Sunday, August 28, 2011

Politics and the god, part 1

I spoke on a version of this essay at the American Political Science Association in 2008. In it, I recognized deeply that after a quixotic adventure in Syracuse, Plato himself ceased to be, in any sense, an ally even of ideal tyrants and intended his students at the Academy to read the Laws with the questioning that Socrates might have offered, to test the coin of every argument for the original gold, if any, and not accept its conventional and empty monetary ring. For Plato wanted even the arguments of the character Socrates, whom in life he adored, assessed critically. But the Athenian Stranger is not Socrates. He is an imagined Socrates who did not take the poison, who escaped at the expense of the cause of philosophy. The term is not invoked by or about the Stranger in the Laws, and this is, as a Platonic device, very important. I initially thought the Stranger was the result of Plato simply re-imagining a Socrates who had lived and done something good - from Plato's point of view, helpfully advised a Cretan lawgiver - in a setting ridiculed by the speech of the laws in the Crito, for, of course, their speech is not deeply believable. See here. Socrates was convinced he should go to his death, I thought, but Plato, like his other students shown in the Phaedo, was unconvinced. But the contrast with the Stranger, that of two drinking parties (in book 1 of the Laws, in the Phaedo, as Will Altman suggests), shows that he understood Socrates.*

In any case, none of this is quite so simple. Plato and Socrates taught mainly smart aristocratic boys, some democrats, but many others, initially, fierce anti-democrats. Plato taught them for years in the Academy, and as the Phaedrus reveals, sent messages to his future students/readers. That many start out above or against democracy is one of the senses of the first line of the Republic: "yesterday, I went down to the Pireaus with Glaucon, son of Ariston…"**

Socrates goes down as a philosopher (a separate figure from Glaucon, he was, in addition, of artisan origin). But Glaucon, military leader and son of the best – what the word Ariston means – goes down from the heights of Athens to the seaport, the center of the rowers in the navy and the democracy, the place where the shifting enthusiasms and customs brought with the sea is manifest. He and Socrates go to see the procession for the Thracian moon-goddess Bendis. In the action of the Republic, as Leo Strauss might put it, we can already see, in this sentence, that Athens which puts Socrates to death for disbelieving in the city's gods, hungers after a moon-goddess from Thrace. Employing a rarely used law against blasphemy, we can also see that the death sentence delivered by Athens in the trial is, intellectually, morally and juridically, a farce.

In addition, the aristocracy lived up on the hill, and its children looked down on the Piraeus in more than one sense. As the Republic implies (Glaucon asks of the austere city: where is the relish? and the action of the dialogue centers on his being convinced of justice in the sense of not seeking to become a tyrant; since he is Plato’s brother and not otherwise well known, the dialogue perhaps reflects an important reality…), many of the conversations of Socrates were with pro-tyrants and anti-democrats, even when faced with the looming of tyranny (they sometimes initially favored such tyrannies, as Plato reports of himself at the opening of the Seventh Letter,*** or in the case of Critias or Alcibiades, were themselves tyrants or demagogues). In contrast, as I have emphasized, Chaerophon, the democrat, was Socrates's best student, according to Aristophanes' The Clouds, and Polemarchos, the foil for some of the first book of the Republic, becomes a “philosophic youth” in Phaedrus, and is killed leading the democrats against the Tyranny of the Thirty in the fighting in the Pireaus. See here, here, here, and here.

Strauss emphasizes the great medieval tradition of Arabs, focused on the Laws, which emerged in Avicenna, was taken up by Ibn-Rusd (Averroes) and Al-Farabi and the great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, and extended perhaps into the German Nazi Heidegger (though Heidegger rarely speaks of the Laws and knew nothing of the Arab and Jewish middle ages in his original work on Plato, see here and here) and the would-be Nazi Leo Strauss. This is a really important scholarly contribution of Strauss beyond Heidegger as one can see in his last book, The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws (1973). (Strauss otherwise took over Heidegger, the “great philosopher of the era” as he enthuses in his posthumous essay on “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism.”) I had not realized so fully, when I wrote this essay, that Strauss was in the 1930s not only a fascist or authoritarian with hankerings for Mussolini (that would have been bad enough), but that he actually, though a Jew, supported Hitler. See here and here.

But the scholarship and politics of advising reactionary great men, culminated in the twentieth century in the enthusiasm of the pro-Nazi German philosophers for Plato. Heidegger saw himself as the philosophical advisor to Hitler or an ideal Hitler (the true national socialism he spoke of in 1953), and the friend who greeted him on the tram in Freiburg when he resigned the Rectorship in 1934 – “back from Syracuse?” – identified only the abandonment of Heidegger’s hopes of rising in the Nazi establishment, winning Hitler's ear directly. But Heidegger never renounced Nazism. He never left the Party and prayed for the Nazis to win until Hitler was crushed, and continued to embrace the ideal, down to his statement, released in Der Spiegel by agreement a few days after his death, that democracy cannot deal with the threat of planetary technology (the US, the Soviet Union and what, as he saw it, Germany itself was becoming).

Heidegger was also a great philosopher who followed Plato subtly. Plato himself went to advise the tyrant in Syracuse at the behest of his best student Dion and was clearly tempted by the idea that a tyrant might rule for the best, though lawlessly, even though in Syracuse, he and Dion recommended laws (see The Seventh Letter). He learned, however, from the failure in Syracuse that neither the tyrant he advised and was held a prisoner by nor his student Dion who became the ruler and was then swiftly murdered by a friend working with Dion’s enemies, could become a philosopher-king. With his students, Plato experimented with philosopher-tyranny (the rule of the wise without laws), but abandoned it. In this, he, too, went down with Socrates. See here, here and here.

But some subtle, not just superficial readers of the Republic miss this decision. They go, in what they imagine Platonic garb, with tyrants. Socrates never advised tyrants. He went to his death for asking questions, defending philosophy, and he is easy to see, and rightly seen, by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as founding the practice of civil disobedience within democracies and against tyrannies like English colonialism. But tyrannies also include democracies – more aptly, oligarchies with parliamentary forms - for the few, those which practice deep injustices like segregation, injustices which make claims of freedom for all claims only of freedom for whites or perhaps for the top 1/10 of 1% of the population…).

The first part of this essay captures Strauss’s scholarly enthusiasm for the discoveries he was making in his letters to his friend Jacob Klein in 1938-39. This is a wonderful thing – he refers dryly to his “so-called life” as drab in comparison – and reveals, fiercely, what it is that make the scholarly (and philosophical) life gripping and so much fun. What he discovers is partly what Plato intended, but he gives up questioning beyond trying to figure out what riddles Plato leaves and wants one to follow out. Strauss thus never asked whether where an esoteric or hinted at path leads is something Plato actually agrees with or wants his students, upon consideration, to agree with. To question the hidden pointing is often philosophically what one should do, taking up and continuing the journey. Strauss falls short.

But why bury something Strauss might ask, like a child on an imagined treasure-hunt, for the few who read that carefully, if you mean something else? Perhaps, one might respond politically, Socrates's and Plato's students were often would-be tyrants. If so, then what is hidden for them, may not be the secret truth of Plato, but a trial, a false-path to be compared with the main text and other themes (for instance, with the action/dramatic moment/argument when Glaucon is convinced not to become a tyrant, philosophical or other...).

Socrates took the hemlock; he is the leader in the Phaedo, as Will Altman says, of a great drinking party, one which affirms philosophy within democracy, that the asking of questions is essential and must go on even if the tyrants, including reactionaries among the people, kill you for it. The Athenian Stranger runs away. He is a not-Socrates. His advice is sometimes poisonous…

This is right there in the dialogues, where Strauss could have seen it. He did not. Nonetheless, as this essay reveals, Strauss is a deep and subtle reader of Plato and the Laws. He follows many like Avicenna and Ibn-Rusd (though contra Strauss, Ibn-Rusd emphasized the emancipation of women in Plato, took it further, is part of what Hilary Putnam calls the first enlightenment - Ethics without Ontology, part 2, lecture 1 - or since it is 1700 years later, founds a second enlightenment before "the Enlightenment," and Maimonides (same caveat), and worships Heidegger. And this is not wholly inaccurate. It is a path which Plato’s project of heading off potential tyrants by trapping them in a maze of arguments allows. It is a subtle way of reading and questioning Plato’s texts, a scholarly way, which ultimately leads onto a false, and, for Heidegger and Strauss, an horrific path for only one reason. It is not a philosophical one.

Heidegger and Strauss were extreme reactionaries from the start. Their subsequent following of a way through the woods seemingly in Plato, their prestige as philosophers, particularly Heidegger’s, confirmed what they already were politically. In the deepest sense, they were not, Platonically, philosophers about politics…

For there is no magic solution, no dream of actual rule by a philosophical, that is all-wise, tyrant. To escape the maze of one’s prejudices, even reflectively, renewed questioning – "for they think they know and do not but I do not know and do not think I know," as Socrates says in the Apology - is, alone, the answer.

Politics and the God

…the treatment of prophecy and the Divine Law is contained in the [Plato’s] Laws – Avicenna, On the Division of the Rational Sciences [cited in epigraph to Strauss, The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws – hereafter Action]

To a god or some man, o strangers, do you ascribe the authorship of your laws? [Theos e tis anthropon] - Laws, 1]

Nomoi [Laws]; a book about laws with the antidote [Gegengift] to Nomoi. – Strauss to Jacob Klein, October 20, 1938

How I can make this believable to anyone other than you, I have absolutely no idea. – Strauss to Klein, November 28, 1939 (2)

1. What is the “theological-political problem” for Strauss?

Strauss mentions himself in the “grip” of the now much discussed “theological-political predicament” in just a few contexts, for instance, the opening sentences of his 1962 introduction to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. He does not define it. (3) To gain insight into this “predicament,” this essay will focus on Plato’s Laws, the central book of prophecy and law-giving, according to Avicenna, for Al-Farabi, Ibn-Rusd (Averroes), and Maimonides. Avicenna’s single sentence abruptly clarified for him, Strauss’s announced at St. John’s in 1970, these writers’ obscurities.

Maimonides was, to begin with, wholly unintelligible to me. I got the first glimmer of light when I concentrated on his prophetology and, therefore, the prophetology of the Islamic philosophers who preceded him. One day, when reading in a Latin translation Avicenna’s treatise On the Division of the Sciences I came across this sentence (I quote from memory): the standard work on prophecy and revelation is Plato’s Laws. Then I began to understand Maimonides’ prophetology and eventually, as I believe, the whole Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides never calls himself a philosopher; he presents himself as an opponent of the philosophers.(4) He used a kind of writing which is in the precise sense of the word exoteric. When Klein had read the manuscript of my essay on the literary character of the Guide of the Perplexed, he said: ‘We have rediscovered esotericism.’(5)

On the surface, Strauss presents a theological-political “predicament” – that philosophy supposedly cannot refute revelation, that the Athens of Socrates and the Jerusalem of the Bible have an equal standing and one must arbitrarily choose between them. In contrast, the Laws presents religion as a way for a philosopher – the Athenian Stranger – to appeal to a Cretan lawgiver for a colony and a Spartan gentleman, and persuade them modify their views. Concurring with a philosophical stranger, Klinias becomes the bearer of his preludes (prooemia) and institutions to make of a population a people. Together, Klinias and the Stranger – whom Klinias bids continue to help him ( ) – become a kind of philosopher-king (in book 4, the Stranger suggests, only a philosopher-tyrant can rapidly change customs and mores, 709-711) This was the central esoteric meaning of the theological-political problem, I will argue, for Strauss. Using religion, Strauss saw no problem in misleading “the many” to revere authority. As I will also show, the “many” include many of Strauss’s own followers from whom he sought to conceal at least some of his views.

This essay will, however, also explore a contrasting idea of theology and politics based on the recognition by Gandhi and King of Socrates as the first satyagrahi, and the influence – apparent from the Laws – of the story of Socrates on that of Jesus Christ. In addition, I will consider the complex question of who the Athenian Stranger is, and how, as Strauss hints, Plato’s “repetitions” of the story substitute a subversive political way - a hidden Platonic one - for the more direct and, to Athens, threatening, questioning of Socrates. Strauss treats Socratic and Platonic philosophy and politics as fundamentally the same. “Socrates” is Plato’s (or perhaps Xenophon’s or Farabi’s) “Socrates.” In going to his death in Athens, for Strauss, Socrates’s action “saves philosophy” by somehow – with Plato’s subsequent intervention - turning it into Platonism. In contrast, Socrates, I will argue, was no authoritarian.

This essay will cite (and translate ) some of Strauss’s letters to Jacob Klein in 1938 and 1939; it will also emphasize the Laws and Strauss’s commentaries on them in the first chapter of What is Political Philosophy [hereafter WIPP] and his 1973 Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws [hereafter Action]. In contrast to polished books, Strauss warns against using a writer’s letters to the “mediocre” to understand an argument:

…the books of men like the mature Spinoza are meant as possessions for all times, are primarily addressed to posterity….The flight to immorality requires an extreme discretion in the selection of one’s luggage…Whereas the works of [Spinoza’s] maturity may be presumed to be addressed primarily to the best type of readers, the large majority of his letters are obviously addressed to rather mediocre men.(6)

In most cases, Strauss’s advice is sound. Its force is muted, however, precisely where a writer hides meanings.(7) In that case, letters, especially to a wise correspondent, or lectures may sometimes provide a hint – to be confirmed in the finished writings – of what the author really thinks.

In addition, Jacob Klein had shown Strauss the way, based on Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, to recover the subtlety of Greek texts.(8) In 1938-39, an exhilarated Strauss – one who refers sourly to returning to “this so-called life” [“Doch zurueck zum sogenannte Leben”] (9) outside of the intoxication of scholarship – tells Klein of mesmerizing discoveries in Maimonides. Averroes, Plato, Xenophon, Herodotus, Hesiod, and Thucydides. Strauss remarks delphically: “I begin to suspect how not understood the Ancients are.”(10)

At first glance, a reader may not appreciate the force of these insights. I will highlight what he says about Maimonides in this correspondance to motivate his choice of esoteric writing to hide his opinions even from many of his followers. Strauss, a Zionist, but not religious, discovers that the pillar of Judaism, the rabbi who compiled the Torah, is actually, in the Guide for the Perplexed, an “Averroist”: “that in his belief Maimonides was absolutely no jew” [dass Maim. in seinem Glauben schlechterdings kein Jude war]. (11) Strauss is proud to have “unraveled the riddle of Maimonides,” but the consequences of publicizing his solution weigh upon him:

I can myself be a little proud, that I have unraveled this riddle. But my nerves are perhaps not strong enough – or the science fails me – or perhaps both are the case. Briefly, I am shaken by what my interpretation will lead to. The conclusion is that I, a poor devil [Teufel] , must sip the soup that the devilish sorcerer [diabolische Zauberer] of the 12th century has set before me. But, as the heathens say, fate carries the unwilling. (12)

Maimonides, he says, has a finer hand in satire than Voltaire:

You cannot imagine with what infinite subtlety and irony treated “religion’: a remark over the stench in the temple as a result of many sacrifices has no like in the whole of Voltaire and a thousand additional things. One essentially does not understand Maimonides unless one recognizes that he is an ‘Averroist”; if one recognizes this, all the difficulties in principle dissolve. – If I let this bomb fall in a few years (if I live so long,) so will a great war ignite. (13)

Strauss notes that Maimonides is more important to Jews than the Old Testament, just as Aquinas – following the idea of his colleague Glaetzer - was more important than the New Testament to Catholics. Making known his discovery would dynamite “the foundation” of Judaism. (14) Parallel to Al-Farabi’s famous tale of the “pious ascetic” escaping a tyrant by feigning drunkenness, Strauss traces a method of writing for philosophers, through repetitions with seemingly minor additions, which subvert the initial meaning:

The leader of the perplexed, or the instruction for the perplexed is a repetition of the Torah ( = an instruction) for the perplexed, i.e, for philosophers – i.e. an imitation of the Torah with ‘little’ additions, which the knower remarks, and which imply a radical critique of the Torah. (15)

In a postscript, Strauss distinguishes sarcastically between what he thinks (for the few) and what he will say (to “the vulgar”):

There is an aphorism of Nietzsche’s: when I have the truth in my fist – must I open my fist? – Our situation becomes ever more medieval, the difference between freedom of thought and freedom of expression ever clearer. That is a ‘step forward.’ (16)

With ancient philosophers, Maimonides believed, Strauss says, in the “eternity of the world.” So much for the creation in Moses’s vision (the Torah which Maimonides edited). Instead, Strauss focuses on the law-giver as a Prophet, once again the theological-political problem:

[Maimonides] was a truly free Spirit. Naturally he had not believed the legends of Jewish dominion over philosophy. What was then Moses, however, for him? It is indeed difficult to say. The crucial question for him was not the creation of the world versus the eternity of the world (because he was convinced of the eternity of the world) but whether the ideal law-giver must be a prophet [ob der ideale Gesetzgeber Prophet sein muss]. (17)

In later writings, Strauss hides these fierce judgments in circuitous scholarly discussions. For instance, three-fifths of the way through “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” he discloses an esoteric truth:

Another characteristic omission [in the Guide] is Maimonides’ failure to mention the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body when he attempts explicitly to answer the question of Divine Providence.(18)

In addition, the last half of the sixth chapter of WIPP focuses on how Maimonides hinted at Al-Farabi’s view that the “best ruler” does not need laws.(19)

Maimonides and the Arab Platonists learned from Plato’s Laws. That dialogue traces the role of a philosophical stranger, acting politically, to influence the laws to be given to a new city, to make them flexible for particular circumstances. For Strauss, Plato invokes a kind of philosopher-tyrant in the promulgation of “laws”: “Nomoi : a book about laws with the antidote to laws.” The Stranger’s use of preludes or proeemia promises a democratic component, an appeal to the understanding of the subjects. But these preludes are often misleading, for example, appealing to a putative god, even for a Cretan lawgiver. The philosopher alone has the further argument for an esoteric meaning. The students of the Laws, like the students of Strauss, must use the texts to unravel its “riddles.”

About Maimonides, Strauss hesitated, as his letters suggest, to bring his views to public attention. He was a Zionist and reactionary who – except for engagements in Germany with fascists like Schmitt and Heidegger - spent his life in Jewish social and political circles. In 1957, criticizing the anti-Jewish sentiments in the National Review, he defended Israel as “conservative” for “the nearness of Biblical antiquity”:

Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming numerical superiority and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in the elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity.” (20)

No wonder his hints were obscure except to his closest followers; even these often missed them. Further, Strauss left Hitler’s Germany. In the United States, others sympathized with him as a jew fleeing genocide. But what if Strauss were an authoritarian, a fascist and even a would-be Nazi who scorned democracy? That also would have harmed his public reception, not to say his job prospects. (21) Thus, he hinted at but did not spell out this reactionary vision. His sect – the political Straussians – took on an authoritarian cast, defending unending aggressions and “commander in chief power” at home – but with how much instruction in Strauss’s views – beyond some direct indications of political sympathies and dislikes – one might wonder. (22)

In letter after letter to Klein, Strauss offers often dazzling insights into the subtle meaning of Plato and other authors. But such discoveries are scholarly; they rarely involve philosophical arguments (logoi) which justify those meanings. As I have noted elsewhere sometimes, these discoveries are undermined by the surface arguments and are thus self-refuting. For instance, Plato’s Republic masterfully indicts tyranny; its esoteric gesture, a hinting that a certain kind of tyrant becomes a philosopher-king and rules tyrannically, is refuted by its surface reasons. In practice, Plato and his students tried valiantly, as in Syracuse, to find the right tyrant; cases of philosophical transformation of tyrants are vanishingly rare. (23) In this sense, Strauss is not good at argument. He is a cryptographer - or even a brilliant literary navigator of “labyrinthine” texts (25) – rather than a philosopher.

Further, Plato perhaps intended a reader who would think about this conflict. Arguably, the Republic defends going down to fight against tyranny, and, in this context, for the democracy rather than replacing it. (26)

As another example, on the surface, Strauss argues for justice against value-freedom: as health is to medicine, so justice is to political science. Such a view, he rightly suggests, prevents one from – as value-free social scientists often do – tacitly adopting, without argument and in fact, against their methodological conviction, the values of their society. (27) But esoterically, Strauss also concurs with Nietzsche that morals can be reduced to group outlooks – slave morals and master morals, for example, which is, in fact, a form of meta-ethical relativism: justice has no integrity. (28) Relativism is the motive, however, for value-freedom: to escape from bias.(29) So Strauss’s Nietzscheanism undercuts his exoteric defense of justice. Affirmation of either the master’s or the slave’s morality can have no reasoned justification; the argument is self-refuting. As Strauss puts it in Natural Right and History, undercutting his seeming praise of the Declaration of Independence, the classics affirm inequality. (30) But is this yet an argument that authoritarian rule is superior to a regime based on the equal political liberties of its citizens? (31)

Strauss likes to aver that a contradiction in a “philosopher” or careful writer is intentional. But one has to pay attention to argument to show this. As the two examples above suggest, Strauss’s refusal to pay attention to actual argument, in Plato or in his own thinking, leads to non-intentional or ordinary contradictions. Distinct from his scholarship, much of Strauss’s argument is foolish.

The relationship between surface and esoteric argument has two additional types. First, the hidden meaning of Maimonides – the “repetitions with small additions” which ridicule stories in the Torah, are often rational criticisms of particular tales. Exoterically, Strauss avers that ridicule does not settle the issue – it does not demonstrate the error of putative revelation.(32) But many examples of, for instance, learning about why rainbows occur after rain and are not miracles, lead, in modern philosophical terms, to an “induction to the best explanation” – that science and philosophy are better, on these questions, than revelation. Strauss was not aware of such arguments. But consider Strauss’s barely concealed scorn at the Torah’s irrationality:

It is difficult not to see the connection between the depreciation of the primary object of philosophy – the heaves and the heavenly bodies – in the first chapters of Genesis, the prohibition against eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the second chapter, the divine name ‘I shall be what I shall be,’ the admonition that the Law is not in heaven or under the sea, the saying of the prophet Micah about what the Lord requires of man, and such Talmudic utterances as these: ‘for him who reflects about four things – that which is above, what is below, what is before, what is behind – it would be better not to have come into the world, and ‘God owns nothing in His World except the four cubits of the Halakhah.’ (33)

As a remark in Persecution and the Art of Writing, a study of hidden meanings, his judgment leaps out at the reader. Esoterically and perhaps for reasons like “inference to the best explanation,” Strauss sided with philosophers.

Second, in Plato’s Statesman, the “Eleatic Stranger” criticized laws for deciding particular cases woodenly. In the Laws, Plato seemingly provides an “antidote”: a central role for the philosopher in dispensing Athenian wisdom among the “less civilized.” But the Stranger leaps from a deficiency in the rule of laws to the omnipotence of a wise man. His inference would need further argument and specification. For instance, in trials, the modern American court system differentiates between juries which apply general laws and convict of an illegal act, and judges who, in sentencing, attend to particular circumstances. On a limited scale that practice remedies the deficiency in the laws which the Eleatic Stranger identifies.

Without such argument, however, Plato, at least seemingly, and Strauss infer the lawless political rule of a “wise” man. No one (except a fantasy of the suffering Christ) could be that compassionate. The argument is not self-refuting, just foolish. In a large modern state, particularly, the idea of a Supreme ruler is, in practice – as the Bush-Cheney regime and its coterie of Straussian/neoconservative sycophants illustrates - a horror. (34)

At worst Strauss’s scholarly insights into Plato are intriguing. Some, for example like Klein’s about the Timeaus, are hard to argue for beyond metaphor. Is Hermocrates, the Syracusan destroyer of the Athenian invaders who does not speak in either Timaeus or Critias, really Ares? Does the Olympian Zeus, whom neither Plato nor Socrates celebrate, really, with Timaeus, articulate the sequences of numbers out of which the celestial spheres are shaped? In the Timeaus, the age of Chronos is one of plenty. But Critias depicts a mighty warring Atlantis and Athens, swallowed by the sea and earth. Klein’s surmise doesn’t quite fit. Sadly, Strauss buried most of these discoveries; only a few of his followers could figure out some of the hidden messages – those not offered on the surface for the many (Straussians as well as others). (35) No assessment of the differences between striking insights and ultimately mirage-like gestures has been undertaken.

In the late 1930s, after reading “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” Klein had announced to Strauss enthusiastically: “We have rediscovered esotericism.” These letters embody that moment, those insights. Their transcendent sense of discovery shines more vividly than Strauss’s report of it in the comparatively guarded Persecution and the Art of Writing [hereafter Persecution].(36) The letters thus indicate a startlingly counterintuitive direction in Strauss’s thinking - the devoted Jew is not a Jew, the Laws are about “wise” lawlessness (37) - one to be confirmed by arguments about the texts themselves and Strauss’s later commentaries.

To Klein on November 2, 1938, Strauss connects the last line of the Apology “which of us goes to a better place is known only to the god” with “the god” who begins the Laws:

Most importantly, the Apology ends with the word theos, that is, with the word with which the Nomoi [The Laws] begins. That is: the visibly sharpest problem of gods and giving laws to the city in the Apology is the theme of the Nomoi. The Nomoi are Plato’s greatest work of art! (38)

From its opening, the theme of Plato’s Laws’ is the relationship of the law-giver to a god. The Athenian Stranger continually conjures God as a fundamental political tool both in persuading his Cretan interlocutor of unfamiliar proposals and, imaginatively, in putting across such unfamiliar laws to form a people. (39) Through the Athenian Stranger, for instance, Plato suggests a law which will permit an impious man – one resembling Socrates - to be counseled for 5 years in midnight walks with members of a Nocturnal Council. Afterwards, if the former prisoner challenges the gods again, he will be put to death. The Stranger’s rhetoric against impiety is fierce. But, unlike Athens, Strauss suggests, this law would allow a Socrates to live…(40)

If, with Socrates, one asks: what is law? what is piety? what is the divine? or what is the cosmos?, one questions local certainties. Whatever the conclusion, philosophy – questioning - is itself subversive and, prima facie, impious. The charges against Socrates are, Plato hints, not mistaken.

Yet Socrates himself was and was not subversive; he asked questions, but obeyed or at least did not challenge ordinary pieties. In Phaedo, his startling last words to Crito: “we owe a cock to Asclepius” are pious and ironic, since he honors the god of health as he dies…

Socrates questioned others in the market place. As a response to Athens’ murder of his teacher, Plato created the Academy, where he could instruct secretly. Unlike Socrates, Plato sent philosophical advisors to influence monarchs, tyrants, and laws. In the dialogues, Plato is deeply hidden; present – and future - students must discern his views. But the Seventh Letter, written in Plato’s own voice, relates his attempts to advise the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse as well as the political role of Dion, his best student. Some sophisticated Straussians believe that a philosopher cannot be motivated to rule a people. That thought is undercut by Plato’s role in Syracuse – Plato was not “above” such advising - and that of his students in advising tyrants. (41)

Startlingly, in the Seventh Letter, Plato says that he – the author of the Republic and the Laws - will never write about laws:

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)

Similarly, the Athenian Stranger suggests at the end of the Laws:

…it isn’t easy either to discover what things should be learned, or to become the student of someone else who has made the discovery. Then in addition to these things there is the question of the times – at what times and for how much time each subject should be taken up; it is vain to discuss these matters in writings, for it wouldn’t be clear to the learners themselves where the subject was being learned at the right time, until knowledge of the subject had, presumably, come into being within the soul of each. Thus, while it would be incorrect to speak of all that pertains to these matters as indescribable secrets, they are incapable of being described beforehand, because describing them beforehand would clarify nothing of what is being discussed. (968d-e)

The Laws contain both preludes to the laws – proeemia – and laws; yet it is not, for Plato, writing on legislation. This is a warning to read it – and the Stranger – skeptically. The Phaedrus beautifully explores the difference between writing at once for the simple, including perhaps some of Plato’s followers, and the complex. For writing at best corrupts memory and appeals indifferently to the ignorant and the wise:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (274e-275b)

Socrates compares writing to painting. When one questions the words, they remain
silent. The ignorant, mere simulacra of the wise, then parrot them.

Writing, Pheadrus, has this strange quality, and 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 or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has not power to protect or help itself. (275d-e)

This account is subtler than the Republic‘s (lines ) of the sense in which the arts are “imitations” of underlying Ideas. What writings refer to can only be “recalled” with further questioning and dialogue which their existence, for the many, renders unnecessary. Only the spoken word Plato suggests – the word directed to the few who can hear, not the multitude – will help kindle the fire. So, perhaps, will a certain kind of subtle writing, a dialogue, which may open the possibility of eudaimonia:

In my opinion serious discourse [about justice] 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 spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limits of human happiness.(276e-277a)

Dialectical writing has two levels, “offering to the complex soul elaborate and harmonious discourses, and simple talks to the simple soul.” (277c) (42) At the end of the Laws, once again, Plato indicates that one must move beyond the written surface of the law and its preludes – penetrate the esoteric meanings oneself – for the legislator’s spark to ignite in one’s soul.

Given his three years sojourning with and counseling the tyrant Dionysius the second of Syracuse, Plato needed to write the Seventh Letter as an apology to the Athenians. Suspicions had arisen from the fact of his advising a tyrant - ones which could only be palliated by a Seventh Letter - as well as the lingering charge, which Strauss underlines, that Plato had been “corrupted” by Socrates. On November 28, 1939, Strauss sees the Seventh Letter as coming across to Athenians as “absolutely harmless, absolutely normal” [absolut harmlos, absolut normal]. But Strauss’s point is true only from a rhetorical point of view; the fact remains that Plato and some of his leading students - though no immediate threat to Athens - advised and perhaps preferred to advise tyrants. (43) Strauss himself retains what seems to be a core Platonic attitude toward democracy. As he says in “What is Political Philosophy?,”

Now as regards wealth, it so happens, as Aristotle observes, that there is always a minority of well-to-do people and a majority of the poor, and this strange coincidence will last forever because there is a kind of natural scarcity. ‘For the poor shall never cease out of the land.’ It is for this reason that democracy, or rule of the majority, is government by the uneducated. And no one in his senses would wish to live under such a government. (44)

On the face of it, Socrates’s politics differ markedly from Plato’s (and Xenophon’s and Strauss’s). Controversially, Strauss assimilates Plato’s to Xenophon’s “Socrates” – “I begin to see land (or sea). There is absolutely no further question, that Xenophon’s Socrates is identical with Plato’s – only Xenophon’s Socrates is still hidden, still more as he appears than Plato’s, And in addition more Aristophanic than Plato’s.”(45) Strauss implies that Socrates moved in Plato’s direction and that Plato’s accusations of Socrates, though passionately wishing he had lived, point to a life-saving improvement: a political “armor” for philosophy.(46) As Strauss avers in Persecution:

…according to Farabi, Plato ‘repeated’ his account of the way of Socrates and he ‘repeated’ the mention of the vulgar of the cities and nations which existed in his time. The repetition amounts to a considerable modification of the first statement, or to a correction of the Socratic way. The Platonic way, as distinguished from the Socratic way, is a combination of the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus; for the intransigent way of Socrates is appropriate only for the philosopher’s dealing with the elite, whereas the way of Thrasymachus, which is both more and less exacting than the former, is appropriate for his dealings with the vulgar. What Farabi suggests is that by combining the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus, Plato avoided the conflict with the vulgar and thus the fate of Socrates.(47)

But the way of Socrates is not just occluded by Strauss (and Farabi and to some extent, Ibn-Rusd); as we will see, it conflicts with what they suggest. And even Plato, we may discover, supported democracy against tyranny.

1. “Nomoi: ein Buch von Nomoi mit dem Gegengift gegen Nomoi.” Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:559.

2. GS, 3:586. “Wie ich das irgend jemandem glaubhaft machen ausser Dir, das weiss ich allerdings nicht.” In context, he suggests that the subtlety of Xenophon’s Symposium - the distinction between the exoteric Socrates grasped by Antisthenes and the real Socrates – subordinates Plato (“Xenophon ordnet sich Plato unter!”). More generally we can see that Strauss is closer to Xenophon – a Xenophonian – and is perhaps even more a “Platonist” of the Middle Ages (a follower of Farabi or Maimonides).

3. Steven Lenzner stressed this point on a roundtable I organized on “the theological-political predicament,” American Political Science Association, 2008.

4. In presenting Maimonides, Strauss sometimes affects a similar belief.

5. Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts” in Kenneth Hart Green, ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, pp. 462-63. Strauss was saturated in Jewish thought. Contrary to the editor’s impression – Green entitles his essay “Leo Strauss as a Modern Jewish Thinker”; see p. 55-56, n. 12 - Strauss was, as he says of Maimonides, “in his belief, absolutely no Jew.”
I provide the German in the notes because these revelatory letters have never before been translated, and readers should also see the original.

6. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 160 [cited hereafter as Persecution]. I am grateful to Steve Lenzner for bringing this passage to my attention.

7. To Klein on October 15, 1938, Strauss refers to the story of Gyges in Herodotus as “Esoterik,” to its “esoterische Sinn.” GS, 3:556.

8. “A Giving of Accounts,” in Green, op. cit., pp. 462, 461.

9. GS, 3:568.

10. “Ich fange an zu ahnen wie unverstanden die Alten sind.” GPS, 3:558.

11. February 16, 1938. GS, 3:550

12. July 23, 1938. GS: 3:554. “ich koennte eigentlich ein bischen stolz sein, dass ich dieses Raetsel geloest habe. Aber meine Nerven sind vielleicht nicht stark genug – oder es fehlt mir die scientia – oder es ist beide der Fall. Kurz, mir schaudert manchmal vor dem, was ich durch meine Interpretation anrichte. Das Ende wird sein, dass ich armer Teufel die Suppe ausloeffeln muss, die jener diabolische Zauberer des 12. Jhdts. mir eigebrockt hat. Aber, wie die Heiden sagen, fata nolentem trahunt.”

13. February 16, 1938, GS:549. “Du kannst Dir nicht vorstellen, mit welcher unendlichen Feinheit und Ironie Maimonides die ‘Religion’ behandelt: eine Bemerkung ueber den Gestank im Tempel infolde der vielen Opfer findet in ganzen Voltaire nicht ihresgleichen, under 1000 andeere Dinge mehr. Man versteht Maim. lediglich darum nicht, weil man mit dieser Moeglichkeit, dass er ein ‘Averroist’ war, nicht rechnet: rechnet man mit ihr, so loesen sich alle Schwierigkeiten im Prinzip sofort auf. – Wenn ich diese Bombe in einigen Jahren springen lasse (falls ich noch so lange leben werde), so wird ein grosser Kampf entbrennen.”

14. Gershom Scholem could not get Strauss a job at the Hebrew University in the late 30s, because from his book Philosophy and Law, many sensed him an atheist.

15. GS, 549-50. “Glatzer, der jetzt hier ist, sagte mir, fuer das Judentum sei Maimonides wichtiger als die Bibel – entzieht man also dem Judentum Maimonides, so entzieht man ihm die Grundlage. (Du verstehst Glatzers Aeusserung: in gewisser Weise ist ja auch fuer die Katholiken Thomas Wichtiger als das N.T.”

16. July 23, 1938. “Der Fuehrer der Verwirrten, oder die Weisung der Verwirrten ist eine Wiederholung der Torah (= Weisung) fuer die Verwirrten, d.h. fuer die Philosopher – d.h. eine Imitation der Torah mit ‘kleinen’ ‘Zusaetzen,’ die nur der Kenner bemerkt, und die eine radickale Kritik der Torah implizieren.” GS, 3:553.

17. February 16, 1938. GS, 3:550. “Es gibt bei N. einen Aphorismus: Wenn ich die Wahrheit in meiner Faust habe – darf ich die Faust oeffnen? – Unsere Situation wird immer mittelalterlicher, die Differenz zwischen Freiheit des Denkens und Freiheit der Aeusserung immer sichtbarer. Das ist ein ‘Fortschritt.’”

18. I owe attention to the 1938-39 letters to Klein on Strauss’s interpretation of Maimonides to Charles Butterworth. GS, 3:545. “Er war ein wirklich freier Geist. Er hat natuerlich die Legende von der juedischen Herkunft der Philosohie nicht gelaubt. Was war dann aber Moses fuer ihn? Es ist tatsaechlich schwer zu sagen. Die crucial Frage war fuer ihn nicht Weltshoepfung oder Weltewigkeit (denn er war von der Weltewigkeit ueberzeugt), sondern, ob der ideale Gesetzgeber Prophet sein muss.” Chapter 6 of WIPP focuses on this issue in Maimonides.

19. Strauss, Persecution, p. 76.

20. WIPP, pp. . In conversation, September 24, 2008, Nathan Tarcov told me a story. Shlomo Pines, translator of the Guide with Strauss’s introduction, and Strauss were speaking about the book to a large audience. Pines said: ‘of course [Strauss thinks] Maimonides was an atheist.” Strauss lowered his head. One may wonder how successfully Strauss concealed some of these secrets – for instance about atheism.

21. Strauss, “Letter to the editor” in Green, ed., op. cit. , p. 413.

22. As Gershom Scholem wrote to Walter Benjamin on March 29, 1935, a sense Strauss’s atheism had already – sadly - denied him a job at the Hebrew University: “Any day now, Schocken will bring out a book by Leo Strauss (I devoted great energy to obtaining an appointment for Strauss in Jerusalem), marking the occasion of the Maimonides anniversary [Philosophy and Law]. The book begins within an unfeigned and copiously argued (if completely ludicrous) affirmation of atheism as the most important Jewish watchword. Such admirable boldness for a book that will be read by everybody as having been written by a candidate for Jerusalem! It even outdoes the first 40 pages of your doctoral dissertation! I admire this ethical stance and regret the – obviously conscious and deliberately provoked – suicide of such a capable mind. As is to be expected here, only three people at the very most will make use of the freedom to vote for an appointment of an atheist to a teaching position that serves to endorse the philosophy of religion.” Cited in Green, ed., op. cit., pp. 55-56, n. 12.

23. Charles Butterworth charmingly suggested to me that Strauss’s teaching – he asked questions about texts – was “impish.” He thinks no political sect, initiated directly by Strauss, exists. But a well-defined, interconnected group of reactionaries, the intellectual “life” of the neocons, inspired by Strauss though not perhaps esoterically instructed by Strauss, looks like such a sect. Even though he hid his secrets, particularly about Maimonides, from followers, Strauss set a broadly defined group in motion.

24. The Republic traces a decline of regimes – from philosopher-king to tyrant. But following what was common among Greek thinkers, what would make of it a “circle” [kuklos]? Gilbert, “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?” Constellations, March, 2009. In the Seventh Letter, Dion was a philosopher-king, but even achieving power, his choice of a treacherous friend undid him.

25. This apt term for Strauss’s texts – perhaps even more applicable to Plato’s – is
Steven Lenzner’s, Claremont Review of Books.

26. See my three essays on “going down” at;; and

27. Ironically, Strauss vehemently advocates states rights – the most degenerate form of the “values” of American society – against Kenneth Clark’s criticisms of discrimination adopted by the Supreme Court. The latter are perhaps the only decent findings of social science – “ss” as Strauss, a German Jew, refers to it in letters. Politically and exoterically, Strauss does not mention this example in Natural Right and History.
28. On the integrity of ethics, see Gilbert, Democratic Individuality, ch. 1. As we will see, Strauss also concurs with Thrasymachus – and to an extent Plato: in existing cities, justice is the advantage of the stronger

29. Strauss’s defense of Nazi-like racism – the system of segregation – is again a telling example of master morality and the worst of biases.

30. NRH, p. 119.

31. Strauss offers two thoughts – “no woman has been a philosopher” – a false and foolish bromide, delivered just down the hall at Chicago from where Hannah Arendt lectured… - and “everyone isn’t equally smart” which is irrelevant to answering the question of which regime is better both by and large and as an ideal. Set early on, Strauss’s political views seem more in the way of prejudices than arguments.

32. Strauss on . Gilbert Harman, “The Inference to the Best Explanation.” The Philosophical Review, 1965.

33. Persecution, pp. 20-21.

34. Discussing the Supreme Commander in Iran on Fox News , William Kristol burbled “Supreme Commander Bush. I kind of like the sound of that.”

35. Michael Goldfield recalls in class Strauss getting a “twinkle in his eye” when he hinted at some esoteric thought. See Gilbert, “Response to Nathan Tarcov,” American Conservatism, Nomos, 2009 forthcoming, for examples from the transcripts of his 1967 lectures on Aristotle’s Politics. Strauss created followers who are among the “many” (one thinks of Fukuyama here, who is sometimes insightful about policy, but about scholarship, retails slogans). Strauss is oddly elitist or patronizing even toward some of his followers; so, perhaps, was Plato.

36. Persecution included that essay.

37. The political disaster of the central role of Strauss and some of his followers in the neoconservatives, in the translation of “wise” lawlessness or “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” (Strauss to Loewith, 1933, GS 3:624-25) into “commander in chief power” unfortunately flows directly from the delphicness of Strauss’s scholarship. In politics, the view sadly comes down as pseudo-learned justifications for authoritarianism: appealing to authorities or slogans rather than articulation of thought-out positions.

38. “Uebrigens endet die Apologie mit dem Wort theos, d.h. mit dem Wort, mit dem die Nomoi anfangen. D.h.: das in der Apologie absicthlich eskamotierte Problem der theoi ous e polis nomizei wird das Thema der Nomoi. Die Nomoi sind das groesste Kunstwerk Platos!” GS, 3:558. Strauss repeats the point about theos in What is Political Philosophy, p. 32. As Strauss did not remark, “theos” is also the second to last word in Crito.

39. Perhaps many political Straussians, like Goldwin or Shulsky or Wolfowitz or Fukuyama were, for Strauss, “gentlemen” – a less powerful version of Klinias – set walking into government with their reactionary prejudices ornamented with the names of Plato and Strauss. Wolfowitz and Fukuyama studied with Bloom, encountered Strauss only in his last period, and studied primarily with Wohlstetter. The marriage of Strauss’s prejudices with Wohlstetter’s version of anti-Soviet (Trotskyist) mathematics was interesting. Wohlstetter came up with the idea – one that prevents extinction - that nuclear missiles had to be reauthorized in flight (fail-safe) or turned from the target. But he did not alter Strauss’s leading idea of authoritarian executive power.

40. Strauss, Action. Pangle, , .

41. In conversation, Steven Lenzner initially offered this thought that if a people asks a philosopher to rule, he still cannot be compelled to. That is the most difficult problem for creating a philosopher-king. It echoes The City and Man, p. – though not - and Bloom’s interpretation.

42. Strauss’s Persecution , p. 160, n. 77, emulates Plato’s Phaedrus: “The most outstanding example of the latter type of exoteric writing [to potential philosophers] is to be found in Plato’s Phaedrus. In Action, p. 2, he hints at the hidden meaning of “the laws,” namely the role of philosophical strangers in providing an “Antidote” to the rigidity of the laws: “The only Platonic dialogue apart from the Laws which is located outside of Athens is the Phaedrus. The peculiar theme of the Phaedrus may be said to be writing. The laws proposed in the Laws are written.” His intricate account of the hidden role of Plato in the dialogues can be found in The City and Man, pp. 50-62.

43. GS, 3:586. Farabi’s suggestion that Plato accepted Athens provisionally in order to subvert it (to change its laws) was a reasonable Athenian surmise about the future (though apparently Plato did not). Strauss affirms the validity of all the letters: “By the way I am now convinced that Platonic letters (including the first) are genuine: they are the Platonic parallel to Xenophon’s Anabasis; they show that the author was not corrupted through Socrates: while the author of the dialogues constantly conceals himself, the goal of the letters as also the Anabasis is to show that the hidden one is absolutely harmless, absolutely normal.” [Inzwischen bin ich fest davon ueberzeugt, dass alle platonischen Briefe (auch der erste) echt sind: sie sind das platonische Gegenstueck zu Xenophons Anabasis: sie sollen zeigen, dass der Autor nicht durch Sokrates korruptiert worden ist: waehrend such der Autor in den Dialogen konstant verhuellt, ist der Zweck der Briefe wie auch der Anabasis zu zeigen, dass der sich Verhuellende absolut harmless, absolut normal ist.]

44. Strauss, What is Political Philosophy and other essays, p. 37.

45. February 28, 1939. GS, 3:569. “ich beginne Land (oder Meer) zu sehen. Es ist jetzt gar keine Frage mehr, dass der Sokrates Xenophons identisch mit dem Platonischen ist – nur zeigt Xenophon Socrates noch verhuellter, noch mehr os phaneros en, als Plato. Und ausserdem ist er viel aristophischer (= obszoener) als Plato.”

46. At Persecution, pp. 17-18, Strauss’s phrasing is particularly intense.

47. In the preceding sentences, Strauss differentiates Plato’s “city in speech” – and Plato’s Socrates in the Republic from Socrates: “Socrates chose non-conformity and death. Plato found a solution to the problem posed by the fate of Socrates, in founding the virtuous city in speech: only in that ‘other city’ can man reach his perfection.” Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 16, 17-18.

*That Plato set up a secret academy shows that he was different from Socrates and did not wish to suffer swiftly the same fate as Socrates. It also shows that he wished, in a somewhat different vein, to cultivate philosophers (something he agreed on but did differently, in writing and teaching, than Socrates). But it does not show that he disagreed with Socrates about Socrates’ decision or did not deeply admire Socrates.

**Hilary Putnam has underlined to me the skepticism that the Seventh Letter is written by Plato, going back to at least Kant. This might be true, though I think the argument actually displays distinctive Platonic subtleties and mannerisms; that argument, read carefully, is also plausibly skeptical of advising tyrants and about philosopher-tyranny in the sense of actual rule of a city by philosophers (both Dionysius and Plato’s best student, Dion, betrayed by a friend and murdered, fail as philosopher-kings). A philosopher-king, in Plato's sense in the Republic rules by argument in a small community of philosophers. He or she may go down with them to defend a democracy against tyranny, even die for doing so, as Socrates or Plato's student Demosthenes did.

In any case, there is no controversy that Plato went for three years, to educate and advise the tyrant Dionysius the second of Syracuse.

***Heidegger once gave a semester course explicating the first sentence of the Republic.

No comments:

Post a Comment