If I want to get started reading Leo Strauss, where do I begin?

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.

16 Comments

  1. I think that the essay “What is political philosophy” (which appears both in Pangle’s “Rebirth”) AND in the collection edited by Hilail Gildin is a great place to begin.

    Ashok, just out of curiosity: What do you think of “The Closing of the American Mind” as a potential entree to Strauss?

    I have always been ambivalent about this question myself, thinking that Bloom’s book is in some ways a great place to start, but also that it is so redolent with idiosyncracies as to be misleading. I mean, it’s not REPRESENTATIVE, despite the fact that I think it introduces some of the main themes. What is your own feeling on this?

    oh, and that reminded me: I think Strauss’s two esssays on liberal education (obvious source for Bloom) are also useful.

    Regards,

    -Mal.

  2. @ Mal – Yeah, I was reluctant to put down WIPP b/c of some comments Lampert has made about the treatment of Nietzsche at the end of that essay (see “Leo Strauss and Nietzsche” for more, Amazon’s preview actually has the relevant passage). Roughly: there’s more going on than I thought there was, and I’m wondering how much is going on.

    Still, it was a good read (I read it eons ago). Maybe someone will click with it, and it is general enough.

    I have to reread Bloom. It’s way, way denser than I thought it was. I think it is representative of where one wants to go with thought – not just make clever points about things, but get a grip on how things are changing and what they might be like otherwise. I probably wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction because quite a few readers will get hung up on “he hates popular music” and all that junk.

    My own thought is that it’s way better to start with Strauss on a particular text, and get into the issue of where his own thought is coming from exactly. The more general stuff tends to lend itself to immediate comparison/contrast with other thinkers, many of whom don’t read quite as carefully and certainly don’t refine the issues presented by a text as they work through it. That latter really is the key, and you can’t quite see it as well in the works that have greater scope.

  3. I agree that T. Pangle introduction to The Rebirth… is very clea and thoughtful, so the postface by Guglielmina. But the book in itself may be quite hard.

    I disagree that Natural Right..; should be too difficult. The book addresses the very probleme of relativism and the problem of positivism through the difference between modern and classical philo.

    Anyhow, Reading Strauss is a never ending process!

  4. Ashok,

    Thanks for that.

    On your comments: yes.

    I heard that Bloom’s publisher moved
    the section on popular music to the front, thus (sigh) ensuring that the book would be consigned to being a straw man for any number of “the kids are all right” responses. It’s a real pity, as I think that the ‘our virtue’ stuff IS a brilliant polemical introduction.

    The chapter of the book that I think is most useful as an introduction to Strauss is the third “Nihilism, American Style”, which, perhaps unsurprisngly, I have almost never seen mentioned in any of the (many) reviews of the book written at the time of its success/infamy.

    Instead, there was much predictable indignation caused by the popular music stuff, followed by incredulity at the fourth section based on Bloom’s Cornell memories (I confess that I myself think this the weakest section of the book.)

    I also would have thought (with Claude Rochet) that NRH wouldn’t have been a bad place to start (it was one of the first things that I read for instance), although now that I have read it a couple more times, it occurs to me that I seem to have read it through the first time with my eyes closed.
    Consequently, I can see where your reservations are coming from.

    I’ll have to look at the Amazon thing now. I’ve actually only skimmed Lampert’s book, which I found disconcerting. What I saw of it, does not accord with my own reading of Strauss, but I suppose that’s a discussion for another time.

  5. @Claude – if your students are good enough, nothing will be hard for them. But I’ve seen quite a few get bored with NR & H a page or two in, and as you’re aware, NR & H is too fundamental to get bored with so easily.

    For those of you peeking in on this discussion: more important than “esotericism” – that authors will hide their best thoughts in order to be found out by wiser readers – is the theme of “natural right” as defining a text as belonging to the tradition of political philosophy. That “natural right,” the assumption that there are things by nature just, is the key is put forth most strongly in NR & H.

    Still. Not recommended for beginners. Start somewhere else.

    @Mal – A professor whom I trust as the authority on all things Strauss isn’t terribly fond of the ‘Plato = Nietzsche by means of Alfarabi’ contention. But I think that opening chapter urging us to reconsider how Strauss read Nietzsche is on the money. St. Augustine’s Press put out a printing of “Xenophon’s Memorabilia,” the commentary by Strauss, and it has an introduction by Bruell that discusses how Strauss’ own writing might work.

  6. I think a good place to start is to read allan bloom’s comment at the end of his translation of Plato’s republic, its quite long for a commentary but short compared to most books. then you can read, city and man by strauss – there should be some overlap, in essence you can learn what struass is teaching by bloom. This is important too because it focuses on their root – socrates. their god is the philosopher.

    natural history and right is also a good book even if its not fully understood. this is because it compares the modern idea of natural right to the classic idea, which is fundamental to understanding strauss. he shows the break with the ancients in this work, though he starts with hobbes. but later AFTER he wrote this book, he discovers the real break is with machiavelli.

    struass’s book on machiavelli is genius. this is where he shows talks some of the esoteric v exoteric writing style of philosophers (which is fundamental to his outlook). but i could not begin to understand this until i began to read harvey mansfield commentaries, who is a straussian in his views on machiavelli.

    furthermore, strauss’s book on tyranny with respect to xenophons book really will really highlight the esoteric v exoteric writing. christopher nadon’s book about xenophons education of cyrus is also genius, and highlights strauss’s teaching about philosophers esoteric writing, and the ancient v modern, xenophon v. machiavelli.

    the next step on my own agenda, although my understanding of all of it is quite poor, is to move now to strauss/bloom’s view on nietzsche and his criticism of socrates, and the 2nd break of the moderns which is dangerous to philosphy (i.e. socrates).

    the straussians worship philsophy, believe it is too dangerous for the masses and cannot coexist with the city, and the goal is how to preserve it. but they cannot go back to the ancients.

  7. I guess a couple of things:

    1) You said in “places to avoid” that you wouldn’t bother about the essays and lectures on social science, relativism, historicism, positivism, etc., which is how Strauss opens up The City and Man. And your right, it really does not look all that ‘esoteric’ or complicated at first glance. I was just wondering why you say that it might be more dense?

    2) At what point does one who claims themselves a ‘Straussian’ (broad term, yes?) reach a certain level of absurdity? I know that many of the so-called neocons have been ‘accused’ of belonging to the Strauss camp and all sorts of people have problems with it. The reason I bring this up is that Mr. Yoo recently wrote an editorial in the Wall St. Journal in defense of the Bush-Cheney security protocol, and even his argument seemed to have a sort of veneer to it, with perhaps some underlaying Straussian concepts and framework. I wish I could dig up the link for you, but if that is correct, do those sorts of things have any business in that capacity? It becomes not a matter of what can be read into old texts, but things that affect us in the here and now as well.

  8. Looking back at Yoo’s editorial, it really doesn’t seem bad, but if he can pull John Locke into his argument for the CIA hit-teams, it does still seem to open pandora’s box for a variety of opposing voices.

  9. @ thag –

    1. Mal’s experience above gets it right: once you read further, you’ll be like “hey wait a second. Something doesn’t add up,” even if there is no explicit contradiction. Strauss is almost always writing with particular audiences in mind, who change from work to work. But it’s just a good rule of thumb with anything political philosophy related to go “this is what it could be saying,” and work from there. There are a few straightforward things in philosophy, but even they end up getting questioned.

    2. That’s a good question, re: Mr. Yoo, esp. since I’m rather explicitly pushing people to try and know the intellectual origins of their thought, and I’m aware that they’re going to fail most of the time.

    I’m not sure of the answer, but this much is certain: Locke and Hobbes and many in modernity – not all – aren’t really doing political philosophy as much as politics straight-up. I mean, Hobbes is almost explicitly pushing for a certain type of government, and Locke was an activist. So in terms of certain political philosophers being used to defend certain policies, i.e. “Would Locke hold the federative power includes torture,” I mean, that’s an open question, but the question is legitimate.

    The question is less legitimate inasmuch we’re talking about the classics and the aspects of modern thought responding/expanding upon classical thought. Swift held there were two sorts of esoteric: modern esotericism, which is of the spider: the beautiful web comes from the foulest means. But ancient esotericism – which seems to use politics as a metaphor for philosophy – is of the bee, where the sweet flowers produce even sweeter honey.

  10. Thag: not sure whether Ashok would agree with me on this, but I think that the Aristotle part and (maybe) even the Plato part of “The City and Man” are relatively straightfoward. The Thucydides section on the other hand: Ay, Carumba. That’s the main reason I’d avoid that text as a beginning…

    Ashok: Swift on the spiders vs. bees reminded me of an intelligent remark that a friend of mine made about “esotericism” in dramas written by Elizabethan Christians who had read Plato (like John Lyly). I was having a similar problem with the hints of esotericism that one occassionally finds in people like Rousseau and Kant. The problem was; why would someone practice an art of writing if (as a Christian or as an Aufklaerer — man of the enlightenment) they believed in at least the ultimate universality of their message, i.e. if they more or less explicitly rejected (or even wanted to overutrn) any idea of natural distinctions between the many and the few.

    My friend (who is a Catholic) showed me a book on Medieval and Renaissance mnemonics, that said that one of the reasons for doing things like concealing the fact that x is obviously a reference to y, or deliberately not mentioning what the tradition would considered the definitive statement on this matter (e.g. a well-known line from Paul’s one of epistles) at hand (while mentioning all other referneces) could serve amongst other things as a kind of reward for those who had studied the tradition: a joy, or an ‘Aha’ moment that would keep the seeker on the path of truth, allow the pilgrim to rest, kind of like a ‘musical joke’ in a quartet.

    I also think you’re making an important point here in this last (seemingly elliptical) comment: esotericism is more like Swift’s irony (which frequently denounces something and then denounces the habit of denunciation), in other words it’s the kind of thing in which we look below the surface only to see that the truth was always ON the surface (and nowhere else).

    If we forget this, esotericism seems way too much like either either simple lying (I mean x, but I say the opposite), or the kind of ‘play records backwards to get subliminal messages’ travesty of a ‘depth’ hermeneutic. But this is not what we find in Plato, even if we do find it in people who confuse Strauss with a Rosicrucian obssessed theosophist. I’ll give two examples, just in case I’m not clear.

    1) Socratic irony (he claims he doesn’t know..but isn’t that a form of knowledge…yes, but it doesn’t make the claim to ignorance a lie.)
    2) The just city in the Republic. Does Plato give us many hints that undermine the idea that the idea of the just city in this dialogue is his true political teaching. Again, undoubtedly. But it’s not that the just city in the Republic is only a joke.
    (Stanley Rosen’s “Republic” is good on this).

  11. Thank you, gentlemen. You do a service to the online community! I’ve been stumbling through the essay on Politics, and right away I was uncomfortable with something else I thought someone might like to answer while we are on Strauss: He says something at the start of the essay about how philosophy is concerned with “first things” and the relationship between “nature” and “convention.” What I didn’t get what this particular little nugget:

    “Cicero draws our attention to the special effort which was required to turn philosophy toward the human things: philosophy turns primarily away from the human things toward the divine or natural things; no compulsion is needed to establish philosophy in the cities or to introduce it into the households, but philosophy must be compelled to turn back to the human things from which it originally departed.”

    The entire section after the semi-colon loses me. There is no compulsion to bring it to the households, but compulsion needed to turn it back to the human things? Meaning, the households look at philosophy in its regard to divine things, before? And I also have a difficult time discerning how this lays into the establishment of an argument for natural right, but I’m almost positive this is part of it, somehow.

  12. I’m really interested Ashok in what you say about Hobbes and Locke being directly engaged in politics- I agree with you- both of them were tiedf very closely into the politics of the day and Leviathan and the Two Treatises are in part shaped by the fact that they are written to a moment in history. I’m intrigued though about this because I would have thought a characteristic of pre-modern, pre-university thought is that it comes from people who circle the political process- three obvious examples are Polybius, Cicero and Machiavelli- I was wondering whether you felt that the Hobbes-Locke engagement was different to the engagement others had and why?

    I am afraid I’ve read too little of Strauss to really comment but its an interesting discussion to read.

  13. Thag,

    It’s a tricky one: but I’ll give it a go.

    I think that the passage has to be read as being about philosophical ‘eros’ and the difficulties of making someone possessed by eros pay attention to the matters of the city.

    So: you know that philosophy for Plato is inextricably connected with eros, with the desire for the whole (c.f. Aristophanes speech in the Symposium) for transcendence (see Diotima’s speech), that which makes desire insatiable or which makes us look beyond this specific object of desire to something like the cause or wellspring of desire. For Christian neo-Platonists this teaching is interpreted as the idea that all love is ultimatley love of God. Thus, Augustine will say in “De Trinitate” that when we love the beloved we also love love and therefore God. Whether or not we use the neo-Platonist version, the point is that eros reaches beyond, i.e. will not be satisfied with the norms, laws, traditions, and institutions (“nomoi”)of the city: it will look beyond its ‘gods’ (here to be thought of in terms of a civic religion rather than a question of individual faith) beyond what is institutionally approved, beyond what all “right thinking people “think. This is because, of course, philosophy wants to ask questions about what we hold to be true, beautiful and good. But we cannot question accepted wisdom without taking a certain distance from it. And from the perspective of received wisdom that distance can seem dangerous or capricious or impious. Of course, this abstraction, meanst hat philosophy can claim to reach higher notions of justice and of the good than merely political ones (compare what Socrates says about justice to what Polemarchos, who died fighting the thirty says…ashok has written on this). However, the erotic nature of philosophy also means that a comparsion can be made between the philosopher and a tyrant. Both have a potential to disregard what is considered sacred and what is considered shameful: the tyrant because his lusts are so insatiable, and the philosopher because her eros is directed at an object that is ‘above’ that of the good of the city, i.e. politics.

    Because of this tendency, philosophy needs to become political philosophy which requires it to be ‘arrested’ in its flight from the world. The remark about Cicero is saying: philosophy doesn’t need a firestrater: there is an erotic part of the soul, and insofar as there is this erotic nature in human beings, philosphy will arise.

    The tricky part is political philosophy: philosophy that understands its own dangers, and that sets limits for itself without betryaing its own (erotic) nature. To think more about this, consider two people: one a fundamentally decent (but unintellectual) person, second a brilliant, mercurial Alcibiades: intellectual, iconoclastic et cetera, but maybe (because of this) not the best of people. A political philosopher is someone who is impelled by love of wisdom, but who also is concerned for politics, which deals with the city of man and not the city of God. Political philosophy is thus the tension between philosophy and politics.

    Hope this helps,

    Mal.

  14. Mal:

    That was pretty good — a different spin on things than what I’ve heard. If I am getting this right, Alcibiades is sort of like a….director’s cut (??) version of philosophy — the truth can be too much, or something? Sort of like the Thucydides essay, where Strauss is saying that Thucydides is by no means spouting simple Athenian praise, and that great men probably shouldn’t?

  15. I recently came across an interview transcript with Shadia Drury, who claims that Strauss saw in the history of political philosophy only esotericism as a sinister cover for Strauss’ so-called belief that, for example, the Greeks’ teaching boils down to justice=rule by the stronger. From the interview:

    A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons – to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.

    The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the “tyrannical teaching” of his beloved ancients…(p. 70).

    What are we to make of Ms Drury?

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