance, in the Republic, the greatest argument against tyranny ever offered including in its subtle taming of Glaucon as a would-be tyrant, Plato's Socrates traces a decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant, the best to the worst.  But as Aristotle points out in book 5 of the Politics, there is no such simple deterioration.  And in any case, the Greeks thought everything a circle (or cycle, kuklos).  It would be perfect and a circle, Aristotle says, if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king (Politics, 1316a27-32).  I had guessed this several years before I discovered it in Aristotle (h/t Mike Goldfield) and in Strauss's allusions in his 1967 lectures on the Politics (Lecture 12), see here; Aristotle, for many years one of Plato's students, confirmed it.  Aristotle was offering on the surface the hidden argument Plato taught to his students, or in his writings, hinted at.  This is one of the leading methods of exoteric writing, to say directly and abruptly what the hidden meaning of a text one comments on is.

    Plato also says "extremes are nearest one another," that the mediocre will generate neither the excellent (the philosopher, the philosopher-tyrant) nor the evil (an ordinary tyrant).  Socrates is guided by a daimon (an inner voice or spirit), but most potential philosophers are corrupted by their entourage.  When a potential philosopher goes bad, he or she goes very bad (see here).[via]

      As I emphasize in "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," the key to reading all of Plato's political dialogues is the Seventh Letter, his account in his own voice of his journey to advise Dionysius the second, tyrant of Syracuse, and his relation to his best student Dion who briefly took over there and was murdered.  These are two near philosopher-kings.  The second, Dion, the real candidate, is undiscussed as a potential philosopher-king by Plato.  That is a hidden (esoteric) subtext of the story.  Presenting himself amusingly as a patriotic Athenian, Plato wrote the Seventh Letter as his own apology to Athens where he was widely feared as an anti-democrat. [vii]

       In The Essence of Truth, Heidegger brings up the Seventh Letter twice in the passage about the philosopher-guardians.  First, he brings up the idea of the good as "unsayable" in the Seventh Letter, two pages before the resonant citation about the philosophers who, through their "freely thinking inquiry," set all the rules for society:

       "It is Plato's basic conviction which he expresses once again in his old age, in the so-called Seventh Letter (342e-344) that the highest idea can be brought into view only by the method of step-wise philosophical questioning of being (asking down into the essential depth of man).  The viewing succeeds if at all only in the comportment of questioning and learning.  Even so, what is viewed remains, as Plato says (341c), 'it is not sayable like other things we can learn.' Nevertheless, we can only understand the unsayable but what already been said in a proper way, namely in and from the work of philosophizing." (par. 12, p. 71)

        But the actual passage from the Seventh Letter is not about the idea of the good in the noetic (intellectual) universe, but about legislation here and now.  In effect, Heidegger makes a feint, alluding to the highest and most obscure, "unsayable" matter to divert the sleepy reader's attention from a still "unsayable" but much more concrete matter: the rule of a philosopher-tyrant.

       The Seventh Letter begins this discussion from Dionysius the younger who is favorable to philosophy and Plato.  But his other courtiers, including sophists, fear Plato and influence Dionysius against him.  Dionysius exiles Dion, holds onto Dion's property and then misappropriates it, and marries his wife to another. He holds Plato prisoner though he wants Plato to admire him, to replace Dion in Plato's affections. Dionysius will not learn geometry or work on philosophy.  Plato says acidly that Dion published a book on legislation. But Plato, who names himself the great expert on the subject, will never publish such a book.  The test for learning about it. Plato argues, is to engage in a long program of study in philosophy, starting with geometry but, I suspect, extending to hearing and questioning Plato's dialogues.   

       "Now this test proves the clearest and most infallible in dealing with those who are luxurious and incapable of enduring labor, since it prevents any of them from ever casting the blame on his instructor instead of on himself and his own inability to pursue all the studies which are accessory to his subject.”

        “This, then, was the purport of what I said to Dionysius on that occasion.   I did not, however, expound the matter fully, nor did Dionysius ask me to do so; for he claimed that he himself knew many of the most important doctrines and was sufficiently informed owing to the versions he had hear from his other teachers.  And I am even told that later on he himself wrote a treatise on the subjects in which I then instructed him, composing it as though it were something of his own invention and quite different from what he had heard; but of all this I know nothing.” (341a-b)

      Plato contrasts with Dionysius’s pretentiousness his own refusal to write on the subject of legislation.   What a startling, esoteric suggestion!  Plato is the author of The Laws, the Republic, the Seventh Letter and the Statesman, among others.  Are these not about legislation?  I might recall here  Strauss’s insight in an October 20, 1938 letter to Klein: “Nomoi: (The Laws) a book about laws with the antidote [Gegengift] to laws.” (Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:559).  They are indications, but something decisive remains unspoken; the legislative art, Plato suggests, stands alone as something that cannot and should not be written about.  Legislation is available, Plato insists, only to the “few” who can figure out the truth from hints.  These hints are there to be deciphered in a certain way of studying the dialogues (a longer version of the way Heidegger’s Essence of Truth reveals the cave metaphor, philosopher-guardians and the Seventh Letter and Sophist, inter alia).

     Here one must read beyond what Plato says about the philosopher-tyrant – perhaps something mirroring the thought of the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman that laws or rules are inadequate to judge particular cases; that a philosopher-ruler rules wisely but lawlessly – to grasp his intention:

      "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." (341c-d)

           This is not the sunlike idea of the good as comprehension of the cosmos (though it is linked to it).  The latter remains obscure, and could be entirely mystical, inaccessible to “stepwise questioning” in Heidegger’s formula.   This is part of what is meant by the phrase “unsayable.”  It can be brought into view by philosophy, but goes beyond it.  One of the hilarious aspects of Socrates’ own trances and wakefulness when others are asleep (see the opening and conclusion of the Symposium) is that they reveal this mystical sense and his participation in the Eleusinian mysteries (he hears an argument of the laws – not quite the one the laws apparently make – in the Crito overpoweringly as the Corybants hear the flutes).  What he means is that questioning leads to a more mystical place, is a better “high,” than the opium and femininity (Demeter, Persephone, see here for a post last June on this) of the mystery religions.   

       What is not obscure, however, is that the good exists, for Plato, primarily in the form of seeking philosopher-rule, seeking “to liberate the cave” in Heidegger’s phrase.   On the mystical elements in this image, Plato invokes metaphorically, once again,  a soul on fire for philosophy.   In this respect, his account resembles the later Hinayana Buddhist image of the man with his hair on fire seeking “enlightenment” like water (Buddha was meditating 800 miles away from Socrates; there was a broadly common or at least interspersed culture of  mysteries shared in the region).[vi] 

         Through long studies, the idea of the good arises as in a flash, “suddenly.”  As the Republic tells us, this mystical account resembles the “sunlike” idea of the good which illuminates the noetic universe as the sun calls into sight the physical.  This account of the good – though not the idea of philosopher-tyranny or a hierarchical city in speech which are uniquely Plato - probably derives from Socrates who participated, even philosophically, in the Eleusinian mysteries.



1a.  According to Karl Jaspers, one of Heidegger's students, the name given by them to Heidegger for his dark, fascinating and, to them, riddling lectures.  Messkirch was Heidegger's birthplace.

[i]  In Colorado libraries, I initially found two translations of the expurgated 1948 version and a German edition.  The originals of the 1930-31 lectures and the The Essence of Truth are, however, in Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, bd. 9 Wegmarken and bd. 53, Vom Wesen der Wahrheit (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann:1976 and 1988).  The translation of the 1943 version of The Essence of Truth by Ted Sadler was published by New York: Continuum, 2002.

[ii] As a German scholar, where Xenophon is often favored over Plato, Strauss of course developed the same view of philosopher-tyranny more explicitly out of the former.  See his 1948 On Tyranny.

[iii]  It is common for Straussians to emphasize this point.

iiia.  Socrates asked questions.  He did not affirm a view of the good.  That the hierarchical city in speech of Plato’s Republic is, in fact, Socrates is also a question. 

[iv] See Democratic Individuality.  My friend Randall Conrad, a fine Thoreau scholar,  has a website devoted to Thoreau.    

iva.  Many of Strauss’s students like Bloom or Dannhauser or Mansfield repeat Straus’s exact words, for example “there are no women philosophers” or that the secret of Heidegger’s Nazism is “resolution.”  Ironically, Strauss, too, did something like this about Heidegger.  Others among Heidegger’s students, for example Hannah Arendt or Herbert Marcuse or Karl Loewith, or his admirers like Paul Tillich, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Steiner went their own way.  Psychologically, there is an enduring,  mesmerized quality to Strauss’s reaction to Heidegger which some of his students embraced toward Mr. Strauss even more strikingly.

[v] Note here he demeans many of his students and their students  who are nothing if not overpowered by the authority of Mr.  Strauss.

va.  Heidgger again points to common misreadings “Only he who knows how to correctly say the sayable can bring himself before the unsayable; this is not possible for just any old confused head who knows, and fails to know, all kinds of things, for whom both knowing and failing to know are equally important and unimportant, and who may accidentally stumble upon a so-called puzzle.  Only in the rigor of questioning do we come into the vicinity of the unsayable.”  Par. 12, p. 71.

[vi] Buddha was teaching at roughly the same time as Socrates, some 800 miles away.

via. Were one to think of the political Straussians as potential philosophers who have lost their way,  their engagement in pursuing tyranny ("commander in chief power") in the United States might be thought of in this way.  But they are merely ordinary people who got hooked on a little Plato and the authority of Mr. Strauss, confirming reactionary ideas.  Their political capacities are visible in the wreck of Iraq and of the United States, the dead end of "Greater" Israel, and everyone, Israeli and Palestinian and American inter alia, tied to that desperate force plunging toward destruction.

     One must hope that Palestinian civil disobedience, and Jewish and other American and Israeli support, giving life to the efforts of Obama and others, can head it off.

vii.  See Al-FarabiThe Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, lines 22, 19- 23, 10. who says openly that Plato wanted to overthrow Athenian democracy and my post on the Timaeus here which shows that Farabi was right.

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