Briefly Noted: Christopher Nadon, “Leo Strauss’s Restatement on Why Xenophon”

The article discussed below can be found in Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 39 issue 2, Apr-Jun 2010. 77-81

Nadon’s Xenophon’s Prince, a study of The Education of Cyrus, is solid, useful scholarship and highly recommended. The article at hand is rather problematic.

Nadon builds a case that Strauss took the time in an article ostensibly responding to criticism of his scholarship on Xenophon to accuse Thomas Aquinas of failing to secure the “private character” and “inner freedom” of philosophy. Why Xenophon? Because Aquinas had quite a bit of help from Plato. From Plutarch’s Nicias – once, people simply opposed philosophy:

…Socrates, though he had no concern whatever with this sort of learning [natural science and sophistry], yet was put to death for philosophy. It was only afterwards that the reputation of Plato, shining forth by his life, and because he subjected natural necessity to divine and more excellent principles, took away the obloquy and scandal that had attached to such contemplations, and obtained these studies currency among the people (Plutarch, Nicias 23 quoted from Nadon 80)

“Divine” is being read literally: philosophy is theology’s handmaiden, and this makes Christianity “Platonism for the masses.” The complete lack of restraints on science may be a consequence of the success of political philosophy. Political philosophy apologizes for philosophy and makes it acceptable to the city. Machiavelli, seen in this light, carries the Platonic torch even while breaking with the parts of the tradition that counsel moderation or prize gentlemanly virtue. To be clear: to use reason to master all things is unreasonable. It is in some way a trust in the supernatural.

Xenophon, by contrast,

…was willing to subscribe to the prosaic maxim “that the just is identical with the legal” [101] and to clothe “his truly royal soul” in “the disguise of a beggar.” There is, I think, no record of anyone ever having referred to the divine or even demonic Xenophon. Nor is there any such thing as Xenophonism, at least not yet (81).

Nadon’s article features elements that would inspire conspiracy theorists. “Strauss hated Christianity” would be the obvious complaint from the discussion of Thomas Aquinas. Nadon is at his strongest showing Strauss’ reservations about him:

By divorcing philosophy from happiness, Aquinas would seem to deprive it of its character as a “way of life,” to make it instrumental and thus more likely to decay into a “teaching” or dogmatic prejudice. Kojeve is not the only, or even the first, to claim to have synthesized the Bible and classical philosophy in a manner that makes the best regime attainable, or to believe that our deepest love can be for a being simply because he is, and to consider satisfaction within the reach of all regardless of their philosophic dispositions. “Syntheses effect miracles…” (80)

And, of course, we must not forget the “Strauss hated modernity” and “Strauss hated science” factions. What I need to do is show you that Strauss’ thought is much more sober and valuable than the impression from the presentation above. That is not hard to do. We can start with the fact that he mentioned that Plato and Xenophon are pretty much asserting the same thing.

We then move to the area Nadon first neglects: the relation of the “Restatement” (Strauss’ article) to the Hiero. Nadon builds a decent but not airtight case that the “Restatement” has virtually nothing to do with the Hiero (77). As far as I’m concerned, any serious student of Xenophon – who, on Nadon’s reading, we are being led back to – cannot walk away from the essay without thinking that the tyrant is defined by a rather base eros. He wants to be loved by all; he is caught in the trap that the tyrant must be feared in order to survive. Given that philosophy is eros (something Strauss develops at length in a considerable number of writings and lectures), it may be the case that the “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” is not simply ranting about Christianity or modernity. At the very least, one has to realize that in a dialogue where a poet  more than likely fails to moderate a tyrant despite his giving a custom-made, amoral, strictly political teaching, the philosopher and his true eros are in the background. This is not to lead to some irresponsible, thoughtless statement like “religion is tyranny” or “philosophy is tyranny.” Rather, we can contrast the tyrant’s lack of respect for law with the Spartan kingship, which preserved Sparta despite itself and was very much based in religion (cf. Xenophon, “Spartan Constitution”).

Which leads us to a further conclusion. It is true philosophy takes on radical, disturbing questions. It is true it can be merciless when it accuses. There’s no doubt in my mind Strauss does not hold Aquinas at the level of al-Farabi or Maimonides, to say the least. But philosophy does not simply attempt to expose anything unscientific or impractical as superstition. First and foremost, it wonders. There is a respect for piety involved. Xenophon may not be daimonic, but his Socrates – just like Plato’s – has a daimonion. Strauss does argue that the daimonion is the other side of Socrates’ eros; the Scholastic concept of “natural inclination” seems to fit perfectly. But Strauss knows, just like you and me, that this is just the beginning of any serious consideration. For the daimonion – perhaps the most natural thing – did cause him to be accused of impiety. In some sense, it was a foreign god with its own attendant rites and conventions to be followed. We need to wonder about what is worth listening to, maybe even obeying. Perhaps in that search for the “good” we will find some ideas to certainly be part of the whole, but only ancillary.

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