On the intersection of poetry, politics and philosophy

I’ve owed all of you an explanation for this blog for some time, but I dread writing posts like these. The best discussion of how poetry, politics and philosophy relate is Book X of Plato’s Republic. What is below is obviously not meant to replace that discussion in any way. All I want to do is quote a few passages from an essay by Seth Benardete, “Strauss on Plato,” and add a comment or two where appropriate:

What philosophy is seems to be inseparable from the question of how to read Plato. Now almost no philosopher after Plato wrote at length about philosophy, and from antiquity at least there are few notices that inform us about the principles of Platonic writing. Three, however, stand out; the first two, in Plutarch and Cicero, respectively, point directly to the issue of esotericism; the third, in Aelian, to the very nature of philosophy. Plutarch implies that by the subordination of natural necessities to more divine principles Plato made philosophy safe for the city (Nicias 23.5); and in the Tusculan Disputations (5.4.11), Cicero remarks that he followed the way of Socrates, as it was made known by Plato, in his own dialogues, in concealing his own opinions, relieving others of error, and seeking in every dispute what is most like to the truth. Aelian tells the story of the painter Pauson who was hired to paint a racehorse rolling in dust and instead painted it running, and when his patron objected Pauson told him to turn it upside down, and Aelian says that there was much talk to the effect that this resembled the speeches of Socrates (Varia Historia 14.15). (Benardete 407)

The temptation is to skip right to the last part of Benardete’s “notices,” and it is probably true that the very nature of philosophy is right in front of us at that point. But to get any sort of clarity, we need to pay close attention to the leading-up: “the subordination of natural necessities to more divine principles” is by no means obvious, especially since the import of that phrase is about making the mere love (Gk. philo) of wisdom (Gk. sophia) “safe” for political life – more specifically, safe for life in general. Once you get a hint of the darkness underlying this proposition, one to which a crude atheism would be utterly insensitive, one can see why Socrates and Plato decided that philosophy should stay hidden in a most important way. Cicero – not the most shy of individuals, and one we have to thank not just for trying to save republicanism, but for helping give us access to Plato and Aristotle – moves beyond concealment, but in this listing, also moves beyond the thorniest, most interesting questions regarding nature and the divine. He relieves others of error, but only seeks what is “most like to the truth.” That’s not an insignificant thing; no less than God is concerned with the disposition of the heart more than the contents of the mind; but. Finally, I’m not going to comment significantly on the story Aelian recites. Amazing how the most serious things are almost nonsensical, mythical stories. In the story of a painting of a racehorse is a comment on how one could conceive of life (and death) itself.

Everything is on the table, and the essay by Benardete steps back. The title is “Strauss on Plato,” the point is to pay homage to one’s teacher:

It was the extraordinary merit of Leo Strauss to experience the import of these three remarks (among others) and render them to the life in his own writings on Plato and elsewhere. This achievement amounts to, in my opinion, as great a recovery as that of al-Farabi, who rediscovered philosophy in the tenth century. The common thread in their recovery was no doubt their common understanding of revelation as the alternative to philosophy; but since after paganism the three revealed religions were already infected by philosophy to various degrees, they had to recover revelation in its true form at the same time as they recovered its opposite. For both purposes, Plato’s Laws was their guide. As a recovery, theirs might seem of less significance than the original discovery; but as al-Farabi and Strauss knew, the original discovery was itself not at the beginning of philosophy. Philosophy had to be rediscovered by Socrates long after there had been philosophy. Plato has Socrates call his rediscovery a second sailing. The second sailing is philosophy, and it is never first. The false start of philosophy can alone jumpstart philosophy (Benardete 408).

One way of discussing the true form of revelation is to discuss tragedy and politics – yes, both together. I’ll let you know when I’m done rereading the Laws properly, sometime in the next 30 years or so. Skipping far ahead in the essay:

One has to turn to Xenophon in order to understand the double sense contained within Platonic dialectic (Memorabilia 4.5.12). Xenophon says that to converse (dialegesthai) meant for Socrates the coming together of men for the purpose of deliberation by dividing (dialegein) the things (ta pragmata) by kinds (gene). The middle voice dialegesthai contains within it the active, dialegein. The communication among men involves the articulation of things. This Heraclitean insight into the double nature of logos was the basis for Strauss’ reading of Plato (Benardete 408-9).

We’re going to consider this quote and stop: the way Benardete develops this insight is particularly dense when one reads ahead. In The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy, the same saying of Xenophon is discussed, but with a seemingly different end in mind: Socrates’ interlocutors revealed their nature by how they spoke. In their speaking, they divided themselves into “kinds:” logos (hidden within legein, “to speak”) led back to gene (yes, “genesis” is a related word). A discussion of logos/legein as a kind of natural “collecting” is in Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, “The Restriction of Being” and is highly recommended. There’s more: the speaking/reasoning (logos) is not airy talk; it is the “articulation of things,” and in pragmata – from where we get “pragmatic” – you can see this is nothing less than command of reality. No wonder other philosophers are continually looking for principles with which to justify the existence of the material world; philosophy may be too powerful a tool. Then again, the division is had within oneself: the middle voice in Greek moves beyond subject as doer of the action (active) and subject as receiver of the action (passive) to something like “subject is the most integral part of understanding the action/state.” To what degree is the philosopher only conversing with himself, seeing his opinions as other people? Natural science was originally philosophy; perhaps if truth involves certainty, the one thing we know to be true is that we can never underestimate just how much darkness surrounds us.


Benardete, Seth. “Strauss on Plato.” The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 407-417

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