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Is There a “Straussian” Plato?

  • Catherine H. Zuckert


The four books reviewed here illustrate the pervasive influence of Leo Strauss on contemporary studies of Plato. However, although the authors all acknowledge their debt to Strauss, they produce remarkably different views of Plato. Reading these books in conjunction with one another cannot help but make one wonder whether there is any longer, if there ever was, a “Straussian” sect or school.



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1 His depiction of the “world” of the dialogues thus stands in marked contrast to Lampert's detailed account of the historical conditions, political and intellectual, in Athens at the time at which Socrates is shown to be conversing as well as of the individuals with whom he talks.

2 Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 124–25.

3 Strauss, Leo, “Progress or Return?,” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, ed. Gildin, Hilail (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 249310.

4 A particularly important example of this practice concerns the ideas. Lampert quotes Strauss's statement that “the doctrine of ideas which Socrates expounds to his interlocutors is very hard to understand; to begin with, it is utterly incredible” (City and Man, 119). He does not quote Strauss's concluding qualification of his explanation of the reasons Glaucon and Adeimantus accept the doctrine with relative ease: “This is not to deny that there is a profound difference between the gods as understood in the theology of the Republic and the ideas” (ibid., 121), because that observation goes against Lampert's argument.

5 In a footnote (15n22), Lampert observes that in Plato's Philosophers: On the Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), I also argue for “a chronological” reading of Plato's dialogues, but he does not state either the extent of the overlap or the differences as sharply as they could be stated. I treat the “dramatic dates,” i.e., the indications Plato gives of the time at which each conversation occurred, as merely that, indications or hints, and on the basis of those hints sketch an overarching narrative in the dialogues. Lampert argues that the dates of the dialogues can be precisely determined (despite apparent anachronisms and contradictions). We both agree, however, that the significance of the dates lies in the “story” that can be constructed by reading the dialogues in the order indicated by the dates. Despite our differences with regard to the dramatic date of the Republic, the first steps or stages of the story of the development of Socratic philosophy Lampert and I tell on the basis of the dramatic dates are similar. We both observe that Plato presents Socrates's account of his own becoming retrospectively in the only three narrated dialogues not recounted by Socrates himself. We both observe that in the Protagoras Plato gives his readers their first view of Socrates after his instruction by “Diotima” in the Symposium, and that in the Protagoras and Charmides Plato shows how Socrates initially attracted his two most notorious associates, Alcibiades and Critias, although neither remained one of his regular companions. From these early encounters Lampert and I both argue that Socrates learned that he had to change the way in which he presented his philosophy. Lampert and I disagree markedly, however, about what Socrates was trying to do in these early encounters and what he learned from them, because we derive very different understandings of the content and character of Socratic philosophy from the Phaedo, Parmenides, and Symposium. I argue that Socrates sought young companions because he had discovered that he could respond to the problems Parmenides had raised about the relation between the eternally unchanging intelligible ideas and changing sensible existence only by persuading other young men to join him in a life of philosophical endeavor and so show how intelligible concepts shape and can shape sensible existence. Lampert promises to give a detailed analysis of Plato's account of the development of Socratic philosophy in the Phaedo, Parmenides, and Symposium in a second book, but he nevertheless ends up making assertions about the true content of Socratic philosophy in this one. As part of the explicitly Nietzschean understanding of the history of philosophy he has been elaborating in all his books, Lampert contends that all of the “wise”—Homer, Socrates, Plato, Protagoras, Descartes, Bacon (i.e., all major poets, philosophers, and sophists)—share the same understanding: everything is in flux. Although in the Symposium Socrates-cum-Diotima characterizes eros as the desire to possess the good forever and so as a lack that can never entirely be remedied by a mortal, Lampert concludes that “philosophy is eros for eros, being as fecund becoming that allows itself to be glimpsed in what it is: eros or will to power” (417). According to Lampert, the wise have all known that intelligible distinctions among kinds of things are human constructions, i.e., there is nothing distinctively modern about this understanding. To avoid the dangerous consequences of the popular dissemination of that “knowledge,” which flies in the face of a popular desire for a world in which justice reigns, the wise devised a variety of public teachings to protect philosophy from irrational popular antagonism and political order from the corrosive effect of the truth. Lampert thus argues that Socrates learned from his failures with Alcibiades and Critias that he had to articulate a new public teaching and did so in the Republic by convincing Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Thrasymachus to serve new gods, i.e., the ideas. Although I point out that Socrates never presented a consistent or comprehensive list of the ideas and argue that his conception of the ideas is significantly different from those employed by Timaeus and the Eleatic Stranger, I do not agree with Lampert that Socrates's argument about the ideas was merely a public teaching that became, as Nietzsche says, popularized by Christianity as “Platonism for the people.” I follow Strauss in thinking that “the ‘what is’ questions for which Socrates was famous … point to ‘essences,’ to ‘essential’ differences—to the fact that the whole consists of parts which are heterogeneous, not merely sensibly (like fire, air, water, and earth) but noetically; to understand the whole means to understand the ‘What’ of each of these parts, of these classes of beings, and how they are linked with one another.” Strauss concludes, moreover, that “it also remains true that human wisdom is knowledge of ignorance: there is no knowledge of the whole but only knowledge of parts, hence only partial knowledge of parts, hence no unqualified transcending, even by the wisest man as such, of the sphere of opinion” (City and Man, 19–21).

6 See Kojève, Alexandre, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” in On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss, ed. Gourevitch, Victor and Roth, Michael S. (New York: Free Press, 1991), 169–72. However, in the introduction to his translation of Aristotle's Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Carnes Lord explains that there is no historical evidence of a close association between Aristotle and Alexander.

7 Lampert observes in a footnote (180n60) that “Socrates' pre-Potidaean private instruction for Alcibiades also included ‘doing one's own things,’ [and that] Socrates there connected it with justice and made it one of the occasions on which he reduced Alcibiades to saying he did not know what he meant (Alcibiades I 127a–d).” In other words, Socrates's instruction of Alcibiades did not consist in the “knowledge of knowledge” that would enable a man to rule. Lampert notes that “Socrates went on to show Alcibiades the difficulty of knowing oneself, of knowing one's own things (129a), and that knowing oneself is knowing one's soul (130e). Knowing oneself is explicitly said to be sōphrosunē at 131b and 133c. Socrates' final explanation of the words used the image of an eye looking into another eye; for Alcibiades ‘know thyself’ becomes the intimate but shared experience of looking into the eye of the other, of Socrates, that other who just demonstrated his indispensability to Alcibiades (132d–133b)” (186n71). Lampert does not conclude, as this reader does, that Socrates thus shows Alcibiades in the only example we have of his pre-Potidaean teaching that self-knowledge cannot be acquired by oneself alone, but only by someone in conversation with another also seeking knowledge, i.e., philosophizing (rather than ruling). Lampert explains the apparent difference between what Plato shows Socrates teaching Alcibiades before Potidaea and what Critias appropriated from Socrates by suggesting that “the two Alcibiades dialogues intimate that the differences between the political man Alcibiades and the intellectual Critias dictated the different ways in which Socrates attempted to teach them.” Admitting that Socrates says different things to different interlocutors, one is still confronted by the fact that Critias was also an ambitious political man. Opposing commentators who present Critias as tyrannical, greedy, and cruel, Lampert argues that “Critias is not the victim of an evil nature, nor did Socrates corrupt him by an evil doctrine. Instead, Socrates corrupted Critias by opening a path to the natural human dream of an enlightened human community founded and administered by enlightened knowers” (220). In contrast to Xenophon (Memorabilia 1.2.12–16), who defends Socrates from such charges, Lampert maintains that Socrates corrupted both Alcibiades and Critias, even though he admits that Alcibiades did not succumb to Socrates's teaching and that Critias distorted it in a way a man seeking to become a tyrant would. Lampert does not note the similarity between Critias's reinterpretation of the Delphic sayings and the actions Plato attributes to the tyrant in the Hipparchus who is said to have put up Hermae explicitly in competition with those of Delphi.

8 The philosophical issue raised by Critias's definition of moderation is whether self-knowledge can be completely and internally self-reflexive in the way his “knowledge of knowledge” suggests or whether, as Socrates argues, knowledge must always be of something else, i.e., it requires an interaction with things and people outside the knower. The understanding of “knowledge of knowledge” as knowledge of what other forms of knowledge are useful and should be allowed in a community that Lampert attributes to Critias is like the knowledge of the way to use and coordinate all other arts and sciences that the Eleatic Stranger attributes to the statesman; but that knowledge obviously requires knowledge of both human beings and the other arts. To be supreme is not the same as to be self-reflexive or self-contained.

9 Lampert does not note Leo Strauss's observation that in the central section of his account of The Aims of the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle Farabi makes it “absolutely clear” that philosophers can not merely survive but flourish in an imperfect regime; i.e., he does not need to rule, directly or indirectly, in order to live happily as a philosopher (Strauss, , “Farabi's Plato,” in Louis Ginzburg: Jubilee Volume, ed. Lieberman, Saul et al. [New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945], 381).

10 In presenting his Nietzschean history of philosophy Lampert quotes Nietzsche's early praise of Socrates as the “vortex of human history” in the Birth of Tragedy, but never mentions or cites Nietzsche's later critique of the decadent, pessimistic Socrates in “The Problem of Socrates” in Twilight of the Idols.

11 Bruell, Christopher, “Apology of Socrates,” in On the Socratic Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 135–56; and Strauss, Leo, “On Plato's Apology of Socrates and Crito,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 3866.

12 See Strauss, On Tyranny, 199–200.

13 Strauss, “On Plato's Apology,” 66.

14 Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, 149.

15 Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens,” 167–73, distinguishes Socrates from the prophets fundamentally on the grounds that believing in an omnipotent God, the prophets could hope for peace on earth, whereas Socrates, not thinking that human nature could be changed, did not expect war to cease.

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The Review of Politics
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