What was Leo Strauss up to?

by Henry on October 3, 2003

… ask Steven Lenzner and William Kristol in a recent Public Interest puff-piece. It’s a good question, even if it begs a rude answer. Which Lenzner and Kristol don’t provide, of course; according to them, Strauss revived the Western tradition of reading and philosophizing, more or less single-handed. They describe Strauss’s style of close reading as focusing on how classical authors employ

various types of meaningful silences, intentional ambiguity, dissimulation, the significance of centrally placed speeches, inexact repetitions of earlier statements, use or non-use of the first person singular, concealment of a work’s plan, and so forth.

All of which is legitimate, sez Strauss, because the Great Writers chose their words precisely and exactly, using ellipses and rhetorical evasions to convey hidden secrets to the wise, while concealing them from the rude and undiscriminating gaze of the grubbing multitudes. In short, the ancients were writing with a particular reader in mind, and that reader was Leo Strauss.

This allows Strauss to get away with some rather unique interpretations of classical texts. The alert reader will note the strong resemblances between Strauss’s reading technique and bog-standard postmodernist hackwork.1 If you throw a few evasions, meaningful silences, and perceived rhetorical tricks into the analytic mix, you can end up proving pretty well whatever you want to prove about authorial intentions. An observation which Strauss demonstrates ad nauseam in his work. Writers like Aristotle and Plato end up sounding an awful lot like Leo Strauss, once a few of their tactical silences have been fed through his literary meatgrinder and reassembled on the other end. Why Frederick Crews never did a Straussian Pooh I’ll never know.

Not only that – but Strauss’s interpretations are politically loaded. Plato, Aristotle and their ilk speak rather more directly to the hobby-horses of Cold War American conservatism than one might imagine was possible, given that they died two and a half millenia ago. Example: Strauss’s essa,y On Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians, which I’ve recently re-read for a Ph.D. course that I’m co-teaching. It’s a rather extraordinary piece. Strauss starts it by admitting, more or less, that Thucydides set out to criticize the Athenians, but ends by twisting Thucydides around to quite the opposite conclusion. Most interpreters of Thucydides see the History as a step-by-step dissection of Athenian arrogance; Strauss instead sees it as a celebration of Athens’ love for the noble and the beautiful. The disastrous Sicilian expedition, which appears to the undiscerning reader to be an demonstration of the costs of Athenian hubris, is to Strauss, an unfortunate bagatelle, which could have been avoided if its commanders hadn’t been so worried about disappointing the crowds back at home. This isn’t just reading Straussian prejudices into Thucydidean silences – it’s claiming that Thucydides is saying the opposite of what he appears to be saying.

Why does Strauss come up with such a strange and – I speak bluntly – tortured interpretation of Thucydides? I have my suspicions. I reckon that Strauss is trying to do two things. First, he’s trying to defang Thucydides, the most scathing contemporary chronicler of 5th century BC Athenian imperialism. And in so doing, he’s simultaneously trying to defend US Cold War policy – for Strauss and his followers, the US is the closest thing going in the modern world to the grandeur that was classical Athens. At one stage, Strauss launches into a defence of Athenian imperialism, claiming that Athens above all other cities deserved to rule an empire. It’s not hard to read from this claim – which receives no support whatsoever from Thucydides – to Strauss’s views about contemporary US foreign policy, and a few wee extra-domestic adventures that the US was then beginning to embark upon.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, Strauss is trying to rehabilitate Alcibiades. By so doing, he’s seeking to mitigate a very considerable embarrassment for Socrates-fanciers. Alcibiades was Socrates’ star pupil, but then turned out to be a textbook example of how philosopher-kings can go bad. He helped precipitate the disaster of the Sicilian expedition, and subsequently betrayed Athens for a variety of foreign powers. Thucydides documents Alcibiades’ bad behavior in some detail, but you wouldn’t know it from Strauss’s version. According to Strauss, the Athenians might have avoided disaster at Sicily if Alcibiades had been in charge; it was all the fault of Alcibiades’ co-general, Nikias (who Strauss says is really a Spartan in Athenian clothing – boo, hiss). Not only that: Strauss further implies that Nikias framed Alcibiades for the mutilation of the Hermae (a notorious incident in which someone went around Athens smashing up the goolies of religious statues, and Alcibiades got the blame). Strauss then concludes that Alcibiades had little choice but to betray Athens for Sparta, given how he’d been treated. It’s a whitewash – and a rather embarrassingly obvious one, if you’ve any familiarity at all with classical Greek history.

So then, what was Leo Strauss up to? Not much that’s worthwhile if you ask me. I’m profoundly unconvinced by the Straussian conspiracy theories that have been floating around recently,2 but I simply don’t see much that’s of positive value in his work. Dubious reading strategies, systematic distortions of original sources – nothing that adds up to a fruitful intellectual agenda.

1 Not that all postmodern literary criticism is hackwork, mind you – some of it I quite admire.

2 Although I note for the record that yer well known neo-con Straussians, insofar as they exist, are the not-quite-good-enoughs, the “men of silver” who weren’t considered up to the heavy duty responsibilities of serious philosophizing, and have thus been consigned to the mere study of foreign policy.

{ 39 comments }

1

chun the unavoidable 10.03.03 at 8:40 am

Topic for further discussion: is there a less deserving member of the “literary criticism” section of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences than Crews?

2

Michael Ham 10.03.03 at 12:46 pm

This piece is right on target. When I was at a college there were a number of Straussians on the faculty who were positively giddy at discovering the “secret teachings” hidden in various “great books.” Somehow, though, they and their friends all knew the secrets. It was only others who didn’t get it and read the books in a relatively straightforward way. Very bizarre.

3

jholbo 10.03.03 at 1:24 pm

OK, Chun. I’ll bite. The answer to your question is: yes. Stanley Fish.

4

Davis X. Machina 10.03.03 at 1:50 pm

In short, the ancients were writing with a particular reader in mind, and that reader was Leo Strauss.

Didn’t Xenophanes say that if cows had hands, they would make statues of the gods that — surprise — looked like cows?

Seems like a lot of political philosophizing going back to Plato and before is based on Xenophanic assumptions…

5

Shai 10.03.03 at 1:51 pm

quite good. how does one take Alcibiades, sometime student of philosophy, and turn him in to Alcibiades, philosopher king in the first place? socrates he’s not. just wondering.

I haven’t read Thucydides, but we read through the Republic in philosophy class and the prof suggested that we should consider that plato is aware of tensions in the various positions, if not being ironic in some places, particularly where he’s talking about philosopher kings. however counterintuitive, it seems it’s hard to rule this possibility out. e.g. is his different position in Timaeus merely a change of mind, or is it something else? should we take what is written at face value, particularly when it’s in a dialogic form? so, it’s easy to see how one could fall into a straussian trap. like, for example, reading the present into the past. interpretation is hard.

anyone want to set me straight?

6

dsquared 10.03.03 at 1:57 pm

Xenophanes say that if cows had hands, they would make statues of the gods that — surprise — looked like cows?

Diderot, I think, or one of the French Enlightenment crowd anyway. He also suggested that if triangles had a God, it would have three sides.

7

jholbo 10.03.03 at 2:15 pm

Hi, Henry, I’m on to Wolfe’s “The Sword of the Lictor”, and this passage seems relevant to your post:

“Now we must go,” Ossipago told Baldanders, and he handed him the Claw. “Think well on all the things we have not told you, and remember what you have not been shown.”

Do you think Leo Strauss might have been a cacogens?

8

dsquared 10.03.03 at 2:41 pm

I would also just like to point out that it’s fairly inevitable that an unsophisticated pillock like Henry would think that Strauss actually believed that, just because it seems to say so in his book. Those of us who have carefully read and understood him, paying attention to the precise words used at various points in the text, know that he was actually providing a few pretty damn good cake recipes.

9

Eric Rasmusen 10.03.03 at 2:44 pm

My impression from Thucydides was that the expedition to Syracuse *would* have been successful if Alcibiades had been in charge. I just looked up the stories in Plutarch’s bios of Alcibiades and Nicias, and he plainly says that when Alcibiades was recalled,the soldiers were dismayed because Nicias was known for his slowness, and that the expedition failed because Nicias (a) delayed attacking the city, and (b) did not make any attempt to stop Spartan reinforcements from reaching it.

As to Alcibiades being a scoundrel, that is quite true. That is an element which helps justify a Straussian interpretation of the Symposium, though (I don’t know if Strauss did htis interpretation himself). Why is Plato making Alcibiades, the future traitor to his country, enemy to its democracy, adulterer, and sacriligious vandal, give the final speech on love and the touching tribute to Socrates at the end of that dialogue? Since Plato wrote later, all his readers would know about Alcibiades. The message one gets is that Socrates may be devoted to young men, and help them achieve greatness, but not the kind of greatness that is good for their country.

10

Chris Brooke 10.03.03 at 3:16 pm

Steven Lenzner has also written an extraordinary Straussian reading of the Coen Brothers’ film, Miller’s Crossing, which was published in the journal Perspectives on Political Science a couple of years ago. I’ve never been able to work out whether it is meant to be taken seriously, or is just a giant pisstake. (Straussians are that peculiar.)

I own a copy of the paper from one of its earlier, seminar paper incarnations, so this may not be how it ended up in the journal; here’s how it starts: “This essay argues that Joel and Ethan Coens’ 1990 film Miller’s Crossing is an elaborate philosophic allegory depicting first and foremost the protagonist’s ascent to self-knowledge and his almost simultaneous discovery of natural right or justice. The essay also addresses the film’s treatment of a number of other important problems such as the character of political rule, the questionable character of the founding of Christianity and the limited – yet important – point of contact between Socratic and Machiavellianm politics…”.

It’s priceless stuff.

11

Harry Tuttle 10.03.03 at 4:01 pm

If Alcibiades could have provided victory over Syracuse he would have. This is a man who never lost a battle… that he showed up for. The Sicillian campaign was a forlorn hope, the Athenians had no idea the island was the size of the Peloponese nor did they recognize how well defended Syracuse was. I think Alcibiades got a clue for what he was into and promptly buggered off at the first excuse. It was a tactic he would repeat.

Who wants to rehabilitate the guy anyways? The Stage Boot (so called because he fit well on either foot) is one of the finest rouges in history.

I read Thucydides a couple of months ago and am now re-reading Herodotus… it seems the entire Alcmaeonidae family (Alcibiades’ clan) were a bunch of world class a-holes.

12

Raenelle 10.03.03 at 4:36 pm

LOL. “it seems the entire Alcmaeonidae family (Alcibiades’ clan) were a bunch of world class a-holes.” I’m still chuckling.

But, erudition and realy funny erudition aside, life experience has taught me that it’s just plain saner to read only the black print. Looking for hidden meanings might just indicate some sort of Nancy Drew love of mysteries (well, there’s the level of my literary reference) but it can also be a sign of mental illness, of a slide away from reality.

13

Zizka 10.03.03 at 5:21 pm

I was unsuccessfully recruited by the Straussians in 1963. My inability to accept the Straussian paradigm meant that the best connections I’ve ever had turned out to be useless to me. Oddly, though, having become familiar with their stuff, I sometimes find myself defending or at least explicating them.

One starting point of Strauss’s work is the perception that every society is grounded on beliefs in supposed truths which are either not really known to be true, or clearly false. These beliefs are functional, constitutive, and necessary for the society. The premodern examples include the mystique of aristocratic blood and the mysteries of the Catholic Church. Strauss follows Nietzsche (and this is something William James also knew, though he didn’t push it) in believing that the modern age has its myths too.

So anyway, anyone concerned with truth per se is going to have a touchy relationship to whichever society he’s in and is going to deal with that by various sorts of fudging. In the case of Strauss (also Thomas Mann, as I recently read), this involved occulting his low opinion of democracy while living in the democracy which gave him refuge. One key to Straussianism is that the philosopher hides things not from his enemies, but from his protectors.

One example of what Strauss means is the paucity of explicit expressions of atheism in Europe before about 1800. In many cases it’s hard to tell whether certain authors are being evasive, or whether they just didn’t quite dare jettison the idea of God (i.e., still sort of believed in God). And in fact to Strauss “God” is sort of a token for the myths of a society; Strauss wants others to believe in God, but doesn’t do so himself.

In political practice a development of this is that any government has an insider-outsider structure, with insiders deceiving the outsiders, hopefully for their own good. If you go looking for examples of this, you will find them, and not merely among conservatives or Straussians.

Another Straussian principle, which they’re explicit about, is that war never became obsolete. One they’re not explicit about is that excellent individuals and nations have the right to exploit or suppress inferior individuals and nations. This is sort of like “Freedom in one country” (~ “Socialism in one country”) or better, “Freedom for the excellent class in the excellent countries”.

Politically I find it abhorrent, but not as ridiculous or nutty as a lot of people do. The present Wolfowitz group is just a fairly garden-variety war party within the foreign-policy establishment, reminiscent to me of the various schemers who brought us the entirely fraudulent, but victorious, Spanish-American War. The high philosophical justifications are peripheral and inessential, IMHO; Pat Robertson’s Bible Christianity is just as effective, and so is the raving free-marketry of Newt Gingrich.

So anyway now I’m reduced to watching my lifelong enemies in the CIA trying to block my old acquaintances in the Wolfowitz group. (I’m not sure I ever was introduced to Wolfowitz, BTW, but I’ve certainly been in the same room with him). Back in the day, I certainly never expected to be cheering for the CIA. I’m really more worried about the Robertson crew; I don’t think it’s impossible that Bush actually believes that the rebuilding of the Temple (right before the seven-headed dragon emerges from the sea) is an important first step on the way to the Rapture.

14

Jason McCullough 10.03.03 at 6:14 pm

Delong wrote some related stuff on Strauss.

15

Chaka 10.03.03 at 7:07 pm

I found this thread quite telling…and scarry.

Why Leo?
http://www.claremont.org/weblog/000270.html

It is a Straussian bLogger from The Claremont Institute.

Please visit!

16

Fontana Labs 10.03.03 at 8:28 pm

There’s something to be said for, if not a Straussian reading of Plato, a Straussian-inspired reading. Sure, there are people who think Plato actually rejected the existence of Forms and the immortality of the soul (people who’ve published books, I mean) but there are less bizzaro ways to go. For instance, it’s interesting to think about Crito’s character and (lack of) philosophical acumen when thinking about why in the Crito Socrates seems to argue against civil disobedience–badly, it seems– and in Apology endorse it. Or, that the question at the start of Book I, “how can you persuade men who won’t listen?,” is important to keep in mind when thinking about the rest of the arguments in I, why they seem so unconvincing, and why II-IV are the way they are. I know, you don’t have to be a Straussian to think that the drama is relevant to understanding what the arguments really are, but I wanted to put in at least a tentative and qualified word for reading between at least a few lines.

Also, Descartes was an atheist, and Plato thinks Forms are stupid. Thanks.

17

Henry 10.03.03 at 10:20 pm

Eric

I’m about to get on a plane to Sweden, so I don’t have my library handy. My memory though is that the consensus is that Nikias’s waffling and superstition was responsible for the final Athenian defeat, but that the broader causes of the disaster may be found in Alcibiades’ previous tactics, and indeed in his advocating the invasion of Sicily in the first place. Which isn’t to say that that rogue Alcibiades doesn’t have his charms – not much of an advertisment for Socrates’ teaching – but probably a lot of fun to have at your party.

John – by strange coincidence I was thinking about _precisely_ that passage in SotL yesterday, in connection to Kant. I’ll dig up the ref. when I get back – but Kant has an account in one of his shorter essays of how civilization is invaded by barbarism, which then takes up fragments of the broken civilization _und so weiter_. It’s uncannily similar to the conversation between Barbatus, Ossipago, Famuliminus and Baldanders on the same subject.

18

Henry 10.03.03 at 10:21 pm

And Jason – thanks for the DeLong link, which I hadn’t seen – it says everything that I was trying to say, without having to say it.

19

baa 10.03.03 at 10:52 pm

I’m certainly not deeply learned in ancient philosophy, but fontana’s points above seem on target to me. The type of readings good Straussians give of Plato may be incorrect, but their focus on context and dramatic setting is by no means obviously batty. Indeed, as fontana suggests, such care can be quite illuminating.

It’s certainly true, as Henry says, that a Straussian interpretive approach carries with it the danger of reading one’s preferred doctrines into the text. The specific criticisms he offers against the thucydides essay (which I have not read) seem less plausible. First, I am unclear why Strauss would want to rehabilitate Alcibiades. One standard Straussian trope is that Plato does *not* offer the philosopher king as a legitimate option. In fact, I thought Strauss regarded the implausibiltiy (if not the impossibillity) of such a central “indirect teaching” of the Republic. Second, like Eric Rasmussen, my recollection of Thucydides is that Nicias’ relative incompetance vis-a-vis Alcibiades is right there on the surface. So again, I haven’t read the Strauss, but Henry’s gloss doesn’t inspire confidence.

Strauss himself may have allowed a good insight about indirect writing to waylay the whole of his scholarship. I don’t know that this is true, but it could be. He wouldn’t be the first, certainly. I’ve only read his book on Hobbes, which seemed reasonable enough: Not gospel of the lord perfect, but a solid attempt at interpretation that at times overreaches.

20

Robert Schwartz 10.03.03 at 11:06 pm

Wow! Alas poor Leo Strauss, z’tl, who is not alive to defend himself and I have not the learning to do it adequately myself.

Unlike the learned on this site, I have the disadvatage of having attended the University of Chicago in the late 1960’s, and while I was unable to take a course from Strauss, who left for Claremont during my first year, I did take one from his long time colleague and co-author, Joseph Cropsey. And all I can tell you is that Henry’s posting is a caricature what I remember having learned at that time. Although I am sure that Henry will improve in Brian Leiter’s estimation.

If you wish to learn more about Leo Strauss from a truly learned source, I would suggest looking at Arnaldo Momigliano, Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism, Ch. 17 “Hermeneutics and Classical Political Thought in Leo Strauss” (UChicago 1994).

Rightly or wrongly, I detect in Henry, DeLong and Leiter a jealousy that leads them to deride that which they cannot equal or surpass. Strauss belongs to your grandfathers’ generation. Anthony Grafton wrote about them when he wrote this:

“Every one of them benefited from an education unimaginably more rigorous than ours, read the forgotten classics of literatures whose existence is hardly known to us, burned with rage at the pamphlets of forgotten radical sects–and then used the shining, drop-forged tools that they had mastered in Gymnasium and liceo and yeshiva to break every rule and to transgress every boundary. Their mental and moral qualities challenge comprehension now–as they often did in their own day. Gullivers in a variety of Lilliputs, the exiles discovered before they even left Europe that they had the right and the duty to embark on unconventional intellectual careers, in the teeth of family opposition, anti-Semitism, inflation, Fascism, Nazism. How did they know? How did they dare? And how will we convey whatever we can learn of their accomplishments intelligibly and attractively to readers to whom the traditions of Jewish and European learning are an unknown country?”

http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030303&s=grafton030303

In my estimation you all have a long way to go before the rocks you like to throw reach the vicinity of their marks.

21

Chaka 10.04.03 at 1:05 am

Strauss is a nihilist’s attempt at hermeneutics.
Postmodern Conservativism, thus the “neo” in Neoconservative.

22

Walt Pohl 10.04.03 at 3:21 am

Robert: Ah, yes, the Greatest Generation. How could we forget? How little are we compared to our exalted ancestors.

23

Robert Schwartz 10.04.03 at 5:46 am

Walt: In the case of the Boomers, and I are one, that is the sad truth.

“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” 1 K 19:4

24

Curtiss Leung 10.04.03 at 6:16 am

I think that if you judge Strauss as a scholar, you’re on the wrong track. He wasn’t really out to explicate Plato or Mamonides or Machivelli or Rousseau: he was writing his own political thought under the guise of explicating these authors, the same as Kojeve did with his lectures that are allegedly on Hegel. Yes, he did have a superb education the likes of which we may not see again, and his intimacy with the canon certainly enabled him to pull off his act for as long as he did and as well as he did. But it was an act, and he was a montebank who could make a text mean anything. Unfortunately, the esoteric doctrines he crafted were always inferior to what the text seemed to say at first glance, and couldn’t hold a candle to real scholarship.

As I understand it, the practice of philosophizing under the guise of explication is something both Strauss and Kojeve took from Heidegger, who specialized in this legerdemain with the pre-Socratics. I recall reading a lecture by Heidegger where he’s shameless enough to use Dasein to translate ψυχη in a fragment of Heraclitus. Compared to that, Strauss’ making all political thought from Plato to the Enlightenment into apologetics for hawkish Cold War policies doesn’t seem that much of a stretch. As for Kojeve…well, that’s the sort of thing that gives bullshit a bad name.

25

Henry 10.04.03 at 3:16 pm

Robert

If you don’t have the “learning” to make an argument, my suggestion is that you refrain from commenting – cheap ad hominems make a poor substitute for proper criticism. To be blunt – you seem to me to have all the attributes of a troll. Looking at your postings over the last couple of weeks, you don’t seem to be much interested in discussion, or even starting an interesting intellectual row – just in provoking a reaction and causing offence. I’m not interested.

26

Jon H 10.04.03 at 5:49 pm

Robert Schwartz writes: “Rightly or wrongly, I detect in Henry, DeLong and Leiter a jealousy that leads them to deride that which they cannot equal or surpass.”

My Straussian reading of your secret meaning is that you’re saying “You’re absolutely right. Strauss was a postmodernist loon. It used to be, all you needed to get ahead in American academia was a European accent, and Strauss made the most of it. At least he didn’t go around talking about orgone accumulators.”

27

Zizka 10.04.03 at 6:07 pm

Strauss has one Derridist practice. With any thinker he zeros in on the places where they contradict the normal trend of their writing. What Strauss claims is that the few exceptional statements represent the man’s real thought, whereas the many repeated “typical” statements represent an attempt to keep the orthodox happy. To me this method can obviously be overused, but it’s not ridiculous; his example is from someone writing under Islamic rule (which was virtually theocratic), but Catholic Europe also condemned heresy.

As far as I know Derrida uses his method in a one-size-fits-all nihilist way; basically nobody every really succeeds in saying what they want to say. I haven’t been motivated to continue reading his stuff, much less that of his US followers.

Whitehead used the same method to attribute his own central idea to Locke — the majority of Locke’s statements of his ideas were, according to Whitehead, backward looking, but in a few ambiguous phrases he looks forward to process philosophy. (But what is Whitehead’s central idea? Well, um, it has to do with repeatables and unrepeatables, and temporality, and coming-to-be and perishing, and asymmetrical relations…. Whitehead’s philosophy is important, IMAO, but not easy to summarize).

I agree with Curtis about Strauss’s use of the classics. He really uses them as a springboard for his own ideas; I don’t think that he’s reliable as an interpreter of Plato, Aristotle, etc. His independent contribution to post-Marxist, post-Nietzschean conservative ideology is very significant, though, and can’t be wished away. Classics and classical philosophy are rather small fish, compared to foreign and military policy.

28

Robert Schwartz 10.04.03 at 6:18 pm

Curtis:
“Strauss’ making all political thought from Plato to the Enlightenment into apologetics for hawkish Cold War policies doesn’t seem that much of a stretch.”

Sigh! A type of Historicism that Strauss uterly rejected.

Henry:
I had not read the text you commented on, but I had enough experience in the area to know that you were barking up the wrong tree. I have suggested a way to start a good study of Strauss, and if you read the Grafton article you would understand some of the difficulties in your way. I stand by comment that the efforts of you and others here to deconstruct strauss fall wildly short of the mark and betray a species of jealousy. Your emotional reaction to my comment confirms that I have cut to the quick.

Jon H:

My secret reading of your secret reading is that you are not as clever as you think you are.

29

Leo S. 10.04.03 at 8:18 pm

If we are to study Robert Schwartz’s writings, we must first direct ourselves to the problem of how to understand such writing. We cannot, contrary to historicist assumptions, really understand his comments here within the framework of his times; that would be tantamount to understanding his work better than he understood it himself before he has understood it exactly as it understood itself. In this, we realize the problematic character of historicism, because it is evident that the historicist approach of our times is contrary to the non-historicist approach of the past, and so if we are to do justice to a proper historical understanding of his comments, we must reject the horizon offered by the historicist approach and instead realize that he is an able writer and therefore can give all the information required to understand his comments in his comments. Therfore, we can restrict ourselves to only what he says, directly or indirectly, with the goal of understanding him as he understood himself.

Schwartz appears first in this comment thread at the twentieth entry. But before that, we must realize that is inadequate to characterize the moment of his posting, since the comment thread itself follows upon a lengthy and ill-informed polemic against Leo Strauss. So we have to consider first the relationship of the comment thread to the post that engendered it before we can understand the significance of his entry at the moment he chose.

As noted, the post was a lengthy and ill-informed polemic against Leo Strauss. The word polemic comes from the Greek polemos, meaning war, so we should expect that such a post was meant to inspire a combative discussion, one in which two disputants defend their respective views and attack the opposing ones. The comments that follow are anything but; rather than dispute the views put forward in the post, the comments all express assent with the remarks of the poster, with only varying degrees of wit to distinguish them. So despite the numerous commentators—fewer than 19, since some repeat themselves—only one side of the polemos has been heard. To enter at the twentieth post then is indicative of both the missing second party to this dispute and of the ten-fold strength it has. To enter at this point is therefore a kairos, the right time for action.

Note that even with his first word, Robert Schwartz distinguishes himself:

Wow!

So far, the comments have not been a disputatious, but instead continuous assent. Where there is such assent, no variety or surprise is possible and therefore no amazement. Schwartz thus ironically announces himself to be amazed—thaumazein—at the lack of amazement and, through this ironic reversal, doubles the force of his critique. His next words are no less striking:

Alas poor Leo Strauss, z’tl

"z”tl," Hebrew for "zecher tzaddik livrocho," is said of a known scholar or religious leader. So Schwartz literally places Strauss between Greek amazement, thaumazein and Hebrew religion, illustrating the tension that informs all his writings, and the burden he took on to restore the ideas of natural right and ethics to philosophy.

30

Robert Schwartz 10.04.03 at 8:32 pm

Leo S:

Huh?

31

Fontana Labs 10.05.03 at 1:01 am

That post was awesome, down to the email address. Clearly, the owl of minerva flies at dusk. What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

32

Henry 10.05.03 at 5:26 pm

Robert

I’m going to assume that you’re open to argument; I strongly suspect that you aren’t, but I may be wrong. Your comment said, more or less, that you didn’t know enough about the subject to make any serious comment, but that you felt I was wrong anyway, and that I, and Brad DeLong were simply jealous of Strauss’s learning. This is an ad-hominem – it’s not an argument. You don’t know anything about Brad’s education or motivations, or mine; you’re merely casting a slur. An incorrect slur, as it happens, but that’s beside the point. This fits into a pattern of comments you’ve made on this website over the last couple of weeks, where your clear intent has been to cause offense rather than to engage in argument. Here are the ground rules. If you want to engage in arguments, or criticise, that’s fine. If you want to keep throwing out cheap jibes that seem aimed to offend, and nothing more, I’m going to start deleting your comments from my posts. You’re polluting the pool. My other cobloggers may be more tolerant. Or they may not.

Baa – I don’t think that Strauss has to buy into the philosopher king point in order to want to defend Alcibiades as Socrates’ star pupil – and he does defend Alcibiades through some rather heroic exegetic somersaults. When writing “philosopher king turned bad” I was being a little flip, and not trying to imply that Strauss sees Alcibiades as a philosopher king. But my wording was certainly a bit sloppy. My bad. For another example of Straussian interpretation which devolves into sheer and utter looniness, see his take on Machiavelli as parodied by Brad DeLong in the link above.

33

Robert Schwartz 10.05.03 at 7:25 pm

Henry:

You clearly only want to hear the choir behind you, and I need to quit wasting my time on you. I believe that your attitude exemplifies the sum and substance of the problem of the contemporary academy. You believe that the fashionable ideas of the Left Bank are the crown of human wisdom and that everyone and everything who came before is of no value.

I will repeat what I said earlier because you did not wish to consider it carefully. I cannot dispute your reading of the text you disscussed as I have never read it. I can wonder if you have read it properly or taken it seriously, because I have encountered Strauss’ teaching in a relativley undiluted form (they never taught from, nor referred to, their own texts, only from the classics)and what you wrote strikes me as being unrecogognizable from the view that I had.

I have to go so I shall just say farewell, I’ll never be back this way again. I hope that at some point you will grow to appreciate that you are a finite creature who lives inside time and a tradition.

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Jeffrey Kramer 10.06.03 at 4:17 pm

Robert’s first sentence begins “You clearly…” and follows by making a claim whose truth is (to put it mildly) not at all clear.

His second sentence begins “I believe that” and follows by making a claim which is literally unbelievable.

His third sentence begins “You believe that” and follows by attributing to Henry beliefs which no sane person could hold and which Henry has of course never come close to implying.

He continues by admitting his ignorance about the specific issue in dispute, but begs to be trusted when he declares his certainty that Henry is wrong about it because he (Robert) happens to be particularly wise in the ways of science.

He concludes with the projectile ejaculation of a large ball of snot.

Clearly, everyone here must believe we have suffered a great loss with Robert’s self-imposed exile.

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carla 10.06.03 at 10:00 pm

Robert: Buh-bye! don’t let the door hit you, etc.

Leo S., that was extremely funny; thank you!

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Don 10.07.03 at 5:23 am

Henry: I’ve read Thucydides a few times, and Strauss’s essay a couple of times, and I just don’t get out of either what you do.

My impression is not that you use Strauss as you say Strauss uses others, of course, but just that your view of Strauss’s politics colours what you read in(to) Strauss. Given Strauss’s views on writing, which you note, and your own admission that Strauss says contradictory things in his essay, wouldn’t you agree that it’s possible to pick things out of his essay that might jive with what one expects to read, but which might not be his final position?

I apologize for throwing out this and a couple more random thoughts, as follows, but I’m a working stiff and haven’t the time to address everything I disagree with in your comments.

So allow me just this train of thought. You say Alcibiades was Socrates’ star pupil, but surely that honour would fall to Plato. And assuming the Socratic teaching about justice has anything to do with moderation, then Alcibiades was a downright bad student, and certainly not a philosopher-king. (But a good general, which Nicias, in the end, was not: I think it’s pretty clear from the text, not from Strauss, that Nicias’ pusillanimity in the field and fear of the people at home – not to mention eclipses – led him into policies opposed by his co-commanders Demosthenes and Eurymedon that turned the Sicilian expedition into a disaster; 7.47-50.) In any case, Strauss doesn’t need to rehabilitate Alcibiades to defend Athenian imperialism (if he does). I think that if Strauss wanted to rehabilitate any Socratic student, clearly it was the moderate Xenophon. And doesn’t Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, while seemingly fond on Cyrus, end up teaching that empire building gets people nowhere?

I’d like to pursue this, but can’t. Given that someone in your department not only studied under two of Strauss’s best-known students, but spent a dozen years writing a book on Thucydides, I refer you to him for what Strauss was up to!

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Henry 10.07.03 at 8:51 pm

Don

A very thoughtful critique of my post. I think that you have a fair point when you say that I’m picking out bits and pieces of a contradictory and complex essay that fit neatly into a story. And yet … It could well be that there’s an interpretation of the essay which manages to resolve these contradictions better than I do; all I can say is that I can’t see it (although I would be happy to have it demonstrated to me; half the reason for my putting up a somewhat tendentious post in the first place was to provoke useful commentary and defenses from Strauss fans). And it’s a strange text – _why_ is it so contradictory (it seems from your post that you agree that it is).

On Alcibiades – I was speaking _ex ante_ rather than _ex post_ when I call him Socrates’ star pupil. My vague impression (from Plutarch?? one of the later and less reliable commentators or anthologists anyway) is that few realized how important Plato would be until after the death of Socrates. Alcibiades was certainly rather better known at the time, as indeed was Critias. My reading of Thucydides on the Sicilian expedition, which differs, obviously from that of Strauss, is that the story _is_ about hubris getting clobbered by nemesis. Alcibiades is directly implicated in its failure, through his orchestration of the expedition rather than his military prowess. And I think that Thucydides has a lot more time for Nikias than Strauss lets on – Thucydides portrays him as a decent, but limited man, while Strauss portrays him as a semi-Lacadaemonian superstition monger, and very possibly as a hypocritical manipulator. I don’t know of any authority for Strauss’s implication that Nikias may have orchestrated the mutilation of the Hermai so as to discredit Alcibiades; this seems to me to be Strauss’s own invention. But perhaps I’m ignorant of the sources; I’m not a classicist by training.

And it does seem to me that Strauss does seek to rehabilitate Alcibiades – and perhaps even to identify the Alcibiadean character as the heart of Athens. Strauss goes to some lengths to discount Pericles as a representative of the spirit of Athens; he also comments that Pericles probably would not have had the necessary _phusis_ to rescue the Sicilian pages, a couple of pages before he says that Alcibiades’ daring might have saved the expedition had it been untrammelled by Nikias etc. When Strauss talks of the glories of the Athenian character, he does so in terms that seem to me to be strongly reminiscent of Alcibiades’ reported virtues – spontaneity, generosity, love of beauty. The implication seems to me to be that Periclean Athens might in fact, for Strauss, have been Alcibidean Athens – Alcibiades representing the Athenian character in politics at its best.

On Xenophon – this is one of the few things that I agree with Strauss about – he’s underrated. Although, _contra_ Strauss, I’m not at all sure that he’s a subtle philosopher – I haven’t read the Cyropaedia though. I’m an especially big fan of the _Anabasis_ – perhaps in part because Xenophon was rather easier going than some of the other texts that were assigned when I studied Greek.

You’re right – I am in a department with a few prominent Straussians – and very nice colleagues they are to have too. I haven’t argued this through with them, and suspect that I wouldn’t dare to (except perhaps over good dinner and wine in congenial circumstances).

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David 10.15.03 at 1:17 am

Henry,

If you will forgive my bluntness, Xenophon’s work is favorably cited by Cicero, Machiavelli, and Sir Philip Sidney. This is not proof of his intelligence but it should raise our curiosity at the very least. I’ve read incompetent dismissals of his work by “scholars” such as Charles Kahn so I look askance at all who may disparage Xenophon without truly devoting the time to study him.

As for Alcibiades, he is the very symbol for eros misdirected. Strauss never tires of telling his audience about the dangers of trying to educate an Alcibiades. It is interesting to see that while Strauss is reviled by many today, he was one of a very few who actually read Plato’s dialogues as dialogues, rather than poorly written essays ala Aristotle. The fact that the dialogues are read as Strauss (and a few others) claimed they needed to be read is evidence of his insight. That many ignore him as one of the originators of this idea is unfortunate.

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Grimly 11.16.03 at 9:42 pm

Not to go too deep, I wrote Strauss off when he endorsed Richard Nixon for president in the run-up to the 1968 election. I had previously written Nixon off after seeing a newsreel in which he was shown addressing a group of businessmen, explaining in his most sincere and earnest manner that he was a “liberal conservative” or a “conservative liberal” – I can’t recall which, but it doesn’t much matter because neither makes any sense. * Straussian reading of the books – It was in the late 1950’s that I heard Strauss lecture on Machiavelli and came away from it and the question period that followed unconvinced. Although he was persuasive, Strauss tended to push things too far, almost to a mystical level; that is to say, some of his readings were so esoteric that one had to have faith in order to believe them. He provides a nice field for intellectual exercise, but he is not to be blindly followed; nor is anyone, for that matter. * As for the neocon disciples of Strauss in the U.S. government and what they say, one has a choice: Either they they really believe their public statements, or they are judicious with the truth. Both possibilites are disturbing.

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