Seth Benardete, “Memorial Speech for Leo Strauss”

Extended comment follows. I realize this is a long text and longer post. My initial thought was to let Benardete speak his remembrance without further comment. This is an important speech for a number of reasons, and it needs to be public, if only for the simple fact it is a tribute. But I realize some of you want to know more about the scholarly things mentioned and not feel overwhelmed by a number of names and concepts. You also want some general grounds for why this tribute matters, not just those that convince the converted. I hold there is a beauty, a nobility, to what is below. And you’re owed at least an attempt at an explanation.

Memorial Speech for Leo Strauss (1974) [from The Archaeology of the Soul, ed. Burger & Davis]
Seth Benardete

Leo Strauss was a philosopher. He hid this fact as much as he showed it by being a transhistorical historian of philosophy. He was more historically accurate than the “historians of ideas” for the sake of recovering the human horizon whose articulation is indispensable for our ascending to the natural horizon. He realized that a special effort had to be made by us in order to attain to the distinction, which is at the heart of philosophy, between those things which are first for us and those things which are first by nature. His was an ascent from the cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave. ‘Archaeology’ was the only path still open to any possible ‘physiology.’ Strauss thus attempted to rediscover in a wholly original way the sense of the Socratic enterprise itself, which had argued on behalf of common sense against the madness of the pre-Socratics only to ground common sense on a basis inaccessible to common sense. Strauss was not the first to attempt such a rediscovery; but he was certainly faced with greater obstacles, of an apparently solid and philosophical sort, than anyone before him. And yet he did hold a peculiar advantage over those thinkers who in the last hundred years or so have acknowledged that the ancients were more than clever children, and that their thought deserved rethinking. He approached the ancients without the blinkers of modern classical scholarship — a sign of this was his rediscovery of Xenophon the philosopher — for he knew that such scholarship had taken from the start the side of the moderns. For him neither Greek poetry nor Greek philosophy was essentially Greek. He was guided throughout by a thought much older than modernity. Averroism saw the political-theological issue as the philosophical issue, since the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god. Political philosophy was therefore the eccentric core of philosophy, and the problem of Socrates the problem of philosophy itself.

In his Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss wrote as follows: ‘Thucydides’ History arouses in the reader a sadness which is never aroused by Machiavelli’s books. In Machiavelli we find comedies, parodies, and satires but nothing reminding of tragedy. One half of humanity remains outside of his thought. There is no tragedy in Machiavelli because he has no sense of the sacredness of “the common”.’ Are the ancients, then, tragic Machiavellians and did Strauss himself keep comedy and tragedy in balance? He wrote, after all, on Aristophanes, not Sophocles. Comedy and tragedy is the political-theological issue in its original double form; but philosophy is their joint cancellation. All of Strauss’ life consisted in his making his way back to that pre-philosophical horizon of comedy and tragedy from which philosophy necessarily begins.

The tribal leader of the poets, at least as the West understands poetry, has always been Homer; but among the philosophers, it is Socrates. Their plain opposition to one another is mediated by Plato. The eternal quarrel between poetry and philosophy thus appears as a riddle, for Plato usurps the ground of imitation in order to condemn imitation. In some sense, Strauss was forever engaged in the explication of this Platonic riddle. His explication proved indeed to be another riddle, for in following up a hint of al-Farabi, he never had to have recourse to the symbolic or the mystical in order to vindicate for reason the seemingly poetic in Plato. Imitation is a form of concealment; it is the most obvious as well as the safest way of practicing esotericism; but political prudence in Plato is only paradigmatic; it is ultimately to be traced to a philosophical prudence that has no counterpart among the moderns. The moderns are like spiders, said Swift, who out of the vilest things spin the most beautiful webs; but the ancients are like bees, who from a natural nectar devise something sweeter still. This optimism, as Nietzsche contemptuously called it, is due according to Plato to the causal nature of the good or the idea of the good; and the good is that which subordinates the beauty and the ugliness, which comedy and tragedy somehow discern, to itself. It is that which connects the apparent order and disorder of things with the true order of things. Plato’s writings are imitations of this double order, for only imitation can re-present the doubleness, the riddle, of this double order.

In Natural Right and History Strauss offered a negative proof of the need to rethink classical political philosophy. He showed that the first wave of modern political philosophy, from Machiavelli to Locke, was nothing but the successive dismantling of the disparate wholeness of the soul until it had lost both its wholeness and all its parts. This showing was an anti-Nietzschean, i.e. an anti-historicist historical psychology. It underlined the fact that the study of the soul was central for Strauss in linking up political philosophy with first philosophy. Plato’s psychology was Strauss’s way to Plato’s ideas, and Strauss’s way was the way of the Republic. No single Platonic dialogue, however, can yield Plato’s teaching about the soul; Strauss put great stress on Socrates’ observation in the Republic that the problem of justice there precludes an exact account of the soul, even though the problem of justice seems to require such an account, inasmuch as the structure of the city is presumably in strict accordance with the structure of the soul. The Republic reveals the tension between the political and the natural relation of thymos and eros. Such a tension needs to be represented or imitated. It is imitated through the action of the Republic that accompanies its argument. One might say, in general, that the action of a Platonic dialogue both explains the inadequacies of the argument and deepens the argument. Strauss was the first, as far as we know, to give a coherent account of this double function. He showed that, how, and why the linking up of logos and psyche, which is dialectics, was of the essence of the Socratic revolution. That there are many types of soul, each irreducible to one another, necessarily follows from this linking up (for virtue is and is not knowledge); and these types or wholes, in turn, both underlie the variety of political regimes and point to an essential character of the ideas which is not accessible to us in any other way. The problem of wholes links the city through the soul with the beings. It might seem, however, from his published writings that the ideas were only of peripheral interest to Strauss; but Strauss has properly warned us against writing. In any case, in a letter to me, in reply to some objection of mine which I no longer can remember, Strauss wrote: “I’m aware of the fact that the wholeness of a part does not preclude a plural: there is barely a moment in my waking life when I do not think of donkeys, dogs, and mules.”

Comment:

Why does it matter that “Leo Strauss was a philosopher?” What could possibly be good for us in someone else loving wisdom? I know I have mentioned before that the love of wisdom, philosophy, is not the same thing as actually having wisdom. The value of a scholar, someone who primarily thinks through purposely complicated issues, is questionable.

Yet we do recognize something about being a philosopher which sounds higher, at the least. It’s a tremendous compliment when one does not give it to oneself. Of course, any given height could lend itself to grandiose rhetoric. Benardete says Strauss helped recover the “human horizon whose articulation is indispensable for our ascending to the natural horizon.” Not just that his work enables us to see how we actually live in the here and now, but that such an articulation of how we live, in turn, enables an ascent. We can eventually witness a “natural horizon” where one asks “What is man?” and better understands limits, loves, and possibilities with respect to man as a species, humanity as a whole.

One might say anyone can document how people live or ask “What is man?” and give an answer. It’s not that simple; just like common sense, thinking through things carefully is extremely rare. What makes a true philosopher special is that he can do something seemingly everyday, shared by all humans, and do it extraordinarily well. Benardete speaks to this directly:

He realized that a special effort had to be made by us in order to attain to the distinction, which is at the heart of philosophy, between those things which are first for us and those things which are first by nature. His was an ascent from the cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave.

What is first for us we confuse with what is naturally first. This sounds terribly cryptic, but it’s actually basic Aristotle. When we say something has an end or purpose, what we’re saying is that it exists for something. In other words, what is “first” about a car isn’t only that ore was taken from the ground and turned into metal, giving us material to make a car. Just as primary is the end of a car, why the car was even conceived: that it gets one from point A to point B.

The distinction seems simple enough, but it already speaks to at least two ways of approaching life and knowledge. The talk of the “cave beneath the cave to the cave for the sake of ascending from the cave” is about a famous statement of Strauss’. We have lost sight of the cave of Plato’s Republic, which for Strauss is the realm of conventionality, the city/polis. We cannot begin to properly identify where our beliefs lie and knowledge begins, so we are in the cave beneath the cave. Far more political, ideological, and utilitarian than we assume ourselves being, we need to know about the cave itself to remind us of our limits. But if you do recognize it for what it is, you have the ability to see far more about being human than you would initially expect.

Benardete goes on to highlight how an ancient/modern contrast was useful to Strauss in beginning his inquiries. There are a number of reasons to question such a division: the ancient thinkers can’t see what the modern ones do? Things like Xenophon’s “Spartan Constitution” indicate otherwise. The last chapter of that short work almost makes a king sound like the modern executive. The contrast may not be the most accurate way of approaching the past. However, it does mean one does not take differences for granted, and the power of older thinkers gets its due:

Averroism saw the political-theological issue as the philosophical issue, since the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god. Political philosophy was therefore the eccentric core of philosophy, and the problem of Socrates the problem of philosophy itself.

The older debate centered on a specific question. “What is man?” points to the problem of being. Rocks are, animals are, planets are – but who are we? Further, “what is man?” points to the problem of the good. What should we have? What will make us happy? The problem of being and the problem of the good, unfortunately, do not neatly converge. They diverge. “The problem of the human good is grounded in the city.” If you want to know what is good for you, you must take into account what is good for others, what others say is good. “The problem of being [is grounded] in god” only superficially engages what others say about the divine. In the end, we need to know for ourselves what we are capable and not capable of, what we personally find a limit or possibility. Man is between beast and god.

I think the “god” question, in light of the respect for the “being” question, sets up the problem of Socrates. Socrates is an extremely unique individual, even as he is self-sufficient, seeking the nature of things, unconstrained by convention. He is a natural human being, perhaps the natural human being. “Rational animal” applies to him too well.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates asserts that a tragedian can write tragedy and comedy. He is silent on whether a comedian can write tragedy. Tragedy – you could say the facts of failure and death – speaks to the whole of existence more than comedy. Socrates does more than talk about tragedy and comedy. But we can feel that if his life is worthy to be wondered at, then part of the reason must involve figuring out whether his death was tragic or not. In one sense, it is: human reason cannot secure what is most good, to live well always. But human reason is better than the alternative, which is slavery and self-delusion. The Athenians who killed Socrates thought they were good democrats. No one thinks that of them now, and philosophy, what Socrates died for, is considered indispensable. I confess I need to sit and think a lot harder about what Benardete means by “comedy and tragedy is the political-theological issue in its original double form,” but I think I’ve illustrated the “pre-philosophical horizon of comedy and tragedy from which philosophy necessarily begins.” In wondering how to properly characterize life, one finds oneself asking a lot more about it.

Still, philosophers are not the only ones with questions. Well, perhaps it is proper to say not the only ones experimenting with answers. There is an “eternal quarrel between poetry and philosophy,” but in Plato it is a riddle, “for Plato usurps the ground of imitation in order to condemn imitation.” The poets aren’t today’s poets, people who write things no one else reads. The poets of the ancient world make myth; they are Creators. That Plato writes drama should have destroyed philosophy, but if the drama is properly accounted for, it shows us “a philosophical prudence that has no counterpart among the moderns.”  Such a philosophical prudence is tied to the good. Plato famously hinted in the Republic that there is a form of the good which is a cause. This was taken to be no less than God by Christianity. But it is much stranger upon further examination. The good does have a “causal nature,”  which means what is good “subordinates the beauty and the ugliness, which comedy and tragedy somehow discern, to itself.” You get an account of order and disorder from what is good. But is there actually a form or idea of the good, or is the proper cause human being? Don’t we seek what is good, accept answers based on circumstances and changes, and order things relatively? Benardete speaks of “concealment,” “imitation,” and “doubleness.” What he means is that Plato pulled off a neat trick. In making it seem like there was an absolute good, he actually argued for the relativity of what is good – i.e. the need for human reason.

But we are not just creatures that seek “goods.” We got into the quest for “the good” for a reason. “The first wave of modern political philosophy, from Machiavelli to Locke, was nothing but the successive dismantling of the disparate wholeness of the soul until it had lost both its wholeness and all its parts.” In other words, when Plato’s work was abandoned in favor of more effectual texts, which gave us no less than science, commerce, and a republic, there was a trade-off. The problems of being and the good add up a peculiar way. In the most secular sense, they are the soul. One need not believe in life after death or invisible essences that give motion to our bodies to say that we do things to make our lives count for something. Our soul is almost nothing but our body. It refers to our social situation, our being framed by conventionality, and even then not quite. The structure of a given city does not mirror how our souls – or anyone’s soul – is structured, though we identify with aspects of a city so much that we may die for it (thymos – spiritedness, heart). Our desire, our eros, is a complex phenomenon. To label it radically individual does not appreciate what it actually does.

To understand what is going on – at this moment, we are dealing with an issue in reading Plato – one has to look at the drama of a Platonic dialogue. Plato’s imitation, unlike the poets, does not lead to the same flights of fancy. Rather, it goes back to an all-too-human condition, where what someone says can only be understood in light of how he acts or what he wants. Plato, like Socrates, is looking at human beings and their natures.”[T]here are many types of soul, each irreducible to one another:” political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy as it is willing to accept the diversity of mankind even while asking about the best regime.

That political life is a problematic whole, a tension wrought with other tensions, is reflected in Strauss’ statement: “I’m aware of the fact that the wholeness of a part does not preclude a plural: there is barely a moment in my waking life when I do not think of donkeys, dogs, and mules.” As individuals, we are whole parts. We are plural in being singular. That brings us to donkeys, dogs, and mules. Donkeys, with their large ears, hear the initial call. Dogs are the spirited friends of the philosopher. So far, an order. Mules – a hybrid that cannot reproduce itself – do a lot of work with exceptional strength. It sounds strange to call a philosopher a mule, but that is where Benardete leaves us. The singularity of the philosopher is quite an achievement, especially considering he has discovered our own individuality.