Amazon sent a promotional e-mail this morning informing me there is a Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, and I took a look and yeah, there are some big names writing the essays: Stephen Smith, Laurence Lampert (whose work on Nietzsche I really need to spend more time with), the Zuckerts (whose work generally I need to spend more time with), Susan Shell, William Galston, Stanley Rosen.
Price: $85. My initial reaction was something like this: 0_0
It was my hope when I started blogging to provide a good amount of the information you needed for the study of various major texts and thinkers for free. The amount I pay for books now is far from prohibitive, but then again, I’ve been doing this a long time – I know what I’m doing when it comes to books.
In any case, Mr. Haglund (thag) has been asking me about where to get started with Strauss, as a few of you have in the past, and I think that advice needs to be expanded upon here. There’s no way I can blog all the stuff you need to know as I’m still working through him.
1. Places I recommend starting:
“Plato,” in the History of Political Philosophy – just the first third on the Republic. Strauss covers the whole of the Republic quickly but doesn’t leave things at a mere summary. He openly asks some of the toughest questions, the most prominent one being “Why does Socrates claim he and Thrasymachus are in agreement at key points?” (paraphrase by me)
“Progress or Return,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Pangle: Self-explanatory, one of the easier and most rewarding works by Strauss.
“On Aristotle’s Politics,” in The City and Man: Having read some of the Politics beforehand helps, but the discussion of slavery in Aristotle is virtuoso and not worth missing. His starting point is Aristotle’s: political rule is the ability to rule and be ruled in turn. This very quickly becomes an implicit critique of the conduct of politics today.
“Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War,” in The City and Man: It is emphatically not enough to read the Melian Dialogue without realizing what happens to the Athenians later and why.
“Critical Note: Locke’s Doctrine of Natural Law:” A very good introduction to how slippery a writer Locke is. This can be found via JSTOR, if you have access to that, or in What is Political Philosophy?
Even though it isn’t by Strauss, I think Seth Benardete’s “Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus” is probably the best example of a Straussian approach to reading a text, and puts the theological/political problem so many write on in a perspective that isn’t dumbed down.
Also, Pangle’s Introduction to Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy is very good, especially as it gives brief interpretations of difficult points in Plato that should get you thinking.
2. Places you should avoid:
- Anything marked “Jerusalem and Athens” or “Reason and Revelation” or whatever. Also, avoid anyone’s work claiming that they’ve figured out what Strauss thinks is the exact relation between these two. You’ll be able to tell the overly simplistic hackjob stuff emanating from various sources on the Left and Right, but the Straussian stuff is usually overly complicated and problematic for the reason that it requires virtuoso readings of several major thinkers put together in an even more complicated way. Trust me, when it’s time, I’ll talk about this on the blog in greater detail, if my job isn’t done already.
- Natural Right and History: This is not an easy read, not at all. I only recommend this if you’ve attempted the Republic and the Politics, have studied some Platonic dialogues and Presocratic thought, have read Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche and feel like you have a grip on the basic ideas and how the texts work. In other words – this is really for graduate students studying political philosophy full time who need to start putting things together. And as I’ve said before, I think there are parts of this work that are “esoteric,” and good luck figuring that out if my hunch is correct.
- And there’s a ton more I really don’t recommend for beginners – the essay on Spinoza in Persecution and the Art of Writing, the “On the Euthyphron” essay, the various works on Xenophon that make things way more complicated than they have to be. I also recommend avoiding anything blasting contemporary schools of thought, i.e. the essays and lectures on social science, relativism, historicism, positivism, etc. Again, that stuff is usually more complicated than it seems at first glance.
The main bit of advice I can give reading Strauss is this: if you go to him looking for what he thinks exactly, you’ve missed the point and will read whatever you feel into his work. The way to approach his thought is to start with a text that confused you almost completely, and then watch how he sets up in his commentaries a question or problem worth addressing. His work is well-constructed, but has a peculiar density because many times he’s trying to address the issues a text gives you in the order presented. When all is said and done – and I hope to expand on this comment later – that’s not as dense as it seems, but actually a return to the surface of the text, complete with a set of reasons for why that particular surface.