On Leo Strauss’ Esotericism: Xenophon’s Socrates 76

I wish Strauss’ esoteric writing would contain awful drivel like “bomb Iraq” or “we need real men, a new aristocracy” – it probably would make reading his work a lot easier. As it stands, Strauss says none of those things. In Xenophon’s Socrates, he goes out of his way to show a Xenophon willing to cover for what is, in essence, modern science (XS 123-4). He shows any favoritism Socrates had for aristocrats or oligarchs to be fatal (73). You can’t really label Strauss’ thought as “conservative” or “liberal.”

What really interests Strauss is the approach he himself is taking to the text. That approach is always vulnerable to the charge of insufficient evidence. A good close-reader thinks through the text. You bring out assumptions, associations and implications that may or may not hold. Some of the more tenuous are the most provocative and interesting. When you’re arguing that some of the greatest in the history of ideas hid some of their more radical thoughts, you wonder if you have to leap from assumption to assumption to get a sufficiently challenging set of ideas. The question for Strauss is how close-reading itself could be an invitation to philosophy. How can you write a book that genuinely gets its reader to question?

I can’t put what follows in the dissertation. It’s far too speculative. Still, I think it complements the argument Richard Velkley is more thoroughly making in On Original Forgetting (the “Parabasis” of that book is highly recommended. The footnotes are very important). Strauss declares [for Xenophon?] that “wisdom for which the philosophers long is obviously something noble” (74). This doesn’t make a lot of sense taken alone. One would need to argue that nobility is a “shining forth” from man, man at his best, to connect it to the apprehension of truth. Heidegger emphasizes Greeks who thought such a thing, but not Strauss. Strauss gives us a narrative where the philosopher asks “what is” questions – he inquires after the nature of things – and by implication nobility is “conventional,” i.e. not natural. In the Oeconomicus, the problem is visible at points: the noble and good gentleman has to have wealth and stature, but then must be ready to sacrifice everything on behalf of the city. If nobility was natural, wouldn’t it simply be good for the gentleman? Does nobility alone reflect the whole truth of human being, or is it an opinion of the city?

Wisdom as something noble breaks into two approaches. First, “things are good in relation to needs” (75). One can say Socrates needs wisdom and wisdom is therefore good. The result is the Socratic self-control that gives him exceptional continence and command over speeches. He needs virtually nothing and perhaps even no one; he is self-sufficient. The complication here is that love of wisdom – not wisdom itself – is creating the Socratic life which we are assuming good. It is not clear wisdom is good for human beings. Most times when we get something good, it has more to do with what is effectual, less to do with the truth.

That leads to the second approach. Strauss cites as evidence that “the identification of the good and noble is paradoxical” a section that doesn’t exist: Memorabilia III.6.30 (76). At first I thought this a misprint; it is true at III.6.3 has Socrates tell Glaucon that if he does good for the city, one will be honored (considered noble) by it. Fair enough. But just to see what III.6.30 could be, I counted 30 sections from the opening of III.6. That brought me to III.8.3, where Socrates declares this: “if you are asking me at any rate if I know something that is good for nothing, I neither know it, nor need it.” One could characterize wisdom as good for nothing: we lie because it is useful. One could go so far as to say that wisdom is “obviously” noble because nobility itself is literally good for nothing. There are other ways to defend and equip the city and its citizens. Someone could simply know better and lead through that. Only a comprehensive wisdom that knew the results of every action would be good for most. Wisdom as self-knowledge or even as physics may be useless most of the time. The character of whatever wisdom Socrates “needs” has to be good, but it is an open question what is good given Socrates’ life.

Obviously I don’t want to argue anything based on an incorrect section number. Not only does it seem a misprint, but it leads to issues of “what edition was Strauss using” blah blah. But I do think that Strauss’ esotericism leads directly to philosophy itself being questionable. The value of philosophy is being questioned in the passages Strauss points to, independent of the “misprint” issue. And I think, on a larger level, that’s how the strangeness of reading thoughtfully is justified. You can’t just go into a text and think “I am thinking philosophical thoughts.” That rapidly leads to all kinds of bloviating. What might keep one in check is the continual uncovering of challenges, serious challenges. The most serious is whether philosophy should be done at all. Strauss was sensitive to that question, but our age thinks philosophy rigorous and at times science itself, without realizing why other ages were scared to death of science and where they saw rigor most necessary.


Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. South Bend: St. Augustine’s, 1998.

1 Comment

  1. That’s interesting about the misprint–to confirm, just test it with other references where the section cited does exist: add a zero to the end of the other references, do the counting, and see if your mind could imagine a similar “connection”. If you start seeing them everywhere, you know your esoteric imagination has slipped its leash. I think that ingenuity needs some kind of control, but it must be internal to the interpreter–only you know when you’re taking it too far. You’re the first to ask: what’s the bottom line? There has to be a provisional result of some solidity; otherwise, it’s a hall of mirrors you can’t get out of. I suspect you understand this as well as anyone.

    Beauty does not seem to me quite as conventional as nobility, but kalon is used for both. I suspect that nobility is really just a species or interpretation of beauty, but I wonder what you would say.

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